The Great Gatsby

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The Valley of Ashes Symbol Icon
An area halfway between New York City and West Egg, the Valley of Ashes is an industrial wasteland covered in ash and soot. If New York City represents all the "mystery and beauty in the world," and West Egg represents the people who have gotten rich off the roaring economy of the Roaring Twenties, the Valley of Ashes stands for the dismal ruin of the people caught in between.

The Valley of Ashes Quotes in The Great Gatsby

The The Great Gatsby quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Valley of Ashes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Roaring Twenties Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Scribner edition of The Great Gatsby published in 2004.
Chapter 2 Quotes
This is a Valley of Ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
Related Characters: Nick Carraway (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Valley of Ashes
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Nick begins the second chapter by ruminating on the Valley of Ashes between West Egg and New York City. Though his descriptions are evocative, they refer to a relatively decrepit and downtrodden region.

Fitzgerald accomplishes this effect by using a set of semi-sarcastic words and uncanny images. The nouns in the area “farm,” “ridges,” “hills,” “gardens,” “houses,” and “chimneys” all would seem to describe a normal rural environment—yet all these characteristic signs of civilization are composed of dust instead of actual materials. This Valley, then is “fantastic” only in that the dust has entirely replaced the physical environment. That the “ashes grow like wheat” indicates that debris has replaced actual agricultural production, while the constitution of the men as themselves in the form of ashes dehumanizes them and makes them the mere result of the smog.

The imagery speaks to both the squalor caused by the roaring twenties culture and the relative blindness of many Americans to those effects: the dust in the valley is the direct result of New York industry—and of the wish to outsource unsightly waste. The “impenetrable cloud” and “obscure operations” stresses how that outsourcing has allowed those with money to entirely ignore the effects of their exploits. This passages is thus a condemnation of the social and economic practices in the novel. Fitzgerald implies that people may travel through the Valley between West Egg and New York City, but they relate to its environment only as various combinations of undifferentiated dust.

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The Valley of Ashes Symbol Timeline in The Great Gatsby

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Valley of Ashes appears in The Great Gatsby. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
The Roaring Twenties Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Class (Old Money, New Money, No Money) Theme Icon
Past and Future Theme Icon
...dumped. The ashes cover everything, including the men who live there. Above this bleak " Valley of Ashes " stare out two huge spectacled eyes from a billboard for an eye doctor's defunct... (full context)
Chapter 7
Class (Old Money, New Money, No Money) Theme Icon
...car is low on gas, though, and Tom pulls in to Wilson's Garage in the Valley of Ashes . (full context)