Essential Passage by Character: Nick Carraway

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In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“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.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, 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. Most of the confidences were unsought—frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.

The Great Gatsby, pp. 1-2 (Scribner: New York, 2004)

Summary Nick Carraway introduces himself as an open and honest individual. Through the guidance and influence of his father, Nick has learned to be tolerant of others because, as his father tells him, “…all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Because Nick and his father can communicate openly (unlike other characters in the novel), Nick’s life has as its foundation a worldview based on compassion.

Nick admits that this level of tolerance has made him vulnerable to all sorts of people and their problems. While he is tolerant of all people, he does not necessarily find all people entertaining or even interesting on the same level. He feels that, in some way, his transparency has made him a homing beacon of the “abnormal mind,” opening him up to a wide range of individuals. This spectrum of acquaintances earned him the reputation of being a “politician” in college, a "politician" in a rather negative sense. He is privy to a variety of secret affairs, necessitating a certain level of diplomacy as well as power.

Nick confesses that his status as a confidant was unsought (and basically unwanted). He tried many times to avoid the situation, usually through deceptive means, pretending to be unavailable in some way or another. Yet he is always found and confided in.

Nick, because of his conventional upbringing, finds many of the “intimate revelations” rather too intimate. Moreover, these revelations are neither original nor genuine, but rather “plagiarized” as the youths seek out their individuality by engaging in the same activities everyone else does.

Yet Nick reserves judgment. Why? Because Nick is something of an optimist, and “reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope.”

Analysis In the novel, Nick Carraway functions not just as the first-person narrator: his role is also along the lines of a Greek chorus. He is “on the stage,” so to speak, yet in many ways he is outside of the main action of the story. He receives the attentions of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan, yet they receive very little from him. Thus he can stand removed from the conflicts and provide commentary, serving almost as a backdrop against which the action is played. By being...

(This entire section contains 1227 words.)

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a first-person narrator in this way, he avoids the limitations usually imposed by such a viewpoint. He knows the actions, the conversations, and, to a certain extent, the thoughts of the major players, gaining the ability to reflect on them as a whole.

This ability, as the passage above shows, is due to his father’s statement. Nick stands on the moral high ground throughout the novel. In a certain way, one might even say that he, rather than the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, functions as the eyes of God. Having established an intimate relationship with each of the major characters, he has an insight into their behavior and their choices. He is not on anyone’s “side,” until the very end at Gatsby’s death. The only other acquaintance of Gatsby’s at the funeral is the "Owl-eyed Man," who himself functions in a limited way as an observer from above (thus his resemblance to the billboard of T. J. Eckleburg).

Nick states that it is his inclination to “reserve all judgments.” This practice does give him the moral high ground that enables his function as a chorus, and it also gives Nick an aura of honesty. As he states later in the novel, he is the only completely honest person he knows. Said without pride or deception, Nick is accurate in this perception of himself, and it is important if he is to function as a reliable narrator, which he does. He sees Gatsby, Daisy, Jordan, and Tom as they are, with all their flaws. For example, in a seeming contradiction, Nick states that Gatsby represents all he disapproves of, but he comes out all right in the end. Nick preserves a balanced view of each character. Rarely will he display any indications that he dislikes anyone, though he does occasionally hint at his disapproval of their actions and choices, simply because he is the moral standard of the novel.

One statement stands out as the foundation of truth on which Nick has built his personal philosophy: “Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope.” The profound wisdom of this statement expresses the motivation for Nick’s continued interaction with Gatsby to the very end. By being, as ever, the listening ear to all the gossip at Gatsby’s parties, Nick is well aware of the questionable nature of Gatsby’s past, especially in the procurement of his wealth. Not just unethical but downright illegal though some of these suggestion would be if true, Nick withholds judgment. He has, and continues to have even after Gatsby’s death, infinite hope—hope that the innate decency of Jay Gatsby, despite his wrong choices, still exists and, if given time, would have overtaken his obsessions. It is his infinite hope that this goodness will be seen by those who took advantage of Gatsby by attending his parties, drinking his champagne, eating his food. Perhaps all these people are not as selfish as they appear to be. Perhaps, after all, some of them will come to Gatsby’s funeral to honor him. Yet no one does, except the Owl-eyed Man, the man who had been impressed by the genuineness of Gatsby’s library.

Thus Nick’s introduction establishes him firmly as the standard by which all other characters will be measured. He represents the old morality, the one on which the American Dream had been founded, but which, with the onset of the 1920s, quickly faded away. That morality is, in his father’s eyes, the prime “advantage” that others have not been given. By his constant moral stance, Nick provides a counterpoint to the other characters who slip into various moral morasses by the novel’s end.

Essential Passage by Theme: Deception and Delusion

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Wilson’s glazed eyes turned out to the ashheaps, where small gray clouds took on fantastic shape and scurried here and there in the faint dawn wind.

