Point Of View In The Great Gatsby



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Daniel Dwyre

Mr. Pape

Eng OA1

Monday, December 14, 1998

How do we perceive a novel? What influences our impressions of certain

characters? Many literary critics would agree that choosing the correct point of view is

critical in developing the plot and character of any piece of writing. Quite simply, point

of view can be described as the role of the narrator in the story; is the person telling the

story as a detached observer, or is he or she actually involved in the events? A narrator

who is not involved in the plot may be placed into one of two categories, the first being

third person, while the second category is known as omniscient narration. Third person

narration deals with events in an objective manner, with no comment on motives. This

method has been compared to the ?fly on the wall? who sees events but cannot

comprehend there significance. The second manner of detached narration, omniscient, is

able to reveal the thoughts and motivations of characters, whether it be one, or many. As

mentioned before, there is another type of narrator, one who eventually participates in the

novel?s events. This is known as narration in the first person. Easily recognized by the

use of the word ?I?, it involves interpretation of the novel?s events through an active

participant, the narrator. This brings a definition of types of point of view, but why does a

writer choose a specific viewpoint? An answer may be found by examining the strengths

of each option. Narration in third person is useful because it brings objectivity to a novel.

The reader?s impression of characters is not clouded by the narrator?s perception.

Unfortunately, the reader is never given direct insight into the thoughts or motivations of

any of the characters. This leaves the reader to find his own theme in the novel. If the

author desires a stronger direction, omniscient narration overcomes this hurdle by

obviously showing intentions and motives. However, this power to manipulate characters

often tempts the author to editorialize; many modern critics have argued ?that the author

should be less in evidence and more willing to let us interpret the story ourselves.?

(Burnet, 88) This leaves us with first-person narrative, which is easiest for the author to

write, yet as in essay writing, use of the word ?I? tends to allow the reader to dismiss the

character?s feelings. It allows for total insight into the character, yet this reliance on one

individual for information will likely result in a biased view. Therefore, when one

examines point of view, the writer must be aware of what he wants his story to

accomplish, and how he would like his character to be perceived. The reader is then

responsible for examining the effect of the chosen view and its effect on the novel?s


Point of view is an element which has evolved only recently, for it is only with the

advent oft the modern novel that its use has been examined. It is this base which F. Scott

Fitzgerald built upon in his American classic The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald uses

first-person narrative in an attempt to illustrate the character flaws which many individuals

refuse to acknowledge within themselves. The narrator, Nick Carraway, attempts to

portray himself as an individual of definite opinion, a calm observer, and a prisoner to the

truth. However, the course of the novel eventually proves that Carraway?s portrayal

actually conflicts with his actions, eventually causing him to change. Since Nick

Carraway is the only character in the novel who seems to undergo a moral change, he is a

logical choice for narrator.

The presence of irony is predominant throughout The Great Gatsby. This irony is

even present in the title, for it could be argued that Jay Gatsby is less than great. Irony,

which is the difference between what is stated or implied and what is actually true is also

apparent in Nick Carraway. Quite often Nick will make a statement, only to later

contradict himself. Very early in the novel, Nick describes Gatsby by saying ?there was

something gorgeous about him.? (2) However, he states in the same paragraph that

Gatsby….represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.? Nick has similar

conflicting feelings towards the Buchanans, for he ?is repulsed by the Buchanans droit de

seigneur and their moral carelessness, he is attracted by their nobility and their heightened

life.? (Lehan, 109) When Tom states that whites are deservedly the dominant race, Nick

says that ?there was something pathetic in his concentration? (14) Despite this disdainful

view, Nick sees that Daisy exudes ?a whispered ?Listen?, a promise that she had done gay,

exciting things just a while since and that there were gay and exciting things hovering in

the next hour.? (9-10) Nick is mesmerized by this, and says about Tom, almost wishfully,

while we were never intimate I always had the impression that he approved of me.? (7)

Why would Fitzgerald choose such an inconsistent character for narrator? Key to

remember when analyzing these statements is that they all occur very early in the novel.

