The Valley of Ashes Symbolism
What does the Valley of Ashes symbolize in The Great Gatsby?
To fully understand what does the Valley of Ashes symbolize we shall walk through so many layers of symbols that are installed into every description of this place. In “The Great Gatsby” the Valley of Ashes is everything that is not the world of the riches. This is anti-American dream. The only dream the inhabitants of the Valley are capable for is to get out of that place as fast as possible.
Let us look at the first time Nick and Tom enter the Valley. The first obstacle that prevents them from entering is a river. Their car has to wait in the long queue of the identical cars, on the bank that is full of life and color. The passengers have to observe the ashen landscape for all this time. The very description of the Valley of Ashes symbolizes here the underworld. The shadow realm, separated from the world of living beings by the river Styx. The author deliberately underlines the contrast between the barren wasteland of the Valley and the bright world of Tom and Nick.
Moreover, the very purpose of the Valley is incomprehensible for Tom and Nick. They get annoyed because they can’t cross the bridge: the barges have to move first. The bitter irony is that they are businessmen and the products that the barges transport are their direct income depends on the ships that annoy them so much. Neither of them thinks about it, they are unable to admire and enjoy their own money parading in front of them.
Another prominent aspect of the Valley of Ashes and, possibly, the only bright spark in it, is the giant advertisement board of the optometry with the disembodied blue eyes looking down to all the Valley. The board is miraculously not covered by ash like everything around. This image is very powerfully described by the author and all the readers will definitely remember it. But why the author placed it here? Who “watches” the people who live in the valley of ashes?
The literature experts support two major versions: the coloured eyes represent the world of the riches – the people who can be bright and beautiful, who will always look at the dwellers of the Valley from above. They are too high to reach, almost in Heavens – but if someone climbs as high (as Gatsby did) they will see that these people are fake, flat and shallow like the advertisement board with a pretty picture on it.
Another version, that is much more popular, that these blue eyes that lack the rest of the body, represent God Himself. The look isn’t compassionate, it shows neither wrath nor sorrow. The sad symbolism of the advertisement board is in the fact that even God doesn’t care about the Valley of Ashes and looks at the sufferings of the people there with indifference – the same they express while looking to the grey sky.
The color itself is very important in “The Great Gatsby”. To be colorful is a privilege of the riches. When we see Tom talking to the Wilson, we see this contrast in all its ugly sharpness. Tom is loud and colorful, lively and falsely enjoying the meeting. He occupies all the space, just staying calmly. Wilson, on the contrary, lacks colors.
The ash covers his clothes, skin and hair, even his eyes aren’t bright too. His voice is as dull as the rest of his appearance. But when we see his wife Myrtle, clearly showing her affection towards Tom, we have a different feeling. Myrtle steps closer to Tom and immediately she looks more lively and colorful. Of course she didn’t have time to wash the ash from her hair and face. The color here is a symbol of wealth and status. Agreeing to the role of Tom’s mistress, Myrtle receives just a drop of it, but it is enough for her to start dreaming and feeling again. The woman sees the chance to leave the Valley, even through the love affair, and it becomes her driving force.
The second time we see the Valley of Ashes is when Gatsby takes Nick with him. This time author stresses not the shadowy appearance of the place. It looks perfectly material, but now Valley is just a moral trash bin for the rest of the city. At first time Tom started a very unsetting affair here after threatening the husband of her mistress.
But Tom is an antagonist, so we don’t expect anything less from him. Now we see shocked Nick and Gatsby – who behaved as a perfect gentleman before – showing his darker side. At first he calmly takes gratitude from the policeman (who was intended to fine them) and explain to Nick that the police here knows him because he has connections and helped them with something illegal, possibly drugs or alcohol.
This is not the only case. Every time the Valley is shown something bad and amoral happens. When Daisy finally comes to meet Gatsby there, the ashen curse is lifted for a moment with Gatsby’s unconditional and incredible love, but then the ash takes its toll: Daisy refuses to stay with Gatsby and Myrtle dies in the car accident that later will become the cause of Gatsby’s death too.
The last time we see the Valley of Ashes is when we even not present there. In the very final of the story, when Gatsby is in the pool, we see him completely broken. The symbolism of the Valley as the shadow world returns in full extent. Gatsby sees as the world surrounding him starts to become monochrome, like ash falling from the sky covers it. The colors become more and more unreal, fake (as the advertisement board in the Valley) and when the process is complete, Wilson’s silhouette, covered with the real ash, looks like Grim Reaper who came for his victim.
The symbolism of this scene (except the obvious symbols of death) sums up the whole aesop of the novel. The ash that is corruption and shallowness, isn’t limited with the borders of the Valley of the Ashes. It covers all the city, all the deranged and hypocritical society that created the physical Valley.
We can’t say for sure what does the Valley of Ashes most likely symbolize in “The Great Gatsby”, there are too many layers of it, but the overall impression created by it is an image of the society that is dead inside, eaten alive by ash and stripped of colors of the real dream. Even Gatsby, who constantly recites his own moral code, just to remember that he is a different person, that he is alive, is finally broken and metaphorically devoured by ash.
The only survivor left intact is Nick. In the end of the story he leaves the city and his girlfriend (who appears to be a member of the same shallow and bigoted upper crust of the society), feeling deep disgust towards anything and anyone there. He is also the only one to arrange the funeral of Gatsby. It is strange: giving a person a funeral is the duty of every person with at least some morals inside. Even in the war the soldiers buried their enemies – but here, in prosperous city no one bothered to give the last honors to the man who invited them to the parties every night.
As long as Gatsby was respected, they treated him as equal. But after he was revealed as a bootlegger and criminal, he is no more useful for the society. This fact is the last straw for Nick who now sees with his own eyes, how irredeemably flawed these people is. The only person he is glad to see at the funeral is Gatsby’s father, who, despite his own flaws, came to say farewell to his son.
On the last pages we see Tom and Daisy leaving the city – still as a couple – hoping to leave behind what happened also. But as we could see before, the ash, evil and corruption aren’t limited by geographic location. The Buchanans take the part of the Valley of Ashes in their very souls, to be with them wherever they are going to travel.