Example of a Critical essay on Literature about:
great gatsby / fitzgerald / symbolism / american dream / happiness / spiritual / character / materialism / plot
Symbols are usually referred to as “objects, characters, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts” (Bloom 25). In other terms, “symbol is an element of imagery, in which a concrete object stands not only for itself but for some abstract idea as well” (Layng 102). It is difficult to agree to either definition, if any of them is used to analyze the symbolism of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. The fact is that Great Gatsby symbols can hardly be separated from each other; moreover, the majority of the central literary symbols which Fitzgerald used in his work were aimed at making plot clearer, and supplying it with numerous literary connotations. In Fitzerald’s Great Gatsby, the majority of literary symbols form a whole set of literary meanings, which stretch from the author’s dreams about the future toward the general understanding of the notion of an American dream.
Very often in literature, authors use symbols as a chance to make their stories and plots deeper; symbols thus become the instruments for conveying the meaning that could earlier be obscured from reader. In Great Gatsby, the green light, Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes and the Valley of Ashes are the three most frequently analyzed symbols of materialistic strivings, so perfectly well described by Fitzgerald in his wonderful novel; and as the green light is expected to bring the reader at least some hope for a better future, the Valley of Ashes seems to deprive us of a single chance to change this world and its traditional materialistic values. Ultimately, under the peer glance of Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes we may also acquire the needed guidance in our never ending journey to happiness and perfection. All these connotations altogether form a persistent vision of the person trying to find his (her) way to the legendary American Dream – the journey filled with sorrows and disappointments, and the journey that could potentially lead to irreversible failure or eternal happiness.
Fitzgerald is very attentive and scrupulous in the way he uses his own symbols in his work. First, the green light found in Daisy’s East Egg Dock gives the reader a set of hopes for a better future. For the majority of readers and literature professionals, the green light is commonly associated with the American dream (Giltrow & Stouck 32; Metzqer 42); however, can we limit the green light’s symbolism to the mere representation of a vague symbol of the American strivings to materialistic happiness, or can we extend it to fit into a more definite framework of emotional and spiritual happiness? From Metzqer’s viewpoint, that is very possible; moreover, the researcher suggests that the meaning of the rising green light may even denote the historical rise of the American nation and the rise of its new settlers. In the novel’s context, the green light may also be obscurely linked with Gatsby’s hope to win Daisy back; and as researchers are vainly trying to reinterpret the specific meaning of the symbol and to find one single clear definition to its role in Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald seems to have lost the power of choosing the exact meaning to the reader. Nevertheless, it is difficult to reject the feeling that the green light is something more than obscure idea of the American dream. Certainly, Gatsby’s strivings to material welfare, and his pursuit of material success are the central elements of Fitzgerald’s novel (Mizener 44). Moreover, the green light may be interpreted in the way it gives Gatsby optimism and hope for achieving his material dreams, but in this line of meanings, the green light bears additional connotations that “coarsely combine pioneer individualism and uninhibited materialism, which Fitzgerald perceived as dominating in the 1920s’ America” (Mizener 46). The green light is not only the search for the American dream. It is also a natural human search for a new identity – the identity that would fit into the new economic environment and that would satisfy the natural human strivings to better life.
The green light is multifaceted; that is why researchers and readers risk making it too simple. When reading Gatsby, it is critical that the interpretation of the green light’s role in the novel is not limited to two or three connotations. Rather, it is more appropriate to see the green light as a flexible literary instrument, which Fitzgerald uses for different purposes. Regardless whether it is associated with materialistic happiness, or whether Gatsby sees the green light as just another chance to win back Daisy’s heart, the green light remains one of the most complex symbolic meanings in Fitzgerald’s novel, offering the reader an always new vision on a common problem. Ultimately, “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out farther” (Fitzgerald). Everyone has something to hide, and everyone has something to strive for, and our dreams are always only a matter of time and the efforts we apply to achieve them.
