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...
(The entire section is 1,606 words.)