Nick as a Narrator

Nick Carraway

A Transparent Character or an Unreliable narrator?

In his classic novel, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a powerful story-telling technique rarely seen elsewhere - he uses Nick Carraway, a character within the novel, to serve as its narrator from the inside! This remarkable motif allows readers to personally (as it were) witness the events of the plot as if they are actually inside story. Yet this same motif also raises some questions. Can Nick be trusted to report events as they actually happened? Is he biased by his own prejudices and emotional responses to the events he narrates?
Overall, is Nick a good narrator?

1. Nick as a Character2. Reliable vs. Unreliable3. Arguments About Nick

1. Nick as a Character

Carraway is a young man of about thirty, born and raised in the Middle West. Some time after returning from service in the first World War, he went out east to New York to seek his fortune in the bond selling business. While there he gets caught up in an extramarital affair between his second cousin Daisy Buchanan and his wealthy neighbour Jay Gatsby and even enters into a romantic relationship with Jordan Baker, a woman of questionable moral character. After experiencing all the depravity in the East Coast (orgies, adultery, and murder), he discovers that the lifestyle he really wanted to live was that of Minnesota with its traditional morality.
Thus Nick plays not only the role of a narrator but of a character as well, as he intera
Nick's internal conflict
Nick's internal conflict
cts with other people in the text and even changes over the course of the story.

In the beginning of The Great Gatsby Nick seems to be one of the main characters in the story, but as the novel progresses and the actual main characters enter on stage, Nick is seen as having more of a secondary role instead of the primary role with which he started.
Nick is split between what he really likes and what he dislikes. He likes the fast-paced movement of New York and the East Coast but he finds the life style harsh and damaging to himself along with others. This conflict is symbolized by Nick's relationship with Jordan Baker. He is attracted to her sophistication, but her lack of honesty unsettles him. Nick enjoys New York for the most part until he sees first hand the unraveling of Jay Gatsby's dream, which leads to catastrophe and sudden death as a reward for the deceptive and adulterous sin by which he attained that dream. In the end, Nick realizes that the fast-paced life of New York is a facade for its lack of morality.

2. Nick as a Narrator: How reliable a narrator is Nick Carraway?

Nick Carraway is not a reliable narrator because: 
1. He cannot give an accurate account of what has happened between Gatsby and Daisy before he met them. To make up for his lack of information, he turns to other sources such as Jordan Baker and even Gatsby himself. At various points in the novel, Nick's conversations with other characters serve to inform the reader about events that took place before Nick's involvement in the story.

In Chapter IV, Nick listens to Jordan Baker describe the history of the romance between Jay Gatsby and Daisy. There is a disadvantage to hearing this story through Jordan's voice: she is not a very honest character. As a matter of fact, she is “incurably dishonest” (p.58) according to Nick. Is Jordan a reliable source for this information? One can't be sure, as Nick merely states what has been told without knowing whether or not it is the truth.

2. His feelings towards Jay Gatsby change throughout the novel. He is first interested in his neighbor because of the mysterious atmosphere he receives. Then, he disapproves of Gatsby as Gatsby’s true character is revealed. By the end of the novel, Nick is fascinated with him. Nick's opinion of Gatsby may colour his narration and therefore disort the reader's view of him. Yet one cannot be sure whether this distorted view leads him or her to view Gatsby as better or as worse than he really is.

3. He is too deeply involved in events and relationships. Therefore he is biased; he is drawn to be more sympathetic towards Gatsby, and negative and sarcastic towards Tom Buchanan because of Tom’s
oppressive attitude towards him. Nick’s positive attitude towards Gatsby is well illustrated by this quote: “They’re a rotten crowd...You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” (p.154). Here, Nick compliments Gatsby and places him over the normal crowd. On the other hand, he is not very approving or understanding of Tom Buchanan. He describes him of conveying an “impression of fractiousness” (p.7). Nick’s contrasting views towards two main characters may have influenced the way he describes the events.