“I spoke to her,” he muttered, after a long silence. “I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God. I took her to the window.”—with an effort he got up and walked to the rear window and leaned with his face pressed against it——” and I said ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!’”

Standing behind him, Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.

“God sees everything,” repeated Wilson.

The Great Gatsby, pp. 159-160 (Scribner: New York, 2004)

Summary It is the morning after Myrtle Wilson has died, struck down by the automobile driven by Daisy Buchanan. To George Wilson, despite her unfaithfulness, she was all he had, and her loss is more than he can bear. His plan, once he suspected her infidelity, was to move from the area. Myrtle, unwilling to leave, was locked in her room by her husband until such time as he could acquire money enough to leave. Managing to escape her room, Myrtle ran out into the road, hoping to stop Gatsby, whose car she recognized. She was killed instantly and brought into Wilson’s shop. It is only recently that her body has at last been taken away, leaving blood stains on the bench as well as in the road for curious bystanders to gawk at.

George, as the new day dawns, manages to move past his grief to find his revenge. Not suspecting Tom Buchanan as Myrtle’s lover, he thinks only of the man in the yellow car. George intends to find out who he is and bring justice.

George looks out at the Valley of Ashes that is his home. The ashes are billowing up in the light wind, bespeaking change and action.

Michaelis, another dweller in the Valley of Ashes, has stayed throughout the night, since George evidently has no friend to stand vigil with him. Michaelis, unaware of George’s intentions or justifications, tries to convince him it was only an accident. Yet George insists it was murder. More than that, it was retribution brought on Myrtle for her unfaithfulness.

Looking out of the window, George sees once again the billboard with the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, the occultist whose bespectacled visage haunts the Valley of Ashes. This billboard has appeared many times throughout the novel, each character passing it as he or she goes from Long Island to New York. Those eyes seem to be inescapable to no one. To George, they are the eyes of God.

George tells Michaelis in a haunted voice how he had tried to warn Myrtle of the all-seeing nature of God: “I told her she might fool me but she couldn’t fool God.” He remembers taking her to the window and pointing out the eyes to her. “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!”

Michael, confused, looks out the window and sees the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg. George repeats, “God sees everything.”

Analysis A strong thread of deception runs throughout the lives of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Myrtle. No one is what he or she appears to be. Each is hiding some element of a past or a present in order to maintain a current relationship or status.

The eyes of T. J. Eckleburg have repeatedly appeared in the plot of the novel, each time that a character travels from Long Island to New York. Eckleburg's eyes symbolize the eyes of God, watching over everyone and seeing all that is hidden. As George says, “God sees everything.”

This symbolic representation of the concept of “what is done in secret will be shouted from the housetops” infiltrates the machinations of each character. Gatsby’s past pokes its head up occasionally, but most often his dishonesty is revealed by his inconsistency in facts relating to his past. He cannot keep his details straight, and thus Nick, the narrator, begins to wonder what the truth is. It is only later, after Gatsby’s death, that the truth is revealed.

Daisy’s past relationship with Gatsby has been hidden as well. This also is revealed as Gatsby reconnects with his past love. As the course of the story progresses, they sneak around, meeting in secret at Gatsby’s home, where he has dismissed all his previous servants to avoid gossip, surrounding himself with trusted, though equally dishonest, compatriots.

Tom as well has lived a life of deception through his affair with Myrtle. While he is ostensibly open with Nick concerning this, it still relegates him to the group of the dishonest. Myrtle as well hides her relationship from George, but the vast amount of her friends, who live away from the Valley of Ashes, are also aware of it.

Thus, as symbolized by the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg, what is hidden is known. God (and a few chosen individuals) sees everything.

Yet what is effectively hidden is not only the dishonesty but the self-delusion that many of the characters have. Gatsby above all has deluded himself into thinking that he is more than he is and that his humble beginnings were less than they were. He has convinced himself that he was born to the wrong family and thus must re-create himself. Yet in doing so, he betrays all that he truly could be. By deluding himself, he has thus deluded others. In Daisy his rewritten past plays a significant role. As Daisy has rejected him because of his lack of money and status, Gatsby believes that he can earn her love by attaining them, at whatever cost and by any means necessary. Through dishonesty and illegality, Gatsby has become what he had hoped to be and what he thought Daisy wanted him to be. Yet in the end, the truth (whatever it is in Daisy’s mind) is not enough to bring him the “grail” that he has been seeking for all those years.

George Wilson, in at last calling the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg the eyes of God, brings to the story the sense that there is a higher standard by which the characters are to be judged. It is a rejection of the delusion that money and power are justifications for any action. Written at a time of transition between the “old morality” of pre-World War I America to that of the “Roaring Twenties,” The Great Gatsby holds to account those individuals who believe that whatever one chooses to do is right. As George and Nick, the two who still hold to the old morality, can testify, divine or poetic justice will triumph, often in the most tragic ways.


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