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Free Study Guide-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes


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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 meaningless.

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 extreme wealth.

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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