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Free Barron's Booknotes-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald-Book Notes
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The opening description of the valley of ashes, watched over by the brooding eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, has been analyzed again and again. Fitzgerald's friend and editor, Maxwell Perkins, wrote to Scott on November 20, 1924: "In the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg various readers will see different significances; but their presence gives a superb touch to the whole thing: great unblinking eyes, expressionless, looking down upon the human scene. It's magnificent." Later in the same letter Perkins concludes, "...with the help of T. J. Eckleburg... you have imported a sort of sense of eternity."

How should you approach this famous symbol? Remember, a wide variety of interpretations have been made and defended over the years.

It's best to begin by placing Eckleburg in his geographical context: the valley of ashes, located about halfway between West Egg and New York City. The valley of ashes is the home of George and Myrtle Wilson, whom we'll meet later on in this chapter. The valley is also a very important part of what we might call the moral geography of the novel. Values are associated with places. In Chapter I we were introduced to East and West Egg, the homes of the very rich, the nouveau riche, and the middle class. The valley of ashes is the home of the poor, the victims of those who live in either New York or the Eggs. Men, described by Fitzgerald as "ash-gray," move through the landscape "dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air."

Apparently the city's ashes are dumped in the valley, and the men who work here have the job of shoveling up these ashes with "leaden spades."


On a more symbolic level, these men are inhabitants of what might be called Fitzgerald's wasteland. T. S. Eliot's famous poem "The Waste Land" had been published in 1922, and Fitzgerald had read it with great interest. There is no doubt that he had Eliot's poem in mind when he described the valley of ashes. Eliot's wasteland-arid, desertlike-contains figures who go through the motions of life with no spiritual center. Eliot's imagery seemed to express the anxiety, frustration, and emptiness of a post-war generation cut off from spiritual values by the shock of the First World War.

Read the following passage carefully:

--The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic-their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground. --

Some readers interpret this passage as a description of the god of the modern world-the god of the wasteland. Keep this description in mind in Chapter VIII when the crazed and jealous Wilson looks at the giant eyes and says, "God sees everything." For now, early in Chapter II, it is still too early to make any kind of direct correlation between the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg and the eyes of God. At this point we have only hints: the size of the eyes, the missing face, the departure of the original creator of the sign, all of which transform the eyes into something mythic, something suggesting a superior being who no longer cares, who is no longer involved with the petty lives of the pathetic creatures below. The eyes "brood on over the solemn dumping ground," offering no help or solace to its inhabitants. The oculist has forgotten the eyes which he left behind, just as God has forgotten the inhabitants of the valley of ashes. Many interpretations are possible; you'll want to think about them as the novel develops.

The action of the second chapter begins as Tom Buchanan brings Nick to George B. Wilson's garage. Both the garage and the all-night restaurant of the Greek Michaelis border the valley of ashes. Wilson's wife, Myrtle, is Tom's mistress. Pay close attention to these first descriptions of Wilson and his wife, and you'll learn a lot about who they are and what they stand for. Wilson is described as "a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome." He is the embodiment of the valley of ashes: dead inside, a living ghost. The key words are spiritless and anaemic. He has no energy and no faith. He believes somehow that doing business with Tom will help him; but he understands neither the power nor the cruelty of the man he is dealing with. Myrtle Wilson is a sensuous woman in her middle thirties who has the energy her husband lacks. "There was an immediate perceptible vitality about her," says Nick. The fire inside her has drawn her to Tom Buchanan as a lover who can take her away from the gray and empty prison of the valley of ashes.

Note that Tom takes Myrtle to New York, the fourth major location in the moral geography of the novel. If the valley of ashes is the home of death-in-life-the place where the spiritless and downtrodden live-New York is the center of the corruption, or, more appropriately, the place where wealth, corruption, and self-gratification openly meet. Myrtle must ride into New York on the train in a separate car in deference to the "East Eggers." Why? Because it is important to keep up a facade of respectability. In New York, however, where anything is permitted, Tom can flaunt his relationship with Myrtle.

The group goes to the apartment in Morningside Heights that Tom Buchanan has rented for his liaisons with Myrtle. What goes on there and how Nick reacts to what goes on tell us something very important about how Fitzgerald wants us to view New York.

The party consists of Nick, Tom, Myrtle, Myrtle's sister Catherine, and a couple named McKee who live downstairs. Nick is really more of an observer than a participant. He tells us that he has been drunk just twice in his life, and the second time was that afternoon. Whether he drinks in order to lose his self-control and join the others or simply to escape this disordered world is something you'll have to decide for yourself. Perhaps both interpretations are correct. In any case, all the guests at the party seem to have something unnatural or wrong with them. Catherine, the sister, has "a solid, sticky bob of red hair, and a complexion powdered milky white. Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle." Mr. McKee is a pale, feminine man who has just shaved and left a spot of lather on his cheek. His wife is "shrill, languid, handsome and horrible." Myrtle Wilson becomes more and more "violently affected moment by moment." The conversation is absurd and pretentious; everyone tries to impress each other, and lies flow as freely as the liquor.

Nick tries to leave, part of him wants to be somewhere else, but part of him-that part that makes him the narrator of this novel-is fascinated by "the inexhaustible variety of life." He is both repelled and attracted toward these people. The appearance of Myrtle Wilson's new puppy, "groaning faintly," is like the entire scene, both funny and sad. Then a crisis erupts. Myrtle crudely insists that she can say, "Daisy!" any time she wants, and Tom Buchanan, making a short deft movement, breaks her nose with his open hand. So this is what happens to those who become entangled with the Buchanans! Tom, we see, is strong and brutal and absolutely selfish. He is perfectly happy to enjoy Myrtle in bed, but at other times she must know when to keep her place. For challenging the purity of his Daisy, she is punished. Later, in Chapter VII during the second New York party, we'll see what happens when Gatsby tries to cross Tom Buchanan.

In two chapters, Fitzgerald has shown us two different symbolic landscapes: one, a dinner party in East Egg with Daisy, Jordan, Tom and Nick; the other, a drunken brawl in New York with Tom, Nick, Myrtle, Catherine and the McKees. The contrast between the two parties tells us much about these two worlds and about the people who inhabit them. Now to complete his introduction to the world of the novel, Fitzgerald gives us in Chapter III a third party-at the West Egg Home of Jay Gatsby.

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