A small note before we start:
This post will probably make some people angry.
If you are one of those people, you are responsible for your decision to keep reading. You are also responsible for any comments you choose to leave at the end. I welcome civil discourse and debate–the key word being CIVIL–but hateful or bigoted statements will not be tolerated. You don’t have to agree with me that The Great Gatsby is gay, but if you tell me “being gay is a sin,” your comment will be deleted.
I would also like to issue a trigger warning to my younger or more sensitive readers. Although I promise to keep things PG-13, this post will include mentions of sex, nudity, and historical homophobia. Proceed with caution.
*dusts off hands* There, that should do it! Onwards, my lads! Let’s have a rousing discussion about one of the greatest American novels ever written!
With controversial pieces like these, I find it’s best to state my thesis right away, so we all know where we stand. No, I don’t think Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby are gay lovers. That’s not what I mean when I call The Great Gatsby “kind of gay.” Although it would be nice if Nick and Gatsby could end up together in some kind of happily-ever-after AU, in the original novel, Gatsby is pretty obviously straight, being Consumed With Burning Passion For a Woman and all that jazz.
He’s also prematurely dead, but nobody’s perfect.
My reading of the novel can be summed up thus. Nick is in love with Gatsby, but Gatsby is not in love with Nick … and this fact is just as important to the story as the fact that Gatsby is in love with Daisy, but Daisy is not in love with Gatsby.
In other words: Gatsby may be straight, but you’ll never convince me the same is true of Nick.
Nick is queer.
If I may quote the immortal Stiles Stilinski from Teen Wolf, Nick “swings for the other team, but he still plays ball.”
Far from being a trifling bit of gossip we can simply gloss over, I would argue Nick’s sexuality–his queerness–cuts to the heart of what The Great Gatsby is about. So let’s break it down.
“But Katie,” you say, “how can Nick Carraway be queer, when he never talks about being queer?”
Well, it’s true Nick never comes out and says he’s queer. On the other hand … Nick never comes out and tells us he’s straight. He never explicitly discusses his sexual or romantic orientation. Nick engages in some behaviors which indicate he’s interested in women, and other behaviors which indicate he’s interested in men (all of which we WILL analyze in detail, DON’T WORRY). It’s up to us, the readers, to parse Nick’s behavior and decide for ourselves where we think his true interest lies. By the way, Bisexual!Nick is incredibly valid, if that’s the side you land on. I personally think he’s mostly into guys and uses women as a smokescreen/camouflage, but there’s no reason he can’t have a taste for both.
Now, a note on historical context: The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, in an era when homosexuality was both criminalized and pathologized in the United States and the wider Western culture. Although underground queer communities very much existed, and literary figures of the time were very much aware of queer identities and queer relationships, few mainstream writers dared to include openly gay characters in their books. Oscar Wilde risked it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and was promptly put on trial for sodomy, with his novel used as criminal evidence against him. This hostile environment led to the development of queer coding and queer subtext, a safe, secretive way for authors (and before very long, movie and television directors) to hint at “forbidden desires” in their work. To subtly explore characters and relationships which broke the heteropatriarchal boundaries of gender and sexuality.
So what makes me think Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby is queer-coded? I’m glad you asked.
First, and most broadly, there’s the odd sense that something is “missing” from our picture of Nick as we read the novel. Fitzgerald makes Nick his first-person narrator, filtering the story through Nick’s subjective observations. Which is an odd choice, since Nick plays a very small part in the affairs of The Great Gatsby. His only concrete contributions to the plot are a) helping Gatsby arrange an afternoon tea with Daisy (which Gatsby surely could’ve managed without him), and b) organizing and attending Gatsby’s funeral, once it becomes clear no one else cares enough to mourn the man. In all other matters, Nick is a passive observer who does nothing to shape events. This forces the reader to ask, why is Nick here? If the story is really about Gatsby, about Gatsby’s meteoric rise and fall (with which Nick is only slightly involved), wouldn’t it make more sense to let GATSBY be the narrator? Or even to call up one of those handy-dandy omniscient narrators of whom early-20th-century authors were so fond? I ask again, why Nick? Why this quiet, mild-mannered, [apparently] colorless man with little to say and less to do?
