The distinction between character and personality suggested from the earliest pages of The Great Gatsby reveals just how fully Gatsby as a romantic hero is Nick’s creation. Character as defined by Nick is essentially private; personality appears in public performance. This is an important reversal of the realist tradition … in which character—the fullest realization of an individual—lies precisely in the public, historical interplay of private impulses and social conventions. But in The Great Gatsby an individual’s essential qualities remain forever hidden. Fitzgerald makes it clear that to know another person in any substantial way lies somewhere between a leap of imaginative faith and the sheerly impossible… Nevertheless, … Carraway’s entire relationship with Gatsby depends on his efforts to translate the mysterious man’s dramatic gestures into a revelation of their hidden significance:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.
Nick’s interpretive imagination is thus at work from the outset. The conditional ’if emphasizes the process; onto a skeleton of public gestures Nick fleshes a Gatsby, someone whose essential romantic hopefulness is expressed in his behaviour. Were any other Figure in the novel to tell his story, to interpret the same gestures, however, Gatsby might well appear as a bootlegger living under an alias on Long Island, rather than the romantic hero we in fact encounter.
Much the same creative, interpretive impulse operates between other characters in the novel; Gatsby himself transforms Daisy’s calculated dance—her everlasting freshness and gaiety, the music and extravagance of her voice—into the object of his dream. As our relation to Gatsby is mediated by Nick, so our perspective on Daisy is divided, with Gatsby performing as a narrator of her splendour, while Nick provides a less enchanted estimation. Marius Bewley makes a similar point:
Daisy Buchanan exists at two well-defined levels in the novel. She is what she is—but she exists at the level of Gatsby’s vision of her.
It is important to add that even what Daisy ’is’ emerges only through Nick’s own private interpretation.
The dilemma for characters to interpret each other’s gestures—and, just as important, the concurrent dilemma of the uncertain relation between public gesture and inner ‘truth’— occurs throughout Fitzgerald’s fiction. Rosemary Hoyt, in Tender Is the Night, falls in love with the carefully fashioned persona of Dick Diver, a persona that is the most ironic manifestation of the self-betrayal that rules his life.
As Fitzgerald’s characters struggle to fathom each other, nevertheless, they must trust in a faithful relation between personality and character. Yet early in The Great Gatsby Daisy demonstrates that no such harmony is necessary. Sitting with Nick on the front porch of her house, she makes a grand and fashionable speech of disillusion.
’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 some sort to exact 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.
Daisy lacks any meaningful integrity between self and gesture. And Gatsby, therefore, can never fully fathom her; he is too naive. His gestures and persona are too honestly an expression of the romantic self-image he has modelled himself on—despite the submerged identity of James Gatz—for him to understand Daisy’s selfishness and charming duplicity.
Although Gatsby’s personality may bear an honest relation to his private intentions, we must remember that the Gatsby we are discussing is largely Carraway’s creation. If we sense something of Gatsby’s hidden nature, an intimate knowledge Fitzgerald would deny is ever fully valid, it is because Carraway believes in the sympathetic understanding he has, at the last, for Gatsby. The sensibilities of Nick’s own private character translate the public spectacle of Gatsby’s personality into an apparent three-dimensionality. Nick responds to Gatsby’s ludicrous poses and sentimental cliches and immense egoism with imaginative sympathy because he believes these traits are born of a romantic hopefulness that he shares.
From their first meeting, Nick translates Gatsby’s gestures with authority, as if his response were singularly attuned to Gatsby’s intended effect.
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.
Gatsby’s exotic behaviour [is] always at the threshold between the grand and the absurd… Dramatic flair, defiant public gesture often constitute the heart of that ideal self-image pursued by romantic heroes as they define themselves against the conventions of the community… Further, in Gatsby’s dramatic behaviour W.J. Harvey discovers not simply a typical egoistic self-proclamation, but an articulation, even a partial, symbolic fulfillment, of Gatsby’s dream.
What we remember about [Gatsby] is not the restlessness or the drifting but ‘an unbroken series of successful gestures’… above all, Gatsby stretching out his arms towards the green light that is the vain promise of his future. We remember these formal poses as something theatrical or religious, but they are poses, moments of suspended time, something static and as such are the stylistic equivalents of Gatsby’s attempt to impose his dream on reality, his effort to make the ever-rolling stream stand still.
