The Great Gatsby: Motif Tracking - Within and Without


Summary of Motif:

Some characters in ‘The Great Gatsby’ are portrayed as both insiders and outsiders at the same time because although they are part of a certain social class they are also outside of it and this enables these characters to make comments on it or even criticize it like an observer. This motif of being “within and without” applies especially to Nick, the narrator: he comes from a wealthy family but lives in West Egg among the new rich; he works in New York but never seems fully convinced by the life that he finds there and as such he does not really belong there and so he can step outside and view these people’s lives in a different way, gradually coming to a realization of flaws, such as the corrupting nature of the wealth.


Quotations & Analysis:





“My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor's lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires…”

Eyesore refers to something unpleasant to look at, contrasting Nick’s house with the glamorous houses of the millionaires.


Nick does not belong with the wealthy, but lives amongst them and is able to closely observe. He is in a position to better understand the lives of the wealthy as an outsider, as Fitzgerald implies that he has access to some of the luxuries of the wealthy.



“And I hope that she’ll be a fool - that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Daisy seems to be very aware of the corruption of the lives of the wealthy, especially her own, with Tom’s extramarital affairs. She recognizes the immorality of these acts, and is in that way an outsider, but wishes to be more “within”



“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Nick, as a guest of the party, is able to appreciate the “enchantment” of the event. However, Nick does not belong to this lower-middle class world, so he can view them from a more dispassionate perspective as shown by his ability to criticize their lifestyle.



“Dressed up in white flannels I went over to his lawn a little after seven, and wandered around rather ill at ease among swirls and eddies of people I didn’t know…”

“Wandered around” suggests Nick’s lack of direction and disorientation. He is “ill at ease” indicating his discomfort and sense of awkwardness at this party and he thus ends the scene as a stranger, surrounded by “people [he doesn’t] know”. All of this suggests that although he is ‘within’ the party, he never fully belongs.



“A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.”

Gatsby is inside his house, while all the other guests are outside and leaving. The fact that the host is supposed to be the center of attention, and yet he is alone communicates the loneliness of being an outsider, particularly through the flow of “emptiness” from his house, and Gatsby’s “isolation”. In some ways the “Formal gesture of farewell” indicates his acknowledgement that he is an outsider.



“All of these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.”

Nick has been observing party guests closely for a long time, suggesting that he is an outsider. The long list of names and details related to each guest indicates that he has been enchanted by the glamour associated with these people.



“(said Jordan Baker that afternoon, sitting up very straight on a straight chair in the tea-garden at the Plaza Hotel)– I was...”

Nick recounts the story of Daisy and Gatsby through first person narration from Jordan. He receives glimpses of their history through somebody else and this imparts a sense of insignificance, as if Nick is not ‘worthy’ of narrating the story himself.



“They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand; Gatsby didn’t know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by intense life.”

Nick overlooks Gatsby and Daisy’s encounter after five years. Although he is personally close to both of them, he feels that he is distanced as he is not directly involved in the affair. He is merely a catalyst to spur the meeting between the two. They are completely enraptured by each other’s presence so that Nick is essentially ignored. Notions of self-absorption are present and contribute towards Daisy and Gatsby’s downwards relationship because it is this “[intensity]” that brings his relationship to a close with Daisy despite it being his redeeming quality in Nick’s eyes.



“Sometimes a shadow moved against a dressing-room blind above, gave way to another shadow, an indefinite procession of shadows, that rouged and powdered in an invisible glass.”

Nick is physically viewing the scene from outside which obviously shows that he is distanced from the lives of the usual party guests who display superficial tendencies (“rouged and powdered”) in the hopes of standing out, but to no avail because they are all doing the same thing. “Shadows” implies physical shadows but also dubious behaviour.



“Tom talked incessantly, exulting and laughing, but his voice was as remote from Jordan and me as the foreign clamor on the sidewalk or the tumult of the elevated overhead.”

Nick is evidently considered by Tom to be part of his social circle, as he blatantly expresses glee towards his triumph over Gatsby. However, the description of Tom’s voice as “remote” shows that Nick has no interest in Tom’s satisfaction, suggesting that they do not share the same values and interests.



“So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight–watching over nothing.”

Gatsby awaits for the light to turn “out and on again” (144), a signal of Daisy’s need to escape from Tom, and a cry for Gatsby to save her. This scene shows that Gatsby is trapped into thinking that he is still Daisy’s one and only love, and is unwilling or incapable of acknowledging that he is now an outsider to Daisy, his dream will never materialize. Nick, however, does not share this delusion and it is his ability to realize that Gatsby has lost Daisy and that his dream is over, is again what marks him out as an outsider in comparison to the other characters.



“I found myself on Gatsby’s side, and alone.”

Being on “Gatsby’s side” was once the highest statement of social status, but following the scandal of Myrtle’s murder and his subsequent death, there is a stigma associated with Gatsby. Nick is acting against the approval of society, thus stands “alone” or ‘without’ in comparison to everyone else.



“I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all - Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Nick has been part of the Eastern life with Gatsby and others however he seems to be the only one being able to view, judge and comment on their situations like an outsider. Unlike them, he has realized that he belongs to the Middle West instead, which makes him unadaptable to Eastern life – a clear outsider.



“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”


Nick has been spending a lot of time with Tom and Daisy, thus being “within” their lives and yet, he finishes the novel with a condemnation of the rich. Tom and Daisy do not really care about anything except themselves, which is why they “retreated back into their money” after they “smashed up” the lives of Myrtle, Wilson and  Gatsby.


Role in the Play:

One of Nick’s primary roles is to develop themes as he is able to present the audience with a more objective view on various subjects despite potential unreliability because he is both within and without. With regards to social classes, he belongs to both as although he lives in West Egg (the home of the nouveau riche), he comes from a wealthy family. Through his point of view, he is able to point out the flaws in both classes. In terms of Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship, he is able to appreciate the hopeful nature in Gatsby’s dreams, but he recognizes that they are unattainable.


Nick is also used to characterise other characters as he draws distinctions between different social groups (East Egg vs. West Egg) and different people (Daisy and Gatsby; Daisy and Tom, etc) and by the end of the novel he possesses a self awareness and maturity that the other characters do not which throws their childishness and selfishness into sharper relief. In many ways Nick is very like ‘Owl Eyes’ who does not ever seem to full belong at the part either.