Is Nick Carraway an unreliable narrator in The Great Gatsby?

Quick answer:

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is not a classically unreliable narrator, but he is not entirely honest with the reader or with himself.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The phrase "unreliable narrator" is perhaps too frequently and glibly used in literary criticism. Sometimes it is obviously applicable, as in the case of Edgar Allan Poe stories like "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." The narrators of these stories appear to be close to insanity, if not actually...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

mad. In the case ofNick Carraway, a much finer critical judgment is required.

Nick is a flawed character. He is a social and intellectual snob, and many contemporary readers will think him a racist and a misogynist. He sometimes hides facts from the reader, only to reveal them later, and he may be deluded about his own character. On the other hand, he is a great observer of detail and a thoughtful analyst of the niceties of social life. All this is to say that Nick is probably about as self-aware and as prejudiced as most people are, and his observations are averagely reliable. He is not a perfectly reliable narrator, but then, who is?

Nick's protestations about his own character at the very beginning of the book cast some doubt on his reliability. He says:

I’m inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.

Nick does go on to qualify this boast of his own tolerance and tact, but the reader soon sees him jump to conclusions about various other characters, beginning with Tom Buchanan. He had known Tom at Yale but decides at a glance that he is not the same man, and Nick immediately forms an unfavorable impression of the man Tom has become:

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.

Nick is prejudiced against Tom, but he also admits that he is prejudiced in favor of Gatsby. Gatsby is a compulsive liar and fantasist, as well as being a vulgar criminal, but something romantic in his nature appeals to Nick:

If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.

This leads him to withhold and reorder information in order to treat Gatsby more sympathetically, as when he waits until chapter 6 to relate the story of his background. Such prejudices make him mildly but certainly not altogether unreliable.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Nick a reliable narrator in The Great Gatsby?

Nick seems to be reliable throughout this story. He remains one of the only moral characters in the entire tale. Gatsby is clouded by his desires to turn back time. Tom is morally corrupt in his arrogance, womanizing, and self centered actions. Daisy is just as arrogant as Tom and together they run around creating a mess then run away and let other people deal with the aftermath and clean it up. Jordan is unreliable and morally corrupt as demonstrated by the "golf incident". Myrtle is cheating on George and shows herself to be false in almost every way when entertaining at the apartment in the city. George turns out to be a murderer at the end. Nick is the only one who maintains his morality. If he is unreliable, it would have to be due to his fondness for Gatsby and Gatsby's romantic dreams.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Many believe that Nick is an unreliable narrator, but what are some quotes from The Great Gatsby that show this to be true?

Generally, Nick is a reliable narrator, but he is does have emotional involvement in the story and any time that emotions are included, the motives of the narrator are somewhat tainted. Nick starts out the story by telling us why he is privy to so many people's secrets:  he tends to not be judgmental. In the following paragraph, however, he immediately passes judgment by telling us that Gatsby represented everything for which he has "an unaffected scorn".  In his description of Tom, also in the first chapter, he says Tom has a "cruel body".  Again, this is judgmental. Toward the end of the first chapter, as he is leaving Tom's and Daisy's house, he tells us he is "...confused and a little disgusted..." by his visit there.  In chapter 8, Nick's last words to Gatsby are, "They're a rotten crowd.  You're worth the whole damn bunch of them put together."  These are the words of an involved narrator, not an unemotional observer.  Later, in the last chapter, Nick doesn't want to shake Tom's hand because he disapproves of what Tom did that led to Gatsby's murder.  Also, Nick tells us that he went back home to the Midwest because he was disgusted with the people in the East. Again, Nick's emotional involvement keeps him from being a purely observational narrator.  Since he gives his opinion, he cannot be a completely reliable narrator.  What he describes is colored by his opinion.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Is Nick a reliable storyteller, or does his versions of events seem suspect in The Great Gatsby?

Nick is not mature enough at the beginning of the novel to present an accurate picture of himself. His boasts of being the most "honest person he knows" and having come from a background where he learned not to judge others prove to be ironic (if not hypocritical) before the novel's end. 

Though Nick initiates his narrative by proposing to abstain from judgement, it is his judgements that characterize the tenor of the story. Nick's views on Daisy and Tom, from the novel's outset, create a moral atmosphere wherein judgement is rather constant. 

This fact makes Nick's other statement about himself suspect. He cannot be truly honest if he so quickly abandon's the background he has associated himself with. In this way, Nick a somewhat like Gatsby, willing to idealize his past to present himself more positively in the present. 

However, Nick is honest enough as a narrator to change his views. He is consistent in the amount and type of information he shares about everyone one in the story, from Jordan Baker to Jay Gatsby. 

This makes Nick reliable, despite the fact that he is not completely honest. We can trust that what he says about others, in judgement, is accurate in his view. He does not tend to exaggerate or to lie about his perceptions. 

Last Updated on