Nick Carraway as an Unreliable Narrator


The concept of an unreliable narrator is an odd one since everyone can be deemed untrustworthy. People often become delusional because they start to believe the lies they tell themselves. These self-told stories demonstrate that reliability does not really exist, which is why every story is just a matter of perspective. Thus, the narrator of every story ever written simply shares their own version of the truth. Utilizing an unreliable narrator in fiction is a tool many writers choose to implement into their work in order to make it more realistic as well as engaging for the readers. F. Scott Fitzgerald is no exception in his decision to put Nick Carraway at the forefront of the narration in one of the world’s most famous classic novels The Great Gatsby (1925). Nick may seem honest and innocent at first sight; however, there are various discrepancies in his narration, which reflect the flaws in his moral character. In short, it quickly becomes apparent that Nick’s story is full of omissions and contradictions. This essay is going to explore the complexity of Nick Carraway’s persona and present a number of examples of The Great Gatsby’s narrator being unreliable, including Nick’s hypocrisy, sentimentality, and overall lack of intelligence.

Unreliable Narrators in Fiction

The surge in popularity of unreliable narrators in fiction may be attributed to the fact that untrustworthy characters bring a sense of real life and honesty (paradoxically) to the story. In the literature of the 19th century, omniscient narrators have rightfully dominated the majority of genres. Ruth Ware, a best-selling author of The Lying Game and Dark Wood, argues that such narrators were god-like since “they knew everything, from the shade of blue of the sky, to what was in the hearts and minds of the characters that populated their narrative.” Therefore, readers could trust the written word blindly and had no need to question the perception of the storyteller. However, the 20th century has somewhat revolutionized fiction, which led to the incorporation of unreliable narrators into the story (Ware). This process was slow: firstly, authors were forced to pick a single viewpoint for narration; later on, writers started to experiment with the narration styles and popularized untrustworthy perspectives in literature. There are different types of unreliable narrators: some are fooling themselves, while others plan to deceive others. The Guardian has published the article about the novels, which include untrustworthy protagonists or storytellers. The list included Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and many others (Pinborough). In addition, Lannah Marshall describes five different categories unreliable narrators belong to, depending on their agenda. The Picaro is someone, who loves exaggerating and bragging such as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. The Madman is the character affected by mental health issues. The Clown plays with the readers expectations and does not take his duty as a storyteller seriously. The other two types include the Naif, which stands for an immature narrator, as well as the Liar, who “deliberately misrepresents themselves, often to obscure their unseemly or discreditable past” (Marshall). However, this paper tries to demonstrate that Nick Carraway does not fit in any of the aforementioned categories. His narration is full of complexities and nuances, which make it harder for readers to put Nick in a box in terms of his honesty and moral character.

The Narrator of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby has the first-person perspective of Nick Carraway, which means that Nick reflects on the past events in a way he experienced them. He has no idea what other characters’ thoughts are, although he makes multiple assumptions about others’ moods and attitudes throughout the book (Gu). Although Nick is the storyteller, he is nothing but a nuisance to the events of the novel. The true protagonist of the story is Gatsby himself, and Nick only arranges the meeting between Gatsby and Daisy. As Nick observes the people around him, he often disappears into the background (Gu). Sometimes, he goes as far as relating the feelings of Gatsby, Tom, or Daisy as though he is inside their heads. In addition, it is important to understand why Nick is the narrator of the novel, and not Gatsby, who is the story’s protagonist. Firstly, it would be harder for Fitzgerald to show the progression of Gatsby’s character if he was the narrator (Gu). Through Nick’s point of view, the author managed to throw in little hints and roughly chronological details in order to show the development of Gatsby from a mysterious socialite to a tragic hero. Moreover, since nick is new to the New York elite, his narration is a great introduction to the world of the 1920s luxury in America.

