In the literature, an ‘unreliable narrator’ often symbolizes an individual that the readers cannot fully believe or trust (Murphy 68). The reasons for not believing the narrator may vary. Such narrators could suffer from mental challenges, personal issues, have a personal bias or attachment to another character that is obviously unfair, have an underlying objective, lack intelligence, or be naïve. The audience should not confuse the narrator’s unreliability with satire, sarcasm, or irony. Even though the narrators cannot be taken lightly, it does not imply that their questionable actions are intentional.
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As one of the most liked books in the American history, The Great Gatsby continues to ignite controversial thoughts through its many character interpretations and underlying objectives (Lena 16). However, the narrator’s believability stands out as one of the novel’s shortcomings. The novel shows that the only evidence that the reader has on the narrator’s credibility is his word, and this aspect leaves room to question any judgment made about the other characters.
This paper analyzes the unreliable nature of Nick as a narrator in The Great Gatsby. It mostly takes note of the audience’s lack of knowledge about Nick’s ability to keep his promise, his history, the unexplained gaps in time, and his bias support of Gatsby. The readers are left to conclude that Nick is not a reliable narrator. This analysis uses the relationship between Nick (Y element) and Great Gatsby (X text) to bring out the main points in the paper.
Nick as an Unreliable Narrator
The story revolves around a character named Nick Carraway. All the details in the narrative are the collection of Nick’s views on different issues and his perspective, coupled with how he mainly feels as they happen at the time. The story relies on Nick’s presence to show how the events unfolded.
This aspect explains why the story heavily hangs on his perspective of what he believes happened before he ever came to live in the new region. Therefore, his connection with the Gatsby’s story is that he is depended upon to serve as the mouthpiece of the older generation as he metaphorically transcends through time to retell the Great Gatsby tale accurately to the present reader and listeners.
A look at how Nick narrates the story shows that he apparently favors Gatsby. This bias is extreme to the point that he lies in his stories to promote his arguments as opposed to telling the facts as a reliable narrator should do. Reynolds explains that Nick is unreliable as a narrator since he never stays true to his claim of reserving his judgments (7).
In addition, Nick’s unreliability stands out in the way he treats and makes assumptions about other characters. Nick’s unreliability for the great Gatsby story means he can talk from a neutral point of view. For instance, he can openly discuss and correct contemporary events with an underlying Victorian moral sense. The narrator and Gatsby have a unique relationship.
The two individuals seem to care genuinely about each other. However, there are signs that their association is rather complicated. For instance, the narrator overly trusts his friend and prefers him to the other characters. Gatsby likes Nick since, unlike the other characters, he manages to see past the riches and fully supports his friends, romantic dreams, and ideas. On the other hand, Nick likes his friend Gatsby since, unlike the others, he at least seems to have a worthy goal in life.
Nick admirers believe this sole objective makes him stand out from the other characters that he openly terms as materialistic, lazy, and useless.
Nick maintains that he has the right to make personal decisions and judgments, because, as his father allegedly once told him, “not everyone grows up with the privileges he experienced” (Meehan 82). This advice brings out Nick as arrogant and judgmental by believing that he is better than the rest.
He then continues to praise his honesty and his character by claiming that he “is one of the few honest people he knows” (Fitzgerald 1). However, as the novel unfolds all the facts point contrary to this claim. He claims that the other characters are a ‘rotten crowd,’ and even if their value is combined, Gatsby still exceeds them all (Fitzgerald 160).
Such sycophant statements prove that Nick considers Gatsby as a friend, and thus he thinks better of him than the other characters. His description of Daisy and Tom is that they are careless individuals that destroy things and hide back into their carelessness and wealth (Fitzgerald 186). He describes Jordan Baker as a pathological cheat, George Wilson as a spiritless individual, and Mr. McKee as feminine (Lena 36).
One cannot ascertain the truthfulness of Nick’s narration because his past life events are not availed to the audience. Even though his narration gives clues about his past, the details do not add up. At first, he claims that he comes from a prominent family (Fitzgerald 3). However, later he denies the claims and dismisses them as rumors. The fact that Nick manipulates the truth to suit his needs further proves that he is unreliable as a narrator.
The narrator agrees that Gatsby is the only exception to his feelings and reactions and that he symbolizes all that he has unaffected scorn (Fitzgerald 8). He acknowledges that this fact makes it hard even for him to judge Gatsby. Gatsby is excluded from Nick’s judgment because he has an extraordinary gift of hope, and for the narrator, reserving judgment is an issue of indefinite hope (Reynolds 77). In comparison to the other people in the story, the narrator demonstrates acceptance of Gatsby mainly by the way he defines him as an individual and his behaviors.
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In the first meeting between Nick and Gatsby, he describes him as a “refined young roughneck whose detailed speech formality slightly borders absurdity” (Fitzgerald 54). Therefore, regardless of whether the narrator’s verdicts are correct or not, one can clearly see that he cannot keep the judgments to himself. The friendship between the two individuals significantly influences Nick’s perception of his friend.
The narrator has always been a good friend of Gatsby. For example, he is aware that his friend is engaged in misconducts, but that does not matter to him, as he goes ahead to pursue Daisy for his friend. He even goes to the extent of concurring with Gatsby’s favor of planning a tea party with the only guests being Daisy and Gatsby (Fitzgerald 88).
As the party planner, Nick excludes Tom from the party without caring how he feels. From the start, his primary objective is to facilitate Gatsby’s happiness. Lena points out that the very view that Nick takes it upon himself to personally arrange his friend’s funeral demonstrates how much he values Gatsby as an ally (17).
The ties that bind Gatsby and Nick are so strong that they make an indomitable alliance. Fitzgerald adds that Gatsby and Nick both share common hate for most of the people they know (172). On the other hand, Reynolds affirms their great friendship by explaining that after Gatsby’s demise, Nick no longer finds any pleasure in where he currently resides, and thus he decides to relocate since there is no point living there without his friend (183).
Throughout the novel, the narrator intentionally ignores Gatsby’s mistakes. He is aware that his friend sells illegal alcohol, even though restrictions are in place. In addition, Gatsby shares a secret business with Mr. Wolfsheim, who is rumored to have some known accomplishments.
By ignoring these overwhelming facts, Nick reserves his judgment against Gatsby because they are friends. In addition, he does not interfere with her cousin’s affair with Gatsby despite knowing that the repercussion of their actions would hurt their families. This aspect further demonstrates the narrator’s willingness to be biased towards Gatsby despite cheating himself that he is a just man.
Apparently, the narrator can overlook Gatsby’s faults and blatantly disapprove of the characters like Jordan Baker cheating during the golf game. During the time that Gatsby and Tom directly disagree, Nick is not angry about Gatsby’s actions, but he is unhappy with the others. The author writes that he plainly told Jordan Baker that he and the other characters bored him (Fitzgerald 149).
If the narrator can downplay the fact that his friend, Gatsby, is a criminal and a murderer and still fully support him, then why could he not do the same for Tom? After all, his friend’s demise is directly not related to Tom’s actions, yet he blames him for everything. He states that he could not bring himself to “like or forgive Tom even though he knew what he did was entirely justified; it was all confused and careless” (Fitzgerald 179). The ability of the narrator to protect his friend extends beyond this mindlessness, and he attempts to cheat the reader to prolong Gatsby’s legacy.
When the two friends meet for the first time, Gatsby tells the narrator that he has the money, after all, his family died (Fitzgerald 65). In the end, the readers discover that Gatsby is involved with bootlegging, but the aspect that Gatsby’s family members died remains defended until his funeral. However, after Gatsby’s death, Nick confesses that his friend never told him that his parents died even though Gatsby explicitly confirmed they were dead (Fitzgerald 165).
In this context, the narrator automatically assumes that since his friend lied about the wealth then he would lie about the death of his family. Therefore, he is making a falsified assumption since Gatsby’s story is partly true; for example, he studied at Oxford. It only leaves the conclusions that point out that Nick is unreliable as a narrator (Wall 20).
One conclusion is that Nick is withholding some information or that he intentionally lies to the reader. However, just like any other human being characterized by weaknesses, Nick is prone to lies, hurt, betrayal, and amnesia, among other human frailties. At one point, when visiting New York for a meeting with Daisy, he imbibes more alcohol than he can handle. In an attempt to save face, he lies that he has only taken alcohol once in his life, and thus this incidence is his second attempt.
Therefore, all that happens at that time is unclear and hard to recall (Egan 16). Nick does not recall much, but what he is sure of is that he wakes up in another man’s bedroom. Now, if his sexual orientation were in question, why would he not tell the reader, Daisy, or Gatsby? Maybe he probably tells his friend, but he is just not telling the reader mainly due to the inconsistency of time in his narrations, such as that night. All he recalls is the ride in the elevator where Mr. McKee invites him to lunch, and he accepts (Kleven 28).
The next detail that Nick provides is that he “stood beside his bed, and he was wearing only his underwear while sitting up between his sheets, holding a great portfolio in his hands…Then he was half asleep in the cold lower level of a train station, looking at the morning newspaper while waiting for the train (Fitzgerald 38). One issue that stems from this description is that Nick could be a homosexual and did not bother to tell the readers.
It only proves that there could be more that he is intentionally excluding. Nick’s sources are another aspect of the narrator that raises questions. The majority of his facts come from interactions with Jordan, Gatsby, or rumors. In addition, his description of Jordan is that of a cheat and a liar, so why should he use or believe anything that she tells him (Egan 8).
On the other hand, Gatsby is a perpetual liar, especially to Nick. From this realization, it suffices to conclude that if Gatsby were alive, he would most likely lie to Nick, because apparently lying is part of his life. In the dinner meeting between Nick and Wolfsheim, Gatsby seems enervated, which implies that perhaps he is trying to conceal something from Nick. The fact that Gatsby can manipulate Nick signifies that he is gullible, and Gatsby is still withholding information from him. Then as a narrator, Nick is unreliable to tell the story.
Nick’s bias support for Gatsby, his lack of certified sources of information, and his overall negative judgment towards others hinder him from being an outstanding narrator. A reliable narrator would never permit emotions to affect how s/he narrates a story. However, Nick is human, everything that he tells is already sieved through his subconscious, and this aspect changes how he and the readers view the narrative (Corrigan 33).
Through the narrator’s many interactions and dealings with Gatsby, their strong relationship shows. Therefore, through this strong bond, the narration of The Great Gatsby becomes substantially biased to favor Gatsby. It mostly portrays events that only exhibit Gatsby’s positive aspects, while ignoring those that show his negative sides (Doe and Epps 19). For the reader to be aware of the narrator’s bias towards Gatsby helps in understanding Gatsby and Nick’s true characters.
In this context, it shows how Nick views and treats those he considers as friends, which in this context is Gatsby. It also demonstrates that once he regards an individual as an ally, Nick remains loyal to a fault despite the person’s many flaws. He can even lie for the sake of benefiting his friends.
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Reynolds, Guy. Introduction to The Great Gatsby, Belmont: Wordsworth, 2001. Print.
Wall, Kathleen. “The Remains of the Day” and Its Challenges to Theories of Unreliable Narration.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 24.1 (1994): 18-42. Print.