Some books we read in high school are rightfully loathed and forgotten. I couldn’t tell you what happens in The Lord of the Flies, but I do know that it was nasty and that the psychology involved is deeply faulty. It has taken me about ten years to get around to reading The Great Gatsby; I thought that it would be stolid, depressing, and not worth the paper it was written on – this, at least, is what I had been told by many people who read it under the whip, so to speak. It is none of these things: instead, the book I read was lyrical, nuanced, and contemplative. It is absolutely true that the books we read under duress are often remembered badly, because of the harsh dissection they are subjected to. It took me two pages to fall fully under Fitzgerald’s spell, and after that, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride.
The one thing I noticed was that I disagree with some of the people who have reviewed this book: that the book is really about Gatzby and not about the narrator, Nick Carraway. I think that as we watch – and as we comment – we are fully revealed. The person I had the most empathy for was Carraway, not Gatzby, who was sketched out in vague strokes and who had one motive and one motive only: to achieve happiness with the love of his life.
Carraway is snobbish, polite, erudite, passive, and (selectively) caring. He is someone I am not sure I would want to know, someone who has a future in Corporate America in front of him. As he witnesses this story, he knows that it is important, that he will never see the like of it again. He knows that the golden age is at once hollow and transitory. It is remarkably important to get the story from his perspective: he is the only one who will truly survive the melee.
Carraway doesn’t talk much about his life apart from Gatzby; we get the bare essentials only. But there is something in the little pauses he takes to make judgments about people, something that tells us as much about the narrator as about his subject under the microscope. One of the best examples is in Chapter 1, on page 12 of my copy of the book:
“`You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,´ she went on in a convinced way. `Everybody thinks so – the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.´ Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. `Sophisticated – God, I’m sophisticated!´
The instant her voice broke off ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of sort to draw a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.”
Carraway is at once out of control and has complete mastery of the situation; in addition, he is in a position to manipulate our ability to read the characters: we are entirely reliant on him and what he perceives. So where he sees duplicity, we cannot substitute unadulterated desperation or showmanship. We have to believe him for the story to have any fire, any bite. Of course, we do have reason not to take what he relates wholeheartedly: he is a self admitted liar, even to himself.
“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people I have ever known” (39).
He says this after telling us that he is carrying on an affair with a woman in New York, with another writing letters to him from back home. So is he lying about more than his love life? Does he withhold some of his part in the story, or of someone else’s actions? Is it the full truth? This is why I believe that the story is really about Carraway, because we get what he wants us to have, gives it to us in the way that shows him best, that glamorizes this kind of tragic life: his life. It is why the book moves like molten glass, changing under subtle pressure. It’s deeply subjective, as judgmental as its narrator. As judgmental as all of us.