Describe the "valley of ashes" in The Great Gatsby. What does it look like and what does it represent?
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The Valley of Ashes is the section between East Egg and New York City. It is described in Chapter 2 as Tom and Nick approach it on their way to pick up Myrtle Wilson at her husband’s garage. The Valley of Ashes is described as being a dirty place with many factories and buildings. The significance of this location seems to be the billboard that hangs over it – the billboard of Dr. TJ Eckleberg – which is an advertisement for an eye doctor and contains a picture of a pair of eyes within circular glasses. Nick tells the reader that when looking at this billboard it is as if someone is watching over you (or what is happening in the Valley of Ashes).
The Valley of Ashes, and its description at the beginning of Chapter 2, is Fitzgerald's way of describing the poor section of the city. This immediately follows Nick's dinner party with Tom, Daisy and Miss Baker in East Egg, an upper class area. There is a stark contrast between Gatsby, Tom and Daisy's world of East Egg and George and Myrtle Wilson's poorer world, dubbed by Fitzgerald, the "valley of ashes."
In Chapter 1, Tom's home is described like a palace, "the front was broken by a line French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon . . ." Their home in East Egg is gold and glowing while the valley is gray and ashen, being watched over by the uncaring god-like stare of Doctor Eckleburg's billboard.
Also note that Chapter 1 ends with the image of the green light. The green light symbolizes life, botanical flowering, and thus, compared to the gray of the valley of ashes, presents another contrast between life and decay, affluence and indigence. The green light is also a symbol for Daisy herself. For Gatsby, Daisy and the green light are both symbols for the American Dream. The images of dreams, light, money and superficial socialites all coalesce to form a general impression that the American Dream is full of light but also superficial; thus, an illusion or, at best, fraught with hypocrisy. The "valley of ashes" is equally paradoxical. The valley is gray but it is also described in agrarian terms like growth and wheat.
With East Egg and the Valley of Ashes, you have two landscapes with contradicting images. East Egg is lush and full of light but the characters that populate it (Tom, Daisy, and to a lesser extent, Gatsby) are morally flawed. The Valley of Ashes is gray and decaying but it contains the working class, struggling to survive like wheat in a desert: desolate but life still tries desperately to survive. Both areas are wastelands, meaning worlds of wasted opportunity. This is an allusion to T.S. Elliot's "The Waste Land," representing the wasted opportunity left in the wake of industrialization and subsequent alienation of the individual.
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