.. and overwhelm them. Tom clearly believes it. Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, the wife of George Wilson, who runs a garage in the valley of ashes. Myrtle seems to have a dark sexual vitality that attracts Tom, and he keeps an apartment for her in New York, where he takes Nick in Chapter II. Here he again shows how little he thinks of anyone beside himself when he casually breaks Myrtle’s nose with the back of his hand, because she is shouting Daisy! Daisy! in a vulgar fashion.
Between Chapters II and VII we see little of Tom, but in Chapter VII he emerges as a central figure. It is Tom who pushes the affair between Gatsby and Daisy out into the open by asking Gatsby point blank, ‘What kind of a row are you trying to cause in my house anyway? It is Tom who verbally outduels Gatsby to win his wife back and deflate his rival’s dream. And it is Tom who, after the death of Myrtle Wilson, tells George Wilson that Gatsby was the killer and then hustles Daisy out of the area until the affair blows over. Fitzgerald describes Tom and Daisy as careless people who break things and then retreat into their wealth and let other people clean up their messes. It’s a particularly apt metaphor for Tom, who cannot understand why Nick should have any ill feelings about Gatsby’s death. After all, Tom was only protecting his wife.
Nick shakes hands with Tom in the final chapter because ..I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. Yet Tom’s behavior was not justifiable, and when Nick refers to the foul dust that floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dream, he seems to be speaking of Tom Buchanan more than anyone else. It is Tom as much as anyone who sends Nick back to the Midwest, where there are still values one can believe in. She was born Daisy Fay in Louisville, Kentucky, and her color is white. When Jordan Baker, in Chapter IV, tells Nick about the first meeting between Gatsby and Daisy in October 1917, she says of Daisy, She dressed in white, and had a little white roadster, and all day long the telephone rang in her house and excited young officers from Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolizing her that night. Throughout The Great Gatsby Daisy is described almost in fairytale language. The name Fay means fairy or sprite.
Daisy, of course, suggests the flower, fresh and bright as spring, yet fragile and without the strength to resist the heat and dryness of summer. Daisy is the princess in the tower, the golden girl that every man dreams of possessing. She is beautiful and rich and innocent and pure (at least on the surface) in her whiteness. But that whiteness, as you will notice, is mixed with the yellow of gold and the inevitable corruption that money brings. Though Daisy seems pure and white, she is a mixture of things, just like the flower for which she was named (see Schneider in Critics).
Fitzgerald suggests the nature of this mixture beautifully in the famous passage from Chapter VII about her voice: She’s got an indiscreet voice, I remarked. It’s full of- I hesitated. Her voice is full of money, he said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood it before. It was full of money–that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…
Like money, Daisy promises more than she gives. Her voice seems to offer everything, but she’s born to disappoint. She is the sort of person who is better to dream about than to actually possess. Fitzgerald–with that double vision we discussed in The Author and His Times section of this guide–knew very well both the attractions and the limitations of women like Daisy, who is modeled in many ways upon his wife Zelda. Gatsby worships Daisy, and Nick distrusts her–just as Scott both worshipped and distrusted Zelda.
Gatsby loves Daisy too much to see what is wrong with her. Nick stands back and sees the way Daisy lets other people take care of her in crises. If you want to study the nature of Daisy’s weakness, look especially at her behavior on the night before her wedding and on the night of Myrtle Wilson’s death. Daisy, unlike Tom, uses her money rather than her body or her personality to bully others. She uses her money to protect her from reality, and when reality threatens to hurt her, she cries and goes inside the protective womb her money has made.
Be careful not to identify Daisy with the green light at the end of her dock. The green light is the promise, the dream. Daisy herself is much less than that. Even Gatsby must realize that having Daisy in the flesh is much, much less than what he imagined it would be when he fell in love with the idea of her. Jordan Baker’s most striking quality is her dishonesty. She is tough and aggressive–a tournament golfer who is so hardened by competition that she is willing to do anything to win. At the end of Chapter IV, when Nick is telling us about Jordan, he remembers a story about her first major tournament.
Apparently she moved her ball to improve her lie (!), but when the matter was being investigated, the caddy and the only other witness to the incident retracted their stories and nothing was proved against her. The incident should stay with you throughout the novel, reminding you (as it reminds Nick) that Jordan is the smart new woman, the opportunist who will do whatever she must to be successful in her world. In many ways Jordan Baker symbolizes a new type of woman that was emerging in the Twenties. She is hard and self-sufficient, and she adopts whatever morals suit her situation. She has cut herself off from the older generation. She wears the kind of clothes that suit her; she smokes, she drinks, and has sex because she enjoys them.
