The Great Gatsby: Essential Passage by Character: Nick Carraway

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought—frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.

The Great Gatsby, pp. 1-2 (Scribner: New York, 2004)

Nick Carraway introduces himself as an open and honest individual. Through the guidance and influence of his father, Nick has learned to be tolerant of others because, as his father tells him, “…all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Because Nick and his father can communicate openly (unlike other characters in the novel), Nick’s life has as its foundation a worldview based on compassion.

Nick admits that this level of tolerance has made him vulnerable to all sorts of people and their problems. While he is tolerant of all people, he does not necessarily find all people entertaining or even interesting on the same level. He feels that, in some way, his transparency has made him a homing beacon of the “abnormal mind,” opening him up to a wide range of individuals. This spectrum of acquaintances earned him the reputation of being a “politician” in college, a "politician" in a rather negative sense. He is privy to a variety of secret affairs, necessitating a certain level of diplomacy as well as power.

Nick confesses that his status as a confidant was unsought (and basically unwanted). He tried many times to avoid the situation, usually through deceptive means, pretending to be unavailable in some way or another. Yet he is always found and confided in.

Nick, because of his conventional upbringing, finds many of the “intimate revelations” rather too intimate. Moreover, these revelations are neither original nor genuine, but rather “plagiarized” as the youths seek out their individuality by engaging in the same activities everyone else does.

Yet Nick reserves judgment. Why? Because Nick is something of an optimist, and “reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope.”

In the novel, Nick Carraway functions not just as the first-person narrator: his role is also along the lines of a Greek chorus. He is “on the stage,” so to speak, yet in many ways he is outside of the main action of the story. He receives the attentions of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan, yet they receive very little from him. Thus he can stand removed from the conflicts and provide commentary, serving almost as a backdrop against which the action is played. By being a first-person narrator in this way, he avoids the limitations usually imposed by such a viewpoint. He knows the actions, the conversations, and, to a certain extent, the thoughts of the major players, gaining the ability to reflect on them as a whole.

This ability, as the passage above shows, is due to his father’s statement. Nick stands on the moral high ground throughout the novel. In a certain way, one might even say that he, rather than the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, functions as the eyes of God. Having established an intimate relationship with each of the major characters, he has an insight into their behavior and their choices. He is not on anyone’s “side,” until the very end at Gatsby’s death. The only other acquaintance of Gatsby’s at the funeral is the "Owl-eyed Man," who himself functions in a limited way as an observer from above (thus his resemblance to the billboard of T. J. Eckleburg).

Nick states that it is his inclination to “reserve all judgments.” This practice does give him the moral high ground that enables his function as a chorus, and it also gives Nick an aura of honesty. As he states later in the novel, he is the only completely honest person he knows. Said without pride or deception, Nick is accurate in this perception of himself, and it is important if he is to function as a reliable narrator, which he does. He sees Gatsby, Daisy, Jordan, and Tom as they are, with all their flaws. For example, in a seeming contradiction, Nick states that Gatsby represents all he disapproves of, but he comes out all right in the end. Nick preserves a balanced view of each character. Rarely will he display any indications that he dislikes anyone, though he does occasionally hint at his disapproval of their actions and choices, simply because he is the moral standard of the novel.

One statement stands out as the foundation of truth on which Nick has built his personal philosophy: “Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope.” The profound wisdom of this statement expresses the motivation for Nick’s continued interaction with Gatsby to the very end. By being, as ever, the listening ear to all the gossip at Gatsby’s parties, Nick is well aware of the questionable nature of Gatsby’s past, especially in the procurement of his wealth. Not just unethical but downright illegal though some of these suggestion would be if true, Nick withholds judgment. He has, and continues to have even after Gatsby’s death, infinite hope—hope that the innate decency of Jay Gatsby, despite his wrong choices, still exists and, if given time, would have overtaken his obsessions. It is his infinite hope that this goodness will be seen by those who took advantage of Gatsby by attending his parties, drinking his champagne, eating his food. Perhaps all these people are not as selfish as they appear to be. Perhaps, after all, some of them will come to Gatsby’s funeral to honor him. Yet no one does, except the Owl-eyed Man, the man who had been impressed by the genuineness of Gatsby’s library.

Thus Nick’s introduction establishes him firmly as the standard by which all other characters will be measured. He represents the old morality, the one on which the American Dream had been founded, but which, with the onset of the 1920s, quickly faded away. That morality is, in his father’s eyes, the prime “advantage” that others have not been given. By his constant moral stance, Nick provides a counterpoint to the other characters who slip into various moral morasses by the novel’s end.