The character traits of Briony and Nick prove detrimental to the reliability of the narration at various points in the novel. At the beginning of the Great Gatsby, Nick’s father reminds him that ‘all of the people in the world haven’t had the same advantages that you have had’. Nick’s ‘Middle West’ up bringing proves advantageous to him socially and morally. For example, Nick suggests he is one of the most ‘honest people he has ever known’. In contrast, Fitzgerald portrays Gatsby as socially inferior fitting the epithet of an outsider- ‘his parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people’. Consequently, Nick is sympathetic to Gatsby and his past due to the contrast of advantages between himself and Gatsby. Therefore, Nick feels inclined to convey Gatsby as a character who compensates his lack of social capital with his moral high ground-‘They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together’. Fitzgerald presents Nick to be a unreliable narrator because the reader is made aware of Gatsby’s dark bootlegging career which juxtaposes Nick’s perception of Gatsby’s ‘clean image’-‘He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter.’ Nick evidently condemns Gatsby’s wrongdoing, ‘Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn’, but is wilfully ignorant to the fact Gatsby’s behaviour is morally and legally wrong. He believes Gatsby is a man of profound significance but has the substance of a criminal nobody. His distorted view of Gatsby rejects the truth and therefore is deemed as a unreliable account of his character.
Furthermore, Nick initially states he is a man that is ‘inclined to reserve all judgments’ which is suggestive of an unbiased view of events and other characters. However, Fitzgerald uses contrasting physical descriptions of Gatsby and Tom Buchanan to present Nick as a narrator that has a biased view of certain characters. Fitzgerald juxtaposes Nick’s honesty with his favour of Gatsby which is suggestive of his unreliability. For example, when the reader first discovers Tom’s character, Nick describes him in a few short sentences that portray his character as arrogant and aggressive- ‘A rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of leaning aggressively forward’. In comparison, Nick idolises Gatsby- ‘It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life’. Nick’s initial perceptions of both characters are significant in the narration of the novel because Nick will use the same judgments for the entirety of the novel.
Similarily, Nick has the ability to control the narrative. The reader is aware of his presence as a narrator as Fitzgerald adopts a first person perspective in order to create a sense of ambiguity. The consciousness Nick narrates from filters the events of the story reflecting the modernist literature in the era in which Fitzgerald writes. The mediation between reality and fantasy creates a sense of unreliability in Nick’s narration. For example, Nick uses assorted perspectives to portray a enigmatic picture of Gastby- ‘Well they say he’s a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s.’, ‘And you found he was an Oxford man.’, ‘Someone told me they thought he killed a man once.’ However, as the novel progresses, Nick interrupts the narrative to expose Gatsby’s true past- ‘James Gatz, that was really, or at least legally his name’. Nick’s abilities as a novelist causes him to withhold information in order to create a narrative construct. Therefore, the reader may find his reliability questionable because Nick may have had withheld the truth about Gastby’s past to fit his own ambiguous interpretation of him-‘the unreality of reality’.
In the Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald manipulates the dialogue by presenting a illusory image of Gatsby’s speech. Nick’s account of Gatsby’s past presents Gastby as a man with heightened, imaginative language-‘The quiet lights in the houses were burning out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars’ and ‘He knew that when he kissed the girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable death, his mind would never again romp like the mind of God’. Contextually, in 1920’s America men of Gatsby’s social standing would not have been educated to a level in which he could communicate in that way. However, Nick is a novelist and in order to create drama within his account of the event he possibly may have used such language to serve this purpose. Nick’s portrayal of Gatsby is romanticised due to his impressive language and therefore is deemed as unreliable.
Furthermore, Nick’s account of the party and Tom and Myrtles apartment may be considered as an unreliable one because of Nick’s intoxication. Nick states ‘I have been drunk just twice in my life, and the second time was that afternoon’. Therefore, the reader may be led to believe Nick’s account may have been distorted in terms of the dialogue or order of events of the evening which is suggestive of his unreliability as a narrator-‘the whiskey distorted things.’ For example, ‘everything that happened has a dim, hazy cast over it’. Although Nick may be honest about his perception of events, ‘I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known, his detailing may not be wholly accurate. When reflecting on the narration of the novel, ‘reading on what I have read so far’ also reiterates Nick is writing from memory which suggests his account may be unreliable. To the same extent, Briony also writes from memory and reveals she made ‘drafts’ which suggests both narrators can be considered as unreliable.
Fitzgerald poses a disjointed narrative through Nick’s inconsistent perspectives. Nick contributes to the unreliability of the modernist narrative through the use of foreshadowing and prolepsis. For example, ‘No- Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams.’ The ‘foul dust’ makes reference to the corrupt affluence of the 20’s in which Gatsby’s American dream was ruined by morally destructive characters such as Daisy-‘they were careless people’. Fitzgerald’s use of prolepsis causes Nick transitions from a third person narrator to a first person narrator-‘the track curved and now it was going away from the sun’. Therefore, Nick’s unreliability is evident in the juxtaposing perspectives in which he narrates.
In the events after Gatsby’s death, Nick allows his emotion and grief to effect the reliability of narration. Nick isolates himself from the ‘rotten crowd’ by suggesting he was the only one that cared for Gatsby-‘I begin to have a feeling of defiance, of scornful solidarity between Gatsby and me against them all.’ The noun ‘defiance’ is suggestive of Nick’s selfishness as he utilises his death to suggest he was the only loyal friend to Gatsby. However, the reader is aware that his father, Henry and his mailmen, attended the funeral. Therefore, Nick may be considered as a unreliable narrator by placing himself at the centre of the narrative and not writing about different perspectives.
Two years post Gatsby’s death, through Nick’s analysis of Gatsby’s dreams, his unreliability is profoundly evident.