When Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby, recognizes that his woman friend Jordan Baker was “incurably dishonest,” he first attempts to understand her deceptions:
Despite this sensitivity to Jordan’s motivation for lying, Nick immediately and easily dismisses the issue by explaining, “It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply—I was casually sorry, and then I forgot.”
She wasn’t able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.
Nick’s tolerance of Jordan’s dishonesty foreshadows his later acceptance of his cousin Daisy’s even more devastating deception, that of allowing Gatsby to assume the blame for killing Myrtle Wilson. Although Nick knows that it was Daisy and not Gatsby who had been driving the “death car,” he neither confronts Daisy with his knowledge nor does he consider reporting her to the police or testifying at the inquest. He also rejects telling Daisy’s husband the truth, even though Daisy’s dishonesty implicated Tom in Gatsby and Wilson’s subsequent deaths. Instead, Nick judges the truth here an “unutterable fact.”
In contrast to his acceptance of female deception and despite his willingness to suppress the truth about Daisy, Nick professes to have high personal standards of integrity. For example, only paragraphs after he justifies Jordan’s dishonesty, Nick describes himself as “one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” Eventually, he ends his relationship with Jordan because of this commitment to his own honesty, telling her, “I’m thirty . . . I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.” A sense of personal honor also leads Nick to refuse Gatsby’s offer of financial help in tacit return for Nick’s arranging a reunion between Gatsby and Daisy. Although Nick realizes that because of Gatsby’s allegedly illegal activities, “under different circumstances that conversation [with Gatsby] might have been one of the crises of my life,” the issue of personal honor simplifies the problem for him. As he sees it, “because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there.”
His assumption of Gatsby’s illegal activities notwithstanding, Nick has the same expectations of integrity from Gatsby and from other men as he does from himself. He distances himself from Gatsby when he doubts his truthfulness, and he values Gatsby most when he believes his version of events. In one of those moments of trust, Nick rejoices in what he calls “one of those renewals of complete faith in him that I’d experienced before.” In fact, Nick’s wish to believe in Gatsby is so strong that his nearly contemptuous rejection of Gatsby’s first account of his youth evaporates when he sees a photograph of Gatsby leaning against the Gothic spires which Gatsby identifies as Oxford. This photograph so reassures Nick of the validity of Gatsby’s tale that he discounts the improbability of all that Gatsby has told him, including the detail that the part of the Midwest where Gatsby was raised was San Francisco. In his pleasure at believing his new friend to be honest, Nick allows himself to believe in the magazine-like qualities of Gatsby’s adventures. His “incredulity” gives way to “fascination” and then to acceptance as he decides, “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 crimsonlighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart.” And after Gatsby finally provides Nick with an authentic account of his past, Nick overlooks the fact that he had “disapproved of him from beginning to end” and tells Gatsby that Tom and Daisy are part of a “rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
Nick also expects honesty from Daisy’s husband, Tom. Although he has already characterized Tom as “supercilious,” with “arrogant eyes” and “a cruel body,” as a man who nibbles “at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart,” Nick nevertheless is “a little shocked at the elaborateness of [Tom’s] lie” to Myrtle that he could not marry her because Daisy was a Catholic who would not give him a divorce. In an even more significant moment, after “the holocaust was complete,” with Myrtle, Gatsby, and Wilson dead, Nick accidentally meets Tom on the street. Believing that Tom deliberately misled Wilson and sent him to murder Gatsby and then to commit suicide, Nick refuses to shake hands with Tom. It is only when he realizes that Tom and Daisy were not co-conspirators, as he had thought, but that Daisy had deceived Tom that he changes his mind. Deciding that Tom’s actions were, to Tom at least, “entirely justified,” he overcomes what he now defines as his own “provincial squeamishness” and extends his hand. Once again, Nick’s responses are shaped by the sex of the actor. Although he was willing to judge Tom negatively when he thought he was in some way responsible for the deaths, he only a little earlier was able to think of Daisy’s detachment from Gatsby’s death “without resentment,” accepting her failure to call the house after Gatsby’s death, to send messages or flowers, and to attend the funeral.
