Introduction to The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the greatest examples of literary realism in modernist literature. It tells the story of the self-made man, Jay Gatsby, and his dream of winning back his first love, Daisy Buchanan. The novel also provides a critical commentary on the Roaring Twenties in America and the harsh reality of the American Dream.
What is the Valley of Ashes?
The Valley of Ashes is an industrial wasteland situated between New York City and West Egg. The wealthy people lead lavish lives in New York City and West Egg, while the Valley of Ashes is the place where the discarded people of society live in utter despair. This industrial dumping ground is covered in thick layers of soot and ashes emitted by the factories in the surrounding areas.
The Valley of Ashes is first introduced in Chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway explains that the railroad and motorway pass through the Valley of Ashes for a short period so that the rich people traveling to and from Manhattan and West Egg are not subject to its filthy atmosphere for long. The layer of ashes that covers the entire wasteland is so thick and stuck to the very essence of all living and non-living things that it seems as if the very buildings are made out of ashes and not just covered by them.
While en route to New York City from Long Island, Nick describes the Valley of Ashes as a “fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat." Here, the word 'fantastic' is not used in a positive light. Instead, it means that the valley of wasteland is something straight out of a fantasy. It is impossible for the wealthy to imagine such a horrible place exists in human society.
The Valley of Ashes is also a place of depravity and moral decay. It is the place where the wealthy go to indulge in their vices, such as gambling, drinking, and infidelity. The law does not matter in the Valley of Ashes, as is implied when the policeman lets Gatsby off for speeding because of his connections, and Gatsby hints at bribing the policeman with alcohol to keep the law in his pockets.
Significance of The Valley of Ashes
- Scott Fitzgerald carefully situated the Valley of Ashes between two affluent locations – New York City and West Egg. The industrial wasteland stands in stark contrast to the two opulent cities. The factory workers live in abject poverty and are completely covered by the soot and ashes emitted from the factories. The soot turns them into "ash-grey men" who are veiled by desolation, sadness, and hopelessness.
A commentary on the destruction of the American Dream:
The Valley of Ashes is also representative of the breakdown of the American Dream. The belief that anyone, regardless of their wealth, connections, or place of origin, could make it big was the foundation of the American Dream. However, the reality is not as rosy as the ideal, as is evident by the plight of the working class in the Valley of Ashes. The production at the factories drives the construction boom in affluent cities, which fills the pockets of the rich with more money. However, ironically, the Valley of Ashes, responsible for this construction boon, is filled with people who are barely able to make ends meet.
The poor people living in this desolate place work hard day and night and make it possible for the wealthier section of society to become more affluent. However, their American Dream is nowhere to be found.
The entire wasteland, the buildings, and the people are covered by the ashes vomited out by the factories as if burying the people alive. The symbolic significance of this burial is that poor people cannot rise above their stature. They must stagnate in their present condition of depravity and desolation despite working harder than most wealthy people.
Thus, the “ash-grey men” in The Great Gatsby are systematically oppressed by the wealthy and forced to live amidst the ashy dust and desolate wasteland, toiling away to supply the rich with their construction materials.
The Valley of Ashes also represents the despair of the people who have been discarded by society and pushed to the bottom. One of the residents of the Valley of Ashes, George Wilson, is characterized by his lifeless eyes and an air of despair. The dumping ground sucks the vitality out of the residents and chips away at their desire to break free from their current condition. The "spiritless" and "anemic" man tries his best to move away from the heap of ashes by physically relocating to a different state. But his defeatist attitude dooms him to eternal life in the Valley of Ashes.
Myrtle Wilson, however, stands in stark contrast to her husband, George Wilson. Unlike the other residents of the Valley of Ashes, Myrtle isn't covered with ashes. She is ambitious and will do anything to escape the doom of the dumping ground, even if it means cheating on her husband with Tom Buchanan in the hopes of winning his affections and escaping her horrid life in the Valley of Ashes.
However, Tom considers Myrtle an insignificant past-time. Even though he rents an apartment in Manhattan and showers her with gifts, he does not consider the possibility of marrying her. To Tom, Myrtle is nothing but a secret affair for him to indulge in. That’s why Myrtle’s plan eventually fails, and she meets a tragic end.
It's not surprising that the Valley of Ashes is considered the graveyard of the American Dream. Characters like George and Myrtle Wilson, who try to escape desolation and despair, are forced to give up hope and remain within the Valley of Ashes or perish trying to change their destiny.
The Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby can be compared to “the valley of the shadow of death” in Psalm 23 of the Bible. The valley in the Bible might be a terrifying place, but the presence of God makes the place safe. However, there is no divine presence in the Valley of Ashes. The working class is left to their devices and walks the path of doom and destruction. View Examples
A commentary on the class structure in America
The Valley of Ashes is a dumping ground for the wealthy, where the rich acquire more wealth through underhanded deals and indulge in their vices, such as infidelity and drinking. However, the Valley represents the death and decay of the poor working class stuck in the desolate land. The land is similar to the Dementors from Harry Potter, sucking the life, vitality, and happiness of the residents.
Those who can afford to move out leave the Valley of Ashes without a second thought. But those who cannot are left to rot in the decaying land. Fitzgerald's depiction of the Valley of Ashes is a critique of a society where people look out for their own selfish interests without caring about the overall development of the community. The rich intentionally exploit the people of the Valley of Ashes and turn it into their personal dumping ground while turning a blind eye to the plight of the working class.
Fitzgerald’s use of the color ‘grey’
Grey is generally used to signify dullness, unpleasantness, monotony, and decay. That's why grey is the dominant color that defines the Valley of Ashes. The entire valley is covered in a thick layer of grey ash. The buildings, the cars, and even the people are not spared. The grey ash literally buries everything it touches and signifies the hopelessness and despair within the people.
Characters in the Valley of Ashes
The Valley of Ashes is home to the factory workers who toil day and night and are responsible for the construction boom in America. However, they are denied the fruits of their labor as the affluent classes become richer thanks to their hard work. The people who cannot escape the desolate situation are trapped to live their lives toiling away as the Valley of Ashes completely destroys the chances of them ever achieving their American Dream.
Some of the important characters residing in the Valley of Ashes are –
1. George Wilson
George Wilson is the embodiment of the hopelessness and despair that the Valley of Ashes represents. He owns a garage, but his business isn’t thriving, which leads him to bow his head in submission to poverty. George was once full of vitality and had complete faith in the American Dream. However, living in the Valley of Ashes takes a toll on his physical and mental health.
The words used to describe George are “spiritless” and “anemic.” His lifeless eyes are proof of the hardships that he undergoes while trying to survive. However, George continues to cling to hope. He is broken at the news of his wife’s affair but believes that if he can relocate to the American West with his wife, they can start afresh. He dreams of a future where he can fix his marriage and live an affluent life.
But his dreams are shattered when George decides to take revenge on the person who hit his wife with the car and killed her. He mistakes Gatsby to be the killer and murders him before taking his own life, not knowing that it was Daisy Buchanan who had been driving the car. Therefore, affluent people like Daisy Buchanan, who killed Myrtle, and Tom Buchanan, who had an affair with Myrtle, escape the consequences of their depravity, while George is led to his own destruction.
2. Myrtle Wilson
Myrtle Wilson is the only person living in the Valley of Ashes who isn't covered in the grey ash. She mistakenly believed that George had good breeding and would be able to provide her with the life of affluence that she wished for the most. However, the reality is nothing like she imagined, and Myrtle is left feeling imprisoned by her marriage.
She starts a torrid affair with Tom Buchanan in the hopes that he will be able to help her escape the drudgery of the Valley of Ashes. Tom showers her with gifts and rents an apartment in Manhattan for her, where Myrtle pretends to be an affluent woman and looks down upon the maids. However, Tom considers her nothing but his property.
Myrtle feels imprisoned in her marriage with George, which becomes literal when he locks her in a room after learning about her affair. In her haste to escape, Myrtle jumps in front of Gatsby's car, which she believes belongs to Tom. However, the car is driven by Daisy Buchanan, who doesn't even look back when she hits Myrtle.
Myrtle’s tragic end highlights the plight of those who try to escape the desolation of the Valley of Ashes and fail in their venture. She is truly a sympathetic character because she is betrayed by her husband and her lover and fails to escape her miserable life despite struggling a lot.
The Valley of Ashes is representative of the death of the American Dream. The barren and desolate land is filled with poor people who toil day and night to satiate the appetite of the rich. People like George Wilson and Myrtle Wilson, who cannot escape the clutches of their tragic fate, meet their end in the Valley of Ashes.