Free Study Guide-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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CHAPTER ANALYSIS / NOTES
It is intentional that Chapter I ends with Gatsby reaching out to
his dream, a hope for something concrete, as symbolized by the green light at
the end of Daisy’s dock. By contrast, Chapter II opens with a description of the
Valley of Ashes, a symbol of the hopelessness produced by modern, industrialized
society in its thoughtless search for money. The ashes are the by-product of the
wealthy, the foul dust that destroys dreams and the symbol of the spiritual decay
of the times.
The contrasts and symbolism continue throughout the chapter.
The eyes of Dr. Eckelberg, painted on a building overlooking the wasteland known
as the Valley of Ashes, symbolize the all knowing eyes of God, but the eyes are
beginning to fade, as if the owner is losing hope, as if he can do nothing to
control the ashes that mankind continues to create in abundance. Dr. Eckelberg’s
large blue eyes are then contrasted to the eyes of George Wilson, a pathetic and
spiritless product of the wasteland who is blinded and obliterated by the ashes.
In contrast to her husband, Myrtle Wilson at first seems to have some vitality
left in her despite her life in the Valley of Ashes. When she goes to the apartment
in New York, however, she seems to bring the ashen life with her, creating a smoky
air and disguising her vitality, which is replaced with false pretension to be
something she is not and can never be. Throughout the chapter, Myrtle is developed
in total contrast to the light and airy Daisy, who has no purpose or plan. Myrtle,
a heavyset, plain woman, is preoccupied with appearances (she constantly worries
about clothing) and petty planning (to buy a dog collar, an ash tray, a massage,
and a wreath for her mother’s grave - all of seeming equal importance to her).
Myrtle wants more than anything to permanently leave the Valley of Ashes, to rise
above her low class, and pretends that dresses and purchases elevate her lifestyle.
Her pathetic existence, while more active and organized than Daisy’s, is equally
A sharp contrast is also developed between Nick and Tom.
Nick, who longs several times in the chapter to take a pastoral walk through the
park (subconsciously reflecting his desire to return home to the pastoral Midwest),
is still a product of his orderly upbringing. He is horrified by Tom’s behavior
and driven to distraction by a bit of dried shaving cream on Mr. McKee’s face.
As soon as McKee falls asleep, Nick wipes the spot away, trying to put everything
back in order. Tom, on the other hand, is violent and compulsive. He spiritually
strikes out at Daisy by having this petty affair and displaying his common mistress
for the world to see (much like he parades his horses) and he physically strikes
out at Myrtle, breaking her nose in total brutality. In perfect contrast to the
orderly Nick, Tom is a symbol of disorder and destruction -- the product of his
Tom is also contrasted to George Wilson, Myrtle’s husband.
She claims that she married him because she felt he had “good breeding” but betrays
him when she thinks that he does not act or dress like a gentleman. Ironically,
she is attracted to Tom because he wears nice clothing and appears to be well
bred. But George Wilson, covered in ashes and destined to poverty, really has
better breeding than Tom. Incapable of violent action, George can only stand by
and long for the woman he truly loves. The violent Tom, on the other hand, was
born to wealth and class, but has no capacity to truly love.
It is significant
to note that Gatsby is not seen and only mentioned in passing in this chapter.
When Myrtle’s sister Catherine learns that Nick lives on West Egg, she inquires
if he knows Jay Gatsby. She explains that she recently went to a party at his
mansion. She also tells Nick that rumor says Gatsby’s money comes from being a
relative of Kaiser Wilhelm. She ends her conversation about him by adding that
“I’m scared of him. I’d hate to have him get anything on me.” Such brief and mysterious
comments about the main character serve to heighten his intrigue and the reader’s
interest in him.
It is also significant to note that Nick describes himself
as both within and without the action in this chapter, just as he, as the narrator,
within and without the plot of the story. Nick also shows he is within and without
when trying to deal with his moral, orderly past. He does not want to meet Tom’s
mistress, does not want to go to her apartment, wants to leave the party and take
a peaceful walk, wipes the spot from McKee’s face (his moral order at work) and
yet, because of Tom and Myrtle (symbols of depravity) and his fascination with
them, he is caught up within the party, drinking himself into a stupor (for only
the second time in his life). As his inebriation progresses throughout the chapter,
the details of the evening and the conversations begin to blur, just like Nick’s
moral stance is blurred at the party; but the bizarre gathering, that ends in
ugly violence, clearly reflects the moral decay of the age. The chapter ends,
as it begins, in a symbolic valley of ashes.
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