Nick’s expectations of male integrity and his tolerance of female deception are, on the most obvious level, attributable to prevailing sexual biases which Daisy, Gatsby, and Tom all share to varying degrees. But to dismiss this pattern simply as an example of the dehumanizing implications of sexual stereotyping or merely to decry the particularly negative cast of these assumptions toward women is to do the novel several injustices. On the one hand, such a reading overlooks an important, although perhaps unintended, aspect of the novel’s richness and, on the other hand, ignores one of its potential flaws. For example, the pattern of sexual stereotyping for both men and women itself demonstrates one of the book’s central preoccupations, i.e. the destructive power of negative cultural myths to shape individual choice. Because Nick is so attentive to the relationship between myth and choice, there is the irony that such culturally-rooted biases permeate his narrative. Because Nick’s biases go unchallenged in the novel, however, there is also the possibility that Fitzgerald himself was unwittingly contributing to the perpetuation of some of the very myths which the novel purports to reject.
Specifically, much of the brilliance of The Great Gatsby lies in its revelation of the disparities between America’s myths and her social realities while it simultaneously dramatizes the continuing potency of those myths. Both Gatsby and Daisy’s stories, for example, reveal how compelling the American dream has remained, despite the fact that the dream, as it has been given material life, has betrayed its original moral premises; Certainly both Gatsby and Daisy have been victimized by their disregard of the moral implications of their choices. Both subscribed to the part of the dream which promised that security, status, and wealth would bring fulfillment. Neither recognized that their failing was that they pursued those goals at the expense of love, responsibility, and honesty. Their lives become metaphors for the larger American experience since, as Nick suggests, it is in great part because the American dream was not built on a moral premise, on what he refers to in another context as “the hard rock” that America’s Edenic promise has given birth to a wasteland, that the “fresh, green breast of the new world” has become a valley of ashes.
Despite this concern with revealing the destruction wrought by false cultural myths, Nick too embraces certain negative myths without confronting the larger consequences of his choices. Much like Gatsby and Daisy, he chooses empty illusions, attempts to recover an irretrievable past, and disregards moral concerns in favor of his personal well-being. The crucial difference is that while he defines Daisy’s choices as being negative and a product of her powerlessness to shape her life, he engages in a series of mental gymnastics in order to imbue his own decisions and Gatsby’s with integrity and to suggest both were responsible for their actions.
Simply stated, because Nick believes that Daisy—like other women—has limited options, he does not hold her accountable for her actions. Even more precisely, because he believes that she lacks the free will and the ability to be self-reliant which are necessary prerequisites for independent moral choice, he is able to accept her lack of integrity as an understandable and even appropriate strategy for achieving her goals. In contrast, his need to believe that he and Gatsby have integrity and the ability to make moral choices leads him to several conflicting conclusions about the degree to which each was responsible for his choices. Thus, while his portrait of Daisy illuminates in a fairly sophisticated way the relationship of America’s cultural myths to individual choice, his presentation of Gatsby and himself in this regard is fraught with contradictions.
Nick’s presentation of Daisy does reveal just how reflective he could be about the question of individual responsibility. Significantly, he portrays Daisy as sharing both his notion of female powerlessness and his acceptance of deception as an appropriate way of dealing with that powerlessness. In contrast to Gatsby who saw marriage to Daisy as being the material manifestation of his having achieved success, Daisy subscribes to the version of the dream that applies to women, that marriage to a successful man is not the symbol of success but success itself. Indeed, Daisy never questions the concept that her only choices are among suitors. Even her single attempt to defy convention, her plan to join Gatsby in New York before he went overseas with the army, is in keeping with her belief that her happiness depended on her having a relationship with a successful man. She is unaware that Gatsby has deceived her about his financial status. As Nick recounts it, Gatsby “had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same stratum as herself—that he was fully able to take care of her.”
Soon after Daisy’s parents, intent on preserving what Daisy later characterizes bitterly as her “white girlhood,” prevent her from going to Gatsby, she acquiesces fully to the dictates of her world. She stays away from soldiers and then becomes “presumably engaged to a man from New Orleans.” Shortly after that, as Nick interprets it, she marries Tom, rather than wait for Gatsby, whom she still loves, because she believes that Tom, with his extraordinary wealth and his wedding gift of a $350,000 string of pearls, will provide a shape to her life that she does not believe she can achieve alone. Nick is particularly explicit about Daisy’s inability to create meaning for herself:
. . . something within her was crying for a decision. She wanted her life shaped now, immediately—and the decision must be made by some force of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality—that was close at hand. That force took shape in the middle of spring with the arrival of Tom Buchanan. There was a wholesome bulkiness about his person and his position and Daisy was flattered. Doubtless there was a certain struggle and a certain relief.