Nick’s Personality

Critics arguing over the role of Nick caraway in The Great Gatsby belong to one of the two camps. The position of the majority is the conventional idea that Nick is quite reliable, honest, and moral, which makes him trustworthy. The first group justifies any contradictions in Nick’s narrative by his progress as a character: from innocence to experience and moral maturity after his contact with Gatsby. However, a small number of critics believe that Nick is, in fact, unreliable primarily due to the fact that the character of Jay Gatsby remains the same throughout the novel. It is quite odd that there is no progression for Gatsby, even though all the other characters in the novel go through some sort of transformation. Since the entirety of Gatsby’s story is dependent on Nick as a narrator, Carraway’s reliability is questioned. Additionally, Nick can be perceived as highly sentimental, and even dishonest and immoral. When it comes to Nick as a person, he is a quiet and somewhat shy Midwesterner, who is immediately likeable because readers can relate to being an outsider. In the third chapter, Nick assures the readers of his tolerance, honesty, and open mind. He mentions that he is “one of the few honest people” he has ever met (Fitzgerald 47). Because of Nick’s temperament, Gatsby comes to trust, befriends, and makes a confidant out of Nick. In terms of the novel’s narrator being untrustworthy, it is important to acknowledge that Nick is not very intelligent. He calls himself slow-thinking, and then proceeds to talk about how Jordan Baker rarely goes for “clever, shrewd men” (Fitzgerald 46). In addition, the book’s narrator has a problem with alcohol, which makes his recollections of parties and conversations taking place at such gatherings seem questionable (Goswami). During Myrtle’s party, Nick admits that the content of the book he is reading does not “make any sense” because of the whisky (Fitzgerald 26). Another example of Nick’s susceptibility to liquor is that on the night of Gatsby’s party he “had taken two finger-bowls of champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound” (Fitzgerald 38). The two aforementioned personality flaws of Nick Carraway may act as agents of distortion in his narrative.

Hypocrisy of the Narrator

Those, who claim that Nick has moral principles and, therefore, is reliable as a storyteller, often overlook the fact that Nick often acts as a hypocrite. There is sometimes a disparity between what Nick says and what he does, which makes readers wonder whether his narrative is rather shallow and immoral. Although Nick asserts his objectivity at the beginning of the novel, arrogant pride seems to hide under the veil of humility. For example, Nick expresses his disgust with Tom Buchanan’s musing about Nordic supremacy, but describes the limousine “driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl,” in which “anything can happen (…) anything at all” (Fitzgerald 53). Surely, having racial stereotypes is incomparable with being an actual white supremacist. However, this example demonstrates that Nick is not as objective and self-aware as he claims to be. As for his dishonesty, Nick lies to Jordan about his relationship with the girl back home and becomes an accomplice in Daisy’s crime of manslaughter (Perlstein). Readers have to be careful and considerate of the inconsistencies in Nick’s story, although it would be unfair to call him a compulsive liar.

Sentimentality of Nick Carraway

Nick comes from a background distant from the ‘artsy’ and ‘romantic’ New York of the 1920s. However, being from the Midwest does not prevent him from being extremely sentimental. It is sometimes embarrassing how much Nick idealizes Gatsby and makes him out to be a tragic hero (Bourne). Lines such as “Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn” reflect the tendency of the book’s narrator to lean towards cinematic sentimentality (Fitzgerald 8). Nick’s idealization of Gatsby is obvious in the scene in the Plaza Hotel, right after Tom and Gatsby’s confrontation, when Nick recalls “I wanted to get up and slap him on the back. I had one of those renewals of complete faith in him that I’d experienced before” (Fitzgerald 86). It is apparent that Nick admires Gatsby a little bit too much to remain objective throughout the story. For all the aforementioned character flaws, Nick’s reliability as a narrator does not suffer a lot. His lack of intelligence translates into caution; he openly acknowledges his dishonesty; his morals are reaffirmed as a result of his decision to break up with Jordan. Nick makes little effort to see through the delusions of the East and paint a somewhat realistic picture of the lives of rich and powerful in the 1920s New York. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that Nick can be unreliable. After all, Nick’s sentimentality and idealization of Gatsby result in his misrepresentation of the main character’s progression. The narrator describes the protagonist as static throughout the summer, even though it is evident that Gatsby transforms on his personal journey. On the day of his death, Gatsby decides to use the pool he has never swam in throughout the summer, which symbolizes his redirection. Gatsby also is back to doing business and expects a call from Detroit. In Nick’s mind, however, the novel’s protagonist is depressed and suicidal. Nick is flawed and delusional at times, which makes readers rightfully wary of his story’s contradictions and misinterpretations.

Works Cited

Bourne, Michael. “The Queering of Nick Carraway.” The Millions, 2018, Web.

Fitzgerald, Scott F. The Great Gatsby. Distributed Proofreads Canada, 2018.

Goswami, Jeanne. “The Museum as Unreliable Narrator: What We Can Learn from Nick Carraway.” International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, vol. 11, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-11, Web.

Gu, Jia. “Nick: An Unreliable Narrator in The Great Gatsby.” 5th International Conference on Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 2016, Web.

Marshall, Lannah. “Using an Unreliable Narrator.” Thanet Writers, 2017, Web.

Perlstein, Rick. “Outsmarted: On the Liberal Cult of the Cognitive Elite.” The Baffler, 2017, Web.

Pinborough, Sarah. “Top 10 Unreliable Narrators.” The Guardian, 2017, Web.

Ware, Ruth. “The Truth about Unreliable Narrators.” Powells, 2016, Web.

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