2021 Brennan Prize Winning Essay
The Noble Nick
For the first-person narrator of one of the most famous novels in American literature, Nick Carraway spends a surprising amount of time in the background. Indeed, the very title of The Great Gatsby seems to suggest that Nick is telling someone else’s story. Unlike the other characters who populate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Nick operates simultaneously from within and without, a part of The Great Gatsby’s tragic narrative and yet somehow also just an observer. Still, Nick’s narration is fringed with his own hopes and motivations; to simply relegate him to the background is to ignore the great complexity and nuance of his character. Nick comes East seeking purpose, not just in his own life but more broadly—he wants to find some kind of meaning, some romantic idea of the human spirit. It is this search for purpose that takes Nick to New York and eventually leads him to the house of a man named Gatsby. In Gatsby, Nick finds someone with the purpose he lacks, and does his best to capture the extent of Gatsby’s vast capacity for hope all while remaining safely on the periphery. Nick’s admiration for Gatsby—and contempt for nearly every other character—provides clues to his own psychology. By remaining on the periphery and carefully observing the events and characters around him, Nick is able to project his own hopes, fears, and wounds onto the actions of others without rendering himself vulnerable to psychological injury. Viewed through this psychoanalytic lens, The Great Gatsby is not Gatsby’s story at all—it is Nick’s.
Using classic psychoanalysis, Nick’s behavior can be analyzed through a description of his core issues and defenses. According to Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today, core issues are “deeply rooted, psychological problems that are the source of our self-destructive behavior” (Tyson 16) and stem directly from the human unconscious, which is home to the wounds, fears, unresolved conflicts, guilty desires, and other negative emotions and experiences accumulated throughout one’s life (Tyson 12). In order to understand Nick’s actions, one must understand his unconscious—as Nick tells his story, what is he subconsciously searching for, hiding from, or trying not to confront? Because the unconscious can often be a very unpleasant place, people employ psychological defenses so as to be able to functionally live without confronting the repressed and frightening issues of the unconscious. When these defenses break down—and people are forced to confront their core issues—they experience anxiety, which is "the disturbing, often overwhelming, feeling that something is wrong or that we are in danger” (Tyson 16). The first step, then, is to analyze Nick’s patterns of self-destructive behavior and moments of anxiety in order to gain insight into his core issues.
Although Nick seems adept at reading social situations, he also repeatedly experiences instances of social anxiety. On a visit to the massive, luxurious estate of Tom and Daisy Buchannan, Nick feels out of place and unnerved by Tom and Daisy’s contentious marital situation: “I was confused and a little disgusted as I drove away. It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was rush out of the house, child in arms—but apparently there were no such intentions in her head” (Fitzgerald 20). Nick’s subsequent visit to Tom and Myrtle Wilson’s clandestine New York apartment elicits much the same uncomfortable response: “I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the Park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair” (Fitzgerald 35). These uncomfortable situations begin a pattern of alien experiences for Nick. Despite his residency on posh West Egg, Nick has no claim to the exorbitant wealth and ambition of his neighbor Jay Gatsby, nor does he belong to the same social stratum as his ultra-rich relatives Tom and Daisy Buchannan who live across the bay. He doesn’t fit in with the eccentric Manhattanite partygoers in Tom’s apartment and cannot empathize with the destitution of the Valley of Ashes. In the world of 1920’s New York, Nick is an outsider, locked in a raging, internal crisis of identity.
As Nick ricochets between these groups, frantically searching for his own identity, he forms relationships that provide insight into his psychological state. The first such relationship is his tumultuous romance with Jordan Baker. In many respects, Jordan is Nick’s ideal romantic partner. Aloof and unconcerned, Jordan allows Nick to maintain his emotional distance and further protect himself from psychological injury. He is attracted to her “wan, charming, discontented face” (11) and “pleasing contemptuous expression” (18), features that suggest the exact opposite of emotional vulnerability. At the same time, Jordan allows Nick to do what he does best: observe and project. Jordan becomes Nick’s window into the world of Tom and Daisy Buchannan, and Nick’s interactions with Jordan mirror his complicated and dynamic attitude toward East Egg society. At first, Nick is attracted by Jordan’s careless and blasé demeanor, the mark of her wealthy friends and privileged upbringing:
“Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.”
“I hope I never will,” she answered. “I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.”
