Describe the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Nick describes the valley of ashes as being about equidistant between West Egg and New York City. He calls it

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.

Thus, we can imagine a place where everything is gray and ashen, covered with the detritus of industry. Moreover, everything is covered in the ash: cars, people, homes, the land, everything.

In addition, there is an old, dilapidated billboard, advertising the practice of one Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. As he is some kind of eye doctor, the billboard takes the shape of a giant pair of eyes. They are "blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high." They wear a pair of glasses, but no more of the face is represented. Nick speculates that the practice is long-closed and that the billboard has been forgotten.

Moreover, on one side of the valley, there is a "small foul river," and when barges go through, drivers on the road can be detained for several minutes at the drawbridge, allowing them to take in the depressing and gloomy scene. Finally, it is here, in the valley, where he meets Tom Buchanan's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, whose husband owns a gas station and car repairs business.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The valley of ashes is an area one has to pass through to get between Manhattan and Long Island. It is the terminal for freight trains that carry cars filled with ash from the coal furnaces that power the buildings of Manhattan. The ash is shoveled from the cars into a dumping ground there. It is also a place where the working poor reside. George and Myrtle Wilson and their gas station/ auto repair shop and Michaelis and his coffee shop are there, along with the billboard that advertises the defunct medical practice of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. 

The valley of ashes stands as an unfortunate contrast to the wealthy communities of Long Island and the excitement and opportunity of Manhattan that abut it (even though you'd also have to pass through Queens before reaching Manhattan). It represents a place from which people long to escape; it is an industrial wasteland that serves only to support the lifestyles of people fortunate enough to live elsewhere.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial