The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part One – The Naysaying Narrator

This material is available in my book, The Gatsby Reader. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

gatsby reader

Nick Carraway is a liar. That is not uncommon, but it comes into play in that Nick is the narrator of The Great Gatsby. This makes the storytelling problematic. But to accuse someone of dishonesty cannot be done lightly, even if it someone who doesn’t really exists. Such a charge must be proven or it becomes nothing more than pointless slander.

Examples of Lying

The novel begins by Nick insisting that he was “inclined to reserve all judgments,” (5) and then spends the remainder of the book forming judgments of all the other characters.

  • Tom is crude.
  • Daisy is shallow.
  • Jordan is dishonest.
  • George is spiritless.
  • Myrtle is sensual.
  • Catherine is worldly.
  • Mr. McKee is feminine.

Whether his judgments are accurate or not doesn’t matter. It simply manifests his basic dishonesty because he continually practices differently than how he preaches.

Most of his judgments have to do with Gatsby himself. These are judgments that swing wildly from one end of the continuum to the other regarding approval and disapproval.

  • “Gatsby … represented everything for which I had an unaffected scorn.” (7)
  • “There was something gorgeous about him.” (7)
  • “Gatsby turned out all right in the end.” (7)
  • “An elegant young rough neck.” (53)
  • “I suspected he was pulling my leg.” (70)
  • “He was running down like an overwound clock.” (97)
  • “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” (162)
  • “I disapproved of him from beginning to end.” (162)

Nick’s lies begin even before we get to any other characters, but with his relations to fellow Yalemen while in school, and particularly as it relates to his false claim to reserve judgments. Because he was sought for counsel Nick becomes the “victim of not a few veteran bores.” (5). He concludes this section by observing that “a sense of fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.” (6) These are both the kinds of judgments he asserts never to have made.

When dealing with these bores at college, Nick confesses that he “frequently … feigned sleep, preoccupations or a hostile levity.” (5) To pretend to be asleep, busy or irritated is dishonest. In an interesting confession, Fitzgerald gives a clue to Nick’s true nature. Speaking of other men, Nick says, “the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually  and marred with obvious suppressions.” (6) Nick is still a young man, and so with this, Fitzgerald is cluing us in on Nick’s intimate revelation, which is his role as narrator. His story is plagiarist and marred with obvious suppressions. In other words, Nick is clearly a liar, particularly as the narrator of The Great Gatsby.

It Starts Before The Book Begins

This begins with the intimate revelation of his own background. He says, “My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in the middle-western town for three generations.” (7) Despite this claim, his father can only afford to support him for one year. (7) And when the Buchanans ask Nick about the rumor of his engagement, he asserts that he is too poor to marry. (24)

He notes that his family claims Scottish nobility, but the reality is that his grandfather’s brother, the one responsible for his family line, immigrated here in 1851 and sent a substitute to the Civil War. (7) Simply put, immigrants aren’t noble, or they’d remain in the old country. And as Nick is supposed to look like this ancestor, he acts like him as well by sending a substitute tale in place of the truth.

The family history is built on dishonesty. During that disconcerting ride with Gatsby to the city for lunch, Gatsby claims to have gone to Oxford with a young man in a photo who is now the Earl of Doncaster. (71) This is a noble title that also belongs to the Duke of Buccleuch, the alleged ancestor of Nick. Since so much of this conversation is false, which we shall soon discover, it is just as likely that this is false, and even inserted merely in Nick’s retelling.

When confronted with Nick’s basic untruthfulness, some may recall that Nick says about himself, “I am one of the few honest people I have known.” (64) Nick Carraway insisting he is honest is like Quinten Compson claiming that he does not hate the South. You an almost bank on the opposite being true.

Think of the stereotypical used car salesman who carries “honest” as a nickname. Just as you wouldn’t rely upon Honest Jake, the Used Car Salesman you can Trust, no one should believe that Nick is honest just because he says so. If anything, this should be a red flag that makes us wary of anything he says.

I would love to read your opinions. Let me know what you think in the Comment section below.

Here are some more articles regarding The Great Gatsby you can find here on A Word Fitly Spoken:



Filed under Uncategorized

41 responses to “The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part One – The Naysaying Narrator

  1. Excellent comments, Neal. I hated The Great Gatsby precisely because the narrator, Nick, didn’t add up, and I hated being lied to, misled, or otherwise dragged around like an ox with a ring in his nose. Yet it is exactly this, a third-person narrator who speaks in his flawed first person voice, that makes the book such a classic.

    Incidentally, I have sat in on classes in which colleagues taught Gatsby without once calling the veracity of Nick Calloway into question! At a high school level, the point might be lost on readers who are struggling with the mechanics, but I always thought that ignoring Nick’s mendacity served no one.

    • great comment. thanks. and i think nick’s mendacity (great word) isn’t taught enough because too many professors are unaware of it. hard to believe, but there are plenty of articles out there about how reliable nick is as a narrator. come back thursday for part 2!