An essential element of Gatsby’s dream, therefore, and indeed of the romantic impulse itself, is the pursuit of a transcendent significance outside of society and beyond the mutability of history. The fact that we remember Gatsby’s gestures outside of the narrative flow of events is evidence of how Gatsby and Carraway are truly in league: Gatsby poses and Carraway paints the picture, capturing the instant. Initially, Nick shares his fascination with other ’moths’ drawn to Gatsby’s Trimalchean fetes. However, Gatsby’s extravagance is given form and meaning only in Nick’s imagination; he comes alive when Nick first glimpses the intensity of his dream. That intimation arises without Gatsby himself even present, as Jordon Baker reveals the history of his affair with Daisy.
‘Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay.’
Then it had not been merely the stars to which he had aspired on that June night. He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.
As Harvey points out, Carraway recalls Gatsby in a series of photographic poses, each representing an aspect of Gatsby’s romantic, idealized self-image. But Jordon’s story reveals the key to translating the static tableaux. Not until then does Nick understand the significance of his first view of his neighbour standing in the darkness, arms stretched acrossthe bay. The gesture acquires meaning only through the interpretation of an observer, someone whose own character provides a touchstone for understanding.
Nick responds powerfully to the bare suggestion of Gatsby’s dream. He is drawn to Gatsby and repelled because of the paradoxical impulses within himself as much as by the inconsistencies of the other’s nature. Throughout the course of the tale Nick remains one foot in the settlement of conventional society, one foot in the wilderness with this extraordinary fellow. He is anchored to a world of chronological time and mutability, to values that are fundamentally social. Yet he is drawn imaginatively to a figure who repudiates both time and an identity defined by the community. Nick’s dilemma is similar to that of narrators in such novels as Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter, who straddle the traditions of realism and romanticism. They are poised between the values of the community and the creative defiance of a rebellious hero. Nick’s own form of heroism, when he too becomes a narrator, will be to synthesize these apparently disparate impulses within his vision of general irony. He will avow the value of Gatsby’s imagination and energy and his yearning for significance, while also affirming a code of fundamental decencies that makes human intercourse meaningful…
In creating a portrait of Gatsby and in trying to explain his own sympathy for the man, Nick Carraway must himself attempt to impose form on Gatsby’s dream, to articulate its beauty and energy and value, without deadening it within the constraints of language… Both Nick’s ambivalence towards Gatsby and the inevitable disjunction between the ideal and the material world are further reflected in the ways he fashions a suggestion of the dream into language. Carraway reports Gatsby’s intimate confessions using three separate strategies precisely to heighten the manifold paradoxes. The first is the straightforward quotation of Gatsby’s own words.
Gatsby’s failure of language is [a] manifestation of the dream’s adolescent conception. He is clumsy with language; his diction and images also belong to boyhood adventure fiction. And too, the flow of simple communication doesn’t easily conform to staged poses. When he perseveres in trying to match words to gestures, he repeatedly crosses the threshold between the mysterious and the absurd.
‘I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe—Paris, Venice, Rome—collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.’
With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter. The very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image except that of a turbaned ’character’ leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger through the Bois de Boulogne.
By thus reporting Gatsby’s speeches verbatim and then criticizing their heavy-handed cliches, Nick stakes out one dimension in Gatsby—with these brief glimpses the full, exotic, impossibility of such a creature becomes apparent. Indeed, the extravagance of this passage distances the reader so that he is taken aback by Nick’s abrupt conversion moments later on seeing Gatsby’s medal from Montenegro: ‘Then it was all true.’
Yet absurdity is, of course, only one element of Nick’s portrait of Gatsby. A second method is simple paraphrasis; Nick translates the gist of Gatsby’s speech without being bound by the artificial constrictions of the other’s syntax and diction.
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was… (Fitzgerald’s ellipsis)
Nick’s paraphrasing here keeps absurdity at a distance. Gatsby is not entirely unaware of the tyranny of change. The intensity of his first great love has shorn him of something of himself, some essence of vitality that nurtured his belief in romantic possibility. This narrative strategy conveys boththe strength and pathos of Gatsby’s yearning, along with Nick’s own ironic awareness that, as he has said to Gatsby moments before, ’You can’t repeat the past’.
Immediately after this last passage, Carraway abandons Gatsby’s words entirely. He transforms into lyric the story of Gatsby in Louisville five years earlier.
Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. 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 tree—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.
Clearly this is more than a matter of substituting new words for Gatsby’s—the perspective, the conception, as well as the language, are Nick’s. He has, in fact, stolen away dream from dreamer, and reshaped it according to the possibilities of his own imagination. Here, when Gatsby’s dream seems most vivid, we discover to what extent both Gatsby and his dream are Nick’s creations. He can speak as Gatsby cannot, achieving lyric intensity rather than empty cliche, for as narrator he possesses at once an ironic detachment from and a sympathetic bond to Gatsby’s romantic impulse.