Chapter II of Fitzgerald’s novel introduces us to the Valley of Ashes – one of the central tragic symbols in Great Gatsby. “The valley of Ashes between West Egg and New York City consists of a long stretch of desolate land created by dumping of industrial ashes” (Margolis 24). The symbolism of the Valley stems from the symbolism of ashes as such – the symbol of something that has forever been lost and does not give us a chance for revival. In Great Gatsby, the valley of Ashes is simultaneously the symbol of moral decay, and the inevitability of the tragedy. When Fitzgerald refers to the Valley as a fantastic farms where ashes take forms of houses and chimneys, does he imply that the symbol of ashes is the symbol of irreversibility of everything in our lives? Moreover, does that mean that ashes change our attitudes to life and impact all areas of our daily activity? That probably does; moreover, the symbol of tragedy and moral decay is further supplemented with the obscured feeling of something dark. This unique combination of feelings, literary connotations, and small elements forms a holistic vision of death and moral, spiritual, and social destruction. Taking into account the importance of Gatsby’s materialistic strivings and the role in the development of the novel’s plot, it seems that the symbol of ashes makes the book complete. Those who strive to achieve the social highs are compelled to go through the valley of ashes. Great Gatsby is the element that links the green light (the American Dream) with hardships (the ashes); as a result, the readers are expected to realize that materialistic wellness is impossible without tragedies and losses; whether these losses are social, moral, or human does not really matter, but anyone striving to realize his small American dream should be prepared to going through Ashes. Moreover, while the link between the green light and the ashes may seem natural at first, with time it acquires somewhat sinister tint, implying that Fitzgerald himself does not accept and does not recognize the relevance of Gatsby’s materialistic vision of the future. By using the symbol of ashes, Fitzgerald actually judges and condemns everyone, who dares to fall down to materialistic possessions, and who are not able to balance spiritual and material values. While many researchers view the Valley of Ashes as the symbol of economic industrialization at its start (Callahan 143), it is also probable that Gatsby has become the first to experience the so-called spiritual industrialization – the industrialization that killed his true feelings and has deprived himself of his true human feelings. “Gatsby is reclaimed by the living dead, by George Wilson, the agent of the Valley of Ashes as well as the agent of Gatsby’s death” (Fitzgerald). Here, Fitzgerald finally links the symbol of ashes, the green light, and the impact of wealth on hearts and minds of common Americans: while for Gatsby Wilson represented the green light of his hope for material wellbeing, for the rest of Gatsby’s friends he was no one else but the Valley of Ashes’ agent. Instead of making Gatsby flourish, he intentionally or unintentionally brought Gatsby to moral and spiritual decay, as the punishment for the futile Gatsby’s desires to reach unbelievable highs. The symbol of the Valley of Ashes actually supports the thesis that in his symbolism, Fitzgerald was striving to create a complex picture of one’s spiritual failure caused by the emptiness of one’s materialistic ambitions. With time, materialism has turned into the major social trend in America, burying social efforts to revive the spirituality and morality of the American people. Modernization might have been meant to improve the quality of the living standards, but “in the pursuit of happiness via materialistic desires, people are losing their ability to be freed from irresistible luxuries” (Barrett 46).
To form an objective picture of Fitzgerald’s symbolism, it is not enough to review the significance of the green light and the Value of Ashes in the novel; literary critics and research professionals pay special attention to Mr. Eckleburg’s eyes as the distinctive feature of Fitzgerald’s symbolic attitudes towards his main character. Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes are usually described as “a pair of fading, bespectacled eyes painted on an old advertising billboard over the valley of ashes” (Barrett 47). Although this Barrett’s description is rather simplistic and does not convey all hidden meanings at once, but it provides a brief insight into the way Fitzgerald could turn the common things we see daily into the symbol of one’s gradual moral decay. Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes may represent some unknown omnipotent force that controls our actions and makes us rethink the values that govern us in our lives; or, Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes could imply the growing role of religion and God. Here, Fitzgerald provides the reader with a choice: a choice between one’s spiritual completion and one’s spiritual failure. However, beyond representing the omnipotent force that drives our materialistic and spiritual needs, Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes suggest that the American world is gradually losing its moral essence, moving into the darkness of meaningless search for one’s material identity. Theses eyes look like an illusion – the illusion that moves Gatsby and the illusion he represents to others (Bloom 58; Mizener 102). By using a simple advertisement as a symbol, Fitzgerald further suggests that the contemporary American society has forever ceased to be moral; rather its immorality is now hidden beyond the large advertisements of their false identities. It would be appropriate to state that Great Gatsby is a kind of an advertisement in itself, where all characters have to play their roles, without revealing their true identity, but moved by the need to conform to the changing norms of the American social environment. Neutrality of spiritual ideas and the lack of moral support and religious ideals have become the distinguishing features of the then American society, and Fitzgerald has successfully combined all those symbolic elements into one large, almost unlimited novel about human materialistic tragedies and failures.
