Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In The Great Gatsby, appearances often conceal and distort reality. This fact is due in large part to Fitzgerald’s use of a first-person narrator, Nick Carraway. Since only one side of the story is presented, there are others to be discovered. This notion of partial or limited truths recurs throughout the novel, both in the plotting and in how characters present themselves and others. The shallowness of the information conveyed—the sense that there is much more beneath the action and the characters—reflects the context of American culture in the 1920s. On the surface, life is good in 1920s New York, but a closer look shows such surfaces to be deceiving.
Nick Carraway is an apt filter through which the events of the novel are conveyed. He is a keen observer, but, like those around him, his accounts often distort or occlude the truth—including about himself. Indeed, while Nick seems to reveal many facets of his character, what Nick does not reveal says much about him as well. Nick describes his moral sensibility when he shares advice his father once gave him, that a “sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.” But Nick proceeds to admit that his tolerance “has a limit”; he is not always “inclined to reserve all judgements.” And he reserves few if any judgements when he describes Tom Buchanan, a man who knows something about the inequalities of birth:
He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body… It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.
Tom represents a key facet of the American Dream. Despite the United States’s mythical status as the land of opportunity, it is a nation of great wealth inequality, in which people like Tom Buchanan thrive. Indeed, Tom’s riches, social position, and even confidence are contingent on inherited wealth, not on skill or character. Tom embodies a reality of American life that runs counter to the often-lauded virtues of meritocracy and even democracy. While some, like Gatsby, can rise from rags to riches, the American Dream is far more available to people like Tom Buchanan. In this way, the novel reveals one particular distortion in the appealing sheen of the American Dream and of 1920s culture.
Nick presents Daisy as another figure who distorts the truth. Daisy appears to be charmed to see Nick, but that turns out to be a mask:
She laughed again, as if she had said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had.
Daisy tells Nick that, upon learning that her child is a girl, she wept. She explains that “everything’s terrible now” and that she’s “sophisticated” for saying so. At this point, the false note in her voice is revealed.
The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me.
Daisy’s duplicity takes the form of affectation and cynicism. Nick, ever observant, suspects that her words conceal a different truth than the...
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one she presents. Indeed, as the novel’s plot unfolds, Nick comes to learn about the source of Daisy’s unhappiness and heartbreak. In the wake of that heartbreak, Daisy has developed a deceptive layer of “sophisticated” irony.
Nick carefully observes the deceptions and concealments of other characters, but he has concealments of his own. For one thing, he is most likely running from his sexuality. After accompanying Tom to a party in the city, Nick leaves the apartment with Mr. McKee, described as a “pale, feminine man from the flat below.” They ride the elevator down to McKee’s place, at which point McKee invites Nick to lunch, and Nick accepts. But then
…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.“Beauty and the Beast… Loneliness… Old Grocery Horse… Brook’n Bridge…”Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning “Tribune,” and waiting for the four o’clock train.
This scene explains much about Nick’s relationship with Jordan. He may claim to be “slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes” on his desires, but the reality is that Nick is likely bisexual or gay—or perhaps ambivalent about his sexuality. But whatever image he presents to the outside world is a partial one. Moreover, it is possible that the image he presents to himself isn’t complete, either. Thus the narrator of the novel is as unknowable as Tom, Daisy, Gatsby, Wilson, and the other characters whose deceptive surfaces Nick seeks to circumvent.
By telling the story through an unreliable narrator, Fitzgerald invites readers to question the appearances that overlay reality. Many of the novel’s characters present partial or falsified versions of themselves. And, as the novel progresses, the narrator himself is shown to obscure certain aspects of the truth, further driving home the theme of deceptives appearances. This theme very much reflects the cultural context in which the novel was conceived and set. The United States in the 1920s was in the midst of an economic boom built on optimistic but faulty prospects. As with many of the characters in The Great Gatsby, the airy promise of the American economy came crashing down, laying bare the sobering reality beneath.