What does Nick's retreat to the Midwest mean in The Great Gatsby? Is it a positive response to romantic lies or a cynical view of the impossibility of reaching one's ideal? Or is it a failure to...

What does Nick's retreat to the Midwest mean in The Great Gatsby?

Is it a positive response to romantic lies or a cynical view of the impossibility of reaching one's ideal? Or is it a failure to find a way out of the questions arising in the novel? Is Nick's failure, the failure to replace a self-destructive dream with a life affirming one, a dream that he can follow? Is he retreating to the safety that both Daisy and Tom retreat to? Is it a positive move or a failure?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

[We can answer only one question per post on eNotes, but I'm going to leave your string of suggestions as a means to follow your musings about this interesting question: "Why does Nick retreat to the Midwest?"]

You have a number of assumptions that may bear examination and that may cloud your thinking about the question. You assume that Nick has experienced failure. You assume that Tom and Daisy have retreated to safety. You assume that the questions arising for us are questions that would arise for Nick. You assume Nick had a dream that needed replacing.

Let's sort through some textual facts. Nick was grieving for Gatsby's death. Nick was heartbroken by the full-scale abandonment Gatsby was subjected to in death. Nick's experience with Gatsby is not bound up in dreams. It rather is bound up with the advice his father once gave him:

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

Nick clearly states his reason for returning to the Midwest and there is no trace of failure or escape in it. His reason does suggest that the new world he innocently encountered while living next door to Gatsby's mansion was unattractive to him and made him long for the familiar territory where moral qualities mean more than wealthy indulgence:

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be ... at ... moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, ... was exempt from [this] reaction ....

Nick experienced no failure of his own. He was the next-door neighbor--literally and figuratively--to Gatsby's life and lifestyle and that of his dream (Daisy) and his guests. Being the neighbor next door establishes a moral, emotional, psychological distance between Nick and Gatsby and Gatsby's world. Having witnessed close at hand the moral decay of Gatsby's life, Nick, while being sympathetic to Gatsby--whom Nick came to genuinely know--yearns for and returns to a more moral community.

Don't forget that along with his other causes for grief and heartbreak, he witnessed a murder and saw the murderess go free while Gatsby took the punishment for her. This is the combination of things--grief, heartbreak, and horrified shock--that make Nick yearn for a quiet and moral Midwestern life. [You will very often find that the understanding of the end of the story is in the beginning of the story.]

My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan and we have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather's brother who came here in fifty-one,...


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plato1234 | Student | (Level 3) eNoter

Posted on

true but Nick's reason for going to the East is an escape from the midwest. The war created a need for something new. He shares on some level this need with Gatsby. True he returns to the west to find some moral stability. this is a retreat. It may be positive in that he learned something about the emptiness of the east. Your insight into his return to the west is clear, but the reasons he gives, you assume are true. he is the narrator but can we trust his self report. It was a good point that nick arrives back where he started from, perhaps like odysses returning from the war takes on many detours before finding his way home. your take, perhaps is on the mark if you take the narrator as a truthful source. Perhaps we are forced to take Nick's insights as a moral compass, lacking any third person perspective. But does the novel give one. Behind the eyes on the billboard are only ashes. It may be my interpretation has been too influenced by post modern ideas which I myself am weary of, the questioning of any posible narrative that does not have a hidden agenda. Either way I am willing to take your answer as more focused on the novel as a text, coherent in itelf, rather than undermining the text by questioning the stability of the author. I may have been mislead by the questionable current deconstrutive ideas and need to return back to the books

thank you, in your way you have done me a great favor.