Perspective in The Great Gatsby
In the relating of his story regarding Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald opted to tell the story through the narrative perspective of a single character, that of Nick Carraway. Carraway has come to the West Egg, the area of New York in which Gatsby lives, to work on becoming a stock broker and coincidentally ends up renting a small house right next door to the large mansion belonging to the title character. This proximity provides him with the opportunity to get to know his neighbor quite well, including his behaviors, mysterious past, secret desires and motivations. At the same time, Nick is the cousin of Daisy, the wealthy married woman from East Egg, across the bay from Gatsby’s home and the object of Gatsby’s desire. Because of this relationship, he gains significance in Gatsby’s eyes, further giving him access to Gatsby’s thoughts as well as providing him with a unique perspective regarding her character and access to her thoughts. Although Nick seems to be the perfect narrator for the story because of his proximity to Gatsby and his relationship to Daisy, these relationships serve to deepen his cynicism and sour his opinion of the higher classes.
Nick’s relationship to Gatsby is forged primarily because he lives next door to Gatsby’s large mansion and is pulled in with the large, lavish parties Gatsby throws every weekend. Nick’s first real impression of this neighbor is as Gatsby strolls across his back lawn to stare longingly at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, a symbol for him of the promise and dream of America. This quiet, reflective glimpse of the man is then shattered by the loud parties he threw each weekend, in which “the bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter” (41). However, through his growing friendship with the man, Nick learns of Gatsby’s impoverished past, the way in which he went about redefining himself and the motivations behind that reshaping. This increases his opinion of the man as someone who has accomplished a great deal and deserves respect. Although Nick is able to see the fallacy behind Gatsby’s consuming drive to win Daisy back for himself, he recognizes that Gatsby is truly great in his stunning feat of remaking himself in the image of material success.
Nick’s relationship with Daisy is slightly more strained, perhaps because he is expected to know this person to whom he is related, but also because he recognizes the vast emptiness that exists within her. He admits, upon his first visit over to Daisy’s home, that he does not really know her all that well and his impressions, as they are recorded within the novel, are those of a stranger looking in. Nick sees Daisy’s home and life as a white, unchanging thing, full of meaningless talk and even less meaningful action that tends to make him slightly ill. He presents her reaction to having Gatsby in her home alongside her husband as a careless, spiteful action: “Gatsby stood in the center of the crimson carpet and gazed around with fascinated eyes. Daisy watched him and laughed, her sweet, exciting laugh; a tiny gust of powder rose from her bosom into the air” (118). This carelessness applied equally to her daughter, to whom she only speaks occasionally and often speaks of as an object or possession rather than a human being. Finally, in the end, when Daisy strikes and kills Myrtle on the way home from New York later that evening, she expects Gatsby to take the blame and allows her husband to whisk her off to someplace far away and safe from any investigating eyes.
Despite Nick’s supposed objective perspective on these two individuals, however, he remains a very subjective person. He sees Gatsby for the tremendous force he is as well as the fatal flaw that leads to his eventual death, but he also sees Daisy and her social group as a snobbish empty careless group of people who have no idea how to comport themselves in the real world. His impressions are those of an outsider, but also those of an insider, as he warns us at the beginning of the book that he is accustomed to being among the upper-class citizens within his Midwestern home. He admits this failing in himself before he even introduces Gatsby or Daisy: “After boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on” (2). Nick indicates within and around this statement that there is a certain base level of acceptable conduct in life and it’s one that has been overstepped by everyone he’s about to discuss with the exception of Gatsby alone. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (2). This statement would seem to include the idea that there is also something missing in Nick’s behavior throughout the novel as well.
Thus, although Nick gives the appearance of providing a somewhat factual story regarding the tragic life and death of Jay Gatsby as he pursued his life’s ambition, he prefaces the entire story with the knowledge that he is not a superbeing and is not above making errors of his own in his assessments. However, throughout, he portrays his great respect and abiding sympathy for the character that was Gatsby even as he remains disgusted with the behaviors and conduct of everyone else he met in New York. Nick’s disillusionment with material success reflects Fitzgerald’s disappointment in America in the 1920s and this disillusionment becomes a necessary component within his characterizations of Gatsby, Daisy and Nick.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.