4. He is not always rational and objective, since he is a human. Moreover, Nick loses his senses when he becomes drunk at Tom and Myrtle’s party. The account that he gives during this time, which is most of Chapter III, may be extremely inaccurate because of his drunkenness.

5. Nick himself is going through an internal conflict. How can he, then, give an accurate, unbiased account of what is going on in other people’s lives? We can see that he is struggling between two contrasting lifestyles—the pleasure-oriented,fast-paced life of New York and the conventional life of his home where morality is still valued—which is symbolized through his relationship with Jordan Baker. Although not expressed, it is possible that he is concerned with his own problems so that he cannot afford to think through the events and other people.

6. He does indeed judge people despite his statement that he is "inclined to reserve judgments" (p.1). Nick is a smug, self-righteous man who says “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” (p.59). Many of the descriptions he gives of people and events may be based on his prejudices and judgments.

Nick Carraway is a Reliable Narrator because:
1. He is in the perfect position for narrating the novel. He is the next-door neighbor of Gatsby and a second cousin to Daisy. He also met Tom Buchanan at his college. Nick is the character who links everyone in place and can offer an eyewitness account of most of the events that happen to the three main characters. Therefore, he serves well as a reliable, objective narrator.

2. The unjudgemental nature he has obtained from his father is another factor that makes him an impartial narrator. Nick is tolerant and a good listener, so the description he gives of each event and character is highly analytical and less biased than other people may be.

3. He is not the only one talking. If he were the only one talking, some might suspect the events to be made up by Nick himself. However, there are other people who tell Nick about the past and their emotions—Jordan and Gatsby. Therefore, Nick’s comment about how Gatsby feels toward Daisy is not entirely his imagination.

4. He is usually the one who observes, not the one that takes the initiative. Nick is rather passive and follows the flow, rather than begin something. Because of this attitude, the story he tells is not self-centered and based on careful observation, without the attempt to justify himself for what he has done.

5. He tells the readers some rumors concerning Gatsby without expressing a strong opinion on them. Nick simply repeats what people say about the mysterious nouveau-riche neighbor now settled in West Egg. By doing so, he provides the readers with different views of Gatsby. He is being fairly objective.

6. This novel is a flashback from Nick's memory written at least two years after Gatsby’s death, as he clearly states at the beginning of Chapter IX. He has the privilege of hindsight at this point, and most of his emotions and bias about the characters may have died away with the time. Therefore, we can say he is writing this from a neutral viewpoint.

"Structure and Narration in “The Great Gatsby”." SkyMinds. Web. 5 Dec. 2010. <>.

3. Arguments About Nick: What do critics see in Nick Carraway?

Critics are divided in their opinion of Nick Carraway

Building on what was mentioned above in the first section, what are the different views on Nick?

The Great Gatsby Narration style
View 1:

Some critics have praised Fitzgerald for the cunning narrative, and many have looked at The Great Gatsby as third person limited using first person. This means that Fitzgerald uses Nick as a character in the book to describe the events while using a first person view. Nick cannot see everything, but obtains a third person limited view through other people’s witness. Some have commented that Fitzgerald's ambition for The Great Gatsby was to "write something new--something extraordinary and beautiful and simple, plus, intricately patterned." Many, such as H.L. Mencken, have been impressed with Fitzgerald for writing such a sophisticated novel. -- Critics purely enjoy the style Fitzgerald used through Nick.

View 2:

A small number of critics have said that the narrative style of The Great Gatsby is unnecessary. The third person limited in the first person is distracting to the readers and confusing. Instead of focusing on the "main" character, readers are directed to focus on Nick and his feelings. Also some have noted that many events in the novel are incoherent, disconnected, and plainly random. Although there are a few “good” symbols, most events are meaningless, one critic suggests.

Is Nick a Character or a Narrator?
Please click on the first discussion page to see what we think!