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East Egg and West Egg are both on Long Island, a long, finger-shaped island that juts out to the east of New York City. Depending on where one lives on Long Island, it is about an hour or more drive to get to NYC (longer nowadays because of traffic, of course). In this novel, East Egg is symbolic of old money, the aristocracy, people like Tom and Daisy who convert their garage to a stables, instead of converting the stables to a garage. West Egg, where Gatsby lives, is symbolic of the “nouveau riche” (new rich) – people that have made money, but do not come from “good families.”
Nick comes from the Midwest, associated with good values, and Tom, Daisy and Gatsby live “back east”- a place where “the valley of ashes” symbolizes the morally decaying influence of the quest for money. Gatsby comes from the west, but he heads east – to pursue his dream of himself and to pursue his love, whom he cannot obtain unless he has money.
There are several symbols. The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock can be seen from Gatsby’s yard. This light symbolizes Gatsby’s dream, a kind of guiding light to Daisy. The “valley of ashes” is a place that the characters must drive through on their way to NYC. It symbolizes the decay of the soul that accompanies the quest for riches. George and Myrtle Wilson live in this ash heap and it robs them of happiness.
The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are another symbol. In reality, this is an old billboard advertising a long defunct optometrist, but these eyes seem to be watching the characters whose lives are playing out in the novel. Some believe they symbolize the eyes of god, passing judgment on the false values of America during Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age.
Historically, the Jazz Age (1920s and 1930s) was a period of time after World War I (Nick returns home from being in the Army, and Gatsby was also a soldier in the Army). People were pursuing the American Dream – getting ahead, rags to riches. There was an upper class, a lower class and really no middle class quite yet. The rich led frivolous but meaningless lives, going to parties and playing polo. Fitzgerald critiques the emptiness associated with the pursuit of riches. Nick tells Gatsby that he is worth more than the whole lot of the people that live on East Egg. Gatsby believed it was possible to achieve his dream – accumulate enough wealth to win back the girl of his dreams who married someone else, someone of her own class. Gatsby obtains riches but he fails to get the girl.
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