In The Great Gatsby, what is “foul dust,” why is important, and what does it symbolize for Fitzgerald?

In The Great Gatsby, “foul dust” symbolizes all the various things that hold back Gatsby from achieving his dreams. It is important because it sums up Gatsby's failure to get what he really wants in life.

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Gatsby has come a long way in life. He's become phenomenally rich, way richer than most people could ever imagine. No longer a small-town boy from the Midwest, he's very much a man of substance.

And yet, Gatsby still doesn't have everything he wants in life. For one thing, he doesn't have Daisy, who will never leave her husband, Tom, for Jay, no matter how much of a philandering brute he is. Nor does Gatsby have the social respectability he craves. No matter how much wealth he accrues, how big his mansion is, or how many fancy shirts he owns, he will never be accepted by the crowd in East Egg.

They'll happily turn up at his parties, drink his booze, and eat his food, but they will never accept him as a social equal. To them, he's nothing more than a parvenu, a shameless social climber trying to buy his way into society's elite.

Taken together, these negatives constitute the “foul dust” that floats in the wake of Gatsby's dreams. And in the end, these factors will always prevent Jay from making his dreams a reality. No matter how hard he tries to make his dreams come true, they never will. There will always be too much “foul dust” in the way.

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In Chapter One, Nick, reflecting on his experiences in the East, tells us that "foul dust" floated in the wake of Gatsby's dreams. By using this term, Nick is speaking figuratively. Specifically, the "foul dust" refers to and symbolizes the people and the negative experiences which prevented Gatsby from winning back Daisy Buchanan and, therefore, achieving his version of the American Dream.

Some examples of this "foul dust" include the numerous illegal activities that Gatsby participated in, as he amassed his great wealth, as well as his business associates, such as Meyer Wolfsheim. "Foul dust" also symbolizes Tom Buchanan, the man whom Daisy refused to leave for Gatsby and instead chose to spend the rest of her life with. Finally, "foul dust" also refers to Gatsby's untimely death at the hands of Mr. Wilson.

"Foul dust," therefore, is an allusion to the many people and experiences which influenced Gatsby and his dream and, more importantly, acted as obstacles along the way.

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The thing for Nick that makes Gatsby so great is his "extraordinary gift for hope" and his "romantic readiness." Gatsby never gave up hope, no matter what.  Even when Tom reveals to Daisy that Gatsby is a criminal, the kind of criminal that is plotting bigger and bolder things that people are too scared to discuss. Even when Daisy hits and kills Myrtle Wilson with Gatsby's car and then quietly retires to her luxurious mansion for cold chicken and beer with her husband. Despite it all, Gatsby retained his optimism, his belief that he could repeat the past, and there is something innocent and beautiful, if naive, about that.  The "foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dreams," then, sounds like the opposite. If Gatsby represents optimism, then that foul dust is Tom's pessimism. If Gatsby can still believe in the power of his love for Daisy, then that foul dust is the tawdry and empty liaisons among the people who attend his parties. If Gatsby is careful and tender, then the foul dust is the carelessness of the families with old money, families like the Buchanans.

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The discrepancy between Jay Gatsby's romantic dream visions and reality is a dominant theme in F. Scott Fitzgerald's American classic, The Great GatsbyIn the introduction of Gatsby by the narrator, Nick Carraway, this theme is introduced as Nick reflects upon the nature of Gatsby:

it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.  No--Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.

This foul dust is mentioned throughout the novel and is symbolic of the corruption of everything that it encounters; it represents the moral irresponsibility of the affluent Americans of the Jazz Age, an irresponsibility that is sure to destroy the romantic illusions of Jay Gatsby.  It is the "dirty truth," the reality of a corrupt age and a dream built upon Gatsby's own moral corruption from his ill-gotten wealth and the moral corruption of his "golden girl"  whom he pursues.  The "foul dust" symbolizes how the means corrupt the end.

In Chapter 2, Fitzgerald presents a similar symbol, the Valley of Ashes.  This is a place where the waste of industries is dumped, conveniently located between the city and the "Eggs" where the wealthy live.  Symbolically, it represents the wasteland of people's hopes, and desires.  Along with the symbolic Valley of Ashes where the rich come to dump there the reminders of their excessive indulgence, the foul dust follows Gatsby's romantic attempts to present himself in a favorable light to Daisy and others he wishes to impress. 

 

 

 

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