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Title: Nick Carraway as an Unreliable Narrator
Author(s): Kent Cartwright
Publication Details: Papers on Language and Literature 20.2 (Spring 1984): p218-232. Source: Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavlovski. Vol. 157. Detroit: Gale, 2005. From Literature Resource Center. Document Type: Critical essay

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Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning [(essay date spring 1984) In the following essay, Cartwright discusses ways in which Nick Carraway is sometimes a confused or misleading narrator.] While I have met individuals whom I might describe as more Gatsby than Carraway, I have seldom met a critic I would so describe. As critics, we seem to cherish our disillusionment. Indeed, serious interest in The Great Gatsby, according to Richard Foster, was launched by a generation of neoclassical and formalist critics who tended to believe in the final, tough truth of existence imaged in the thinning possibility and thinning joy of Nick's lugubrious moral retreat. As a consequence, traditional estimates of The Great Gatsby have grown up around the dual assumptions that Nick speaks for his author and that the novel's mission is an essentially straightforward criticism of the American Dream.1 Furthermore, because something about Nick's "midwesternism" seems deeply personal to Fitzgerald, critics have tended not to distinguish between either the narrator and his author or the narrator and his novel. Nick's vision, however, is not identical to Fitzgerald's, or at least to the novel's, for Nick is capable of being an unreliable narrator at moments that are crucial to the story's development. Indeed, in exactly the same ways that Nick may be a flawed character, he is also sometimes a confused, misleading, or inaccurate teller of his tale. In the last two decades, critical acceptance of Nick's judgments has yielded to some disenchantment with the narrator and his moral actions. His detractors have described him variously (and perhaps excessively) as a defunct archpriest, panderer, prig, spiritual bankrupt, hypocrite, and "moral eunuch"--a man capable of neither assertive action nor self-knowledge.2 Even those congenial to Carraway's views speak of his "inhibitions and lack of boldness," his failure of self-awareness, and his fear of commitment. To many readers, moreover, the hopelessness of Nick's final vision seems somehow to betray his story.3 Part of that dissatisfaction arises from Nick's moral withdrawal to the Middle West of his past, while a related response argues that the dream lives beyond Gatsby's death and that a "gleam of hope" is left the reader at the end, a hope perhaps inspired by the very limitations of Nick's consciousness.4 Recent critics, that is, have begun to see Gatsby's story differently from the way Nick would have us see it. To pose such possibilities, however, is to tamper with accepted notions about the novel's integrity, for some defenders of Nick have argued that "the book makes no sense--if Carraway is repudiated."5 Yet the limitations of Nick's character do have narrative consequences, for Nick sometimes sees only part of a meaning that a scene carries, sometimes shifts ground perplexingly, and sometimes even strains "judgments" out of inconclusive evidence. To accuse Nick of such faults might sound idiosyncratic and even churlish. After all, Nick is the novel's lone moral consciousness; only he sees the richness of meaning--the ineffable dream and its foul wake--in the events on Long Island that summer. But some readers argue that Nick's vision is "limited" and that Fitzgerald intended no simple identification either between the narrator and himself or the narrator and his reader; others have begun to discover differing, sometimes conflicting narrative "voices" in Nick.6 In addition, Nick develops a peculiar rigidity during the course of the novel. Concurrently, as Nick reveals a growing determination to perceive events in...
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