Never before has a writer been capable of revealing the hidden facets of economic development in such details; never before has a writer being capable of revealing the immorality and non-spirituality of the American materialism. Never before has a writer succeeded to depict the American dream as the direct pathway to moral and spiritual decay; and that was Fitzgerald, who was eager and willing to form a holistic system of literary symbols that ultimately formed a unique vision of the American striving for nothing. “All those symbols provide us with the main theme, where the American idealism and spirituality have been corrupted by material possessions and wealth” (Giltrow & Stouck 35), and while the whole America was perceiving the benefits of the long anticipated economic development, the latter was gradually changing the American attitudes toward everything beyond money; and money come to an end, and when nothing more ties one to the earthy life, the green light ceases to be the stimuli that moves mountains before; rather it becomes the inexhaustible source of the falling ashes.
Fitzgerald remains one of the masters of symbolism in the American literature. His symbols provide sufficient freedom for interpretation, and simultaneously tie the reader to the plot. Symbols facilitate the reader’s transition into the then American reality, and offer him a unique chance to experience the tragedies and losses of the American materialism. Simultaneously, Fitzgerald does not imply that materialistic ideals do not have the right to exist; on the contrary, the symbolism of Gatsby’s character is in that material strivings should be balanced with spiritual revelations; otherwise hollow materialism risks drowning the American society in the dirty waters of their futile search for oneself.
Barrett, L. “Material without Being Real: The End of Reality in ‘The Great Gatsby.’” Studies
in the Novel, vol. 30 (1998): 43-54.
Bloom, H. F.Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby. Chelsea House Publications, 2003.
Callahan, J.F. “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dream: the ‘Pursuit’ of Happiness’
in Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and the Last Tycoon.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 42 (1996): 135-180.
Fitzgerald, F.S. The Great Gatsby. Penguin Books, 2007.
Giltrow, J. & Stouck, D. “Style as Politics in “The Great Gatsby.” Studies in the Novel, vol.
29 (1997): 29-36.
Layng, G. “Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby.” The Explicator, vol. 56 (1998): 101-119.
Margolis, A. “The Maturing of Scott Fitzgerald.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 43
Metzqer, M. “Teaching Reading: Beyond the Plot.” Phi Delta Cappan, vol. 80 (1998): 40-50.
Mizener, A. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, 1993.
In The Great Gatsby, between the glittering excitement of Manhattan and the stately palaces of East and West Egg, there is a horrible stretch of road that goes through an area covered in dust and ash from the nearby factories.
Why does the novel insist on spending time in this depressing place? Why, instead of simply calling it Queens, or giving it a fictional name, does Nick refer to it by the vaguely Biblical-sounding “valley of ashes”?
In this article, I’ll dissect this potent symbol of the failure of the American Dream, analyze the places it occurs in the text, figure out the characters who are most closely associated with this location, and give you some tips on writing essays about this image.
Quick Note on Our Citations
Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book. To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.
What Is the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby?
The valley of ashes is the depressing industrial area of Queens that is in between West Egg and Manhattan. It isn’t actually made out of ashes, but seems that way because of how gray and smoke-choked it is.
This grayness and dust are directly related to the factories that are nearby - their smokestacks deposit a layer of soot and ash over everything.
The valley is next to both the train tracks and the road that runs from West Egg to Manhattan — Nick and other characters travel through it via both modes of transportation.
The area is also next to a small river and its drawbridge, where the products of the factories are shipped to their destinations.
Quotes About the Valley of Ashes
Before we can figure out what the ash heaps mean as a symbol, let’s do some close reading of the moments where they pop up in The Great Gatsby.
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes - a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight…
The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour. There is always a halt there of at least a minute and it was because of this that I first met Tom Buchanan's mistress. (2.1-3)
After telling us about the “fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air” (1.12) of West Egg in Chapter 1, Nick shows us just how the glittering wealth of the nouveau riche who live there is accumulated. Much of it comes from industry: factories that pollute the area around them into a “grotesque” and “ghastly” version of a beautiful countryside.
Instead of the bucolic, green image of a regular farm, here we have a “fantastic farm” (fantastic here means “something out of the realm of fantasy”) that grows ash instead of wheat and where pollution makes the water “foul” and the air “powdery.”
