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Nick Carraway and the Imagery of Disorder

Critic: Peter Lisca


Source: Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, April, 1967, pp.
18-28
Criticism about: F(rancis) Scott (key) Fitzgerald (1896-1940), also known
as: F(rancis) Scott (Key) Fitzgerald, F. Scott (Key) Fitzgerald, Francis
Scott Key Fitzgerald, Francis Scott Fitzgerald

Nationality: American

[In the following excerpt, Lisca reflects on the character of Nick Carraway,
representing order and decorum, and his role as narrator.]

It generally has been noted, of course, that Nick's sentiments [in The
Great Gatsby] are bourgeois, but it is important to establish the full
extent of his commitment to these sentiments, for Nick is a paradigm of
order and decorum almost inviolable. In the short sketch of himself which
he provides before beginning his narrative, he tells us that his family
(remotely related to some Dukes) have been prominent well-to-do people
in the same mid-western city for three generations, and that he graduated
from Yale as did his father before him. He chose the bond business as a
career because everyone he knew was in that business, and in that choice
all his uncles and aunts concurred. He inherits from his father two pieces
of advice which he apparently finds sufficient equipment for the conduct
of life: first, that whenever he feels like criticizing anyone he should
remember that all the people in this world have not had his advantages,
which, he believes, has inclined him to reserve all judgements; and second,
that a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at
birth, which, he believes, has made him tolerant until after a certain
point. So, one summer this thoroughly respectable young man finds himself
in the East living in a commutors' town, taking his dinner usually at the
Yale Club, even though it is the gloomiest event of [his] day, spending
a conscientious hour in the club library studying investmentslearning a
thoroughly respectable business in a thoroughly respectable manner. Everything
is in order. The experiences of that summer, which he is about to relate,
did not change any of this. He begins his narrative by telling us that
when he came back from the East that fall two years ago he felt that he
wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever,
and that he wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses
into the human heart.

As the narrator continues, he seems to take every opportunity to display


his large sense of the fundamental decencies, which resolve themselves
into good manners, good taste, and orderliness. The first incident in the
book, his visit to the Buchanans, reveals much of this. He is obviously
embarrased to find Miss Jordan Baker stretched out full-length on a couch,
having no inclination to assume a more formal position in the presence
of a stranger. When he comes to understand that the person calling on the
telephone is Tom's mistress and that both Jordan and Daisy know this, he
tells us that his instinct was to telephone immediately for the police.
A little later, it seems to him that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush
out of the house child in arms (as in some pre-Ibsonian drama, last scene
but Act II). And as he drives away, he finds himself confused and a little
disgusted. In the next episode Nick accompanies Tom to New York, and his
sense of embarrassment when they stop to pick up Mrs. Wilson (Tom's mistress)
is alleviated only by the fact that Tom defers enough to the sensibilities
of those East Eggers who might be on the train to have her sit discreetly
in another car. During the party at the love nest, Nick is so ill at ease
that he decides time and again to leave, but fails because each time he
becomes entangled in some wild, strident argument which obviously his sense
of the fundamental decencies keeps him from winning. He confesses to having
been drunk that afternoon but adds that was only the second time in his
life and that he hasn't been drunk in the two years since then. Late that
evening, all his inclination toward orderliness have been frustrated, and
now quite drunk himself, he takes a handkerchief from his pocket and going
over to one of the guests asleep in a chair carefully wipes from his cheek
the remains of the spot of dried lather that had worried [him] all the
afternoon. Quite probably, at the end of the novel, if the chalk marks
on Gatsby's steps had been a child's game of tick-tack-toe, instead of
an obscene word, Nick still would have scraped them clean.

It is this same sense of decorum that prevents him from accepting Gatsby's
offer of putting him in the way of making a nice bit of money, because
the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered. And,
although Nick tells us several times about his own honesty, it is not so
much his honesty as his essential belief in order which is shocked by the
information that Wolfsheim had once fixed the World Series. Again, it is
not so much the necessity of describing the other guests as his need to
distinguish his manners from theirs which makes him tell us, twice on the
same page, that he was one of the few who actually had been invited to
Gatsby's party; and he is detailed in his description of his efforts to
find his host in order to thank him. At that same party he is shocked (I
started.) at the indiscretion of Jordan's saying to a girl, You've dyed
your hair since then, and presumably he starts again in the same conversation
when the girl guesses at the price of a dress which Gatsby had bought for
her and then describes it as being too big in the bust. The only people
he seems to approve of at the party are a quiet, dignified group in which,
oddly enough, he finds Jordan, who immediately wishes to leave that company,
saying, Let's get out; this is much too polite for me.