In light of Daisy’s belief that she must be dependent on someone or something other than herself, it is not surprising that when she learns that her newborn child is a girl, her first response is to weep. Then, regaining control, she decides, “All right . . . I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in the world, a beautiful little fool.” Consistent with this notion that women are best served by playing the part of unintelligent decorations, Daisy particularly admires the movie star at Gatsby’s party, a “gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman” who is all gesture and no emotion.
Although Daisy herself is in fact not merely a “beautiful little fool,” the role is one she plays well and successfully. For example, despite Nick’s awareness of Daisy’s dissembling, he nevertheless is captivated by it. Although he has been told that her habit of speaking softly “was only to make people lean toward her,” he rejects any criticism of this tactic as “irrelevant” because he finds her murmur “charming.” Similarly, although he later is uneasy about what he believes is “the basic insincerity of what she had said . . .as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to enact a contributory emotion from me,” moments later he describes Daisy as surprising him “by opening up again in a flower-like way.”
Both Daisy and Nick fail to acknowledge fully the toll that playing the part of an unthinking dependent woman has taken on Daisy. She has become like one of the hollow voices in Eliot’s The Waste Land. For example, when Daisy asks, “What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon . . .and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” she is echoing the voice of the woman in The Waste Land who complains, “What shall we do tomorrow?/What shall we ever do?” In addition, Daisy and Jordan have “impersonal eyes” that are absent of all desire while Nick later describes them as being “like silver idols” who say in unison, “We can’t move.” Daisy’s first remark to Nick when they meet is a further variation on this motif that she is part of the living dead. She greets him by saying, “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.”
Daisy’s married life should have taught her that her delivery-bed wisdom was faulty. Playing the role of a beautiful little fool did not bring her happiness any more than it gave her life shape or purpose. Tom had frequently been unfaithful to her, the first time within three months of their marriage. They subsequently had to leave Chicago after another of Tom’s “sprees.” Nevertheless, Daisy again and again denies her knowledge of the emptiness of her marriage and her life and repeatedly chooses the security she thinks that Tom’s wealth offers her, even though she should have learned, as Nick eventually points out, that wealth “imprisons” as well as “preserves.”
Perhaps most tragically, Daisy contributes to the perpetuation of the mythology which has denied her her own humanity. She treats her daughter as a beautiful object, bringing her out only for show and then apparently forgetting her. Her language in addressing the child is telling. She does not call her by name (only the governess does). Rather, in phrases which in the context of the novel reverberate with irony, Daisy twice addresses her daughter as “bles-sed pre-cious” and once as “You dream, you. You absolute little dream.”
Not unexpectedly, it is when Daisy begins to feel again that “everything’s so confused,” when Nick’s perception is that she wishes to mold “senselessness into forms,” that she temporarily becomes vulnerable to Gatsby. His abundance of expensive shirts, a sign of the beauty that material success can bring, moves Daisy to a moment of what appears to be genuine emotion. But in the end Daisy turns to Tom again because, like Nick, she expects that men will have integrity, at least outside the sexual realm. Although she tells Tom, in one of her few truly honest public assertions, that she finds his sexual exploits “revolting,” she is more alienated by the belief that Gatsby’s money is in some way tainted. She succumbs then to Tom’s explanation that her love for Gatsby is one of her “foolish ideas” and that she “doesn’t know what she is doing.” When she wishes to end the unhappy afternoon, it is to Tom she turns, begging that they leave. Tom, too, reassumes the expected role, promising Daisy, “I’m going to take better care of you from now on.” It is because he has reaffirmed his control over Daisy that he decides, with “magnanimous scorn,” that she should accompany Gatsby on the drive home.
It should be noted that Gatsby similarly denies Daisy her full humanity. His insistence that she declare that she had never loved Tom, born out of his need to restore Daisy to her younger self, points to his inability to perceive Daisy as a person who has grown and changed. And just as Daisy confronts Tom, if only momentarily, with the sham of their marriage, she also confronts Gatsby with the impossibility of what he asks, crying out to him, “Oh, you want too much!”
Daisy’s failure to assume responsibility for herself or for her actions culminates in her decision to allow Tom to believe that it had been Gatsby, not she, who was driving the car that killed Myrtle. Although, as noted earlier, Nick’s tolerance of Daisy’s role in the deaths and his initially harsher response to Tom are rooted in sexual biases, eventually he is content with attributing their actions to their immaturity. After deciding that talking to Tom was like “talking to a child,” Nick concludes that the Buchanans have retreated “back into their money or their carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .” He implicitly sees himself as the adult who cleans up their mess, but even more strikingly, his formulation overlooks the difference in the degree of responsibility Daisy and Tom each bears in regard to the deaths. Ignoring the deliberateness of several of Daisy’s choices, self-serving and destructive as they are, he finally expects nothing more from her. In essence, he too has categorized her as being only a “beautiful little fool.”
By so simplifying the moral complexities of this situation, Nick avoids having to take responsibility for his own actions. By deciding that Daisy is a child and that the truth is an unutterable fact, he does not need to worry about the morality of his failure to tell the police or to testify at the inquest that Daisy had been driving. He also is able to invert the usual standards of morality and describe Myrtle’s sister Catherine as showing “a surprising amount of character” in her skillfulness at lying while on the stand at the inquest.
Nick seeks a similar simplicity when it comes to his understanding of Gatsby and to his own choice of retreating from the world that Gatsby represents. But it is here that Nick’s need to believe that he and Gatsby are essentially moral and have the power to assume responsibility for their actions leads him to overlook the several significant contradictions in his own narrative. This evasion also allows Nick to avoid acting on what he knows while he presents himself as making mature, responsible, moral choices.
Perhaps the major contradiction in Nick’s narrative is his response to Gatsby, since Nick devotes himself to finding a way to reconcile his admiration for Gatsby with his awareness that Gatsby “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” He finally decides that it is not Gatsby who is to blame but his adherence to a corrupt dream, to “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” He only holds Gatsby responsible for “living too long with a single dream” but immediately justifies Gatsby’s adherence to that dream because of the negativity of reality. As Nick sees it, embracing the dream brings one a “warm world”; without the dream he imagines that Gatsby “must have looked up an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.”
To support his displacement of responsibility from the dreamer to the dream, in this case from Gatsby to the American dream, Nick repeatedly points to ways in which Gatsby was molded by American culture. As many of Fitzgerald’s readers have noted, Nick describes Gatsby’s youthful efforts to achieve success by emulating Benjamin Franklin’s regimen of exercise and study. He acknowledges the indirect influence of Hopalong Cassidy and the direct influence of Dan Cody (a fictional amalgam of Daniel Boone and Wild Bill Cody). He notes how much Gatsby’s father admired James J. Hill. By such suggestions that Gatsby was a product of his culture, Nick is able to praise Gatsby for the integrity of his belief, for what he defines as Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope and a romantic readiness,” and for the incorruptibility of Gatsby’s dream. As Nick explains it after the fact, “Gatsby turned out all right at the end . . . it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams” that Nick holds responsible.
But Nick is riot content with this reading of Gatsby. Even as he invests America’s myths with the power to have shaped Gatsby, Nick also argues that Gatsby was in fact responsible for himself and his choices. He most forcefully asserts this when he declares, “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.” Moreover, Nick is thrilled to discover that Gatsby had a purpose in life. When he understands that it is Daisy whom Gatsby seeks, he rejoices that Gatsby has given his life meaning, “Then it had not been merely the stars to which he had aspired . . . He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.” The difficulty is that Nick never modifies his judgment here, even when he learns that Daisy Fay Buchanan’s “voice is full of money” and that she is morally indifferent and emotionally dead.
Nick evidences the same sort of contradictions when it comes to his own choices. On the one hand, he is deeply aware of the ways in which the modern world lacks order, purpose, and morality. It is he who identifies the valley of ashes as a wasteland and who so lyrically explains at the end of the novel that the vision of America as a New Eden was always and only an illusion. He has been deeply unsettled by his participation in World War I, which he sarcastically refers to as “that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War,” and suggests that the only God in the modern world may be the unseeing billboard figure of Dr. Eckleburg.
