Almost every commentator who discusses the influence of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby argues that the poem definitely influenced the passage from the novel describing
a valley of ashes--a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
Few commentators, however, point to precise resemblances between this passage and the poem. Rather, they comment more generally on the way this sterile, grim landscape symbolizes the same kind of sterile, depressing environment depicted in Eliot’s poem. Clearly the “valley of ashes” is almost literally a “waste land” of the sort depicted more symbolically in Eliot’s poem.
Among the phrases in the poem that resemble this passage in the novel are the references to the “dead land” (2), “stony rubbish” (20), “a handful of dust” (30), “the brown land” (175), “Rock and no water and the sandy road” (332), “mountains of rock without water” (334), “feet . . . in the sand” (337), “dry sterile thunder without rain” (342), “dry grass” (355), “no water” (359), and “empty cisterns and exhausted wells” (385).
Eliot’s poem contains no explicit references to “ash” or “ashes” or even to a “valley.” The resemblance between the poem and the passage in the novel, then, is not precise but is instead suggestive and general. Eliot had presented a poem in which people and places seemed symbolically dead, and Fitzgerald (who enormously admired Eliot) had tried to do something similar when he depicted the valley of ashes.