In high school, I was a fanatic of The Great Gatsby, to the point where I even wrote my college admissions essay about it. Besides the magnificent prose of F Scott Fitzgerald, I identified a lot with Jay Gatsby in his endless quest for love and Nick Carraway in his role as unwitting confidant to so many people. To this day it remains my favorite novel, so it’s likely I might come back and say more about it in a later blog post someday. For now, I’d like to focus on the relationship between the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, and the first-person narrator, Nick Carraway.
Gatsby is a morally ambiguous novel about a morally ambiguous man. We in America glorify the wealthy (men like Gatsby) and tend to ascribe many unwarranted qualities to them–smart, prescient, etc–when as often as not, luck had a major role in their success. (And if not that, then moral unscrupulousness and/or inheritance often did.) Gatsby’s a seedy character, and in that regard he’s unworthy of being called “great” except in the way we might call exploitative men like Rockefeller or Bezos “great.” Furthermore, Gatsby acquires his vast fortune for the sole purpose of being worthy enough of an “old money” heiress named Daisy Buchanan, and in this endeavor he fails. How could he be considered “great” then, if he did bad things for an unworthy person and failed on top of it?
Well…first of all, I think we need to understand that Nick’s a biased narrator whose perception of Gatsby may be colored by other factors. There’s a small but significant section in Chapter 2 where Nick’s drunk and beside the bed of a man named Mr. McKee in his underwear, and it’s perhaps implied the two just finished a sexual liaison. In a novel as short, direct and carefully constructed as this, I find it hard to believe such a passage would be wasted. If it’s in the text, it’s meant to serve as insight into Nick and/or Gatsby. I think it’s as likely as not that Nick is gay, or bi, and Gatsby is the object of affections perhaps Nick is suppressing himself or else hiding from the reader. While some might offer Jordan as a counter-argument, let’s consider the fact that her name and mannerisms are described as somewhat masculine and she plays sports. That’s hardly damning evidence in itself, but it helps paint a picture. Personally, I always thought it was a fascinating unspoken parallel, the way Gatsby built up Daisy to be more than she really was while Nick does the same to Gatsby without even realizing it. And the idea that Gatsby ignored the true feelings of someone right in front of him was similarly ironic and sad.
Let’s consider the very first words Nick says about Gatsby in the story (emphasis mine):
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 an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament.”—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
We see that, by his own admission, Nick considers Gatsby to be worthy of scorn, yet Nick makes an exception for him nonetheless out of an appreciation for Gatsby’s personal charm and propensity for hope. We are supposed to believe that Nick can justify a pitifully obsessed criminal because of his ability to feel. That he took it upon himself to organize Gatsby’s funeral and write a book in his honor because of his likable mannerisms. Yet Nick couldn’t find it in himself to see the good in his own relative (Daisy) for being fickle and dumped Jordan almost on a whim due to her association with the Buchanans. It seems as though Gatsby gets a pass for some significant flaws, while everyone else in the story receives no such mercy. If romantic feelings alone were not the cause of this double standard, the most likely alternative I can think of would be protective feelings instead. Perhaps after seeing Gatsby spill his guts out about Daisy, go through so much effort planning a reunion, and his heartbreak at losing her again, Nick couldn’t help but feel like Gatsby deserved someone in his corner. Sometimes it’s almost instinctual to root for a lost cause or an underdog.
If we take Nick’s potential attraction out of the equation for a moment, then we must understand that the reason he considers Gatsby to be a great man is because Gatsby strives in pursuit of a dream. Where the Buchanans of the world are aimless, careless and lethargic in their pampered, spoiled existence, Gatsby has known what it means to struggle. Where the unwashed masses are content to get drunk and party every weekend, Gatsby uses booze only as a means to an end, to scrape and claw towards a bright future. In the last Chapter, Gatsby’s father shows Nick (and by extension, us) the humble yet somehow profound list Jay followed everyday to better himself. Gatsby took his identity, and by extension his destiny, into his own hands and became the person he wanted to be. In that regard, Gatsby was a great man, it’s Daisy (and society) that’s failed by not appreciating his efforts. (You could also argue society has doubly failed him by leaving crime as the only way in which an average man could reach the top tier of society.)
If you ask me, I would say the greatest man in the novel is Nick himself. Nick alone took a deep and personal interest in Gatsby’s mission where all others treated him as a mere curiosity to be gazed at and tossed aside. Nick was disgusted by the lack of care other people had for this man he’d spent a memorable summer with and he wrote the novel so that the real legacy of Jay Gatsby might live on in someone’s heart. He cared enough to put the time in and describe the life of an ordinary man in such flattering terms as to make him great. That kind of deep empathetic understanding is a rare thing in the world, but everyone deserves a Nick in life to appreciate their worth. If we could all be a bit like Nick and see the quiet greatness in flawed people, maybe the world wouldn’t be such a shitty place for so many of us.
I always wanted to wear a pink suit, and I always wanted to write a story even half as beautiful as The Great Gatsby.
It was you who introduced me to this fantastic read two years ago. I’d seen the Leo vehicle first (one Leo fan here!) but it did nothing to detract from my reading pleasure. It’s probably the best American novel I’ve ever read–possibly the best novel, period. I remember that episode with Mr. McKee and your mention of it. But there’s so very much more. As you once intimated, every sentence is a gem. What an author! Thank you!
Last night I watched the 2013 film adaptation and was curious as to how Luhrmann would handle Nick’s relationship with Mr. McKee. Nick seems to be exchanging drunken and slightly lecherous glances with someone that might conceivably be McKee. Later Nick bends down in front of McKee slopped in an armchair and flicks at what I assume to be cream on his face! At least, this is how I remember it.
I’d be curious to know whether the 1974 adaptation makes any reference at all to a potential Nick/McKee dalliance.