Nevertheless, there is another side of Nick Carraway, the side that wants “the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.” For instance, when Nick first learns of Tom’s affair with Myrtle, his immediate instinct is to call the police. When he realizes that Daisy knows of Tom and Myrtle’s affair, he is both “confused and a little disgusted.” He wishes that Daisy would “rush out of the house, child in arms” and is disappointed when he realizes she has “no such intentions.” He describes himself as “slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires.” Moreover, Nick’s decision to leave the East is partially motivated by the indifference of people toward one another that he finds there. The East, he explains, had become “haunted” for him “beyond my eyes’ power of correction” because he began to think that normalcy there was “a night scene by El Greco.” Nick’s nightmare vision is important because it includes the ingredients of moral apathy and the cold, meaninglessness of material possessions:
In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the side-walk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.
Nick further reveals a wish to see himself in an heroic light when he allies himself—much as he had Gatsby— with some of America’s earlier, self-reliant heroes. When he first arrives at West Egg, he perceives himself to be a “guide, a pathfinder, an original settler,” in other words, a Natty Bumppo. He then likens East and West Egg to “the egg in the Columbus story,” an association which coupled with the earlier one suggests a vision of himself as a new Adam in the New World. He also subtly places himself in Whitman’s tradition. While attending a party at Tom and Myrtle’s New York apartment, Nick identifies with a casual observer in the streets whom he imagines to be looking up at the windows of the apartment. His characterization of himself here, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life,” echoes Whitman’s initial stance in Song of Myself that he was “both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.”
Nick knows that such associations are merely fanciful. Unlike Leatherstocking, he has no frontier to which he can retreat. Unlike Columbus, there are no new Edens he can find. And although at moments he is, like Whitman, attracted to possibility and even to “the racy adventurous feel of New York at night,” he eventually chooses to be an observer not a participant. In contrast to Whitman, who eventually merges with the lives of those he observes, Nick decides to move out of the game altogether. He does so, even though he is aware of the cost. For instance, although he allows himself to “pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove,” he does not act on his impulses. Even more telling is that in his fantasy he is unfulfilled, left with only the same “haunting loneliness” of “young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.” By this squandering of life, Nick too has become like a figure in The Waste Land.
Even with his understanding of the dangers of indifference and moral apathy, even with his insights into the complexities of life, Nick makes a series of choices which essentially negate his consciousness. For example, he will, as he had in college, refuse intimacy with others. He insists that he wants “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” Instead, in his wish to have control over his world and to have that world itself be in order, he will avoid the vulnerablity of his earlier years, whatever the cost. Thus he ends his relationship with Jordan even though he is half in love with her “because I wanted to leave things in order and not just trust that obliging and indifferent sea to sweep my refuse away.”
He also ignores his wish for the world to be “at a sort of moral attention forever.” He no longer has the impulse to talk to the police, even when the issue is homicide and not the lesser offense, adultery. He chooses to return to the Midwest even though he knows that it is not a place of heightened morality but rather a series of “bored, sprawling, swollen towns . . .with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old.” But most significantly, Nick now denies a concern with whether the basis for individual action is moral or not, asserting, “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.”
To make such choices, Nick oversimplifies the complexities of what he knows and overlooks the contradictions in his thought. He no longer wants his angle of vision threatened by any other perspective. He will avoid what he earlier called the invariable sadness which accompanies the process of looking “through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.” Asserting that “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all,” he will retreat altogether from expending powers of adjustment, emotionally and morally as well as visually. Thus he will even deny what he has most learned from watching Gatsby. By trying to recover the Midwest of his childhood memories, Nick suppresses his awareness that one cannot “repeat the past” because the past always “recedes before us” and that, in fact, one’s memory of the past in all likelihood was only an illusion in the first place.
The irony and perhaps the tragedy of Nick’s narrative is that he justifies his self-deceptions by presenting them as signs of integrity, maturity, and responsibility. He overlooks the fact that he is embracing illusions he knows are empty and instead portrays his return to the Midwest as exiling himself from a corrupt East. He retreats from involvement with other people but continues to see himself as a mature, responsible adult, as the one who cleans up messes and erases obscene remarks on sidewalks. But most significantly, Nick, to some extent, negates his criticism and his analysis of contemporary America. He has learned the cause for the wasteland and the “holocaust” of deaths that he witnessed was the inability of individuals to escape from false myths and to assume responsibility for themselves and for others. Instead of confronting the implications of these lessons, Nick does the opposite and justifies that as well. He does not argue that individuals should make judgments and act on them. Rather he takes away from his experiences the conclusion that “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.”
