How Does Tom's Attitude to Mrs. Wilson Affect Nick in "The Great Gatsby"?
Nick Carraway, a narrator seemingly born to be disappointed, gets a revelation about the West Eggers he initially reveres as he sees Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson's interactions in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." The attitude of Daisy Buchanan's brutal husband towards his common-born mistress moves Nick from a state of admiration to disillusion, uncertainty and passive acceptance of the novel's final events.
Nick's Mental Block
Nick's initial character change occurs in Chapter Two when Myrtle Wilson exchanges what he sees as "intense vitality" for "hauteur": she leaves her home to party with her lover, and Tom breaks her nose for repeating Daisy's name. Fitzgerald plays an unusual narrative trick when Nick describes the chaos: "bloody towels upon the bathroom floor ... a long broken wail of pain." Nick is far from the scene, talking to McKee over portfolios, and the subject already closed. W.H. Frohack notes that Nick is mentally blocking the violence against Daisy, and Nick's narration represents Fitzgerald's reaction to brutality in his own circle.
Adoration and Revulsion
Nick's subsequent responses to the novel's events arise from this encounter; from this moment on, Nick feels only revulsion for Tom. He sees that Tom's attitude toward Mrs. Wilson, indeed to all women, is to consider them as property and chattel. Nick's reaction to this is two-fold: he does nothing to help the West Eggers reconcile or solve problems, small as his help might be. He also increases his admiration for Gatsby who is deeply in love with Daisy: "a son of God ... about His Father's business." Nick adores the romanticism Gatsby represents, but he despises Tom's lack of commitment.
Nick's actions now reflect what Douglas Taylor calls his "bifocal," or two-sided, point of view: he encourages Gatsby's reconciliation with Daisy while looking askance not only at Tom and Myrtle's seamy affair but also the party-goers they associate with, as if Tom is responsible for the social ills of West Egg. He retreats from active involvement more and more: when Mrs. Wilson is killed in a hit-and-run, Nick refuses to comfort Tom, saying "I wanted to be alone," and he allows Gatsby to take the blame. Nick knows Daisy is the driver, but says nothing, retreating passively.
Nick as Outsider
Nick is seen as the novel's only real survivor, because his passive nature eventually puts him completely outside the action. In the book's final chapter, Nick, who did nothing to prevent Gatsby's murder, becomes uselessly frantic over the details of his friend's burial, and even forces himself to shake hands with Tom. "Poor son of a bitch," says an observer of Gatsby's service; he could also be speaking of the rudderless narrator.
- The Great Gatsby; F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Readings on F. Scott Fitzgerald: Carraway and Fitzgerald Share Moral Immaturity; W.H. Frohock
- Readings on Great Gatsby: Using a Dramatic Narrator to Present a Bifocal View; Douglas Taylor
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.