In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’
These are the first words that we hear from our narrator, and though they may not seem like much at first glance, when read in the later context of the book, they can be instrumental in understanding Nick as a character, and as a medium through which the writer is telling the story.
To take these sentences at face value, it would appear that we have in the character of Nick a perfect narrator. He has been “turning over” the sage advice to not judge people too harshly for, we assume, many years; thus giving us the impression that he is a fair judge of character. He goes on to reinforce this view over the next page or so, claiming that he is “inclined to reserve all judgements”, and that he has been “unjustly” singled out in the past for being “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” This particular description suggests a quality of trustworthiness in Nick that multiple people have seen in him before, and thus the reader is encouraged to think of him this way.
However, Nick does “come to the admission that [his tolerance] has a limit.” There comes a point, he says, where he does not care upon what ‘ground’ conduct is founded; he will make a judgement.
As the chapter progresses, other aspects of Nick’s character and style of narration become apparent. We learn quite quickly that he served in the First World War, and it is at this point that one major theme of the novel - the disillusionment of the post-war generation to which Nick belongs - begins to present itself. Nick says that when he returned from the Front, he “wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever”, and sought “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” He feels as though his eyes have been opened by the War, a feeling that was embodied by much of American society at the time despite the USA’s relatively short involvement in the conflict overseas.
It is here- when Fitzgerald has just let the reader catch a glimpse of the unrest in Nick’s heart in the aftermath of the War - that we are first introduced to Gatsby; or rather: the idea of Gatsby. Nick states categorically that “Only Gatsby… was exempt from my reaction - Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” Here, standing before the backdrop of a restless post-war America, the vision of Gatsby, with his “gorgeous” gestures and “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life”, rises up like a beacon of wonder. We can see as the novel progresses that he is is something of a novelty to Nick, with his “extraordinary gift for hope” and his “romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” And yet, there is an innate disapproval within Nick that distances him from what Gatsby stands for; this tension, between disapproval and awe, is essential to the depiction of both Nick and Gatsby throughout the novel, and I will doubtless refer to it again in later posts.
In the main body of Chapter 1, we meet Nick’s acquaintances, the Buchanans, and their friend Jordan Baker. Daisy Buchanan is Nick’s cousin; her husband a friend of his from Yale. Jordan Baker is a professional golfer and a childhood friend of Daisy’s. They live in East Egg, the more “fashionable” of the “two unusual formations of land” that jut out into “the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound”, and they are extravagantly rich. Nick seems accepted by them for his inclusion in the Carraway “clan” back in the Middle West; a societal position which entitles him to acceptance in the company of the upper classes.
At the same time, we are aware by this point that Nick is essentially penniless, living off his father for a year whilst he tries to find his feet in the bond business, and so he is slightly removed from their enormous splendour. Here, too, we see his value as a narrator: he can fit into the ranks of the upper classes, enabling him to give reliable accounts of their lives, and yet he is not so immersed that he cannot put their wealth in perspective. This comes in useful later in the novel.
By the end of his dinner with them, we can see Nick’s underlying critical nature breaking through his polite facade; he criticises Daisy for her “basic insincerity”, and is appalled by Tom’s infidelity to his wife, and drives away “disgusted”. It is clear that the vague air of piety with which Nick proclaimed his moral beliefs at the beginning of the chapter will persist awhile longer; and, indeed, this could be said to be a key factor within the novel, for without Nick’s awareness of the “correct” moral code, we may not be able to see in quite such a harsh light the degradation of American society during the 1920s which Fitzgerald is ultimately trying to highlight.
I could go on and on about the way that Nick is portrayed in this chapter, for each sentence holds a wealth of information, but in a brief recap of all I have touched on here: Nick Carraway is a young man from a somewhat wealthy background in the Middle West. He finds himself simultaneously awestruck and appalled by the attitudes of the rich (embodied to the greatest effect in this chapter by Tom and Daisy Buchanan, but more of that at a later date) as he views himself to have a very strong moral compass. However, it is already clear that Fitzgerald wants us to view Nick as a character in his own right and not as an infallible storyteller, as his narrative - much like the “intimate revelations of young men”, as he said in the first part of the chapter - can be seen at times to be a little “plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.”
This has been a relatively unstructured post - just thought I’d wing it the first time round - I hope it wasn’t too sinfully boring to read. The gif is of Paul Rudd as Nick in the 2000 film adaptation of Gatsby, directed by Robert Markowitz.
tagged as: F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nick Carraway. The Great Gatsby. not my gif. TheGreatGatsby.
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