Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
Nick begins this chapter with a long description of the landscape between West Egg and New York City, what Fitzgerald calls “a valley of ashes” because its desolate houses and prominent railroad tracks make it feel like a place people would only ever want to pass through, home to “ash-gray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” This valley of ashes stands in stark contrast to the comfort and the glamour of East and West Egg, which in its description appears vibrant, luxurious, and clean. Fitzgerald uses the juxtaposition of these two locations to suggest that the American Dream, so deftly alluded to in the previous chapter, may be hollow and unrealistic, a kind of fantasy that misleads men and settles them unhappily in this lifeless place. Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes thus becomes a symbol of the failures of the American Dream, just as Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes, peering out from a decrepit billboard, symbolize God, or, rather, a god whose once bright eyes, dimmed with age, “brood” over this valley of ashes. If there is a God, Fitzgerald suggests, then he has abandoned humanity and turned his back on the desolation Nick describes.
Nick and Tom pass through the valley of ashes on their way to a party in the City. Tom drives, but stops part way there at the garage belonging to George Wilson, Myrtle’s cuckold husband. Tom pretends to be inquiring about his business, like a friend, but Nick knows that Tom wants to see Myrtle. Sure enough, when she comes down, she sends George away to fetch a chair, and Tom whispers instructions for where she should meet him. As soon as she sneaks away, her true personality comes out, and Myrtle reveals herself to be vain, vivacious, and shallow, not unlike Tom. Her dress is tight and revealing, and on the way to the party Tom stops to buy her a magazine, cold cream, a bottle of perfume, and even a little dog. This pleases her, and she becomes self-satisfied and near insufferable as she telephones her sister and invites her to the party. It takes place in a top-floor apartment, where Nick gets drunk for the second time in his life and where Tom and Myrtle enjoy a little alone time before their guests arrive. Once the party gets into full swing, it feels like the Jazz Age: interminable and absurd, over-familiar and superficial, and completely unperturbed by the fact of Prohibition, which should in theory make the liquor they drink impossible to obtain, but in practice drives them to bootleggers and speakeasies that sell them illegal alcohol. Nick is so soaked in booze by the end of this party that he can barely get himself home.
A couple important things come to light at this party: that Myrtle and Tom were once happy in their marriages, that they “can’t stand” their respective spouses now, and that Tom must have a possessive kind of affection for Daisy, because when Myrtle says Daisy’s name repeatedly, despite Tom’s warning, he brutally breaks her nose; and yet the couple stays together. We’ll see what becomes of that later in the novel.
John D. Rockefeller. An American industrialist well-known for his wealth and his philanthropy. His namesake plaza in New York City (home of the building colloquially known as “30 Rock”) is a good example of his status in the New York City financial industry and his fame in early 20th Century America. His name quickly became synonymous with wealth and prestige, and Nick’s remark about the old man who sells Myrtle her dog looking like Rockefeller is meant as a satire of the New York City elite.
Kaiser Wilhelm. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last of the German Emperors, who ruled from 1888 until 1918, when the monarchy was abolished. Kaiser Wilhelm was the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria and was related to many members of the European royalty, which makes his participation in World War I especially strange, considering that he chose to go to war against his own family. Fitzgerald alludes to Kaiser Wilhelm to enhance the mystery surrounding Gatsby’s character.
Simon Called Peter by Robert Keable. A bestselling novel published in 1921 about a priest who has an affair with a woman in France and almost renounces his faith. Fitzgerald alludes to the novel to make fun of “popular” fiction and distance his literary work from books like Keable’s.
Town Tattle. A cheap gossip magazine from the 1920s, not unlike the National Enquirer of today. Myrtle’s decision to buy it along with a magazine about movies suggests that she’s not as high class as she wants to appear. There’s also a pile of Town Tattle issues on a table at the apartment, which suggests that Tom and Myrtle have had many parties there already.
Versailles. The Palace of Versailles, the traditional home of the French monarchy, built by Louis XIV and designed by architect Louis Le Vau. Today, Versailles is a tourist attraction and a museum of fine art, but under Louis XIV’s reign and up to the years of the French Revolution, Versailles was the seat of political power in France. It’s also world-renowned for its elaborate gardens, which Fitzgerald alludes to here in order to suggest that the guests at the party are rich and self-involved, prone to an unnecessary level of ostentation.
Cars. Fitzgerald uses cars to characterize two of the men in this chapter: Tom and George Wilson. George, a mechanic and garage owner, spends his entire life buying, fixing, and selling cars, most of them rundown and not worth much. Tom, on the other hand, drives a nice car, owns another one he’s thinking of selling, and wouldn’t be caught dead working in such an old and unprosperous-looking garage. Fitzgerald uses their cars to emphasize the difference in social status between these two men.
Clothing. Once again, clothing and physical descriptions play a big part in character development. This time the descriptions are mostly of Myrtle, whom we meet for the first time in this chapter. She appears in three different outfits over the course of the chapter: a spotted blue dress, a brown muslin dress, and an afternoon dress made of cream-colored chiffon. These outfit transitions correspond to developments in her character: she goes from being a somewhat dowdy wife to a woman stepping out on her husband to a pampered and pompous mistress who appears by the end of the chapter to be a haughty, disdainful, and altogether unpleasant person. Later in the novel, we will see her in a different outfit, and she will again act like a different person.
Withheld Information. Myrtle’s sister Catherine mentions to Nick that Gatsby might be the cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm, and that this may be where he gets his money. While untrue, this rumor is a byproduct of the mystery that surrounds Gatsby, which Fitzgerald will continue to build in subsequent chapters. By withholding information, Fitzgerald is able to increase interest in Jay Gatsby and draw the reader deeper into the story.
Colors. Fitzgerald continues to build on the color gray as a symbol of desolation and of decay in this chapter, particularly in his description of the valley of ashes. Men there are gray. The houses are gray. The train tracks and the cars are all covered with an ashy gray dust, just as George Wilson’s clothes are when we see him at the garage. Gray thus becomes a symbol of death and lifelessness. Tom even goes so far as to say that George Wilson is “so dumb he doesn’t even know he’s alive.”
Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes. Doctor T. J. Eckleburg was an oculist who purchased a billboard in the valley of ashes. This billboard went forgotten and unnoticed for a long time, eventually fading to the point where the blue of the doctor’s eyes became less bright, but not less disarming. Fitzgerald uses the eyes as a symbol of God or of a god who stares solemnly out at his creation, watching in silence as civilization begins to decay. God, Fitzgerald suggests, has turned His back on humanity.
The Valley of Ashes. Fitzgerald describes the landscape between East Egg and New York City as a symbolic valley of ashes where civilization has begun to decay and men shamble around in gray clothes, gray cars, and gray houses covered with ashes. This is a potent symbol of desolation and decline, and it stands in stark contrast to the opulence of East and West Egg, which seem vibrant and hopeful by comparison. This is the place where people go when they have no more hope, and the valley thus becomes a symbol of the failure of the American Dream.
The American Dream. Fitzgerald continues to develop the theme of the American Dream, using the symbolic valley of ashes to show the readers what has happened to that dream in the modern era. Financial and social stratification, fueled by the rapid growth of industry in America, has left many of its citizens behind. Men like George Wilson, for instance, have no hope of bettering themselves, because the modern world leaves them no options to climb the social ladder. George Wilson owns a garage and nothing more. These men live in the ashes and nothing more. For many Americans, Fitzgerald argues, the American Dream will never be a reality. In later chapters, we’ll see how the desire to realize that dream affects the main characters.