The Valley of Ashes as Metaphor in The Great Gatsby
Throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, location is a critical motif. The contrasts between East and West, East Egg and West Egg, and the two Eggs and New York serve important thematic roles and provide the backdrops for the main conflict. Yet, there needs to be a middle ground between each of these sites, a buffer zone, as it were; there is the great distance that separates East from West; there is the bay that separates East Egg from West Egg; and, there is the Valley of Ashes that separates Long Island from New York. The last of these is probably the most striking. Yet, the traditional literal interpretation does not serve Fitzgerald's theme as well as a more figurative one would--the "Valley of Ashes" is not literally a valley of ashes, but is rather a figurative description of the middle-class values and suburbia that clash with those of New York as well as East and West Egg.
Supposing that the valley of ashes is literally a valley strewn with ashes, there arise certain technical concerns. Ashes are light and easily blown about—a Sahara-like desert is expected, yet the dust storms Nick describes are rather tame, conjuring up very familiar human images (23); even those that Wilson sees are gentle and "fantastic." (160) Perhaps this doldrum-like state might emphasize the lack of change, but would still fail to account for the lack of effect rain has. Rain would wash away the ashes, or at least make a mess, but it fails to do so; the valley of ashes remains, neither blown nor washed away--weathering of some sort would have to eventually purge the valley of its ashes, if a strict literal interpretation is held to. Clearly, it is imprudent to take Fitzgerald at face value here--there is something deeper going on.
Between the literal "valley of ashes" and the other extreme interpretation of a suburb, there is a perhaps more feasible middle ground. If it is remembered that ashes circa the turn of the century often referred to garbage, then it is possible to interpret the "valley of ashes" as a "dumping ground." (23) The ash heaps, then, are piles of garbage, and the repeated references to "waste land," as opposed to "wasteland," now make more sense, as does George Wilson's use of "a piece of waste" to wipe his hands. (24-5) For Fitzgerald, the American dream is to get rich and become socially acceptable; Wilson, who has failed, has "wasted" his life, and is now "down in the dumps." He has been cast away by society, just like the rest of the refuse that surrounds him. This, then, seems to be the fate of middle-class dreams--despite being conceived in a land filled with opportunity, they all end up in the landfill.
Yet, there are still inconsistencies with this interpretation, which also apply to the stricter literal view; where does the "gray, scrawny Italian child" down the road by the railroad tracks come from? (26) Where do the workmen come from? (137) If the...