the few honest people

p. 64:

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine:  I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

There are so many reasons why Nick’s ‘suspicion’ here is probably false, even though it is an assertion about himself.  He’s an unreliable narrator:  self-admittedly distracted, occasionally drunk, absorbed in his own career and love life and ego.  His statement is boastful no matter how mild the language, and immodest claims of high character are usually false.

But of all the reasons to doubt Nick’s self-assessment, I’ll highlight this one:  He’s only a few days shy of his 30th birthday.  That’s too small a percentage of an expected lifespan to judge one’s own possession of a cardinal virtue.  Think about the changes that people make in the years after 30:  wild partiers become sedate homemakers, stable careerists become out-of-control addicts, atheists find a higher power while the devout renounce their gods.

We can’t know yet whether Nick deserves to stand with the few honest people in the world. We don’t have any reason to believe that he’s ever been tested, and we have every reason to believe that the final judgment of his character will take many more years to make.

Finally (and pedantically), honesty isn’t even one of the cardinal virtues . . . which I suppose should have been the first thing to tip us off to Nick’s (self-)deception.

2 thoughts on “the few honest people

  1. Considering this novel was written around 1920, Nick’s life expectancy would have been closer to 55 years, so he had, in fact, already past the halfway point on his expected lifespan.

    You don’t think being honest about being a distracted, self absorbed drunk could be defended as virtuous?


  2. Ah, Norman, you are really drawing out the pedant in me. Although life expectancy in the ’20s was closer to 55 years, that does not mean that Nick was at middle age for his time. The low average life expectancy back then was largely due to higher infant mortality rates. And of course, men of Nick’s generation also had World War I skewing the average a bit. But once living into adulthood and past the Great War, Nick probably had a remaining life expectancy well into his 60s.

    That said, you’re right: I didn’t take the earlier era into account, and age 30 was generally more mature then than it is now.

    Finally, based on my own experience as a distracted, self-absorbed drunk, I would say that honesty about the condition is of little virtue. This is related to something called “The Asshole Fallacy” – where a person behaves generally as an asshole but believes that this is ok because he acknowledges that he is an asshole. We’ve all met someone like this, generally during freshman year of college. Honesty actually contributes to the problem when it becomes an excuse not to improve the situation. Virtue requires stopping the behavior, for which honesty may be necessary but is not sufficient.


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