NICK CARRAWAY has a special place in this novel. He is not just one character among several, it is through his eyes and ears that we form our opinions of the other characters.
Often, readers of this novel confuse Nick’s stance towards those characters and the world he describes with those of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s because the fictional world he has created closely resembles the world he himself experienced. But not every narrator is the voice of the author. Before considering the “gap” between author and narrator, we should remember how, as readers, we respond to the narrator’s perspective, especially when that voice belongs to a character who, like Nick, is an active participant in the story.
When we read any work of fiction, no matter how realistic or fabulous, as readers, we undergo a “suspension of disbelief”. The fictional world creates a new set of boundaries, making possible or credible events and reactions that might not commonly occur in the “real world”, but which have a logic or a plausibility to them in that fictional world.
In order for this to be convincing, we trust the narrator. We take on his perspective, if not totally, then substantially. He becomes our eyes and ears in this world and we have to see him as reliable if we are to proceed with the story’s development.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick goes to some length to establish his credibility, indeed his moral integrity, in telling this story about this “great” man called Gatsby. He begins with a reflection on his own upbringing, quoting his father’s words about Nick’s “advantages”, which we could assume were material but, he soon makes clear, were spiritual or moral advantages.
Nick wants his reader to know that his upbringing gave him the moral fibre with which to withstand and pass judgment on an amoral world, such as the one he had observed the previous summer. He says, rather pompously, that as a consequence of such an upbringing, he is “inclined to reserve all judgments” about other people, but then goes on to say that such “tolerance . . . has a limit”.
This is the first sign that we can trust this narrator to give us an even-handed insight to the story that is about to unfold. But, as we later learn, he neither reserves all judgments nor does his tolerance reach its limit. Nick is very partial in his way of telling the story about several characters.
He admits early into the story that he makes an exception of judging Gatsby, for whom he is prepared to suspend both the moral code of his upbringing and the limit of intolerance, because Gatsby had an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness”. This inspired him to a level of friendship and loyalty that Nick seems unprepared to extend towards others in the novel.
Nick overlooks the moral implications of Gatsby’s bootlegging, his association with speakeasies, and with Meyer Wolfsheim, the man rumored to have fixed the World Series in 1919. Yet, he is contemptuous of Jordan Baker for cheating in a mere golf game. And while he says that he is prepared to forgive this sort of behavior in a woman: “It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame too deeply – I was casually sorry, and then I forgot,” it seems that he cannot accept her for being “incurably dishonest” and then reflects that his one “cardinal virtue” is that he is “one of the few honest people” he has ever known. When it comes to judging women – or perhaps only potential lovers – not only are they judged, they are judged by how well they stand up to his own virtues.
Nick leaves the mid-West after he returns from the war, understandably restless and at odds with the traditional, conservative values that, from his account, haven’t changed in spite of the tumult of the war. It is this insularity from a changed world no longer structured by the values that had sent young men to war, that decides him to go East, to New York, and learn about bonds.
But after one summer out East, a remarkable summer for this morally advantaged young man, he “decided to come back home” to the security of what is familiar and traditional. He sought a return to the safety of a place where houses were referred to by the names of families that had inhabited them for generations; a security that Nick decides makes Westeners “subtly unadaptable to Eastern life”. By this stage, the East had become for him the “grotesque” stuff of his nightmares.
What does this return home tell us about Nick? It is entirely reasonable that he would be adversely affected by the events of that summer: the death of a woman he met briefly and indirectly, who was having an affair with his cousin’s husband and whose death leads to the death of his next-door neighbor. His decision to return home to that place that he had so recently condemned for its insularity, makes one wonder what Nick was doing during the war? If the extent and the pointlessness of death and destruction during the war had left him feeling he’d outgrown the comfort and security of the West, why has the armory he acquired from the war abandoned him after this one summer’s events?
Don’t we perhaps feel a little let down that Nick runs away from his experience in the East in much the same way that he has run away from that “tangle back home” to whom he writes letters and signs “with love”, but clearly doesn’t genuinely offer? Is it unfair to want more from our narrator, to show some kind of development in his emotional make-up? It is unfair to suggest that this return home is like a retreat from life and a kind of emotional regression?
The only genuine affection in the novel is shown by Nick towards Gatsby. He admires Gatsby’s optimism, an attitude that is out of step with the sordidness of the times. Fitzgerald illustrates this sordidness not just in the Valley of Ashes, but right there beneath the thin veneer of the opulence represented by Daisy and Tom. Nick is “in love” with Gatsby’s capacity to dream and ability to live as if the dream were to come true, and it is this that clouds his judgment of Gatsby and therefore obscures our grasp on Gatsby.
When Gatsby takes Nick to one side and tells him of his origins, he starts to say that he was “the son of some wealthy people in the Middle West – all dead now . . .” The truth (of his origins) doesn’t matter to Gatsby; what matters to him is being part of Daisy’s world or Daisy being a part of his. Gatsby’s sense of what is true and real is of an entirely other order to Nick’s. If he were motivated by truth, Gatsby would still be poor Jay Gatz with a hopelessly futile dream.