You may wish to explore Jordan as the new woman of the Twenties by looking at the manners and character traits she reveals. Note such things as her name (a masculine name), her body (hard, athletic, boyish, small-breasted), her style (blunt, cynical, bored), and her social background (she is cut off from past generations by having almost no family). Another important aspect of Jordan is her function in the novel. Fitzgerald needs her to get the story told. Because she is Daisy’s friend from Louisville, she can supply Nick with information he would not have otherwise. She also serves as a link between the major characters, moving back and forth between the world of East Egg (Tom and Daisy’s house) and West Egg (Gatsby’s and Nick’s houses).
She is rich enough to be comfortable among the East Eggers but enough of a social hustler to appear at Gatsby’s parties. Jordan serves still another purpose: Nick’s girlfriend during the summer of 1922. The Nick-Jordan romance serves as a nice sub-plot to the Gatsby-Jordan relationship, and allows you to compare and contrast a romantic-idealistic love with a very practical relationship made on a temporary basis by two worldly people of the time. If you want to explore the Nick-Jordan relationship and the possible reasons why Nick becomes involved with her and then breaks the relationship off, you’ll need to look particularly at three passages: Nick’s comments toward the end of Chapter III; the phone call between Nick and Jordan in Chapter VIII; and their final conversation in Chapter IX. We’ll take a close look at these passages later on. The setting in The Great Gatsby is very important because in Fitzgerald’s world setting reveals character.
Fitzgerald divides the world of the novel into four major settings: 1. East Egg; 2. West Egg; 3. the valley of ashes; and 4. New York City.
Within these major settings are two or more subsettings. East Egg is limited to Daisy’s house, but West Egg incorporates both Gatsby’s house and Nick’s. The valley of ashes includes the Wilson’s garage, Michaelis’ restaurant, and the famous sign with the eyes of Dr. T. J.
Eckleburg. New York City includes the offices where people work, the apartment Tom Buchanan has rented for Myrtle Wilson, and the Plaza Hotel, where the final showdown between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan takes place. Each of these settings both reflects and determines the values of the people who live or work there. East Egg, where Tom and Daisy live, is the home of the Ivy League set who have had wealth for a long time and are comfortable with it. Since they are secure with their money, they have no need to show it off. Nick lives in new-rich West Egg because he is too poor to afford a home in East Egg; Gatsby lives there because his money is new and he lacks the social credentials to be accepted in East Egg.
His house, like the rest of his possessions (his pink suit, for example), is tasteless and vulgar and would be completely out of place in the more refined and understated world of East Egg. No wonder that Gatsby is ruined in the end by the East, and that Nick decides to leave. The valley of ashes in contrast to both eggs is where the poor people live–those who are the victims of the rich. It is characterized literally by dust, for it is here that the city’s ashes are dumped (in what is now Flushing, Queens), and the inhabitants are, as it were, symbolically dumped on by the rest of the world. The valley of ashes, with its brooding eyes of Dr.
T. J. Eckleburg, also stands as a symbol of the spiritual dryness, the emptiness of the world of the novel. New York City is a symbol of what America has become in the 1920s: a place where anything goes, where money is made and bootleggers flourish, and where the World Series can be fixed by a man like Meyer Wolfsheim. New York is a place of parties and affairs, and bizarre and colorful characters who appear from time to time in West Egg at Gatsby’s parties.
The idea of setting as moral geography is reinforced by the overriding symbolism of the American East and the American Midwest. This larger contrast between East and Midwest frames the novel as a whole. Nick comes East to enter the bond business, and finds himself instead in the dizzying world of The Jazz Age in the summer of 1922. He is fascinated and disgusted with this world, and he eventually returns home to the Midwest, to the values and traditions of his youth. A good novel has a number of themes.
The following are important themes of The Great Gatsby. 1. THE CORRUPTION OF THE AMERICAN DREAM The American Dream–as it arose in the Colonial period and developed in the nineteenth century–was based on the assumption that each person, no matter what his origins, could succeed in life on the sole basis of his or her own skill and effort. The dream was embodied in the ideal of the self-made man, just as it was embodied in Fitzgerald’s own family by his grandfather, P. F. McQuillan.
The Great Gatsby is a novel about what happened to the American dream in the 1920s, a period when the old values that gave substance to the dream had been corrupted by the vulgar pursuit of wealth. The characters are Midwesterners who have come East in pursuit of this new dream of money, fame, success, glamour, and excitement. Tom and Daisy must have a huge house, a stable of polo ponies, and friends in Europe. Gatsby must have his enormous mansion before he can feel confident enough to try to win Daisy. What Fitzgerald seems to be criticizing in The Great Gatsby is not the American Dream itself but the corruption of the American Dream.
