How does the motif of geography in the novel help shape its themes and characters?The Great Gatsby Chapter 3
The motif of geography as an aid in shaping theme and character is evinced early in Fitzgerald's novel.
In the opening chapter of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway visits his classmate from Yale, who proudly displays his Georgian Colonial mansion that overlooks the bay, its front "broken by a line of French windows . . . that glow with reflected gold" (chapter 1). After going inside the house, Nick tells Tom Buchanan the names of those for whom he works. When Tom responds that he does not know these names, Nick remarks, "You will if you stay in the East." Tom quickly replies, "Oh, I'll stay in the East. . . . I'd be a god damn fool to live anywhere else." Hearing this, a guest named Jordan Baker quickly exclaims, "Absolutely!" Then, as she looks at Nick, Miss Baker displays contempt when she says, "You live in West Egg . . . I know somebody there" (chapter 1). Then she mentions Gatsby. Here Miss Baker's remarks indicate her sense of superiority over those from West Egg, while Tom suggests this same attitude of Eastern superiority over those from other parts of the country.
One night as Jay Gatsby stands at the edge of his lawn, he stretches his arms in yearning toward the green light on the end of the Buchanans' pier. After having moved into West Egg that is twenty miles from New York City, Gatsby has contracted for a replica of the "Hôtel de Ville in Normandy" to be constructed as his house. Now he hopes to be brought into contact with Daisy Buchanan. However, as indicated earlier by Miss Baker's tone and words, there is a clear class distinction between those living in the East Egg and those of the West Egg. This distinction is further emphasized in the scene in which Nick drops in to visit Jay Gatsby at his mansion. Surprisingly, Tom Buchanan and his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Sloan, have stopped in for a drink on their horseback ride. There is a short conversation; then, for some reason, and to Mr. Sloan's dismay, Mrs. Sloan invites Gatsby to dinner. Gatsby thanks her and says that he will have to follow them with his car since he has no horse. Once outside, Tom says to Mr. Sloan,
"My God, I believe the man's coming. . . . Doesn't he know she doesn't want him?" . . . She has a big dinner party and he won't know a soul there. . . . I wonder where in the devil he met Daisy." (chapter 6)
On another occasion, Tom invites Nick to accompany him on the train to New York City. As they drive, the men cross through a place that is almost "half way between West Egg and New York" where there is "a certain desolate area of land" (chapter 2). This place is a wasteland, "a valley of ashes" that represents the poverty and squalor underlying the extravagances of the wealthy. It is in this dismal and barren area that Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, lives in a yellow building above her husband's garage and repair shop.
After he and Nick arrive in the New York hotel room, Tom acts cruelly toward his mistress, hitting her hard enough with his open hand to break her nose. It is apparent that Tom's treatment of Myrtle is markedly different from the way he treats Daisy. Later, for instance, although he is angry at the driver who "didn't even stop" when Myrtle is killed, he does nothing about her death after he is home in East Egg and learns that his wife, Daisy, has struck Myrtle with Gatsby's car. Thus, the privileged setting that Tom and Daisy enjoy in East Egg seems to override the crime that Daisy has committed and have an influence on Tom Buchanan's character.
Moreover, the Valley of Ashes, where George Wilson lives, has an influence upon him. Bereft after the death of his wife, Wilson kills Gatsby, convinced that Gatsby is responsible for her death. Thus, he brings the effects of his dismal and moribund environment to West Egg, where he dies himself. Finally, after Nick's experiences in the East, where wealth and social position have brought about tragedy and dishonesty, he returns to the Midwest, an environment in which there is (he believes) less moral corruption.
Places and settings are immensely significant in The Great Gatsby as they represent the various aspects of the 1920s American lifestyle that Fitzgerald is depicting. East Egg therefore represents the old aristocracy, West Egg the new, up and coming rich, the valley of ashes represents the moral and social decay of the States and New York city is the avaricious quest for amoral financial gain. In addition, the West can be seen to be associated with the moral and social decay and cynicism of New York, while the East is linked to traditional values. Nick in Chapter 9 recognises the importance of geography in the novel, as he recognises that although the story is set in the East, it is really about the West, as it identifies how all the characters (who come from the West) react to life in the East.