This imagery of growth serves two purposes.
- First, it’s disturbing, as it’s clearly meant to be. The beauty of the natural world has been transformed into a horrible hellscape of gray ashes. Not only that, but it is turning regular humans into “ash-grey men” who “swarm” like insects around the factories and cargo trains (that’s the “line of grey cars”). These are the people who do not get to enjoy either the luxury of life out on Long Island, or the faster-paced anonymous fun that Nick finds himself enjoying in Manhattan. In the novel’s world of haves and have-nots, these are the have-nots.
- Second, the passage shows how disconnected the rich are from the source of their wealth. Nick is annoyed when he is a train passenger who has to wait for the drawbridge to lead barges through. But the barges are carrying the building products of the factories. Nick is a bond trader, and bonds are basically loans people give to companies (companies sell bond shares, use that money to grow, and then have to pay back that money to the people who bought the bonds). In the 1920s, the bond market was fueling the construction of skyscrapers, particularly in New York. In other words, the same construction boom that is making Queens into a valley of ashes is also buoying up the new moneyed class that populates West Egg.
"Oh, sure," agreed Wilson hurriedly and went toward the little office, mingling immediately with the cement color of the walls. A white ashen dust veiled his dark suit and his pale hair as it veiled everything in the vicinity--except his wife, who moved close to Tom. (2.17)
In the valley, there is such a thick coating gray dust that it looks like everything is made out of this ashy substance. It’s important to note that from a general description of people as “ash-grey men” we now see that ashy description applied specifically to George Wilson. He is covered in a “veil” of desolation, sadness, hopelessness, and everything else associated with the ash.
Also, we see that Myrtle Wilson is the only thing that isn’t covered by ash. She visually stands out from her surroundings since she doesn’t blend into the “cement color” around her. This makes sense since she is an ambitious character who is eager to escape her life. Notice that she literally steps towards Tom, allying herself with a rich man who is only passing through the ash heaps on his way from somewhere better to somewhere better.
"I'm going to make a big request of you today," he said, pocketing his souvenirs with satisfaction, "so I thought you ought to know something about me. I didn't want you to think I was just some nobody.”...
Then the valley of ashes opened out on both sides of us, and I had a glimpse of Mrs. Wilson straining at the garage pump with panting vitality as we went by.
With fenders spread like wings we scattered light through half Astoria--only half, for as we twisted among the pillars of the elevated I heard the familiar "jug--jug--spat!" of a motor cycle, and a frantic policeman rode alongside.
"All right, old sport," called Gatsby. We slowed down. Taking a white card from his wallet he waved it before the man's eyes.
"Right you are," agreed the policeman, tipping his cap. "Know you next time, Mr. Gatsby. Excuse me!"
"What was that?" I inquired. "The picture of Oxford?"
"I was able to do the commissioner a favor once, and he sends me a Christmas card every year." (4.43-54)
While West and East Egg are the settings for the ridiculously extravagance of both the old and new money crowd, and Manhattan the setting for business and organized crime, the valley of ashes tends to be where the novel situates the grubby and underhanded manipulations that show the darker side of the surrounding glamor.
Check out just how many unethical things are going on here:
- Gatsby wants Nick to set him up with Daisy so they can have an affair.
- Mrs. Wilson’s “panting vitality” reminds us of her thoroughly unpleasant relationship with Tom.
- A policeman lets Gatsby off the hook for speeding because of Gatsby’s connections.
- Nick jokes about Gatsby’s shady-sounding story about being an Oxford man.
- Gatsby hints at doing something probably illegal for the police commissioner (possibly supplying him with alcohol?) that makes the commissioner be permanently in his pocket.
Wilson's glazed eyes turned out to the ashheaps, where small grey clouds took on fantastic shape and scurried here and there in the faint dawn wind. (8.101)
This brief mention of the ashheaps sets up the chapter’s shocking conclusion, once again positioning Wilson as a man who is coming out of the gray world of ashy pollution and factory dust. Notice how the word “fantastic” comes back. The twisted, macabre world of the valley of ashes is spreading. No longer just on the buildings, roads, and people, it is what Wilson’s sky is now made out of as well. At the same time, in combination with Wilson’s “glazed” eyes, the word “fantastic” seems to point to his deteriorating mental state.
