by David Katzman
Questioning Nick Carraway’s reliability is like beating a dead horse already beaten to death and re-hashing any idea of his questionability will only sound like a high school essay. However, Nick’s motivations to present an unreliable narrative require greater analysis and can profoundly change the genre of The Great Gatsby, and by extension change its reading protocols and therefore the novel’s meaning. Richard Godden asserts in Fictions of Capital that Nick’s family history and societal position prevent him from fully articulating the social forces precipitating Gatsby’s murder. His desire to maintain his societal position forces him to dramatize the events and make it a story devoid of any political context. This eliminates critiques against societal institutions within the novel that reveal class conflict as a driving force within The Great Gatsby. Godden’s critical theory highlights the selfish nature of Nick’s narrative, but only serves as an introduction to a greater argument that should be made. Nick’s precarious position and balancing of individual action with societal forces mimic another divide within detective literature that of the hard-boiled detective story versus the golden age detective story. A detective story according to Yan Zi-Ling in Economic Investigations in Twentieth-Century Detective Fiction consists of two subgenres — hard-boiled and Golden Age. The former, hard-boiled, utilizes a protagonist working against the justice system, to uncover crime and reveals the fragility of a society’s institutional systems, whereas the latter, Golden Age, features a protagonist working to stabilize societal institutions. Godden’s interpretation then straddles the intentions of Zi-Ling’s classification of the detective genre as Godden both hints at structural class conflict, but then dramatizes the story to make it a romantic novel driven by individual actions. Furthermore, Nick’s position as both an outsider to the East and as an established midwesterner sits directly in between the two types of subgenres. Nick’s motivations as a narrator and societal position come together to argue that societal forces only allow for opportunities for oppression and cruelty, and it takes both an individual and a flawed system to commit crimes and perpetuate institutional flaws.
Nick’s overlayed narrative frame makes The Great Gatsby into a novel that allows for romanticizing individual action while recognizing societal forces pushing characters and situations to fatal ends. Nick’s first sentence, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,” functions to frame the novel in a political context (1). This context, a temporal sequence of events tied to his “younger and more vulnerable years,” demonstrates a movement from the present narration to a prior event. This event hinges upon the father’s advice which is a political and economic statement, “Whenever you feel like criticising anyone… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had” (1). Thus, the novel begins in an overtly political and economic society where there are clear differences between social classes that give individuals more wealth and status from birth. While the first clause implies individual agency, as people make choices allowing Nick to judge their actions, the second clause demonstrates a limited agency that depends upon a person’s social class. While this sentence’s meaning might seem obvious, the structure of the sentence is opposite to that of the novel’s unfolding. The novel begins as an overtly political statement and flows into a romantic love story driven by individual actions. The sentence begins by showing a romance and then the second clause frames character’s actions within a societal context. This flipping is central to the novel’s meaning as it demonstrates Nick’s realization about Gatsby and his own social status.
Nick comes from a bourgeoise family that arose from poverty and that has settled into their own mediocrity. While implying his grandfather, much like Gatsby, usurped his wealth through dishonorable actions, Nick feels a certain level of comfort in his social status. So much so that Nick can parody his own family mythology;
“The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day” (2).
Nick’s jumbles words in this passage to uncover a fluidity within social structures. The words “clan,” “tradition,” and “founder” all flirt with royalty while the words like “actual” ground the Carraways in the mundane American working class. The first of these words, “clan,” demonstrates a cult like aspect to his family that indoctrinates its members to believe in this false “tradition” of their royal descendants. This parody serves to underline the “substitute” his grandfather sent during the civil war, that paints Nick’s family with dishonor. Nick’s grandfather refused to risk his own life and fight for his country that he recently immigrated to, so that he may participate in a capitalist system and create a business. While this is not illegal, the Carraway’s etymology is far from that of a mythos of royal “Dukes”. Rather, it is a normal story about an immigrant beginning a business.
Gatsby similarly embodies the rags to riches story as a prototypical Horatio Alger hero. To Nick, his ingenuity and cornering of gambling, and thusly commodifying luck by working with Wolfsheim, allowed for him to garner more economic capital. While he gained more money, Gatsby’s meteoric and quick rise to wealth lacked any of the social accruement of honor. His money is dirty and, as Tom states, comes from crime. Gatsby, “Some big bootlegger,” must invent a mythology to evade attacks on his honor (69). Therefore, Gatsby invents obviously fake stories to establish social capital and even produces suspicious evidence to corroborate his tall tales. Nick does not dispute these stories, but rather allows Gatsby to “indulges in a theatrical autobiography” built on lies and encompassing contradictions ranging from “American childhood to Oxford education” (Godden, 79). In doing so, Gatsby presents himself as almost a parody of social climbers. He makes ludicrous statements like describing “San Francisco” as being part of “the Middle West,” and he delivers these lines with a sense of ease and alienation from his statements, showing that perhaps Gatsby himself does not even believe his own lies (Fitzgerald, 42). While Nick, a Midwesterner from Chicago, could be ignorant of Californian geography, it is more likely that he “performs belief… [as] there are moments during conversation when Carraway all but gives in to Gatsby’s rhythm” (Godden, 80). Therefore, there must be something other than Gatsby’s charisma pulling Nick into Gatsby’s mythological origins. This is clear as while Nick claims to fully believe Gatsby’s lies, on further inspection Nick demonstrates a more careful construction of his own statements. As Nick states,
“It was a photograph of half a dozen young men in blazers loafing in an archway through which were visible a host of spires. There was Gatsby, looking a little, not much, younger—with a cricket bat in his hand.
Then it was all true. I saw the skins of tigers flaming in his palace on the Grand Canal; I saw him opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart (43).
Nick produces, to the reader, evidence of Gatsby’s affiliation with nobility. For Nick, the “photograph of half a dozen young men” validates Gatsby’s incredible experiences of “skins of tigers flaming…[and] rubies.” These highly stylized notions border on parody and demonstrate Nick’s subtle suspicion towards Gatsby’s persona. Nick states that “Gatsby, looking a little, not much” younger implies that “it was all true.” However, his phrasing of “not much” implies doubt as to when Gatsby took this photo of the “young men in blazers.” Further, Gatsby’s story does not involve “the Grand Canal” or “rubies” that Nick mentions. Nick’s inclusion of fantastical events outside of Gatsby’s adventures demonstrates an acceptance of a fake mythology. The tone of this passage is full of hesitation that then switches to full acceptance. In doing so, Nick accepts Gatsby not as a person, but rather as a belief. Thus to Nick, Gatsby represents hope built upon false premises and hard work. The careful creation of this passage demonstrates that Nick possesses a motivation to curate The Great Gatsby to fit his agenda.
As Nick’s family are fellow former proletariats and similarly create their own origin story, Nick feels that criticizing Gatsby’s created mythology would similarly challenge his family’s place on the social ladder. Therefore, at any sign of conflict, Nick believes
Gatsby’s mythology as he believes in his family’s mythos as well. Gatsby arises from the proletariat just as the Carraways rose to the bourgeoisie after the Civil War and therefore they belong to the same socially mobile class of Gatsby. Even though two generations separate Gatsby’s social climbing from that of the Carraway’s, Godden argues that this connection still haunts Nick and forces him to romanticize The Great Gatsby. When “George Wilson, a genuine proletarian, in effect kills one of his own at the behest of the powers that be, and then obligingly, kills himself,” Nick cannot write a story about societal institutions allowing Tom Buchannan, a member of the elite class, to orchestrate violence (Godden, 81). If Nick were to write such a murder story:
“Social speculation, leading to a fuller sense of class relations, might induce in him ‘an artistic act of self alienation,’ from which perspective his own social position within the Carraway fortune, itself founded on the sending of a substitute to kill or be killed, might grow uncomfortable” (91-92).
Thus, Nick chooses to romanticize Gatsby and believe his lies. Nick allows for Gatsby to establish a mythology just as his ancestors did in the past. This allows for Gatsby to be a part of the leisure class and therefore eliminates any notion of social climbing. Thus, making the story driven by personal conflict within the same social class eliminates any societal strife. The narrative where Gatsby, the social climber, has an affair with Daisy, the leisure-class female, to join into the leisure class ending in Gatsby’s punishment by Tom, the male symbol of the leisure class, disappears. Nick’s belief in Gatsby then transforms the story of sexual politics and conflict present in The Great Gatsby into an entirely personal matter within the leisure class itself. However, the textual framing of Nick’s narrative creates a tension where the novel balances the societal and political forces in the first half with the personal motivations in the second half. While Godden’s argument highlights the murder story as a tool to see class relations, he does not pursue this reading far enough.
Godden claims that Nick recontextualizes Gatsby’s story as a love story rather than about class conflict to soften Nick’s personal economic failure. For Nick, “by 1925, [he] need[s] a balm for failure, he needs a private labour that will preserve his faith in glamour” (95). Godden’s claim does investigate Nick’s relation to labour, but falls short of connecting the push and pull of Nick’s social position in relation to other literary genres. He argues that Nick’s own failure to remain in the East and the societal forces pushing him away precipitates him to characterize Gatsby as “a tragic victim of love” rather than a “perpetrator of economic offences” so that he may forget his own shortcomings in the bond industry (95). While this allows for a structural reading to permeate throughout The Great Gatsby, other critics have suggested that the novel’s genre can further explore the societal constraints acting on Gatsby. Weissmark notes a particular scene inviting The Great Gatsby to become a Western novel:
“when Nick Carraway announces himself as “a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler” (p. 7), The Great Gatsby asks to be read as a variation on the Western. Nick occupies the traditional role of the ‘man in the middle,’ the Natty Bumppo figure who straddles the boundary between the wilderness, with its Indians and outlaws, and the fort or settlement that signifies civilization.” (Weissmark, 137).
Weissmark’s statements invite The Great Gatsby’s readers to shift their reading protocols and look for new meaning beyond the simple lawyer of the text. With this overlay, Nick’s role as “the man in the middle” does not particularly change his position in West and East Egg. Even in the novel, Nick moves between Gatsby’s confidant and that of Tom’s, where he sees both men’s extramarital affairs. His insight into both social worlds is not surprising, but this shift in genre allows for other characters to embody codes present within pioneer literature. More importantly, for Gatsby he becomes like the “Indians and outlaws” representing “the wilderness.” His “economic offense” reverberates throughout the text as the inciting incident causing Nick’s shaping of the novel to avoid societal reflection. The racial coding of Gatsby then borders on invoking images of savagery and cruelty. However, his actions remain sincere and his economic offenses, smuggling, affect all social classes making his villainy distinct and separate from outlaws. While Gatsby attacks everyone indiscriminately, he is not a common capitalist profiting from others’ labour or a bank robber stealing from society. Rather, his illegal actions work within a broken institution, prohibition, where nearly all parts of society participate in breaking the law. Thus, Gatsby merely facilitates all members of society to drink alcohol. Much like a drug dealer, this profession resides within the criminal class, and therefore makes Tom’s comment on Gatsby’s persona as “Some big bootlegger” become much more pointed as it now codes his economic offense as part of a culture. He is not merely attacking Gatsby, but rather the economic offenses that Gatsby and all others like him commit. The wild nature of the bootlegger as seen through a Western lens invites Gatsby to become an Indian or outlaw and therefore the villain of the text. This is where Weissmark’s argument falls apart as Gatsby is not the villain of the novel, in fact he is nearly the hero and martyr of the novel. As Godden and this essay demonstrates Nick romanticizes and uplifts Gatsby’s image because Nick social forces destroy Gatsby and therefore threaten Nick’s own social status. Thus, Nick makes Gatsby’s downfall into a personal matter and the victim of another person’s personal vendetta.
While outlaws and outsiders are spurned in Westerns, hard-boiled detective fiction uplifts these people as products of a broken system. The leap from the Western genre to hard-boiled detective fiction itself is blurry as both contain much of the same qualities. Foremost, the “frontier experience and Puritan perspective of seeing life as moral drama” reside heavily in both genres (Willett, 6). These themes similarly permeate throughout The Great Gatsby as Nick’s entrance into West Egg as an original settler and subsequent moralization of the novel allow for Nick to embody the themes present in both pioneer and detective fiction. As Nick’s narration “continues, he seems to take every opportunity to display his large ‘sense of the fundamental decencies’” inherent to himself (Lisca, 19). While these “fundamental decencies” manifest themselves both as moral judgements on either “Jordan’s dishonesty,” “her careless driving,” or fester in small personal details about other people’s character or appearance (20). Wolfsheim, for example, ate his food “with ferocious delicacy. His eyes, meanwhile, roved very slowly around the room — he completed his arc by turning to inspect the people directly behind” (Fitzgerald, 46). Nick animalizes Wolfsheim and uses words such as “ferocious” and “roved” to characterize him as a degenerate gangster before he even interacts with Wolfsheim. It is important that Nick comments on Wolfsheim’s mannerisms rather than on his morality as it exemplifies a set of “fundamental decencies” by which Nick judges other people. These “fundamental decencies” alienate Nick from Wolfsheim and place him in a class beneath that of Nick’s. Thus, Nick’s leap from pioneer to detective becomes quite plausible as both genres contain “idealised figures… [who embody] fortitude, moral strength, a fierce desire for justice, social marginality, and a degree of anti-intellectualism” (Willett, 6). His strong sense of “fundamental decency,” need to order other people, and his Midwestern roots ground him as an archetypal pioneer and detective hero. Further, the very location of the novel demonstrates The Great Gatsby as more of a detective story rather than a work of pioneer fiction. The Great Gatsby takes place in the east and explores a foreign social culture rather than a frontier. It grounds itself in an urban and suburban environment rather than a rural outpost in the Western United States. Thus, like detective stories, Nick roots the story in the “urban jungle”where he can explore the “normativity” of people’s “vicious, savage, devoid of spiritual values” nature (Willett, 8). This setting and Nick’s character allows for The Great Gatsby to encompass aspects of the hard-boiled detective novel.
