In The Great Gatsby, what is the "valley of ashes"?
The valley of ashes in this novel is both a literal place and a symbolic one. Nick begins his description of it as follows:
This is 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 ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.
This is a striking description, giving the sense of a strange place which sports unhealthy, even monstrous growth; the ashes are compared to wheat. The very houses, and indeed even the people appeared to be composed of ash.
The place is some kind of huge dumping ground, where the poor and the dispossessed live, like the Wilsons. It forms a conscious contrast with the wealthy resorts of East and West Egg, and serves as a grim reminder of the underbelly of society. Literally and symbolically it is the place of the hopeless. The image of ashes also has connotations of fragility; the people who live here have no real substance to their lives, as the reference to them 'crumbling' emphasizes. Their surroundings are the visible sign of their despair.
However, the Valley of Ashes does not simply represent poverty and despair, it can also be said to symbolize the corruption of society as a whole. Wealth in this novel is generally shown to be founded upon materialism, greed, excess, and not on anything worthwhile or truly fulfilling, leading to problems and divisions both in society and also in individuals. The Valley of Ashes, then, can also be taken to represent the moral decay, the spiritual emptiness, of modern urban society. It denotes a kind of spiritual and cultural wasteland - to borrow the title of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem on the same theme.