No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o'clock--until long after there was any one to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (8.110)
The final reference to the ashheaps is at the moment of the murder-suicide, as George skulks towards Gatsby floating in his pool. Again, the ashy world is “fantastic” - a word that smacks of scary fairy tales and ghost stories, particularly when combined with the eerie description of Wilson as a “gliding figure” and the oddly shapeless and out of focus (“amorphous”) trees.
It’s significant that what threatens the fancy world of the Eggs is the creeping encroachment of the ash that they so look down on and are so disgusted by.
But, truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of dust getting into my house either.
The Meaning and Significance of the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby
In the world of the novel, which is so much about the stark differences between the rich, the strivers, and the poor, the valley of ashes stands for the forgotten poor underclass who enable the lifestyle of the wealthy few. The people who live and work there are the factory employees whose production is driving the construction boom that supplies the residents of West Egg with wealth and also allows the criminal underclass to prosper by creating fake bonds to cash in (this is the illegal activity that Gatsby tempts Nick with).
This region of industrial production is shown burying its inhabitants in the polluted byproduct of its factories: ash that covers everything from cars to buildings to people. This literal burial has a symbolic meaning as well, as those who cannot connive their way to the top are left behind to stagnate. The valley is a place of hopelessness, of loss, and of giving up. Highlighting this is the fact that Myrtle Wilson is the only ashheaps resident who isn’t covered in the gray dust - she has enough ambition to try to hitch her wagon to Tom, and she hopes to the very last that he will be her ticket out of this life. On the other hand, although Wilson also tries to leave the ashheaps by moving to a different part of the state, his defeatist attitude and general weakness doom his escape attempt to failure.
At the same time, the phrase “the valley of ashes” connects to the Biblical “the valley of the shadow of death” found in Psalm 23. In the psalm, this terrifying place is made safe by the presence of God. But in the novel, the valley has no divine presence or higher moral authority. Instead, the ashes point to the inexorable march toward death and dissolution, linking this valley with the Anglican burial services reminder that the body is “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Even when George tries to sense a divine presence through the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, the fact that no one else is impacted by this billboard’s inanimate presence ultimately dooms George as well.
Characters, Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Connected to the Valley of Ashes
George Wilson. George Wilson’s garage is right in the middle of the valley. He is so strongly identified with this place that by the end of his book he is described as an “ashen figure” - he is almost made out the dust that covers everything in this Queens neighborhood. He is also the book’s weakest, most hopeless, and least ambitious character - traits that doom him in the cynical, self-serving, amoral world that Fitzgerald is describing, and traits that align with what the ashheaps represent.
Myrtle Wilson. George’s wife remains vibrant and colorful despite her 11 years living in the middle of the ash heaps. Her dreams of escape enable her to avoid being covered with the dust that ends up burying everyone else. However, because her path to leaving centers on Tom, the valley of ashes ends up being Myrtle’s death trap.
Society and Class. Everyone who can afford to move away from the dirty and depressing valley does so, which means the only people that left to live and work there are those who have no other options. The state of this area shows what happens in a culture where getting ahead is valued above all other things: those who cannot succeed on these vicious terms have no recourse but being buried alive by pollution and misery.
The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The billboard that features the strikingly disquieting disembodied giant eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is located in the middle of the valley of ashes, right next to Wilson’s garage. Just as the ashheaps reveal the huge gulf between the poor and the rich, so the eyes stare at the devastation that heedless capitalism has created. This stare seems accusatory, but of course, the eyes are completely inanimate, and so whatever guilt they produce in the person they are looking at dissipates almost immediately. The eyes speak to the lack of God/religion in the novel, and that how George is the only one who outwardly grants them any larger significance beyond Nick and Tom’s half-hearted discomfort under their stare.
Symbols: Colors. Fitzgerald doesn’t deviate from the standard association of the color gray in this novel. It describes things that are dirty, unpleasant, dull, uninteresting, monotonous, and generally depressing - all qualities that are associated with the ashheaps as well. When this color is combined with the ashes, it also stands for death, decay, and destruction (all the fun “d” words).
Motif: Cars. Although most of the time, the novel treats cars as a dangerous, exciting, and liberating mode of transportation, these positive qualities fade away whenever cars enter the valley of death:
- On the more benign end, there is permanent traffic. (Nick complains about waiting for barges to cross under the drawbridge.)