The commonly accepted answer is that Fitzgerald needed an “impartial observer,” and Nick’s bystander status makes him impartial. Does it, though? Would an “impartial observer” anoint his hero with the title “the Great Gatsby?” Would he take such pains to assure us on Page One, before we meet any of these characters, that “Gatsby turned out all right in the end”? (And by the way, “turned out all right in the end” is a strange way to spell “drowned in his own swimming pool after being shot by a man whose wife’s homicide he directly aided and abetted.”)
No, Nick made up his mind about Gatsby a long time ago. Whatever else he may be, Nick is not impartial.
To circle back to my original point: If you only look at Nick’s actions, there’s something “missing” from his character; a sense that he should be far more important to the story than he really is, to warrant being the narrator. But when you add Nick’s feelings to the equation, things begin to balance out. Nick is essential, not because of what he does, but how he feels … specifically, how he feels about Gatsby.
Remember that, because we’ll come back to it later. The key to understanding Nick Carraway is understanding how he feels about Jay Gatsby.
I’ve already stated my own interpretation–Nick is, in fact, in love with Gatsby. But I can’t argue that Nick could have fallen for Gatsby, without first establishing that Nick is romantically and sexually drawn to men. Which requires us to move from the general to the specific, and examine a scene where F. Scott Fitzgerald does just that–the notorious “Mr. McKee scene” that closes Chapter Two.
The Great Gatsby is a little unusual in that we don’t meet our title character until a third of the way through the book. There are nine chapters, and Gatsby doesn’t appear until Chapter Three. The first two chapters show Nick easing into his new life on Long Island and rekindling his connection with his distant cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom.
Tom is having an affair with a woman named Myrtle Wilson, and for some ungodly reason, insists on introducing Nick to her. Tom drags a reluctant Nick to New York City for a party with Myrtle, her sister Catherine, and some friends of theirs, Mr. and Mrs. McKee. This party lasts all day and far into the night, with quite a bit of alcohol involved. But it’s what happens after the party that intrigues me most. Nick and Mr. McKee go home to the McKees’ apartment together.
I’ve said Nick was reluctant to attend this party, and he was, at first. But he’s not reluctant to spend time with Mr. McKee. He actively chooses to follow the man to the elevator, accompany him to his apartment, and go inside. At this point, Nick–who has remained a lucid and thorough narrator for the whole evening, despite being drunk–becomes EXTREMELY vague about what happened behind those closed doors. For the first and only time in the novel, Fitzgerald uses ellipses points for an abrupt time jump. He drops a few suggestive hints before veering away again.
Here’s the basic gist of the information we do get: There’s a bedroom, a bed, and some nudity.
Since I promised I would keep things PG-13, I’m not going to further analyze the language and symbolism used here to explain why many readers see this as a thinly veiled sexual encounter. Here’s an excellent article, if you’re curious. Here’s a very good video essay which starts talking about the McKee affair around 19:14. For now, I will content myself with saying this:
Inserting a literal bedroom scene at the end of a chapter about illicit sexual affairs, in a book about illicit sexual affairs, is not the author’s way of suggesting these characters merely engaged in Platonic Bro Shenanigans.
Although, to be fair, some fans of the book do interpret it that way. They argue Fitzgerald only intended the McKee scene as a generic morality tale against alcohol abuse and intoxicated behavior. “Don’t get drunk, kids, or you’ll do things you’ll regret!” But this interpretation begs the question … what “things?” Nick hasn’t told us anything about his night with Mr. McKee which he explicitly regrets. Unless we take the details of the scene to their logical conclusion–and then Fitzgerald’s message becomes clear. “Don’t get drunk, kids, or you’ll do things which will make it harder to convince yourself and other people that you’re straight.”
Which, I think, is exactly the dilemma in which Nick finds himself: queer, and struggling increasingly to hide.
