An Analysis of the Narrator and the Narrative Techniques Used In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ [69%, 2004]


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When submitted, this first year English BA (Hons.) degree essay did not contain endnotes/footnotes: this omission has been preserved here to give an accurate picture of the level of complexity required for a 69% grading in year one of a three-year English degree. The correct employment of extensive referencing is demonstrated elsewhere in this website, notably in the works entitled ‘Writing Selves: Understanding Autobiography ~ 2,500-3,000 Word Essay [70%, 2007]’ (43 endnotes, 19 bibliographic sources) and ‘Writing Selves: Understanding Autobiography ~ Journal [65%, 2007]’ (103 endnotes, 19 bibliographic sources).

An Analysis of the Narrator and the Narrative Techniques Used In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

{Essay CONTENTS: Introduction; Carraway’s use of a technological simile; Symbolic importance of Carraway’s car, Nick as representative of ‘leisure class’; Carraway’s elusiveness, consequences of technological drive; Carraway’s superficial nature; Daisy-Gatsby relationship as emblem for Fitzgerald’s statement about materialism; A further example of Carraway’s superficiality; Carraway’s assessment of own – and others’ – honesty & Fitzgerald’s statement on limited possible pathways to success; Carraway as vehicle highlighting ‘leisure class’-‘working class’ gap & changing business models; Fitzgerald’s motivation for writing this novel; Conclusion.}

In this essay I aim to demonstrate that F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Nick Carraway – the first-person narrator in his novel – and a variety of narrative techniques to put forward a plethora of social comments to a literate audience. Through close analysis of Carraway and his narration of the events that unfolded before him, it should become clear that Fitzgerald used the novel to articulate his firm ideas about American society in the 1920s – beliefs that include a critique of notions such as: materialism; class distinctions; the revolutionizing of the old guard’s methods; American society excess; and, most importantly, the concept of the various ways in which ‘reality’ is produced.[^]

As early as the first page of the novel, Carraway uses a technological simile to describe Gatsby’s ability to look forward to life with great optimism: “…some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” In comparing Gatsby’s acute awareness of life’s pleasures to a seismograph, Fitzgerald uses Carraway to introduce us to a world of unrelenting modernity and innovation.[^]

The theme of technology is further developed through Carraway’s relation of his car as an “old Dodge”; in Nick’s world a man can own a car and still be dissatisfied by its age, an indication that technology is fast progressing and members of this society strive to keep up with the latest trends. A Dodge is an apt car for Carraway to own, as Fitzgerald portrays him as an elusive character (dodge-ful) with an alert consciousness; the reasons for Nick’s enjoyment of New York, “I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines give to the restless eye”, is representative of the leisure society he inhabits.[^]

Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Nick as an elusive character continues throughout the novel. Although Carraway gives detailed descriptions of the other protagonists’ occupations, he is – once again – elusive when it comes to giving information about his own line of work. He touches only vaguely on the subject when he tells us, “…so I decided to go East and learn the bond business.” The idea of elusiveness continues with the uncertain nature of telephone conversation, where one is often left to fill in the gaps of the situation or understanding of the other party. Fitzgerald’s belief that the ceaseless technological drive can have both positive and negative consequences can be seen when Nick learns about Gatsby’s criminality via a confidential telephone call from Chicago meant for Gatsby (by this time deceased): “Young Parke’s in trouble… What d’you know about that, hey? You never can tell in these hick towns-” . Gatsby has been using the technology of the age to orchestrate his illegal actions (both through driving his car and making his phone calls).[^]

Linked into the theme of social commentary, Nick Carraway highlights the utter materialism that pervades the 1920s America perceived by Fitzgerald. Although Carraway believes himself to be an objective individual, somebody who tends to “reserve all judgements”, it appears that he is equally as superficial as the next person. A good illustration of this comes when he is listening to Jay Gatsby relate an important part of his life story; a quick, superficial simile is used by Nick to describe his astonishment at Gatsby’s tale: “my incredulity was…like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.” Carraway’s true, judgemental nature can be seen later in that passage when he cannot believe Gatsby’s assertion that he was a highly decorated war veteran: “to my astonishment, the thing [a ‘decoration’ bestowed upon him from Montegro] had an authentic look.”[^]

Fitzgerald’s most obvious statement about materialism comes through Carraway’s narration of Gatsby and Daisy’s romance. In this consumerist society, Daisy’s love for Gatsby is inextricably linked to his wealth – indeed, Gatsby’s major romantic breakthrough with Daisy comes when she views the multitude of England-ordered shirts in his clothing collection. Only when Daisy realizes that Gatsby has a suitably attractive amount of influence and money does she reveal her true feelings: “they’re such beautiful shirts…It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such- such beautiful shirts before.”[^]

Nick’s edgy superficiality is encapsulated in his snapshot description of the car that passed them as they “crossed Blackwell’s Island”: “a limousine…driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl.” Nick judgementally takes on board all this information in an instant, after egotistically suggesting that the sight of “Gatsby’s splendid car” would have provided some comfort for the grievers in the carriages that passed them.[^]

Carraway is not as honest as he believes, but he looks down upon those who get caught in less-than-honest acts. After meeting Jordan Baker and remembering the incident from which he was familiar with her name, he denounces her as “incurably dishonest.” Nick’s self-contradictory nature is highlighted by his moralistic stance on the subject of Jordan’s alleged golf cheating. Dismissing this incident with the sweeping, generalized judgement, “dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply-” , Carraway proceeds to make the self-proclamation: “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” This is an inaccurate statement when one contrasts his earlier self-proclaimed non-judgemental, objective personal character statement with his throwaway comment about never blaming dishonest women – overwhelming evidence that Carraway has judged women to be untrustworthy. Cheating is one of the key ideas that Fitzgerald conveys to his audience: one must be a competitive sporting individual, a stockbroker, or a cheat to succeed in 1920s US society.[^]

Nick is used by Fitzgerald to highlight the gaps between his class – the ‘leisure’ class – and the classes beneath him (financially, at least). For Carraway, a member of the elite after having graduated from Yale with a strong academic background, life is free from money worries and this allows him to take a snobbish position within society. The essential commuter, Nick’s daily journey to work takes him through the aptly-named Valley of Ashes where his new leisure class capitalist business ideas are starkly contrasted with the old methods of production, exemplified by Wilson’s run-down garage. “The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only visible car was the dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.” Thus, Fitzgerald uses Nick to illuminate the changing power from the old-school businesses to the new.[^]

Fitzgerald’s major motivation for writing this novel was to expose the ‘production’ of American society: the increased capitalist industrialization; stockbrokers’ aims to ‘produce’ money from abstract financial dealings (portrayed through Carraway); and the ability of individuals (demonstrated by Nick’s friend, Gatsby) to ‘produce’ a magical self and existence from an orthodox upbringing. By using Nick as the first person narrator, as he employs language as self-indulgent and ‘gorgeous’ as American society itself, Fitzgerald successfully forwarded his ‘production’ method to his readership.[^]

In conclusion, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Nick Carraway and a variety of narrative techniques in The Great Gatsby to articulate many acutely-observed social comments about 1920s American society. His use of a leisure class narrator facilitates his crucial messages concerning: materialism; class distinctions; the revolutionizing of the old guard’s methods; American society excess; and, most importantly, the concept of the various ways in which ‘reality’ is produced.[^]


Fitzgerald, F. S. The Great Gatsby. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001

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Forty-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, learning programming languages, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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