Such contradictions in Nick’s narrative of course raise the frequently disputed question of Fitzgerald’s relationship to his narrator. If Fitzgerald intended Nick to be seen as one more victim of the very myths he professes to reject, then the novel suggests that Fitzgerald’s self-acknowledged debt to Conrad and especially to Heart of Darkness extended to experimentation with unreliable narration. Nick’s own attention to point of view supports this possibility. Such a reading, however, offers a fairly bleak vision. Reality is so “grotesque” as Nick puts it that it is better to choose illusions, however frightening and savage the nightmares they may breed. On the other hand, if Fitzgerald, like Nick, ultimately was unaware of the contradictions in Nick’s narrative, then the novel must be seen as seriously flawed. This reading, which assumes that Fitzgerald was not in full control of his material, is given credence by the fact that Nick’s stance is never genuinely challenged. Only the unreliable Jordan is critical of his carelessness. There is not another narrative voice, as there was in Heart of Darkness, who on any level challenges either Nick’s perceptions or his conclusions.
Fitzgerald’s correspondence with Max Perkins further suggests that both author and editor were content with Nick’s narrative stance. Fitzgerald’s concerns, as he revised, centered around his portrayal of Gatsby, a moment in Tom and Myrtle’s apartment which he feared was “noticeably raw,” the scene in the Plaza where he worried primarily that he couldn’t “quite place Daisy’s reaction,” and the novel’s title.
The revisions themselves provide an even stronger sense that Fitzgerald was unconcerned with the contradictions in Nick’s narrative. Specifically, he added material which stressed Nick’s belief in his own honesty and deleted passages which might undercut Nick’s integrity. For example, to the earliest surviving manuscript, Fitzgerald added Nick’s statement that he was “five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.” He altered Nick’s characterization of himself in this version as “one of the few decent people” he has known to “one of the few honest people.” In addition, Fitzgerald moved to this chapter material which, in Kenneth Eble’s words, “summed up Nick’s character.” Eble, in his study of Fitzgerald’s revisions, argues that this rearrangement gives “more point” to Nick’s concluding remark about his own honesty.
At the same time, as Matthew J. Bruccoli notes in his introduction to The Great Gatsby: A Facsimile of the Manuscript, Fitzgerald deleted several passages which made Nick a complicitor in Gatsby and Daisy’s affair. For example, as Bruccoli points out, Fitzgerald eliminated material which made it clear that when Nick was arranging the meeting between Gatsby and Daisy, he knew he was “setting up a love tryst—not a reunion.” Fitzgerald also took out of the novel a scene in which Nick offers the keys of his house to the couple.
It should also be noted that the manuscripts suggest that Fitzgerald deliberately set up the opposition between Nick’s honesty and female deception. In the first manuscript, when Nick declares himself to be “one of the few decent people,” he considers only Jordan’s lies. In the later versions, Fitzgerald added to that moment not only the material about Nick’s own honesty but also Nick’s tolerance of female dishonesty in general.
There is evidence that during the decade following the publication of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald began to confront more directly the issues which the novel raised but did not resolve. In his 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” he reassessed the period he has been credited with shaping as well as naming. He indicated that it had only been recently that he and others of his generation had begun to come to terms with some of the issues Gatsby addressed, while in “The Crack-Up,” published in 1936, he described how he had been apolitical in the twenties. In the earlier essay, he was especially critical that during the twenties consciousness had not led to any sort of action but rather to only a desire for personal “slices of the national cake” or to a more detached intellectual response, that is to cynicism, indifference, or irony, with only sporadic outbursts of moral indignation or idealism. Fitzgerald’s characterization quite obviously applies to Nick Carraway as well as to Fitzgerald and his peers. But what may be even more interesting is that by 1931 Fitzgerald was directly attributing the alienation of the individual, particularly of “the more intelligent young men from the prevailing order,” to a sense of powerlessness. He specifically cited the disenchantment that had accompanied the police attack on demobilized soldiers during the 1919 May Day riots and the belief that World War I had been fought for “J.P. Morgan’s loans after all.”
The Scott Fitzgerald who wrote The Great Gatsby does then appear to have been much like his narrator. That both were concerned with the question of individual responsibility is readily apparent. But in the end it seems that neither was willing or able to confront fully its implications in terms of both America’s myths and her realities.