What is the importance of setting to other elements of The Great Gatsby?
The setting of F. Scott's Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is intrinsic to the significance of the other elements of the novel. From the onset of the narrative, the setting to the Jazz Age points to the frivolity and amoral conduct of the upper class as the luxurious East Egg demonstrates the snobbery of the upper classes. In contrast, the West Egg indicates the unsubstantiated and dream-like lives of the nouveau riche, those who balance themselves between social success and unrecognition.
Very importantly, Nick Carraway's being from the Midwest indicates his sounder and more centered values against which he views Gatsby, from the West Egg, and Daisy and Tom, from the East Egg, realizing that social conflicts arise because of the Buchanans' wealth and Gatsby's aspiring to have wealth and position. In other words, Scott Fitzgerald employs the West Egg to point to the separation of new money versus old as well as suggesting that Gatsby is not in control of his life and moves toward death (the West) despite his looking toward the green light of East Egg with hope. In addition, it is the dead valley of ashes that leads to Gatsby's fatal error. Vainly, he has continued to look longingly at the green light, in the hope that somehow he can attain Daisy. However, he is forced through the Valley of Ashes, again a foreshadowing of the ride of his "death car."
It is this dismal and moribund atmosphere and setting in which Gatsby dies, his dream unfulfilled and corrupted by money and its associates. The ash-laden George Wilson, also dies. For, their lives have not been genuine; they have been corrupted as they have desired a part of the lives of the arrogant from the East, to partake vicariously in the decadent values of the wealthy, values that are purely materialistic. In the last chapter, Nick observes,
Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old--even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, ....
After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction.
Thus, Nick is left with an emptiness after the deaths of Myrtle Wilson and Gatsby as well as Daisy's careless abandonment of Gatsby, who lived "too long with a single dream" of her and all the others who did not attend his funeral. It is the hollowness of characters that prompts Nick to tell Gatsby, "They're a rotten crowd....You're worth the whole...bunch together!"
Indeed, the setting, an empty one, expresses the illusionary theme of the American Dream. For, as critic Cassie E. Hermanson writes, Fitzgerald's setting is often metaphorical, transcending time and place. Gatsby's car seems mythological, his character is compared to Trimalchio with all his "intimate" parties of hundreds of people. But, in truth, Gatsby is the most genuine of all.