What was once–for Ben Franklin, for example, or Thomas Jefferson–a belief in self-reliance and hard work has become what Nick Carraway calls ..the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. The energy that might have gone into the pursuit of noble goals has been channeled into the pursuit of power and pleasure, and a very showy, but fundamentally empty form of success. How is this developed? I have tried to indicate in the chapter-by-chapter analysis, especially in the Notes, that Fitzgerald’s critique of the dream of success is developed primarily through the five central characters and through certain dominant images and symbols. The characters might be divided into three groups: 1. Nick, the observer and commentator, who sees what has gone wrong; 2. Gatsby, who lives the dream purely; and 3.
Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, the foul dust who are the prime examples of the corruption of the dream. The primary images and symbols that Fitzgerald employs in developing the theme are: 1. the green light; 2. the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg; 3.
the image of the East and Midwest; 4. Owl Eyes; 5. Dan Cody’s yacht; and 6. religious terms such as grail and incarnation. 2.
SIGHT AND INSIGHT Both the character groupings and the images and symbols suggest a second major theme that we can call sight and insight. As you read the novel, you will come across many images of blindness; is this because hardly anyone seems to see what is really going on? The characters have little self-knowledge and even less knowledge of each other. Even Gatsby–we might say, especially Gatsby–lacks the insight to understand what is happening. He never truly sees either Daisy or himself, so blinded is he by his dream. The only characters who see, in the sense of understand, are Nick and Owl Eyes.
The ever present eyes of Dr. Eckleburg seem to reinforce the theme that there is no all-seeing presence in the modern world. 3. THE MEANING OF THE PAST The past is of central importance in the novel, whether it is Gatsby’s personal past (his affair with Daisy in 1917) or the larger historical past to which Nick refers in the closing sentence of the novel: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. The past holds something that both Gatsby and Nick seem to long for: a simpler, better, nobler time, perhaps, a time when people believed in the importance of the family and the church.
Tom, Daisy and Jordan are creatures of the present–Fitzgerald tells us little or nothing about their pasts–and it is this allegiance to the moment that makes them so attractive, and also so rootless and spiritually empty. 4. THE EDUCATION OF A YOUNG MAN In Chapter VII, Nick remembers that it is his thirtieth birthday. He, like Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy, came East to get away from his past; now that his youth is officially over, he realizes that he may have made a mistake to come East, and begins a period of reevaluation that leads to his eventual decision to return to the Middle West. The Great Gatsby is the story of Nick’s initiation into life.
His trip East gives him the education he needs to grow up. The novel can, therefore, be called a bildungsroman–the German word for a story about a young man. (Other examples of a bildungsroman are The Red Badge of Courage, David Copperfield, and The Catcher in the Rye.) Nick, in a sense, writes The Great Gatsby to show us what he has learned. Style refers to the way a writer puts words together: the length and rhythm of his sentences; his use of figurative language and symbolism; his use of dialogue and description. Fitzgerald called The Great Gatsby a novel of selected incident, modelled after Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally would make another novel, he said.
Fitzgerald’s stylistic method is to let a part stand for the whole. In Chapters I to III, for example, he lets three parties stand for the whole summer and for the contrasting values of three different worlds. He also lets small snatches of dialogue represent what is happening at each party. The technique is cinematic. The camera zooms in, gives us a snatch of conversation, and then cuts to another group of people.
Nick serves almost as a recording device, jotting down what he hears. Fitzgerald’s ear for dialogue, especially for the colloquial phrases of the period, is excellent. Fitzgerald’s style might also be called imagistic. His language is full of images–concrete verbal pictures appealing to the senses. There is water imagery in descriptions of the rain, Long Island Sound, and the swimming pool.
There is religious imagery in the Godlike eyes of Dr. Eckleburg and in words such as incarnation, and grail. There is color imagery: pink for Gatsby, yellow and white for Daisy. Some images might more properly be called symbols for the way they point beyond themselves to historic or mythic truths: the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, for instance, or Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes, or Dan Cody’s yacht.
Through the symbolic use of images, Fitzgerald transforms what is on the surface a realistic social novel of the 1920s into a myth about America. Finally, we might call Fitzgerald’s style reflective. There are several important passages at which Nick stops and reflects on the meaning of the action, almost interpreting the events. The style in such passages is dense, intellectual, almost deliberately difficult as Nick tries to wrestle with the meanings behind the events he has witnessed. Style and point of view are very hard to separate in a novel that is told in the first person by a narrator who is also one of the characters.
The voice is always Nick’s. Fitzgerald’s choice of Nick as the character through whom to tell his story has a stroke of genius. He had been reading Joseph Conrad and had been particularly struck by the way in which Conrad uses the character of Marlow to tell both the story of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and the story of Jim in Lord Jim. In those novels, Fitzgerald learned, we never see the characters of Kurtz or Jim directly, but only through the eyes of other people. And when we come to think of it, isn’t that how we get to know people in real life? We never get to know them all at once, as we get to know characters described by an omniscient novelist; we learn about them in bits and pieces over a period of time. And so, Fitzgerald reasoned, someone like Gatsby would be much more understandable and sympathetic if presented through the eyes of a character like ourselves. Rather than imposing himself between us and the action, Nick brings us closer to the action by forcing us to experience events as though we were Nick.
