(Click the character infographic to download.)
Okay, Gatsby's name is the one in the title—but we still think that Nick is the major player. And here's why:
Gatsby is almost shockingly simple once you can put his character together from the various pieces picked up along the way. (Check our "Character Analysis" for more thoughts on the whole cast.) But Nick –plain, straightforward, "honest" Nick – ends up being the novel's most interesting character. Nick changes profoundly over the course of the novel, and his transformation is what makes our Shmoopy hearts beat just a little faster.
Well, according to his bio, he grew up in family of "prominent, well-to-do people" in Chicago, and his family has a fun little tradition of calling themselves the decendents of the "Dukes of Buccleuch," even though they actually made their money two generations ago in the "wholesale hardware business" (1.5). He went Yale; he likes literature and considers himself one of those "limited" specialists known as a "well-rounded man"; he fought in World War I, which he found kind of exciting; and now he's moved East to work in the bond business (that is, finance) in New York City.
Those may be the facts, but they don't actually give us much insight into his personality. We learn more about him from the way he talks than what he says. Like this: we find out that he's connected to wealthy (as opposed to simply well-to-do) and important people, like his cousin Daisy and Tom, a college acquaintance, but he isn't one of them: his house is a "small eyesore," even though it offers him the "consoling proximity of millionaires" (1.14).
Check out that "consoling proximity": Nick is being a little self-deprecating, mocking himself for thinking that being near rich people makes up for the fact that his house is small and ugly. At the same time—doesn't he believe it, just a little? Doesn't he seem to enjoy being around the wealthy, careless people who party at Gatsby's house?
In the end, Nick Carraway's perch on the outside of these lofty social circles gives him a good view of what goes on inside; he has a particularly sharp and sometimes quite judgmental eye for character, and isn't afraid to use it.
Nick calls himself "one of the few honest people that I have ever known" (3.170), but that doesn't mean he's very nice. Nick may be polite and easy to get along with on the outside, but he's not afraid to tell it like it is. Nick still seems to see himself as a good Midwestern boy with high standards for everyone he meets, including himself, and prides himself on maintaining his standards, even in the corrupt, fast-moving world of East coast high society.
And that actually brings us to our first "hey, wait a minute" moment.
Check out what Nick says at the beginning. He treats us to a little down-home wisdom that his own father passed along:
"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 […]. (1.1-3)
Nick has told us that he reserves judgment, and he's also told us that he's honest. So why does it seem that the entire book consists of him judging one character after another? Gatsby represents everything that makes Nick feel "unaffected scorn" (1.4); Tom and Daisy are "careless people" (9.145); Jordan is "incurably dishonest" (3.158).
If you ask us, sounds like someone might not be entirely honest about himself. In fact, it's dishonest Jordan who realizes it. During the course of the novel, Nick gradually gets sucked into the world he's observing, both through his friendships (if you can call them that) with Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby, and through his romantic relationship with Jordan. The deeper he's drawn into these relationships, the less honest he becomes – until at the end, Jordan rebukes him for being just as dishonest and careless as the rest of them:
"You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn't I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride." (9.134)
If you wanted to be charitable, you could say that Nick realizes he's being drawn into a dishonest lifestyle, and that's what makes him scurry back West. Right after Jordan calls him a "bad driver," he tells her, "I'm thirty … I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor" (9.135). But what is Nick lying about? That he loves her? That he belongs in this world? That Tom and Daisy are living acceptable lives? It's not entirely clear. What is clear is that this crazy summer has jolted Nick back into real life. He's not cut out for a world of moral ambiguity.
But is that because he's got more than his share of the "fundamental decencies" (1.3), as he "snobbishly" says at the beginning of the book? Or is it because he, like Tom and Daisy, is careless, fleeing the mess he's made? Or because he finally realizes that there's no real difference between himself and Gatsby? Look at what he says about returning West:
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. (1.4)
Nick is saying that he doesn't want to deal with the immorality of the high society kids he's been hanging around with. But he excludes Gatsby from that scorn. Why?
Well, maybe Nick and Gatsby aren't all that different. Both of them want access to a world that they weren't born to; both of them came by their wealth in slightly déclassé ways. Sure, Gatsby was a bootlegger—but Nick's family came by their money selling hardware and then invented a fake story about having ducal blood. If there's a difference (okay, besides the fact that bootlegging is illegal), we're not sure what it is.
Is he a morally upright honest narrator, giving us an unflinching look at the consequences of unbridled wealth? Or is he fundamentally untrustworthy, blinded by his admiration of wealth and glamor, and his own failed attempts to access the world of the rich and famous? And has he really learned anything from his experience?
We're not sure about the first question, but we think we might have some clues to the last. Nick exposes Gatsby's obsession with a fantasy. The Daisy he loves no longer exists, and trying to reach five years back in time ends up killing him.
You'd think that this lesson would make Nick wary of continually returning to the past. Instead, what has he done? Written an entire book about it. He may want to return to the West, to the way things were before he went East. Unfortunately for Nick, it looks like he may not be able to go home again.