But finally what Nick cannot say—and does not attempt—is the most potent testament that the two men share a dream that transcends either of them. Nick, like Gatsby, cannot circumscribe its energy, the vitality of all youth and hope and desire, within the boundaries of language. Instead, with Conradian impressionism, he suggests the dream’s deeper significance.
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. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.
Nick acknowledges the greatness of the dream by not constraining it, not fashioning it fully into articulateness. Yet by evoking the dream through language, he achieves what Gatsby cannot—he translates the ideal into a medium of this world, affirming its value, and sustaining it.
Just as the ideal cannot be brought into the physical universe without being tainted, Gatsby cannot survive in a world indifferent to his dream and unable to comprehend him. With Daisy, the object that has sustained his dream and given his life direction, lost forever, Gatsby’s personality collapses. It will be Nick as narrator and hero who revives the dream and sets it in juxtaposition to a modern society always its foe.
Certainly Gatsby generates and bears his own fate; he has no place in a world that grants him everything but what he desires most, the right it cannot grant—to change time and history. Like a great carnival with tents struck and costumes shed, he ceases entirely to exist as far as society is concerned. Only Nick, acting according to the moral gyroscope of his identity, that code of fundamental decencies, insists on Gatsby’s significance, his meaning as a human being, if not the transcendent significance Jimmy Gatz had dreamed of.
[A]s he lay in his house and didn’t move or breathe or speak, hour upon hour, it grew upon me that I was responsible, because no one else was interested—interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which every one has some vague right at the end.
The refusal of all the crowd who had swirled through Gatsby’s parties to recognize such human responsibilities is finally more damning in Nick’s eyes than any collective guilt for Gatsby’s fate. All that holds this society together—and not just Tom and Daisy as representative of the very rich—is a vast, careless, self-interested association. No code of solidarity to the social weal, or moral responsibility, or human dignity, retains any forceful imperative.
The indifference of society itself to standards of human behaviour destroys Nick’s faith in what Marlow [narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim] called ’a sovereign code of conduct’. Carraway must henceforth wrestle with the fact that any such code is arbitrary, artificial, and, to a certain degree, an illusion. Right action, which in the innocence of youth had seemed automatic and unquestionable, becomes a matter of deliberate choice. Carraway’s choice to assume responsibility for Gatsby is a response to the indifferent, to Meyer Wolfsheim and to Daisy, to the East and to the universe—a clear, unabashed claim of his own moral identity.
Of course, Gatsby has been no more committed than other members of Eastern society to a common code ofshared values. While eagerly pursuing his own glory he could hardly be distracted with moral imperatives. Gatsby’s physical existence, his methods of surviving and conquering, all the tools he has used in his quest, are as corrupt as any of the creatures around him.
Carraway’s rejection of the East for its irresponsibility, therefore, is a rejection as well of that side of Gatsby’s nature which … asserts the appetite and significance of the ego in disregard of larger forms of human relations. His enduring ambivalence towards Gatsby is not due solely to the conflict between the dream and the corrupt environment in which it is expressed, but to this essential aspect of the romantic impulse as well—that it celebrates the self alone, not the values that make community meaningful…
Even as he repudiates its anti-social nature, Nick, as narrator, affirms Gatsby’s dream with his own effort to create a meaningful tale that will endure. Gatsby sought to set himself free of worldly, temporal constraints. Nick’s heroism is to succeed, at least partly, where Gatsby fails. The victory of the narrative itself is analogous to and greater than Gatsby’s characteristic gestures or poses. W.J. Harvey suggested that those static poses were a ‘stylistic equivalent’ to Gatsby’s goal, an existence momentarily free of time. Nick’s narrative is a more enduring stylistic equivalent of what the dream promised—an existence outside of time, immutable, brought to life in the eyes of an audience.
The narrative is also the culmination of what Nick has begun by accepting responsibility for Gatsby. By telling the tale Nick assumes a further responsibility: for the dream itself. His narrative circumscribes its romantic egoism, while celebrating its vitality and faith, its capacity for wonder, and its determination to create significance. And the narrative fulfills that determination. It insists on the form—and the meaning—of a tale that has apparently ended in disaster and chaos. Out of the confusion following Gatsby’s death, and the hypocrisy and indifference of New York society, emerges Nick Carraway’s moral character, manifested in the controlling irony that shapes the tale and answers the chaos.
Published in The Hero’s Tale: Narrators in the Early Modern Novel by David H. Lynn (1989) - Except. Text scanned from Readings on "The Great Gatsby", ed. by Katie DeKoster (San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998).