In fact, Nick's relationship with Jordan and other young ladies is a sensitive
point in taking the full dimensions of his sense of order and decorum.
One of the reasons he had come East was to avoid being rumored into marriage.
Between this girl back home and Jordan he has an affair with a girl who
works in the acounting department, but lets it blow quietly away when her
brother begins throwing mean looks in his direction. On the streets of
New York, Nick takes to picking out romantic women from the crowd and imagining
that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one
would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to
their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and
smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness.
Although he claims that Jordan's dishonesty makes no difference to him,
it obviously does, as does her careless driving. When Jordan, on the morning
following the fatal accident to Mrs. Wilson, chides him over the telephone
for not having been nice (i.e. amorous, gallant) to her the previous night,
he replies, How could it have mattered then? This is really the end between
them, as Nick is shocked at her callousness and she unforgiving of the
lapse in his attentions. Yet, his manners compel him to see her personally
about it, because he wanted to leave things in order and not just trust
that obliging and indifferent sea to sweep my refuse away, and their last
conversation returns once more to the analogy of the careless driver. He
feels compelled to clear his conscience by confessing to the reader that
while he had been still half in love with Jordan he had continued signing
his letters to the girl back home, Love, Nick; but hastens to minimize
this infidelity by adding that all he could think of at that time was how,
when that certain girl played tennis, a faint mustache of perspiration
appeared on her upper lip. The significance of this image for Nick is further
clarified when on that hot, humid ride to New York on the train, he notes
that his commutation ticket comes back to him with a dark stain from the
conductor's hand, and he wonders that anyone should care in this heat whose
flushed lips he kissed, whose head made damp the pajama pocket over his
heart! Also, when he recalls the unpleasantness of the party in the Plaza
Hotel, damp underwear and beads of sweat are an important part of it all.
Such details bring to mind J. Alfred Prufrock, who is similarly afflicted
with an exaggerated fastidiousness and respect for order and decorum. The
radical difference between them is that whereas Prufrock accepts and surrenders,
Nick rejects and imposes.

As Nick embodies in extreme the principles of order and decorum, so disorder


and indecorum are embodied in all of the other characters, from the anonymous
people at Gatsby's parties to Gatsby himself. It has been noted often that
Nick lists the names of the people who attended Gatsby's parties on the
empty spaces of a time-table and that the names are amusing: the
Leeches...Maurice
A. Flink...Clarence Endive...the Fishguards...S. B. Whitebait... the Hammerheads...
Catlips...Duckweed...Bull...Belcher, etc. More significantly, this list
of two and a half pages reflects a cultural and linguistic disorder. There
are the Willie Voltaires, Faustina O'Brien, Edgar Beaver, Mrs. Ulysses
Swett, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams. There are other kinds of disorder.
The Stonewall Jackson Abrams are from Georgia; Mr. Ripley Snell is not
quick enough to keep his hand from being run over by an automobile just
two months before he goes to the penetentiary; Mr. Ferret wanders into
the garden because he is cleaned out; the Blackbucks always gather in a
corner and flip up their noses like goats at whosoever came near; Benny
McClenahan arrived always with four girls...never quite the same ones in
physical person, but...so identical one with another that it inevitably
seemed they had been there before. Included also are adulterers, fornicators,
perverts, suicides, and murderers. The last person on the list is Miss
Claudia Hip, who is a kind of grand summary. She comes accompanied by a
man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called
Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.

The public confusion about Jay Gatsby, whose real name is James Gatz,
the wild rumors about his origins, connections, and business (nephew of
the Kaiser, German spy, bootlegger, murderer) pales before the fantastic
disorder, the purposeless splendor, of the truthself-educated admirer of
Benjamin Franklin and Hopalong Cassidy, Lake Superior salmon (!) fisherman,
big-game hunter, bootlegger, jewel collector, idealist, gangster, military
hero, expatriate, right down to the picture of himself in Trinity Quad
with the Earl of Doncaster, the Orderi di Danilo medal from Montenegro,
the phone calls from Chicago and Meyer Wolfsheim.

