Yet to call Nick unreliable is perhaps to look for the wrong kind of truth.
The book is honest not as an objective account of Jay Gatsby—Fitzgerald came 50 years too late to lie to himself and call it realism—but as an account of Nick’s feelings.
It is the story he needs it to be, and that is inherently distorting.
Yet we are all unreliable narrators of own lives, so we cannot accuse him of some gross narrative crime.
Nick Carraway is a textbook unreliable narrator, and when you read his story for class you learn to go, “Oh but wait look it’s not like that, it’s like this, and look this isn’t about the American Dream at all, and look he’s a coward and a self-deluding narcissist!
” and you get an A on your paper and you think that Nick will never try to play you again.Nick went to Yale, served in the War, comes from a good family, and has a good profession, but all these markings of “good breeding” have not stopped him from feeling “both within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled” by the East.That Gatsby, the center of enchantment, should die living out Nick’s dream must be disturbing and resonant—almost creepy. He is relatable, sympathetic, and has what we think we want; yet he has been destroyed by the very system that made him and that we made.When two girls recognize Jordan at a party (the honor is not mutual), Jordan responds with what Nick thinks is tact, but which is in fact sheer enigma: ‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started, but the girls had casually moved on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.I have no idea why she would say such a thing to the moon, and neither does Nick, but we can feel him trying to loosen up, trying to take this world on its own worthless terms.After a successful campaign to manipulate his neighbor (our Nick) into setting up an ambush, Gatsby convinces Daisy to throw her life away, neglect her own feelings (that she did once love Tom), and set off with him.But all Gatsby’s traps and trappings aren’t enough and Daisy crumbles at the confrontation with her husband. Nick himself confesses that, after a month of friendship, he had “found, to [his] disappointment, that [Gatsby] had little to say.” The friendship is built principally on Nick’s fantasies: for example, Gatsby’s smile.And the American Dream bit is best distilled from the Manifest Destiny furor Nick works himself into on the last page, comparing Gatsby to the Dutch settlers, saying, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Gatsby explicitly has no such tragic notion of the future and, far from feeling he has “lost the old, warm world,” he is still hot on Daisy’s trail when he is shot, still scheming to “repeat the past” because he’s still unaware she has chosen her life with Tom.The reality is that Gatsby is not a tragic dreamer but rather the kind of entitled, status-obsessed crook you used to glower at from Zuccotti Park.They are all reduced to their status and their function because Nick, in his effort to win acceptance into this world, has done the same to himself: suppressed his feelings and his humanity, tried to acquire the right signifiers—the girlfriend, the job, the parties.Everything to match Gatsby’s medal from Montenegro and mansion and picture from Oxford.