Her gray, sun-stained eyes stared straight ahead, but she had deliberately shifted our relations, and for a moment I thought I loved her. (Fitzgerald 58)
This attraction, however, does not last, and Nick is later repulsed by the very same carelessness he once found charming: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness… and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Fitzgerald 179). The rich, carefree lifestyle of Tom, Daisy, and Jordan appeals to Nick but ultimately disgusts him, an ambivalence that causes Nick to be “half in love” with Jordan even as he ends their relationship (177). While the emotional safety of Nick’s relationship with Jordan insulates him from pain, it ultimately stifles his psychological growth and must be ended.
Another psychologically dense relationship is Nick’s friendship with Gatsby. Like Nick, Gatsby is a psychologically complex character dealing with his own host of core issues. Gatsby has many unique characteristics, the most impressive of which is his uncanny ability to draw Nick out of the novel’s emotional periphery. Nick becomes incredibly invested in Gatsby—what begins as a reluctant favor for a mysterious neighbor blossoms into perhaps the most intense emotional saga of Nick’s life. As Gatsby and Tom’s conflict reaches its climax in the sweltering New York hotel room, Nick’s internal tension likewise reaches its own summit. So caught up is Nick in Gatsby’s story that he ironically realizes he has forgotten his own birthday. For Nick, this realization is not a happy one—he finds himself suddenly dreading the prospect of “a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair” (Fitzgerald 135). With Nick’s existential pessimism in mind, it becomes easy to see why he becomes so easily wrapped up in Gatsby’s story. Nick admires Gatsby because he possesses the one thing Nick does not: purpose. Put simply, Nick wants to want something as badly as Gatsby wants Daisy. After all, the majority of Nick’s decisions are made without conviction: he moves East, goes into the bond business, and pursues a relationship with Jordan not because he really wants to but because he feels obligated to these things. Indeed, Nick’s only hint of a dream—becoming a novelist—seems long forgotten and surrendered. But why does Nick not just throw himself into something—writing a novel, perhaps, or dating Jordan Baker—as recklessly as Gatsby has thrown himself into loving Daisy? The answer, of course, lies in Nick’s crippling inability to make himself emotionally vulnerable. By simply becoming invested in Gatsby’s story, Nick is able to project his emotions onto Gatsby, thereby experiencing Gatsby’s hope, triumph, and tragedy without facing any consequences.
Nick’s admiration for Gatsby, however, is further complicated by his own rigid sense of morality. Nick values honesty and integrity, characteristics that Gatsby notably lacks for much of the story. It is these perceived failings of Gatsby’s character that cause Nick to “disapprove of him from beginning to end” (Fitzgerald 154). Nick’s ambivalence towards Gatsby echoes his ambivalence towards Tom, Daisy, and Jordan. He gravitates towards these people despite the fact that he cannot condone their actions. As noted by literary critic Peter Lisca, however, only Gatsby is able to overcome this disapproval:
Yet Nick’s admiration triumphs over these failings because, as Nick tells us, “there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the readiness of life… a romantic readiness…” As we have seen, these are all qualities which Nick himself not only conspicuously lacks but could not possibly indulge together with his sense of order and decorum. (Lisca 26)
Nick thinks that Gatsby, the man who represents “everything for which I have an unaffected scorn” (Fitzgerald 3), is somehow also “worth the whole damn bunch put together” (Fitzgerald 154). Once again, this discrepancy can be attributed to Nick’s own psychological shortcomings. Nick admires most those qualities in Gatsby that he conspicuously lacks—purpose, hope, and enthusiasm. As Lisca says, “Nick’s approval of Gatsby must be… a measure of Nick’s own sense of failure” (Lisca 26). At its most basic, Nick’s admiration for Gatsby is a result of his own personal insecurity.
Nick comes East seeking purpose, but ultimately cannot bring himself to do any more than simply become wrapped up in Gatsby’s drama. Ironically, the only time when Nick actually assumes personal responsibility and takes charge—planning Gatsby’s funeral—comes far too late to make any tangible impact. By remaining on the periphery, Nick tries to protect himself from injury, but is ultimately unsuccessful—at the novel’s conclusion, he returns to the Midwest disillusioned and distraught. Ultimately, it is this disillusionment, not Gatsby’s death, that represents The Great Gatsby’s greatest tragedy because Nick is right to feel disillusioned. To suggest that the American dream is unattainable is undeniably tragic, but to mistakenly believe otherwise is infinitely worse.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner, 1925.
Lisca, Peter. “Nick Carraway and the Imagery of Disorder.” Fitzgerald/Hemmingway Annual,
vol. 13, no. 1, 1967, pp. 18-28. JSTOR. Web. 17 April 2020.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. Routledge, 2015.