"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 […]. (1.2)
Really, Nick? Because this entire book seems like one big judgment. But maybe that's okay, because he's only judging them after the fact. Either way, it sets us up to be particularly attentive to Nick's trustworthiness.
"You see," cried Catherine triumphantly. She lowered her voice again. "It's really his wife that's keeping them apart. She's a Catholic, and they don't believe in divorce." Daisy was not a Catholic, and I was a little shocked at the elaborateness of the lie. (2.98)
It's an elaborate lie, but it probably never even occurred to Tom to tell the truth. He seems to hold one standard for people like Gatsby, and another for himself. It's fine for Tom to lie to get a girl, but not for anyone else.
"Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once."
A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.
"I don't think it's so much that," argued Lucille sceptically; "it's more that he was a German spy during the war."
One of the men nodded in confirmation.
"I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany," he assured us positively.
"Oh, no," said the first girl, "it couldn't be that, because he was in the American army during the war." As our credulity switched back to her she leaned forward with enthusiasm. "You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody's looking at him. I'll bet he killed a man." (3.30-35)
The funny thing about this exchange is that Gatsby doesn't spend too much time weaving elaborate lies. Yeah, he deceives, but not in the same way that someone like Tom does. You get the sense that he doesn't really care if anyone believes him—and that leads to speculation much wilder than anything he's said.
"See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too – didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?" (3.41-49)
Even the books are a lie. They're real, but they've never been read. (See "Gatsby's Books" for an explanation.) At the same time, maybe we can see this as honesty. He's not actually trying to pretend that he's read them; if he were, he'd have cut the pages—you know, the way you crack the binding to make it look like you've read your copy of The Great Gatsby? (We kid, we kid.) In the end, Gatsby actually comes across as pretty honest.
It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply – I was casually sorry, and then I forgot. It was on that same house party that we had a curious conversation about driving a car. It started because she passed so close to some workmen that our fender flicked a button on one man's coat. (3.159)
Whew. Ladies, breathe a sigh of relief. There are different standards: you don't have to be as honest as men. Of course, you also don't get to hold the same jobs or make the same wages or have the same freedoms, so, you know. It's a trade-off.
Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. (3.170)
Well, don't strain anything trying to pat yourself on the back, Nick.
I suppose he'd had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end. (6.6-7)
"Jay Gatsby" may be a deception in the eyes of the world, but to James Gatz, "Gatsby" is the truth about him. Is it really a lie if you believe it with all your heart?
"I found out what your 'drug-stores' were." He turned to us and spoke rapidly. "He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That's one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn't far wrong."
"What about it?" said Gatsby politely. "I guess your friend Walter Chase wasn't too proud to come in on it." (7.284-85)
When he's caught lying, Gatsby doesn't care. As he sees it, everyone is engaged in some kind of deception, including Tom's friends. But Tom has different standards—double standards.
He broke off defiantly. "What if I did tell him? That fellow had it coming to him. He threw dust into your eyes just like he did in Daisy's, but he was a tough one. He ran over Myrtle like you'd run over a dog and never even stopped his car."
There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact that it wasn't true. (9.142-43)
Sometimes honesty isn't the best policy. Gatsby's dead, and Nick has to protect Daisy; he has to lie to keep her safe. Busted! Guess Nick isn't so honest after all. Or, is this actually the more honest and moral choice? Tricky.
"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."
"I'm thirty," I said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor." (9.134-35)
(1) What is Nick lying to himself about? Loving Jordan? Having honest intentions toward her? Or something else? (2) Why do you have to stop lying to yourself at 25? And, if 30 is the new 20, does that mean we get an extra decade of deceit?