The purpose of the McKee scene is to establish that Nick Carraway is secretly attracted to men, and will act on this attraction when his inhibitions are sufficiently lowered. Mr. McKee himself disappears immediately from the narrative and never turns up again. That’s okay, because he’s done his work–and because he’s about to be replaced in the very next chapter with the man who will occupy Nick’s romantic imagination for the rest of the book. I refer, of course, to Mr. Jay Gatsby.
What’s that you say? You don’t like my use of the word “romantic”? You still don’t think Nick and Gatsby’s relationship is anything but bros being bros? Well, let’s take a look at their first meeting.
He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. 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. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
Precisely at that point it vanished–and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty …The Great Gatsby, Chapter Three
Even without the context of the McKee affair, I think it’s telling how Nick is instantly swept up by the allure of this rich, dashing gentleman. I mean, you can almost hear “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift playing in the background. “Nice to meet you, where you been? I could show you incredible things …” I also think it’s telling that the 2013 Baz Luhrmann movie chose to present the moment where Gatsby first smiles at Nick as a slow-motion, fireworks-infused, swelling-orchestra, voiceover-narration extravaganza.
(If this reminds you of the famous “fireworks scene” in Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief where Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are kissing and the fireworks in the background are a clear hint that they’re about to have sex, then You’re Right and You Should Say It.)
But we need to put a pin in Nick’s feelings towards Gatsby for a minute, and talk instead about his relationships with women.
“But Katie,” you say, “Nick dates multiple women throughout The Great Gatsby! That proves he’s straight, right?”
First off, like I said at the beginning of this post, Bisexual!Nick is very much an option. There’s no reason Nick can’t be equally attracted to men and women. But secondly, it’s important to be aware of the historical experiences of closeted queer men, and the strategies they used to survive in a homophobic society. For example, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was not uncommon for a gay man to enter a traditional, heteronormative marriage for the sake of both the social respectability and the emotional/domestic labor a wife could provide. So, no. Nick having a relationship with a woman doesn’t prove he’s straight.
Besides which, let’s not avoid the elephant in the room here:
Nick doesn’t date women with any particular enthusiasm.
The whole reason Nick ends up in Long Island and meets Gatsby is his need to avoid women. He was courting a nameless girl back home in the Midwest; he realized she and her family (and his family, too) expected marriage; he fled to the East Coast to dodge this obligation. Which is kind of hilarious–“Sure, I told her I loved her, but who knew she would assume I wanted to marry her and have babies with her????”–and smacks rather heavily of Gay Panic, in my personal opinion.
But sure, let’s assume (for the sake of argument) this has nothing to do with Nick’s ambiguous sexuality. Maybe the girl simply wasn’t a good fit for him. He’s looking for “the right one.” Okay, but … based on his behavior for the rest of the novel, I’d say he’s gonna be looking for a long, long time.
Nick dates another nameless girl in Jersey City for a few weeks, but it doesn’t last. Then he runs around with Jordan Baker for a while. And then … well, he dumps her. With no other romantic prospects in sight.
I think it’s safe to say keeping a girlfriend isn’t high on Nick’s list of priorities.
But his fling with Jordan (however brief) is revealing in itself; so let’s talk about Jordan.
Jordan is a professional athlete in a world where female athletes were rare. So right off the bat, she’s got a bit of masculine-coding going on. These masculine vibes are only accentuated by Nick’s first description of her, “a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.” He later tells us she has a “hard, jaunty body.” Springboarding off all this, Jordan’s athletic career, her androgynous appearance, and her tomboyish attitude, a lot of readers see her as potentially queer. You can easily read Jordan as a closeted lesbian whose relationships with men–including her relationship with Nick–are mere window dressing. Mere camouflage.
Regardless, Nick is taken on some level by Jordan’s charms. He kisses her. He goes to parties with her. He dances with her. But in a book that’s all about illicit sex, I find it interesting that there’s never a hint that Jordan and Nick have sex … or that they even WANT to. No bedroom scenes, no nudity, no innuendo, nothing. Nothing comparable to Nick’s encounter with Mr. McKee, for example. In fact, the only time it’s implied that Nick could have slept with somebody, it’s Mr. McKee, not Jordan. Intriguing contrast, no?