Recall the passage where Nick says to Gatsby that you can’t repeat the past, and Gatsby’s incredulity at this. Nick begins to understand for the first time the level of Gatsby’s desire for a Daisy who no longer exists. It astounds Nick: “I gathered that he wanted to recover something . . . that had gone into loving Daisy . . . out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees . . . Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something – an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago . . .”
These are Nick’s words. Whose “appalling sentimentality” is operating here? Has Nick reported any of Gatsby’s words – which comprise so little of the novel – to suggest that he would even begin to put his love for Daisy in these “sentimental” terms? Is not this excess of sentiment in fact Nick’s sentiment for Gatsby or perhaps Nick’s attempt at displaying those “rather literary” days he had in college? Or both?
We should consider the distance that Fitzgerald has created between his presence in the story and Nick’s and their implications. Fitzgerald has created a most interesting character in Nick because he is very much a fallible storyteller.
When an author unsettles an accepted convention in the art of storytelling by creating a narrator like Nick, it draws attention to the story as fiction, as artifice. Ironically, in doing this, he has created in Nick a figure who more closely resembles an average human being and thus has heightened the realism of the novel. *************************
When F. Scott Fitzgerald turns on the heat in Gatsby, he amplifies a single detail into an element of function and emphasis that transforms neutral landscapes into oppressive prisms. Through these prisms which distort and color the lives of Fitzgerald’s characters, we see why human’s elations are, as Nick Carraway describes them, “shortwinded”. Heat is the antithesis of Jay Gatsby. It is symptomatic of his undoing, his nemesis. As he suited up in his cool demeanor time and time again, perhaps we should have guessed that his coldly methodical five-year plan to restore the past would end up, in the sizzling heat of a five-hour showdown, as useless as one of the spent matchheads Daisy flings so carelessly after lighting a cigarette.
From midafternoon at the Buchanan palace to twilight at the Plaza Hotel, Fitzgerald’s emphasis on the oppressive heat sticks out as clearly as Gatsby’s pink suit against Daisy’s crimson carpet. It is an emphasis that has a cumulative effect of placing characters into a setting they cannot escape and into a situation that reflects their internal discomfort. The plot heats up as the setting heats up, furthering suspense while placing untested characters in such boiling heat that their lives can find expression only in explosive release or resignation. Their tempers flare as the temperature rises and it is not until they lose their composure that anything begins to cool. In Fitzgerald’s stylish hands, heat functions to shape plot and test character. His acute recognition of the role of atmosphere in both furthering conflict and testing character is illustrated by his unwavering use of detail from first to final draft.
From the beginning of these scenes to the end, we are made to feel the relentless heat as clearly as we see the green leather seats in Gatsby yellow car. Fitzgerald’s revision adds more than degrees to the hot day. Heat serves to parallel the acceleration of conflict between Gatsby and Tom. Heat gives their conflict a further sense of inevitability. Fitzgerald does not miss his many opportunities to remind us that the heat of the moment is testing his characters, wearing away the outer veneer they wear so well, and revealing them as they struggle in a hot situation.
In the manuscript, Nick rides on a train during the “simmering hush of noon” toward his luncheon engagement. By the time final copy was written, a new line was added: “The next day was broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest day of the summer”. In the original manuscript, the conductor on the train says the word “hot” six times. In the published version, he repeats the word seven times.
The constant reference to the heat creates an atmosphere of strain so that small text changes can have a cumulative atmospheric effect: Man versus nature while man versus man. The weather takes its toll on character’s moods. “Make us a cool drink, said Daisy,” in the manuscript. ‘”Make us a cool drink, ” cried Daisy” in the published version. It is a small detail. Its significance is that so many small details like this one were included that our perception of the scene and the characters is altered. We begin to anticipate that tension will get the best of these characters. “They certainly look cool,” said Gatsby pleasantly” (of the drinks) in the manuscript. In the final version, Gatsby repeats his line “with visible tension”.
When Gatsby, Tom and Nick walk out on the Buchanan veranda, which Nick describes as “stagnant in the heat,” Fitzgerald establishes the rivalry between Tom and Gatsby that will result in one becoming victor and the other vanquished by day’s end. In the typescript, Gatsby says, “I live there,” and Tom replies, “I see.” Revised, Gatsby says, “I’m right across from you,” and Tom says, “So you are.” Fitzgerald establishes the face-off, positioning competitors across from one another. It is the heat that will force articulation of the conflict–it will become so unbearable that no one will be able to stay cool and composed nor to pretend that the situation is cool and comfortable.
We are reminded of the “dog days” in both the original and the published version, and reminded that the Buchanan salon is “darkened against the heat.” It is because it is so hot that Daisy suggests going to town. We are told in the manuscript that Daisy’s voice “struggled on through the heat, beating against it, molding its deadly senselessness into forms. In the transcript revision, “deadly” is removed, allowing the reference to stand more simply and to blend into the text more effectively. In the manuscript, Daisy asks of Gatsby, “How do you look so cool? Tell us your secret, brother Gatsby.” In publication, she cries, “Ah, you look so cool.” She repeats, “You always look so cool.” “Brother Gatsby,” hardly indicative of their relationship, is appropriately omitted, and we are left to realize the contrast between cool Gatsby and everyone else whose composure is wilting in the heat.
