F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby presents a complex network of plot twists, ambiguous characters, and uncertain motives, combined in a novel that requires a deep analysis of its content and the development of unsure opinions from frequently strange facts. The complexity and ambiguity of the plot are such that, without proper guidance, its fluctuations could become overwhelming, and it could enforce specific opinions too strongly.
To prevent these things from occurring, Fitzgerald took measures to make sure that the novel would only present facts and observations, as untainted by human bias as possible, while still giving a very personal sense of presence and intimacy. He does this mainly through his choice of narration—Nick Carraway, a first-person narrator who takes an almost existentialist stance while observing every critical scene and not often allowing his personal opinions to impede upon the delicate facts.
As observed by Frederick J. Hoffman, the use of Nick as the narrator was “one of [Fitzgerald’s] happiest decisions” as it allowed the reader to perceive the story “through the mind and eye of a narrator only partially committed to participating in and judging its world.” (1)
Nick Carraway introduces himself as incredibly honest, and not prone to passing judgment. Nick acts as a faithful observer—he observes his world almost as an existentialist would, stating and noting the facts but carefully excluding their effect on his opinions.
Because of this, he becomes trusted and confided in by many, including the main characters of the novel. His reserved nature also enables him to present a clear and objective picture without forcing opinions. Fitzgerald carefully preserves the impartiality of Nick’s observations by not having him further analyze sensory information. Imagery is impeccably presented, rich with details that incite all the senses, so that the story is presented through Nick’s eyes, in his world.
At the same time, however, Fitzgerald is careful not to overstep Nick’s boundaries. Nick never goes a step further—he never analyzes the imagery into feelings, emotions, or opinions. It is not made perfectly clear what Nick likes or dislikes, or what his personal suspicions are about the ambiguities and mysteries that fill the story. The only things revealed are the facts, because those are all Nick cares to notice. Nick might come across as apathetic, but this is the ideal perspective through which the story must be told.
Nick remains significantly removed from the most important and controversial network of The Great Gatsby’s plot. He is neither blamed nor condoned by the other characters, and neither loved nor hated. He acts as a faithful watcher and no more. The intricacies of the plot which are the foundation of its ambiguity are removed from Nick’s life, and he refrains from becoming too entwined.
Fitzgerald keeps him so far away from the essence of the plot in order to keep the pure judgment of the narrator. That is the beauty of The Great Gatsby—the meaning must be found, buried like a jewel in Fitzgerald’s elaborate network of words and mysteries. The meaning and moral of The Great Gatsby cannot afford to be blatantly given away by its narrator. So Fitzgerald removes Nick from the deepest action and sets him on the edge to watch it all unfold beyond his reach, preserving the ambiguity that would define the novel.
Nick’s avoidance of passing judgment also provides an excuse for him to be conveniently included in all of the novel’s most critical scenes. As a silent observer, Nick is taken into the confidence of his acquaintances, and they seem to enjoy having him around because they can be sure he will not disappoint them by judging their actions. He consequently becomes a friend of every party involved in the story, which blots out the danger of showing partiality to one particular character and sustains the novel’s ambiguity.
Nick can then be safely taken along everywhere, and Fitzgerald can use him as a medium, which he then moves like a pawn among the scenes in the precise order he wants them to be presented. Using Nick as such, the story unfolds in a more linear, precise fashion than it might have had there been no first-person narrator, or had the narrator been more actively involved in the plot. In this way, Nick’s clear-headed following of events begins to make sense of the novel’s confusion.
The employment of Nick as narrator, says Hoffman, manages to objectify the novel and “reduce its materials to scale, and to make its frightening confusion and litter comprehensible and measurable.” (1) That is to say, Fitzgerald uses Nick to limit the story to the bare facts, allow for the formation of individual opinions, and organize the complexity and uncertainty of the plot by processing it first through Nick’s orderly and forthright mind.
- Hoffman, Frederick J. “Fitzgerald.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. (Vol. 14). Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company.