And then they break up. (“It was a mutual dumping.” Yes, thank you, Thor. :-P) When they break up, Jordan tells Nick he wasn’t honest with her, although she doesn’t specify the nature of his deceit. And then, she delivers the line that’s been haunting my dreams ever since I read The Great Gatsby:
“You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver. Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I?”Chapter Nine
Two bad drivers. It’s a symbol, a striking one, but what does it mean? Two selfish, immature people who aren’t ready for commitment or marriage? Perhaps. Or … two closeted queer people, each exploiting the other for their own gain–for their own safety–but still not ready to empathize with each other’s shared experiences? Again, perhaps. It’s something to think about.
And of course, I’m still reeling from Nick’s response:
“I’m thirty,” I said. “I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.”
Lie to yourself about WHAT, Nick?? ABOUT WHAT??? ABOUT W H A T?!?
So, yeah. Lots of juicy subtext in Nick and Jordan’s relationship. And even though y’all are probably tired of me throwing quotes at you, we still haven’t touched on the infamous “birthday passage” yet; and no discussion of queer-coding in The Great Gatsby would be complete without it.
Basically, one day, while he’s still dating Jordan, Nick realizes it’s his thirtieth birthday, and he doesn’t like that thought at all. In the man’s own words,
I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade….
Thirty–the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair….
So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.
*blinks a little* Wow, Nick. You feeling okay there, buddy?
What’s significant here is the phrase “a decade of loneliness,” followed immediately by its supporting reason, “a thinning list of single men to know.” Why does Nick dread the future? Because it’s lonely. Why is it lonely? Because it lacks male companionship. Single male companionship, to be specific. He doesn’t want to hang out with married men, and he’s not satisfied with Jordan’s company–or, crucially, the company of any other woman he might meet in the coming decades. This is where the theory that Nick “just hasn’t met the right girl” falls apart. When Nick looks into his future, does he see himself with The Right Woman, however vague or nebulous? Well … no. He sees himself solitary. Isolated. At a loss for the type of relationships he most desires.
To wit: relationships with SINGLE, UNATTACHED MEN. He just SAID SO openly. I REALLY DON’T SEE HOW THE POOR BOY CAN BE ANY CLEARER.
(I just spent fifteen minutes searching for this screenshot from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, because I strongly believe it’s the only pop culture reference which could possibly encapsulate Nick’s internal state at this juncture, so, you’re welcome. :-P)
A’ight. We’ve dealt with historical context, with Mr. McKee, with Jordan Baker, with Nick’s other romantic flings … and it’s time to introduce the man of the hour. It’s time to turn our attention to Jay Gatsby.
Ah, Gatsby, that fabulously wealthy bootlegger with one goal and one goal only: to win Daisy Buchanan away from her husband Tom. To that end, he rents the house across the bay from the Buchanans and spends an awful lot of time staring at the distant green light of their dock. Weird flex, but okay.
Gatsby also does something slightly more practical: he befriends Nick Carraway, Daisy’s distant cousin, and asks Nick to help him get close to Daisy. Nick does so. Daisy turns out not to be particularly interested in Gatsby … certainly not interested enough to divorce her husband and run away with him. Tough break, old sport.
When Gatsby’s house of cards come crashing down, ending in his murder, Nick is the only friend who attends his funeral. Sickened by the experience, Nick returns home to the Midwest and writes a book about the man no one else bothered to mourn.
I know what you’re about to say, and truth be told, it’s a fair point. None of Nick’s actions toward Gatsby are incompatible with simple friendship. There’s no “smoking gun,” nothing like the bedroom scene with Mr. McKee. You could very well do these things for someone you considered purely a friend–play wingman in their doomed romance, then step up to arrange their funeral. But remember what I said at the beginning? Nick is essential because of his feelings, not his actions. It’s his feelings towards Gatsby which constitute the main crux of the novel, and it’s his feelings that Fitzgerald challenges us to decipher.
