In The Great Gatsby, what does "foul dust" symbolize and why is it important?

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In The Great Gatsby, “foul dust” symbolizes all the various things that hold back Gatsby from achieving his dreams. It is important because it sums up Gatsby's failure to get what he really wants in life.

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Gatsby has come a long way in life. He's become phenomenally rich, way richer than most people could ever imagine. No longer a small-town boy from the Midwest, he's very much a man of substance.

And yet, Gatsby still doesn't have everything he wants in life. For one thing, he doesn't have Daisy, who will never leave her husband, Tom, for Jay, no matter how much of a philandering brute he is. Nor does Gatsby have the social respectability he craves. No matter how much wealth he accrues, how big his mansion is, or how many fancy shirts he owns, he will never be accepted by the crowd in East Egg.

They'll happily turn up at his parties, drink his booze, and eat his food, but they will never accept him as a social equal. To them, he's nothing more than a parvenu, a shameless social climber trying to buy his way into society's elite.

Taken together, these negatives constitute the “foul dust” that floats in the wake of Gatsby's dreams. And in the end, these factors will always prevent Jay from making his dreams a reality. No matter how hard he tries to make his dreams come true, they never will. There will always be too much “foul dust” in the way.

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In Chapter One, Nick, reflecting on his experiences in the East, tells us that "foul dust" floated in the wake of Gatsby's dreams. By using this term, Nick is speaking figuratively. Specifically, the "foul dust" refers to and symbolizes the people and the negative experiences which prevented Gatsby from winning back Daisy Buchanan and, therefore, achieving his version of the American Dream.

Some examples of this "foul dust" include the numerous illegal activities that Gatsby participated in, as he amassed his great wealth, as well as his business associates, such as Meyer Wolfsheim. "Foul dust" also symbolizes Tom Buchanan, the man whom Daisy refused to leave for Gatsby and instead chose to spend the rest of her life with. Finally, "foul dust" also refers to Gatsby's untimely death at the hands of Mr. Wilson.

"Foul dust," therefore, is an allusion to the many people and experiences which influenced Gatsby and his dream and, more importantly, acted as obstacles along the way.

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The thing for Nick that makes Gatsby so great is his "extraordinary gift for hope" and his "romantic readiness." Gatsby never gave up hope, no matter what.  Even when Tom reveals to Daisy that Gatsby is a criminal, the kind of criminal that is plotting bigger and bolder things that people are too scared to discuss. Even when Daisy hits and kills Myrtle Wilson with Gatsby's car and then quietly retires to her luxurious mansion for cold chicken and beer with her husband. Despite it all, Gatsby retained his optimism, his belief that he could repeat the past, and there is something innocent and beautiful, if naive, about that.  The "foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dreams," then, sounds like the opposite. If Gatsby represents optimism, then that foul dust is Tom's pessimism. If Gatsby can still believe in the power of his love for Daisy, then that foul dust is the tawdry and empty liaisons among the people who attend his parties. If Gatsby is careful and tender, then the foul dust is the carelessness of the families with old money, families like the Buchanans.

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The discrepancy between Jay Gatsby's romantic dream visions and reality is a dominant theme in F. Scott Fitzgerald's American classic, The Great Gatsby In the introduction of Gatsby by the narrator, Nick Carraway, this theme is introduced as Nick reflects upon the nature of Gatsby:

it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.  No--Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.

This foul dust is mentioned throughout the novel and is symbolic of the corruption of everything that it encounters; it represents the moral irresponsibility of the affluent Americans of the Jazz Age, an irresponsibility that is sure to destroy the romantic illusions of Jay Gatsby.  It is the "dirty truth," the reality of a corrupt age and a dream built upon Gatsby's own moral corruption from his ill-gotten wealth and the moral corruption of his "golden girl"  whom he pursues.  The "foul dust" symbolizes how the means corrupt the end.

In Chapter 2, Fitzgerald presents a similar symbol, the Valley of Ashes.  This is a place where the waste of industries is dumped, conveniently located between the city and the "Eggs" where the wealthy live.  Symbolically, it represents the wasteland of people's hopes, and desires.  Along with the symbolic Valley of Ashes where the rich come to dump there the reminders of their excessive indulgence, the foul dust follows Gatsby's romantic attempts to present himself in a favorable light to Daisy and others he wishes to impress. 

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In The Great Gatsby, what does the "foul dust" that "floated in the wake of [Gatsby's] dreams" mean?

This line refers to the ending of The Great Gatsby and how deeply it affected Nick Carraway. In chapter 9 Nick explains why he moved away after the funeral by saying, "After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction." At the end of the book Nick is no longer able to separate Long Island from his memories of the distasteful people living there. 

No one, except for Nick and Gatsby's father, came to the funeral. All the roaring, exciting parties that Gatsby had thrown, and not a single one of those people who had shown up and indulged in his overflowing hospitality had come to his funeral. Not even Gatsby's business associates and supposedly close friends made an appearance. Only one man showed up to the cemetery, and even he was appalled that no one else had come. 

The fact that no one seemed to care about Gatsby the second he died clearly upsets Nick immensely. Nick even mentions that living in his house, so close to Gatsby's abandoned mansion, disturbs him. 

"I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden, and the cars going up and down his drive."

All these things contribute to the "foul dust," no doubt akin to an eternal bad taste in one's mouth, that Nick speaks of in the beginning of the book.

Perhaps the thing that drives him away from the East the most is the Buchanans. Daisy never once called or wrote, or gave any indication that she even knew Gatsby or cared in the slightest. One day in October some time after the funeral, Nick mentions meeting Tom and he acts extremely cold to him. Tom defends his behavior and denies any culpability for what happened to Gatsby.  After that meeting Nick's opinion of the Buchanans is cemented. 

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made...."

At the end of the book, Nick is thoroughly disgusted with everyone around him and the magic of East and West Egg had died along with Gatsby. Those lines at the beginning of the book are about Nick's distaste for everything that contributed to or failed to care about Gatsby's death. 

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