Nick Carraway is one of the major characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. He is a young man from Minneapolis/ St. Paul who graduated from Yale University and served his country in the First World War. Carraway was raised in a small town in the Midwest. He finds his hometown to be stifling and decides to move to the East Coast in the early 1920s to learn the bond business. He hopes to find a sense of freedom and identity in New York. Carraway lives next door to the wealthy Jay Gatsby in a district of Long Island called West Egg.
However, Nick Carraway is not only a character taking part in the story, he is also the I-narrator that the author uses to recount his story. The Great Gatsby is told entirely through Nick Carraway’s eyes; his thoughts and perceptions color and shape the story. The Great Gatsby actually functions as a personal memoir of Carraway’s experiences with his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby in the summer of 1922. The story becomes more realistic by means of using an first-person-narrator. Because Nick Carraway is experiencing events and telling the reader about them in his own words, the plot becomes more believable. Rather than imposing himself between the reader and the action, a first-person-narrator can bring the reader closer to the action by forcing him to experience the events as though he was the narrator himself. The I of the narrator becomes the I of the reader who is, like Carraway, left wondering who Gatsby is, why he gives these huge parties and what his background and past may be. The reader might identify more with the story than it is the case when an omniscient third-person narrator is used. The reader cares about Gatsby because the narrator does; he wants to find out more about Gatsby because the narrator does; he is angry that no one comes to Gatsby’s funeral because the narrator is... Carraway’s position as the narrator, placed between the reader and the narration, gives him the only authoritative role of interpretation. Therefore the narrator’s point of view and his credibility should be examined.
Nick Carraway seems to be the perfect choice to narrate the novel. He is the cousin of Daisy Buchanan, he was in the same senior society as Tom Buchanan at Yale, and he rented a house right next to Jay Gatsby. He knows all the characters well enough to be present at the crucial scenes in the novel. The narrator knows things because people are willing to confess to him. They do so because the narrator is tolerant, sympathetic and understanding as he points out in Chapter I. Gatsby, in particular, comes to trust him and treats him as a confidant. Carraway generally assumes a secondary role throughout the novel as he prefers to describe and comment on events rather than dominate the action.
Insofar as Nick Carraway plays a role inside the narrative, he shows strongly mixed reactions to life in New York. It creates a powerful internal conflict that does not resolve until the end of the novel. On the one hand, the narrator is attracted to the fun-driven, fast-paced lifestyle of the city. On the other hand, he finds this particular lifestyle damaging and grotesque. Throughout the book, this inner conflict is symbolized by Carraway’s romantic relationship with Jordan Baker. He is drawn to her sophistication and vivacity just as he is repelled by her lack of consideration for other people and her dishonesty.
However, Nick Carraway, himself, is not a direct member of New York society and he is therefore not representative of what he describes. Carraway grew up in the Midwestern part of the United States, in a city “where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name” (212). His family is conscious of tradition – a picture oft he “actual founder of my line” (3) decorates his father’s office – and he was brought up in a rather conservative way. His father taught him “to reserve all judgements” (1). “Fundamental decencies” (2) determine his thoughts and behavior. He states that he is “full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (72).
When this provincial man, who is marked by tradition, order and decency, comes into contact with the specific behavior of the society of New York City and is forced to take action in the course of the story, his distance as a “foreigner” and critical observer is reduced.
Besides Carraway’s background, which determines his point of view, time and place also create a critical distance to the narration: Carraway stays in New York from the spring of 1922 until the fall of the same year. However, it is only two years later in his hometown that he writes down what had happened to him in the East (196). This circumstance provides him with an extensive overview of the events that he witnessed and participated in in New York and makes it possible for him to assess their meaning. Even though Carraway only occasionally refers to his function as distanced “historian” the tone of the narration, which is often ironic, and numerous speculative commentaries demonstrate the narrator’s distance to the narration.
With Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald therefore created a type of narrator who seems trustworthy of choosing the right episodes to tell, of stressing and judging them correctly. In that sense, Nick Carraway never says anything that he could not have known. If he was not present at a particular occasion, he gets the information from someone who was. Jordan Baker, for instance, tells him about Gatsby’s courtship of Daisy in Louisville. Or the Greek Michaelis tells him about the death of Myrtle Wilson. Sometimes the narrator summarizes what others have told him, and sometimes he uses their proper words. He alternates sections where he presents events objectively, as they appeared to him at the time, with sections where he gives his own interpretations of the story’s meaning and of the motivations of the other characters. But he never tells the reader something he could not have known. Therefore, Carraway is supposed to be the reliable narrator of the events taking place in the novel.
However, the narrator’s ability to guide the reader through the events in New York remains rather dubious. He is not to be reproached for lacking “objectivity” as it would be unreasonable to expect objectivity from any I-narrator. If he really were “objective” he would lose one of his main functions, namely to create suspense between himself and the narration; he would become rather superfluous. Nevertheless, certain inconsistencies in his character undermine Carraway’s persuasive power.
First of all, it is not clear what the narrator means when he talks about “fundamental decencies” (2) and what he is driving at when he says “I wanted the world to be [...] at a sort of moral attention forever” (2) after he returned from the East. Apparently, he lacks his cardinal virtue: “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” (72). Moreover, his observation that society was “careless” lets us assume that he insists on “responsibility”. But based on Carraway’s own remarks and behavior, these are the only possible assumptions one can make to understand the narrator’s attitude towards morality. And even these two “virtues” (honesty and responsibility) remain vague because the narrator only advocates them to some extend and not very determinedly. His “sense of fundamental decencies” does not prevent him from making his house available to Gatsby’s meeting with Daisy. At this point, the narrator could not possibly have been convinced yet of the uniqueness of Gatsby’s love for Daisy. When Gatsby offers Carraway some kind of work – “a rather confidential sort of thing” – it is not his honesty that makes him refuse but formal pride that seems appropriate to him:
I realize now that under different circumstances that conversation might have been one of the crises of my life. But, because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there (100).
The narrator, rightly, reproaches Jordan Baker and the Buchanans “carelessness” (71f., 216) but forgets that this could as well be reproached to himself: his “short affair with a girl who lived in Jersey City” (68) is superficial and without any commitment on his part. He leaves the girl “back home” (72) in the false belief that he loves her and still considers himself tactful. In addition to this, his relationship with Jordan Baker is from the beginning to the end half-hearted and “casual”, one of Carraway’s favorite words. The narrator reveals his attitude towards Ms. Baker rather early to the reader, but she only finds it out when he suddenly breaks up with her. Strictly speaking, the only time Nick Carraway proves to be responsible is when he organizes Gatsby’s funeral as his neighbor’s only friend: “it grew upon me that I was responsible, because no one else was interested” (197).