Detective novels constitute two subgenres, the hard-boiled or golden age detective stories. The former seeks to reveal institutional flaws and the latter wishes to support them. Hard-boiled stories reside in a political context using a
“historical transformation of capitalism from the chaotic marketplace of competing small producers, to the consolidation of capital into powerful blocks of interest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, finally, the arrival of massive trusts, monopoly, and finance capitalism in the first quarter of the twentieth century” (Zi-Ling, 175).
The Great Gatsby encapsulates the latter half of the transformation and lays bare the “massive trusts, monopoly, and finance capitalism” present “in the first quarter of the twentieth century.” The opening half of The Great Gatsby understands this society completely as Tom Buchanan believes that as the “dominant race, [we have] to watch out or these other races will have control of things” (Fitzgerald, 11). The concept of massive groups of people, or “powerful blocks of interest” working together as social forces to manipulate events is precisely what Tom talks about. He even notes how “scientific” all these books are in order to demonstrate a lack of individual free will (11). Further, the butler demonstrates another aspect of wealth present in these novels. As Zi-Ling notes, “historical transformation of capitalism [is] from the chaotic marketplace… into powerful blocks of interests.” Thus, the butler’s move from “the silver polisher,” a small business owner to a worker within Tom’s estate demonstrates an elimination of small business practices (11). The elimination of individual labour is imperative to The Great Gatsby as that is Tom’s goal. He wishes to systematically enforce his “powerful blocks of interest” of “Nordics” (11) onto the other races around him as well as the other economic classes. His violence towards Gatsby is merely an extension of his violence towards other races and social classes. This allows for the novel to utilize the ideas present in hard-boiled detective fiction as shorthand to demonstrate a flawed system controlled by a conglomerate.
Whereas, in the latter half of the novel, Nick switches his frame and demonstrates the economic modes of the golden age detective stories. These stories exist “more benignly… outside of an overtly political context as a fantasy of correspondence between sign and world. (Zi-Ling, 175). For Zi-Ling, this “sign and world” represents a correspondence between individual actions and events. There are no outside forces working to stifle Sherlock Holmes, but rather it is his ingenuity and brilliance that solves each case. These golden age detective novels similarly present crime in such a fashion. The golden age stories avoid “the establishment of a definitive meaning [that] has historical relevance” to make crime into an individual action rather than a system discriminating against certain peoples fostering hatred. Thus, like the golden age detective fiction, Nick eliminates symbolism to present a story about individual characters free from societal pressures. Nick alludes to societal metaphor towards the end of the novel. Where the beginning of the novel Gatsby could liken Daisy’s voice to “money” (76), individual actions become more central to the text. It is through indirect speech that Nick states the bystander notes “that Mrs. Wilson had been running away from her husband” rather than trying to stop Tom. Thus, Mrs. Wilson’s death was not Daisy’s fault, but rather it was an accident. Similarly, the very title of The Great Gatsby invokes a similar interpretation. The original title, “Trimalchio (an allusion to the wealthy, decadent party-giving ex-slave in Petronius’s Satyricon…” would have situated the text within a political context of the former slave dominating his old masters (Nowlin, 63). Fitzgerald’s renaming of the novel makes the story about individual actions rather than societal strife. Through viewing The Great Gatsby through Godden’s argument filtered through the lens of detective fiction, the text opens up to reveal Nick’s complicated view of society that mixes individual action with societal forces pushing events together. The style of the novel mirrors Nick’s motivations to present an unreliable account social forces harming social climber who is destroyed by his interactions with a ruthless leisure class as a love story.
Works Cited –
FITZGERALD, F. SCOTT. GREAT GATSBY. WORDSWORTH EDITIONS LTD, 2019.
Godden, Richard. Fictions of Capital the American Novel from James to Mailer. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008.
Lisca, Peter. “Nick Carraway and the Imagery of Disorder.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 13, no. 1, 1967, p. 18., doi:10.2307/440550.
Nowlin, Michael Everett. F. Scott Fitzgeralds Racial Angles and the Business of Literary Greatness. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Willett, Ralph. Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction. British Association for American Studies, 1992.
Zi-Ling, Yan. Economic Investigations in Twentieth-Century Detective Fiction: Expenditure, Labor, Value.