There are also Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom is one of those young men who
reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards
savors of anticlimax. On her wedding day, Daisy is found lying on her bed
as lovely as the June night in her flowered dressand as drunk as a monkey,
holding in her hand a letter from her former lover. A week after their
honeymoon, Tom wrecks his car on a lonely road and the girl with him, who
breaks her arm, turns out to be a chambermaid at their hotel. The Buchanans
have no particular reason for coming East or living in France for a year;
they simply drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo
and were rich together. The first time that Nick visits the Buchanans,
Daisy asks helplessly, What'll we plan? What do people plan? And the last
time he sees them Daisy asks, What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon...and
the day after that, and the next thirty years? just as if she had been
reading The Wasteland. Nick's ultimate rejections of the Buchanans, like
his rejection of Jordan Baker, is in terms of order and disorder. They
were careless people....they smashed up things ...and let other people
clean up the mess they had made.

Further aspects of order and decorum against which the messiness of other
people's lives is measured are good manners and traditions. Again, the
novel presents us with generalized as well as specific examples. The bad
manners of the equestrian party who stop at Gatsby's house for refreshments,
ask him to join them, and then leave while their host is changing to appropriate
clothing are symptomatic, as are the manners of the people at Gatsby's
parties. On Nick's first visit to the Buchanans, his host brags of his
nice place before Nick can offer any compliment. On hearing the name of
Nick's bond company, Tom remarked decisively that he had never heard of
them, which annoys his guest to the point of making a reply. At this same
visit, Jordan Baker, finally rising from her supine position on the couch,
yawns, and turns to Nick with her first words: `You live in West Egg,'
she remarked contemptously.' Although Nick knows that Gatsby is not being
intentionally rude, he takes it as a breach of good manners that Gatsby
should ask such personal questions as ...look here, old sport, you don't
make much money, do you? or Look here, old sport, what's your opinion of
me anyhow? and then proceed into his autobiography.

In terms of tradition, the contrast between Nick and the other people
in the novel is also pointed. There are the usual generalized examples,
such as the brief histories of the people whose names Nick jots down in
the empty spaces of an old time-table, itself symbolically suggestive here.
There are also isolated little vignettes, such as that of a gray, scrawny
Italian child setting torpedoes in a row along the railroad track. It was
a few days before the Fourth of July.... And obviously the Buchanans have
broken with their traditions in many ways. They do not live in an ancestral
home but, as Tom takes pride in pointing out to Nick, in a mansion which
belonged to Demaine, the oil man.

But it is Gatsby himself who is the most obvious contrast to Nick in this
regard, breaking most completely with his origins and arriving into the
present by a background fantastic and illogical. Like the Buchanans, Gatsby
lives in a mansion that had belonged to someone elsea brewer who, disappointed
that his neighbors would not agree to thatch their cottage roofs with straw
for his feudal pleasure (a symbolic prefiguration of Gatsby's own attempt
to relive the past), went into an immediate decline, and his children sold
his house with the black wreath still on the door. Just as eccentric is
Gatsby's relation to the American past. The SCHEDULE and list of GENERAL
RESOLVES, imitative of Benjamin Franklin, are found by Nick to have been
inscribed on the last fly leaf of Gatsby's childhood copy of Hopalong Cassidy.
Mr. Gatz' tribute to his dead son is that If he'd of lived, he'd of been
a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He'd of helped build up the country.
To these non-sequiturs of personal and national history Gatsby adds the
final eccentricity of trying to break with the traditional view of time
itself when he attempts to take the clock back five years in his relationship
with Daisy. `Can't repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. `Why of course
you can!' Nick describes the scene of this remark as a desolate path of
fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers. Gatsby even tries
to change past reality. You never loved him [Tom], he says to Daisy. On
the last page of the novel, it is to Gatsby's house (eclectic, alien structure)
and the life it has contained that the symbolic vanished trees and fresh,
green breast of the new world gives way.

It is not fortuitous that those organizational strategies in The Great


Gatsby which frequently have been recognized as significant should take
the form of a contrast: between the American Dream or Adamic myth and the
realities of Jazz Age America; between the East and the West; between the
romantic vision of Gatsby and the practical, realistic view of the Buchanans
and the Bakers. Each of these contrasts is valid as it organizes a certain
amount of material. A really close look at the differences between Nick
and the other characters, however, makes clear that standing over all of
these contrasts is the larger contrast between order and disorder in which
these are subsumed.

Source: Peter Lisca, Nick Carraway and the Imagery of Disorder, in Twentieth
Century Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, April, 1967, pp. 18-28.
Source Database: Literature Resource Center

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