After all, why else do we get so much information about Nick which (seemingly) has nothing to do with Gatsby? Why the birthday passage? Why the curiously-worded breakup with Jordan? WHY THE MR. MCKEE AFFAIR??? Why does Fitzgerald dangle so many tantalizing hints that there’s something “a bit queer” about Nick?
Because we’re supposed to notice those hints. We’re supposed wonder what’s up with Nick Carraway. We’re supposed to wonder why Gatsby means so much to him. Why Gatsby becomes the title character for his book. After all, this is Nick’s story. He could’ve written about anything. Heck, he could’ve written about himself! “My Year On Long Island” or some such drivel. But he writes about Gatsby. Why?
You already know my answer. Nick loves Gatsby, just as Gatsby loves Daisy. In telling the tale of Gatsby’s tragic romance, Nick quietly reveals his own.
The key word is “quietly.” Gatsby is straight and Nick is closeted, so you’re not going to get any overt romantic gestures between them. But the clues are there, if you’re willing to look. Like the fact that Nick makes an Olympic sport of eulogizing Gatsby’s smile, at one point comparing him to “an ecstatic patron of recurrent light.” Or the fact that Nick is the only one to get a glimpse of James Gatz, the man behind Jay Gatsby’s mask. Or the fact that Nick defends the dead Gatsby from reporters and gossip-seekers, doggedly remaining by his side until the last possible moment. If that’s not romance, I’ll eat my fedora. And no matter what anybody says, it’s still a better love story than Twilight. 😛
But why does it matter, you ask?
What difference does it make if Nick loves Gatsby, if it’s just a silent feeling he never explicitly acts on?
NICK IS GATSBY’S MIRROR!!!
Nick and Gatsby both want the same thing!!! They’re both suffering the same disillusionment!!! They’re both in love with someone they can never have!!!
YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT PERFECT GENIUS THIS IS. To saddle your narrator and your protagonist with the exact same dilemma, the same inevitable disappointment? The absolute AUDACITY of this man Fitzgerald. I cannot even BEGIN to cope.
Take note, fellow writers. This is how you build a memorable theme. You weave it into every aspect of your story until it’s pervasive … until it’s inescapable. The theme of The Great Gatsby is the futility of the American Dream, right? “We all build our lives around something we can’t have.” Gatsby’s American Dream is obvious: he wants wealth and luxury and success and respectability and Daisy Buchanan. Which is precisely why you should be suspicious when Nick, his counterpart, his mirror, doesn’t appear to want anything in particular, and pretends to be just an innocent bystander. Believe me, buddy, Nick wants something. But Nick’s American Dream remains a secret. His American Dream is something 1920s society shuns as unspeakable; something far, far more illicit than Gatsby’s adulterous desire for Daisy.
Let’s take a look at Nick’s final words.
[Gatsby] had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
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 farther … And one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Do you notice something interesting in the framing of this scene? Gatsby is watching the green light … but who is watching Gatsby? Why, I do believe it’s our old son Nick.
And note the use of “we” in the closing sentence. That’s a signal Nick isn’t just talking about Gatsby. He’s talking about himself. Gatsby isn’t the only one who “beats on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Nick, too, is under the spell of the past … under the spell of Gatsby, the man he loved and lost.
When Gatsby first smiled at Nick on the smooth blue lawn of his Long Island mansion, Nick’s dream, too, “must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it.” But it was not to be, and Nick watched Gatsby slip from his fingers, drawn like a moth to the flame of Daisy’s allure.
Beat that for tragic romance.
If you’ve read all the way to the end of this exhaustive post which took me roughly FOUR WEEKS to write, I’d love to hear your thoughts! I welcome alternate interpretations of the story, and like I said in my disclaimer at the beginning, you certainly don’t have to agree with me that Nick Carraway is queer. Whatever your position, just keep it classy, keep it respectful, don’t say anything homophobic, and I’m sure we’ll all get along just fine. 😉