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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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THE CHARACTERS - CHARACTER LIST AND ANALYSIS

MAJOR CHARACTERS

NICK CARRAWAY

Nick Carraway is the narrator of The Great Gatsby; he is also a character in the novel. When you think about him, you have to think about what Fitzgerald is using him for. You also have to look at him as a person.

Nick, is first of all, Fitzgerald's means of making his story more realistic. Because Nick is experiencing events and telling us about them in his own words, we're more likely to believe the story. After a while we almost begin to experience the events as Nick does; the I of each of us as readers replaces the I of Nick. (For more details, see "Point of View.")

Nick is a narrator whose values you should have no trouble identifying or at least sympathizing with. He's not mad or blind to what's going on around him. He's a pretty solid young man who has graduated from Yale University, served his country in the First World War, and decided to go into the bond business. He comes from a solid Midwestern family, from whom he has learned some pretty basic values. He is honest, but not Puritanical or narrow minded. He is tolerant, understanding, and not hasty to judge people. He is the sort of person you might talk to if you wanted a sympathetic ear. But his toleration has limits. He doesn't approve of everything.

These are some of the qualities that make Nick a reliable narrator, someone whose story we are likely to believe. It seems often that his values are pretty close to those of the author.

Nick is in a perfect position to tell the story. He is a cousin of Daisy Buchanan's, he was in the same senior society as Tom Buchanan at Yale, and he has rented, during the summer of 1922, a house right next to Jay Gatsby. He knows all the characters well enough to be present at the crucial scenes in the novel. The information he doesn't have but needs in order to tell his story, he gets from other characters like Jordan Baker, the Greek restaurant owner Michaelis, and Gatsby himself. Nick knows things because people confess to him, and people confess to him because he is tolerant, understanding, and sympathetic.


Nick has that capacity, which Fitzgerald felt was so terribly important (see The Author and His Times), of holding two contradictory opinions at the same time. He both admires Gatsby and disapproves of him. He admires Gatsby both because of his dream and because of his basic innocence; and he disapproves of Gatsby for his vulgar materialism and his corrupt business practices. (Nick does not want to become involved with Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby's underworld "connection.")

One of the things that makes Nick special is that he understands Gatsby. Nobody else in the novel-not even Daisy-really understands him. Nick is, at the novel's end, Gatsby's only friend, even though he disapproves of many things which Gatsby stands for. Almost nobody comes to Gatsby's funeral, and if it weren't for Nick, there would probably not even have been a funeral. Would you have gone?

Some readers think Nick is too sympathetic to Gatsby. They think that Nick ought to be mature enough to see what is wrong with Gatsby's dream. They feel that Nick should be more critical of Gatsby, and force us as readers to be more critical, too. They believe that Nick in the closing pages, is too sentimental and that his judgment is not as reliable as we might think. There's no critical agreement on this issue, so you'll have to make up your own minds as you read the book.

As you're deciding about Nick's powers of judgment-particularly in the opening and closing pages where he talks about himself-keep in mind that Nick is a Midwesterner and his values are colored by the values of the world in which he grew up.

Many readers have remarked that the novel is based on a contrast between the solid, traditional, conservative Midwest and the glamorous, glittering, fast-paced world of the East. Nick (like Scott Fitzgerald, his creator) is from Minnesota. He comes East to experience the new and exciting world of New York that is very different from Minneapolis-St. Paul. At the end, he chooses to leave the East and return to the Midwest. By that choice he seems to be saying to us that he has tried the East and found it missing something he needs: a basic set of values. So he goes home, where values still exist. Think about the two worlds-the Midwest and the East and what they represented for Nick (and by extension, Fitzgerald) and what they might represent for you.

JAY GATSBY

The title of this novel is The Great Gatsby. If you like paradoxes, start with this one: he is neither great nor Gatsby (his real name was Gatz). He is a crook, a bootlegger who has involved himself with Meyer Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. He has committed crimes in order to buy the house he feels he needs to win the woman he loves, who happens to be another man's wife. Thus a central question for us as readers is, why should we love such a man? Or, to put it in other word, what makes Gatsby great? Why, despite all these things, does Fitzgerald invite us to cry out with Nick, "'They're a rotten crowd'... 'You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.'"?

We are asked to love Gatsby, even admire him to a point, because of his dream. That dream is what separates Gatsby from what Nick calls the "foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dreams..." It is not merely what is known as the American Dream of Success-the belief that every man can rise to success no matter what his beginnings. It is a kind of romantic idealism, "some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life," Nick calls it. It is a belief in fairytales and princesses and happy endings, a faith that life can be special, remarkable, beautiful. Gatsby is not interested in power for its own sake or in money or prestige. What he wants is his dream, and that dream is embodied in Daisy. He must have her, and, as the novel's epigraph on the title page suggests, he will do anything that is required in order to win her.

But dreams don't always show on the outside. The Great Gatsby is a kind of mystery story with Gatsby as the mystery. Who is he? All the way through the novel people keep asking that question and answering it falsely. They answer it falsely because they aren't really interested in who Gatsby is. They have heard things about him-that he killed a man, that he was a German spy in World War I-and they pass these bits of gossip on to other people. So the myth of Gatsby-the collection of false stories about him-hides the Gatsby that we come gradually to know through the efforts of Nick Carraway. Nick genuinely cares who Gatsby is, and in Chapters IV, VI, VIII, and IX he presents us with the story of Gatsby's past as he has learned it from Jordan Baker, from Gatsby himself, and eventually, from Gatsby's father.

No one else but Nick knows or understands Gatsby's background except maybe his father and Owl Eyes-and they, significantly, are the only ones present at his funeral. Fitzgerald invites us to share Nick's understanding of Gatsby as we read the novel. He makes us see behind the surface of the man who at first glance looks like a young roughneck. And he forces us to ask, as we finish the book, what this dream is that Gatsby has dedicated himself to. Is it a worthwhile dream? Is it our dream, too? Can we love Gatsby and be critical of his dream at the same time? Fitzgerald makes us ask these questions and then lets us find our own answers.

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