    • Jack

      I think this unreliability on Nick’s behalf epitomises the society of America at the time in which the novel is set in. That is, the discrepancy between Nick’s so called ‘reserving of judgments’ and the reality of his narration. This represents the ‘desirable’ attractiveness of those who had achieved the American Dream, but then also suggests that those living this wealthy lifestyle were actually living a life of social decadence.

      However, my view on the character Nick is that he is not knowingly making judgments of his fellow characters but that he truly believes he is one to “reserve judgments”. Therefore, I am under the inclination to understand that he was not knowingly lying during the novel, but merely being oblivious to the fact that his words oppose his true actions. This just furthers the effectiveness of the novel’s theme of the discrepancy between truth and reality, which in simplest form represents the confusion and loss of morals which wealth can result in. Therefore, Nick is an unreliable narrator but not due to dishonesty but from the influence of the wealth which surrounded him in West Egg.

      It should also be mentioned that Nick is an unreliable narrator in that he also follows the path of Daisy and Gatsby, loosing the sense of reality and the passing of time and of the true values of life. For example, during one of his frivolous excursions with Tom and Daisy to New York, he realised that it was his birthday, and that despite his contempt for the lifestyle being experienced by his fellow neighbors and friends, Nick himself had also become unknowingly consumed in this world. This shows that despite having understood the negative effects of such living, Nick had not realised the fact that he too was becoming subject to the living that he so despised of and was supposedly defiant to. Because of this, his narration is unreliable as he may have been influenced by the extravagances of the ‘world’ of West Egg.

  2. Kendra

    I’m late with this comment, but I actually adore this book while thinking Nick is an unreliable narrator. One major thing that always stuck out to me is that Nick kept up his relationship with his “vague” fiancee back in the Midwest while dating a girl in Jersey and Jordan, then only broke up with her when things got more serious with the latter. So two people who are kind of in love are separated by distance, continue to sign their letters “Love, Etc”, and then break up only when a third party comes into play? Sounds familiar? Nick totally did to his girl back home what Daisy did to Gatsby!

  3. CamD

    Fitzgerald makes Nick debatably unreliable deliberately as a writing technique, this is an era of deception and lying with bootlegging and false personalities (just look at the guests of Gatsby’s parties) for example and Nick is ironic in this sense and he like to think himself as distant from it all yet is drawn in to the common culture, this is to show the whole of society had bad flaws within, even if they claim not to.

  4. CamD

    Also the fact Nick states his ancestor sent a substitute to the war, shows honesty, he provides the good and bad so shows he is committed to telling both sides of the story, he is not trying to make himself or his family look good, he is only interested in telling the truth even when that is embarrassing for himself. (Just an idea)

  5. Pingback: Who Shot Jay Gatsby? | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  6. Pingback: What Made Daisy Faye Buchanan & Jay Gatsby So Attractive And Attracted To Each Other? | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  7. Pingback: Why The Great Gatsby Is The Best American Novel | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  8. Pingback: The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part Two – The Drive to Lunch | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  9. Pingback: The Reliability Of Nick Carraway: Part Two – The Drive to Lunch | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  10. Pingback: Articles Pertaining To F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  11. Pingback: Is The Great Gatsby A Grail Quest? | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  12. Pingback: Is The Great Gatsby As Grail Quest? | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  13. Pingback: The Great Gatsby As A Grail Quest: Part One – Jay Gatsby As The Grail Knight | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  14. Pingback: The Great Gatsby As Grail Quest: Part Two – George Wilson As The Fisher King | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  15. paula

    I’m also a bit late to reply, but I’ve always been curious as to WHY Nick enjoyed WWI so much. I mean, who, after living in trenches, seeing friends severely injured or killed, say this? My own thought is Nick was somewhere safe on a base, in a “gentlemen’s ” unit, playing cards and hanging around other rich men’s sons who were held back from any serious danger.

  16. Pingback: The Great Gatsby As A Grail Quest: Part Three – More About George Wilson As The Fisher King | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  17. Pingback: The Great Gatsby As A Grail Quest: Part Four – The Role Of Daisy Faye Buchannan | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  18. Pingback: The Great Gatsby As A Grail Quest: Part Five – Identifying The Grail | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  19. Pingback: The Great Gatsby As A Grail Quest: Part Six – Identifying Further The Grail | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

  20. Exactly what is the point of this article? Aside from viewing Nick Carraway as a liar, what else are we supposed feel?

    • thanks for reading and i appreciate your questions. readers learn how to read carefully. the authors expect us to. learning that nick lies contributes to the truth, which is the whole story ad the real story.

  21. I agree to this. Nick is indeed an unreliable narrator. He was biased towards Gatsby throughout the story, and your article proves it.

  22. Pingback: Nick Carraway: An Unreliable Narrator | { p u e l l u l a }

  23. what do you thinkabout Nick’s statement “i was rather literary in college” in reation to the reader?

  24. Lulu

    Because of Nick’s self-proclaimed honesty and disgust with the upper echelons, why did he not turn Daisy into the police?