Soon after, Carraway undergoes a change. Nick begins to form solid opinions about the

people around him until finally:

They?re a rotten crowd,? I shouted across the lawn. ?You?re worth the

whole damn bunch put together.? I?ve always been glad I said that. It was

the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from

beginning to end. (154)

Nick seems to have become sure of his dislike for Gatsby; his ?compliment? is only a

disguised barb. Nick feels that it is not admirable to be equal to a ?rotten bunch.? The

emotions of Nick Carraway are particularly important in this passage; Nick?s character

would not have been revealed without his thoughts about the comment to Gatsby. These

thoughts come from the first-person point of view. A change also occurs in Nick?s

feelings towards the Buchanans:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and

creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast

carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other

people clean up the mess they had made….? (180-81)

It seems that Nick has passed a moral judgment on Gatsby and the Buchanans, completing

the transformation from fence-sitter to resolute idealist. Fitzgerald would have had

trouble expressing this change in Nick had the story been told from any other point of


Transformation occurs again in the way that Nick portrays himself as the reserved

observer. In his introduction to the novel, Nick states, ?I?m inclined to reserve all

judgments.? (1) Nick seems to accomplish this, for he relates events without emotion for

most of the first part of the novel,

Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchannan broke [Myrtle?s] nose

with his open hand. Then there were bloody towels upon the floor, and

women?s voices scolding, and high over the confusion a long broken wail

of pain….Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking

my hat from the chandelier, I followed. (37-38)

Nick does not comment on the situation either during the event nor during the telling of it.

Instead, he chooses to remove himself by leaving. Once again, however, Nick undergoes

a change as the plot progresses. His comment to Gatsby, ?I wouldn?t ask too much of

her….you can?t repeat the past.? (111) indicates his newly found willingness to supply his

opinion. More remarkable however, is the narrative where Nick is once again obviously

giving his opinion at the novel?s conclusion, ?Gatsby believed in the green light, the

orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that?s no matter

– tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms father….And one fine morning -?

(182) Note the use of ?we.? Not only has Nick allowed himself to form opinions on

others, he has also learned that he should be included within that scrutiny. Nick has

discovered that the process of forming and acting upon ideals is part of the journey of life.

This journey of transformation continues in another of Carraway?s character; it

seems that Nick is not quite as honest as he suggests. For instance, ?Everyone 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.? (60) Yet, when he breaks up with Jordan, she tells him,

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. (179)

Jordan is expressing her dissatisfaction with Nick because she trusted him, while he

encouraged their relationship despite Nick having only physical desire for her. This sparks

realization in Nick, who for the first time admits that he is responsible for his actions; he

begins to reevaluate his lies to others and his lies to himself. ??I?m thirty? [he] said. ?I?m

five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.?? Nick has stopped lying to himself

and has learned that his aging has brought on new consequences, for ?Youth – with its

spirit of adventure and hope of achievement can encourage the vision; but a day comes

when one has to be objective and see himself as he is rather than as he could be or would

like to be.? (Lehan, 111) Once again, Fitzgerald has given us another change in Nick

Carraway which is apparent only because of the chosen point of view.

Nick Carraway, like the other main characters of The Great Gatsby, is a immoral,

undesirable individual for the first part of the novel. However, he is unlike the others

because he is the only one we see change. Nick sees that there is a ?horror in every

consuming vision.? (Eble, 95) The following change is a process of acknowledging and

amending his character flaws, namely the contradictory, unopinionated and misleading

aspects of his nature. Fitzgerald realized that the first person point of view had to be from

Nick?s perspective because only then would the reader be able to see the changes in

Carraway. As a result, The Great Gatsby serves as an epic story in American literature

but also as a pioneering comment on the snobbish ways of American upper class society.


Anderson, Robert and Ronald Eckard. ?Point of View,? Lexicon of Literary Terms,

103-104. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1977.

Barnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, and William Burto. ?Point of View,? A Dictionary of

Literary, Dramatic, and Cinematic Terms, 87-88. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown

and Company, 1971.

Eble, Kenneth. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1963.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: MacMillian Publishing Company,


Lehan, Richard D. F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fitction. Carbondale, Illinois:

Southern University Press, 1966.

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