- There is also the threat of running out of fuel. (Tom, Nick, and Jordan stop at Wilson’s gas station to fill up because Gatsby’s fake warning about the empty tank makes Nick nervous.)
- And of course, there are frequent wrecks (as evidenced both by the drunken accident Nick sees leaving Gatsby’s party, and Tom’s gleeful exclamation that a wreck means more business for Wilson’s garage when they are nearing the scene of Myrtle’s hit-and-run).
- Finally, the ash heaps are the scene of Myrtle’s death by car, as Daisy runs her over, which leads us right back into the novel’s ongoing theme of death and failure.
This might well be the first time a drawbridge was directly connected to murder...
Essay Ideas and Tips for Writing About the Valley of Ashes
Now that we’ve explored the layers of meanings behind the valley of ashes, you’re in a good place to think about how to write about this symbol.
Here are some tips for how to write an essay about the role of a symbol in a novel:
- Build from the text out. In this article, I first looked at the valley of ashes as it appears as a location for events in the novel, and only afterward wrote about its general meaning and connections. The same approach is good to remember for your own essay. Work from small ideas to big ones, and you'll be supporting your argument.
- Make an argument. It’s not enough to just describe the symbol and explain its possible meanings. Instead, you have to make sure that you’re making some kind of point about why/how the symbol works. How do you know if you’re making an argument and not just saying the obvious? If you can imagine someone arguing the opposite of what you’re saying, then you’ve got an argument on your hands.
- Don’t overthink it. Sure, the ash heaps can be said to represent lots of things: the failure of the American Dream, the low position of the working class in the novel, or the way death underpins the glittering high life in Manhattan and the Eggs. But that doesn’t mean that it also stands for doomed love, Gatsby’s mysterious past, or international cooperation. In other words, watch out for stretching your symbol analysis too far from what the text is telling you.
Here are some possible essay arguments. You can build from them as-is, argue their opposite, or use them as jumping-off points for your own interpretation.
The valley of ashes shows what happens to people who try to pursue the American Dream through honest hard work - they end up nowhere.
The valley of ashes is only the most obvious site of decay in the novel. In reality, all of the places show signs of rot and decomposition which underpins the seemingly glittering lifestyle of the rich characters.
For Myrtle, the valley of ashes is as inescapable a trap as the Buchanan mansion is for Daisy.
The whole place might as well have barbed wire around it for how easy it is to escape.
The Bottom Line
- The valley of ashes is the depressing industrial area of Queens between West Egg and Manhattan. It isn’t actually made out of ashes, but seems that way because of how gray and smoke-choked it is.
- The valley is mentioned in:
- Chapter 2, where Nick describes what this place is like at length before he goes there to meet Tom’s mistress Myrtle.
- Chapter 4, where it’s the place Gatsby can flash his mysterious get-out-of-a-ticket-free card at a cop and also ask Nick to set him up with Daisy.
- Chapter 8, where a beaten down and despondent Wilson looks at the ash heaps to try to find divine moral guidance.
- This symbol is connected to discussions of:
- Class division, since it stands for the forgotten poor underclass who enable the lifestyle of the wealthy few.
- The way the working class is left behind, since this place is both literally burying its inhabitants in the polluted byproduct of its factories and figuratively burying those who cannot connive their way to the top to stagnate in hopelessness and despair.
- The absence of a moral value system, which is notably lacking in the valley, which has no divine presence or higher authority beyond a creepy inanimate billboard.
- The characters, themes, symbols, and motifs most closely connected to the valley of ashes are:
- George Wilson, whose garage is right in the middle of the valley.
- Myrtle Wilson, who remains vibrant and colorful despite her 11 years living in the middle of the ash heaps.
- Society and class, since everyone who can afford to move away from the dirty and depressing valley does so, which means the only people that left to live and work there are those who have no other options.
- The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, a billboard that speaks to the lack of God or religion in the novel.
- The motif of colors, where gray describes things that are dirty, unpleasant, dull, uninteresting, monotonous, and generally depressing.
- The motif of cars, which lose their usually positive associations whenever they enter the valley of death.
Revisit Chapter 2, Chapter 4, and Chapter 8 to see the context surrounding mentions of the valley and its ash heaps.
Consider the characters of George and MyrtleWilson to understand why he succumbs to the ash heaps and she rises above them.
Explore why the valley of ashes almost made it into the title of the novel.
Read about all the other symbols in The Great Gatsby.
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