In both the manuscript and typescript, Tom’s response to Daisy’s awe of Gatsby is to interrupt quickly and to order, “Get your fur coats.” In the published version, the fur coats have been omitted, doubtlessly in view of the heat. Again heat comes into the picture before they can leave. Daisy suggests that they should smoke a cigarette before leaving. Tom says they did that all through lunch. In the final version, Fitzgerald adds to Daisy’s dialogue, “Oh, let’s have fun. It’s too hot to fuss.” As they board their cars, Daisy suggests that she and Gatsby follow the others in Tom’s car. In the transcript, she is described as speaking “coldly” to Tom. In the final version, “coldly” has been cut. In the transcript, they left “toward the city through the oppressive afternoon,” but in final form, they “shot off into the oppressive heat.”
Heat plays another important function. It is important to stop at Wilson’s garage, for Myrtle (whose nerves were continually “smoldering” in an earlier chapter) to mistake Jordan for Daisy, and for Myrtle to recognize the car. Tom says he’s probably got enough gas to get to town but Jordan objects. “I don’t want to get stalled in this baking heat,” she says. Thus, Fitzgerald has provided a believeable reason for stopping at the garage, a reason in keeping with his characterizations.
Missing from previous drafts is Nick’s added comment upon leaving the garage that “the relentless beating heat was beginning to confuse me.” By now, we have become so aware of the oppressive nature of the heat that we are not surprised to find Nick wearing out, nor do we expect anyone else to be fresh; the weather has worked on everyone’s nerves. The unmitigating heat adds tension to the upcoming confrontation but it also delays the action so that the confrontation scene can be more fully exploited and believed.
As Tom pulls out of the garage, suddenly aware of the parallel between his life and George Wilson’s, he is described at first as feeling “the cold touch” of panic. After revision, what he feels is “the hot whips of panic.”
In the original manuscript, as Tom catches up to Gatsby on the road, Daisy simply says, “You go first. We’d rather follow you.” In final form, she says, “It’s so hot. You go. We’ll ride around and meet you after.”
Once in the Plaza, Nick tells us that the room is “large and stifling,” with too few windows, and through these come only a “gust of hot shrubbery from the park.” In the transcript this same “hot shrubbery” was the setting for a little cafe in Central Park.
Just as heat represents the building up of emotions and losing of control, cool represents control. Added in Fitsgerald’s final draft, Tom says, “The thing to do is to forget about the heat,” our first hint that Tom may be the one most able to control himself, even though he’s been portrayed as an intellectual buffoon.
Nick remembers vaguely the argument that occurred at the Plaza. What he remembered vividly is that his underwear kept climbing around his legs and beads of sweat raced across his back. In his earlier manuscript, Fitzgerald said of the ballpark that “it was so hot that my underwear climbed like a damp snake around my legs, so hot that when I took off my coat, beads of sweat raced cold across my back.” Obviously, Fitzgerald knew to retain the descriptive element of heat as he moved his meeting from the ballpark to the Plaza and his hot shrubery from the little cafe to the gardens outside the Plaza windows.
When the subject of marriage came up originally, no reference to heat was made. In the final version, Jordon cries dismally, “Imagine marrying anybody in this heat!” (84). Also added: “From the ballroom beneath, muffled and suffocating chords were drifting up on hot waves of air.”
When Tom argues that Daisy loved him when they were married, Daisy’s voice is described as being “cold,” (88) a description missing in earlier drafts. She also throws a burning match on the carpet. The reader recognizes that when Daisy is defeated, when her courage leaves her, her voice goes cold and the fire is thrown away from her. From this point on, there are no more references to heat. The fire in Daisy has been extinguished and Gatsby begins to panic.
When Gatsby and Daisy leave the Plaza suddenly like children being dismissed from supper, even the heat of Tom’s temper has cooled, and when the scene ends at 7:00 that evening, Nick and Jordon and Tom drive through “the cooling twilight.”
Heat is a detail emblazoned on our senses by repeated emphasis until it alters our percepton of a normal day in the city and becomes the overpowering atmosphere in which people struggle to direct or redirect their lives. The heat led Daisy to show to her husband her love for Gatsby. The heat directed this luncheon party from the Buchanan house where Gatsby felt that he could do nothing to the Plaza where he could claim his true love. It led Tom Buchanan to George Wilson’s garage where a jealous Myrtle Wilson mistook Jordon for the source of her imprisonment in her desert on the highway. It is the heat that finally wilts Daisy’s daring , that makes her as tired as she was when she first met Tom Buchanan and saw a way out of Louisville. And it is in the heat of debate that Gatsby is handed defeat. To the rekindled romance that might have been, it doesn’t matter what happened once Daisy and Gatsby left the Plaza. To the fair-weather princess, their passions had become too heated. Theirs was, after all, an early summer love, and the fair-weather was no more.
NICK CARRAWAY has a special place in this novel. He is not just one character among several, it is through his eyes and ears that we form our opinions of the other characters.