  25. Mia

    Whilst I understand your points, I don’t agree with your conclusion that Nick is a liar. Although, yes, he can be seen to be unreliable I think to brand him as a liar is going a little too far. The whole novel is about Nick trying to work out and come to terms with what happened that summer; it is a way for him to piece it all together even though the book is written a little time after the events in the novel actually take place. I think his unreliability and the inconsistency we see within the novel stems exactly from this; he is just as confused and puzzled as we are, and he got the pleasure of actually being there whereas we did not and so therefore, for me, his confusion is completely understandable and plausible. This then goes on to explain the episodic method that in employed when Nick is retelling the story to us and the staggered release of information. Not everything is told at once and it’s as if whilst Nick is retelling the story he is suddenly remembering things and replaying his thoughts to us. Even by the end of novel, Nick doesn’t fully understand everything and comes to no solid conclusion as to what actually happened that summer and this further supports the idea that Nick is not purposely trying to lie or be unreliable but, because he’s human just like the rest of us, can’t help this. Whilst we do in fact see points in which we can question nick’s supposed truthful nature, such as at the end when Jordan tells Nick he’s been bad but we have in fact not seen anything of the such from Nick which implies he is leaving something out, things like this can be overlooked as we never actually learn much about Nick himself or his personal life; the novel is all about Nick working out the mystery that is Jay Gatsby.

    • I agree that Nick is trying to work everything out by “writing” this story. But it goes beyond that. He is Gatsby’s willing assistant to lie on his behalf and put forward the best image possible.

      • Mia

        Is he really Gatsby’s ‘willing’ assistant though? Although Nick tells us bad aspects of other characters, such as Jordan’s dishonesty or Daisy’s shallowness, he tells us about all of Gatsby’s good aspects, such as his smile. Nick lets Gatsby of most of the time, for example “You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them put together” or “Gatsby turned out all right at the end” (which is ironic in itself as Gatsby died in the end so he didn’t turn our alright); although Nick does mention some, he glosses over most of Gatsby’s flaws unlike any of the other characters in the novel. I think this is the real problem (Nick’s romanticising of Gatsby), not his lying. Personally, I believe that Nick is just too blinded by Gatsby to the extent that he can’t really see the reality of things. If the whole novel is about Nick working things out, then surely there would be no point in writing it in the first place if his intentions were to lie. This therefore leads me to believe that Nick is not purposely deceiving people or being misleading but genuinely doesn’t realise what he’s doing. At the end of the day, we all have a personal opinion on someone and this is just Nick’s opinion. Whilst Nick’s opinion on Gatsby may be unqualified admiration due to Gatsby’s past, it’s still his opinion nonetheless and we’re all entitled to this. Of course due to the use of third person narration we are going to be affected by this. For the novel to actually work as a tragedy, we are needed to be affected as much as possible and therefore Nick’s romanticising about Gatsby is necessary in order for the readers to reach catharsis.

      • well thought out, i must say. and thanks for reading and responding. i think the part that proves nick was gatsby’s willing accomplice was the drive to the city for lunch. look at other articles i wrote on this. their links should be on the page, particularly part two. look over the bit about san francisco as a midwestern town and tell me what you think.

      • Mia

        Just took your advice and read the second part of the article on Nick. I agree that at first Nick does suspect that Gatsby is not being honest, in fact he pretty much tells us himself that he doesn’t believe him, “and I knew why Jordan Baker had believe he was lying.” After telling us this, Nick then goes on to ask Gatsby “What part of the Middle West?” I think Nick’s prying presents further proof that Nick doesn’t believe him and I think that the fact he asked him “casually” shows he was trying to be subtle about this. When Gatsby tells him San Francisco, Nick does reply “I see”, yes, but I think you have completely miscalculated the tone or even atmosphere at this point. Nick’s reply was short and not agreeing and if Nick really did believe him then I believe his reply would have been very different. However, I do not agree that Nick suspects Gatsby’s mis-selling of himself throughout the full duration of the car drive. After Gatsby has lied continually throughout the drive, I think Gatsby senses that Nick doesn’t really believe him and that’s when Gatsby pulls out his ‘keepsakes’ from his pocket and this is what really sells it to Nick; it’s as if the photo of Gatsby at Oxford and the medal make it all true, I mean he has the evidence, right? Nick tells us “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” and I think it is pretty clear from this that Nick does believe him, despite the fact that none of what Gatsby is telling him really matches up because he’s seen the proof and that’s enough.

  26. However, if you are going to take this approach, don’t you have to question all the books written in first person? As a “human” character, all the narrators are bound to have a bias. We, as the readers, are bound to only end up knowing that the narrator is telling us. Yet the fact that Nick is judgmental is what makes him humane. He’s not a perfect fictional character that many books contain. Yes, we don’t get a peak on other perspectives, but seeing the story play out through the eyes of Nick Carraway is quite significant.

  27. OthelloMan

    Perhaps it’s worth noting Carraway concedes, on the first page also, that “reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s