What is "foul dust," why is important and what does it symbolize for Fitzgerald?F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The discrepancy between Jay Gatsby's romantic dream visions and reality is a dominant theme in F. Scott Fitzgerald's American classic, The Great Gatsby.  In 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. 




favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

alyssajackson10 | Student

"Foul dust" is first mentioned on page 2 of the novel as something that "floated in the wake of [Gatsby's] dreams [and] temporarily closed out [Nick's] interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men." Nick seems to be telling readers that he becomes disinterested with the emotions of those around him, particularly emotions at the far ends of the spectrum (sorrow, extreme sadness, and elation, extreme happiness) after watching Gatsby suffer through those emotions.

Fitzgerald mentions dust in The Great Gatsby a number of times, almost always in relation to the Valley of Ashes and almost always in relation to an event or person that sours Nick's attitude towards the flashy lifestyle and questionable morals that characterize so much of the novel.

But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.

Here, Fitzgerald suggests that the Valley of Ashes is a generally "dusty" place, which makes sense, if you consider the characters who live there (Myrtle, who is having an affair with Tom Buchanan and who is killed, and George, who kills Gatsby) and the actions that take place there (readers are first introduced to Tom and Myrtle's affair here, and Myrtle is struck by a car and killed here). Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, of course, symbolizes the eyes of God watching over all of the "dust," or bad events/actions/choices/etc, that takes place here. Nick is shocked and upset by many of the actions and people associated with the Valley of Ashes, causing him to stop caring about people's "sorrows or elations."

A white ashen dust veiled [Wilson's] dark suit and his pale hair as it veiled everything in the vicinity...

George Wilson himself is described as being "veiled by dust" for some of the reasons mentioned above: he lives in the disreputable Valley of Ashes, and he kills Gatsby. This place and this action both have a negative effect on Nick.

The coupé flashed by us with a flurry of dust and the flast of a waving hand.

This scene takes place outside Wilson's garage in the Valley of Ashes, just as Tom begins to uncover the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy (which culminates in extreme actions that affect Nick) and just before Daisy, driving the coupé mentioned in this quote, hits and kills Myrtle, an event that affects everyone in the novel (except perhaps Tom).

Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust.

This too takes place in the Valley of Ashes and precipitates the most extreme event of the novel: Gatsby's death.

There are a few more mentions of dust in the novel, but these specific few turn Fitzgerald's early mention of "foul dust" into a symbolic motif throughout the novel. Each mention of dust gives readers a hint that something bad is about to happen or that the person or place in question is generally distasteful or unpleasant.

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The Great Gatsby

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