Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The man who gives his name to this book - Nick Carraway's The Great Gatsby

Excuse me – I have a little note here I need to review.  “Spell Nick Carraway’s dang name right.”  Got it.

Readers, I said yesterday, have to buy into the conceits of a writer.  The writer may occasionally put a potted plant over a stain in the book’s carpet.  Is it rude for the reader to lift the pot and point out the stain?  Probably.  How about the critic?  His responsibilities may be a bit different, and what good reader is not also a good critic?

Nick Carraway is writing a book.  How many readers of The Great Gatsby remember, or ever notice, that he’s writing a book?  He says he is, on page 2 (I’m going to need the first sentence later):

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.  Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn.

And then there is exactly one more reference to the idea:  “Reading over what I have written so far, I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me” (55).  That’s it.  Nothing else all the way through the end on p. 180.  Question 1: Is this an idea Fitzgerald tacked on and then forgot to develop?  Seems odd to just drop it.

Question 2:  What kind of book is this book?  Nick Carraway’s The Great Gatsby is a memoir, subjective but still non-fiction.  Is it like other non-fiction of its time, other memoirs about spending a summer hanging out with a – anybody here not read Gatsby? – with a gentleman as interesting as Jay Gatsby?  It certainly does not look much like, to pick some well-known contemporaries, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) or Eminent Victorians (1918).  But what do I know about the memoirs of 1925?  Nothing, nothing.  Maybe Nick is writing a novel.  That would destroy the book for me, so let’s please forget that option.

How do I know what fiction or non-fiction looks like, anyways?   I recently read Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (2010), ostensibly a collection of essays, ostensibly non-fiction.  Except that it was obviously fiction, obviously!   What a relief when, on page 94, she baldly describes her own book as a novel.  Also, keep an eye on the apples – there are three of them, just like in real life a novel.  So how do I know?  I recognize conventions, style, voice.  Who knows.  The Great Gatsby has too much dialogue, too much immediate precision, and way too much Nick Carraway.  Also, Nick directly accuses a (fictional, but not to him) living person of vehicular manslaughter and other assorted crimes, so too much libel and slander.

I wanted to see if Fitzgerald scholars had looked at contemporary memoirs.  I quickly chewed through ten volumes of Gatsby criticism (criterion for selection: on the library shelf), many of them collections of essays.  No help.  Lots of comparisons, good ones, to fiction, like Heart of Darkness (1899).  No answer to Question 2, though.  How about Question 1?

I found only two critics who even seem to notice that Nick is writing.  Mary J. Tate, author of the Critical Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Facts on File, 2007, who, in fairness, has a lot to do in her book, has nothing but this:  “Fitzgerald strengthens Nick’s role as narrator by giving the impression that Nick is the author” (91).  I don’t see how.  If the two references, to the book and the writing, were excised, the narrator’s “role” would be just as “strong,” whatever that means.

George Garret takes the issue more seriously.*  He sees a useful tension between written and spoken language, and identifies a number of particularly deft places where Carraway slips from one to the other – Nick’s a great writer!  The “poetry of intense perception” (written) is mixed in with “a hard-edged, implaccable [sic] vulgarity” (spoken, all of this on p. 111).  This is a real insight into the crackliness of Gatsby’s prose, and it tells us why we need the conceit that Carraway is writing, and not, for example, that we are eavesdropping on his thoughts.  Doesn’t really explain the book, though.

I know why it’s a book.  Tomorrow - this has already gone on too long - I’ll explain the book.  I lifted the plant to discover not a stain, but an intricate pattern.

* George Garret, “Fire and Freshness: A Matter of Style in The Great Gatsby.”  In New Essays on The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew Bruccoli, Cambridge University Press, 1985.


  1. As you say, it is a convention that Nick is writing and that he has apparently perfect recall of what everyone said. In Conrad it's sometimes even more complicated- for example, the narrator of Heart of Darkness has apparently perfect recall for what Marlow said and Marlow has apparently perfect recall for what other people said. It's even more of a feat with the longer novels. Add the fact that Marlow- an English seaman- has the sensibility and perception of a Central European with a wide knowledge of literature. Kipling uses even more complicated techniques in some of his later stories.

    With Carraway and Gatsby there;s the further question of Carraway's unreliability and the form it takes. How reliable is Carraway's memory for what people said and howreliable is his assessment of peoples' characters? Is Gatsby great independently of Carraway's vision of him? Does Carraway misunderstand Gatsby and ennoble him or does he misunderstand and sentimentalise him or does he get him right? There's the strange offpage relationship between Carraway and Jordan Baker- how reliable is Carraway in what he tells us and doesn't tell us here and what is the connexion between that part of the narrative- or absence of narrative- and Gatsby's relations with Daisy Buchanan? How reliable is Jordan's assessment of Carraway- as another "bad driver"? When she says it was "a bad guess" when she "thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person." is she telling the truth or out to hurt Carraway or out to hurt Carraway by telling the truth?
    In short, how reliable is Carraway as a story-teller, and what kind of unreliabilities are they? There is no right answer, which is one reason why the book is so fascinating.

  2. Roger, I'll answer all of those questions tomorrow.

    Ha ha ha ha!

    Well, I will argue that in Nick's case, his writing is not just a convention, but that Fitzgerald gets something more useful and original out of the device, which then informs, although by no means answers, just the kinds of questions you listed.

    I sure agree about the strangeness of the Carraway-Baker relationship. And I'm baffled by the scene where a drunken Nick goes to a minor character's apartment to look at his photographs. The photographer is "clad in his underwear." Actually - no, never mind.

    I'll at least mention Nick's honesty tomorrow, although I can only go so far with it, for just the reasons you identify.

  3. Kipling is so careful a craftsman that he makes people like Conrad and Fitzgerald seem careless by comparison.

    The Dog Hervey is a great example of this. The narrator character is funny, transparent and writing a humorous set of personal anecdotes, while Kipling is subtle and writing a horror story.

    The main character's narration is transparent in its effects: patching up, Moira, piloting skills, an offended spinster, spelling issues, a Samuel Johnson quotation and plenty of jokes about fighting dogs. Read at this level the Dog Hervey is a funny story, but no big potatoes.

    Kipling on the other hand is writing a supernatural revenge story, with reincarnation, witchcraft, fear of retribution, ghosts and familiar spirits thrown into the mix. But this is done so subtly that most of the critics I read didn't notice at all. I would have completely missed Kipling's hidden plot if not for the fact that Borges and Bioy had selected this seemingly plain short story as one of Kipling's ten best. This led me to look deeper, and I'm not sure I got everything, for example I don't know why the gift of a goldfish would have been a dangerous menace.

    Anyway, the short story ends like this: 'That was six years ago. I have written this tale to let her know — wherever she may be'. It can be interpreted in many ways, for example: One, to explain to Mrs. Godfrey why the main character was afraid. Two, to let Ms Sichliffe know that he finally got the Johnson's allusion she made to him. Three, to let Mrs. Sichliffe know that he's sorry about his faux pas and to please not to punish him with her spells, he's aware of her power and very scared.

  4. A little belated, but this is the most thorough examination on Nick's reliability as a narrator I've come across:

  5. Thanks - very good, very clear. Lockridge pointed me to at least one huge clue that I missed. Amazing the things I don't see. But it's Nick's fault, that's the whole point, he tells the story wrong, or is telling some other story.