The I of the novel becomes ourselves, and we find ourselves, like Nick, wondering who Gatsby is, why he gives these huge parties, and what his past and background may be. By writing from Nick’s point of view, Fitzgerald is able to make Gatsby more realistic than he could have by presenting Gatsby through the eyes of an omniscient narrator. He is also able to make Gatsby a more sympathetic character because of Nick’s decision to become Gatsby’s friend. We want to find out more about Gatsby because Nick does. We care about Gatsby because Nick does. We are angry that no one comes to Gatsby’s funeral because Nick is.
The use of the limited first person point of view gives not only the character of Gatsby but the whole novel a greater air of realism. We believe these parties really happened because a real person named Nick Carraway is reporting what he saw. When Nick writes down the names of the people who came to Gatsby’s parties on a Long Island Railroad timetable, we believe that these people actually came to Gatsby’s parties. Nick is careful throughout the novel never to tell us things that he could not have known. If he was not present at a particular occasion, he gets the information from someone who was–from Jordan Baker, for example, who tells him about Gatsby’s courtship of Daisy in Louisville; or from the Greek, Michaelis, who tells him about the death of Myrtle Wilson. Sometimes Nick summarizes what others tell him, and sometimes he uses their words.
But he never tells us something he could never know. This is one of the reasons the novel is so convincing. Form and structure are closely related to point of view. Before writing a novel, an author has to ask himself: who is to tell the story? And in what order will events be told? The primary problem in answering the second question is how to handle time. Do I tell the story straight through from beginning to end? Do I start in the middle and use flashbacks? As many critics have pointed out, the method Fitzgerald adopts in The Great Gatsby is a brilliant one. He starts the novel in the present, giving us, in the first three chapters, a glimpse of the four main locales of the novel: Daisy’s house in East Egg (Chapter I); the valley of ashes and New York (Chapter II); and Gatsby’s house in West Egg (Chapter III).
Having established the characters and setting in the first three chapters, he then narrates the main events of the story in Chapters IV to IX, using Chapters IV, VI, and VII to gradually reveal the story of Gatsby’s past. The past and present come together at the end of the novel in Chapter IX. The critic James E. Miller, Jr., diagrams the sequence of events in The Great Gatsby like this: Allowing X to stand for the straight chronological account of the summer of 1922, and A, B, C, D, and F to represent the significant events of Gatsby’s past, the nine chapters of The Great Gatsby may be charted: X, X, X, XCX, X, XBXCX, X, XCXDXD, XEXAX. Miller’s diagram shows clearly how Fitzgerald designed the novel.
He gives us the information as Nick gets it, just as we might find out information about a friend or acquaintance in real life, in bits and pieces over a period of time. Since we don’t want or can’t absorb much information about a character until we truly become interested in him, Fitzgerald waits to take us into the past until close to the middle of the novel. As the story moves toward its climax, we find out more and more about the central figure from Nick until we, too, are in a privileged position and can understand why Gatsby behaves as he does. Thus the key to the structure of the novel is the combination of the first person narrative and the gradual revelation of the past as the narrator finds out more and more. The two devices work extremely effectively together, but neither would work very well alone. Note that the material included in the novel is highly selective.
Fitzgerald creates a series of scenes–most of them parties–but does not tell us much about what happens between these scenes. Think of how much happened in the summer of 1922 that Fitzgerald doesn’t tell us! He doesn’t tell us about Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship after they meet at Nick’s house in Chapter V, because Nick would have no access to this information. What the technique of extreme selectivity demands from the reader is close attention. We have to piece together everything we know about Gatsby from the few details that Nick gives us. Part of the pleasure this form gives us is that of drawing conclusions not only from what is included but from what is left out. The opening paragraphs teach us a lot about Nick and his attitude toward Gatsby and others. Nick introduces himself to us as a young man from the Midwest who has come East to learn the bond business.
He tells us that he’s tolerant, inclined to reserve judgment about people, and a good listener. People tell him their secrets because they trust him; he knows the Story of Gatsby. If you read closely, you’ll see that Nick has ambivalent feelings toward Gatsby. He both loves Gatsby and is critical of him. Nick is tolerant, but that toleration has limits.
He hates Gatsby’s crass and vulgar materialism, but he also admires the man for his dream, his romantic readiness, his extraordinary gift for hope. Nick makes the distinction between Gatsby, whom he loves because of his dream, and the other characters, who constitute the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams. Nick has such scorn for these Eastern types that he has left the East, returned to the Midwest, and, for the time being at least, withdraws from his involvement with other people. Having told us about his relationships, Nick now introduces us to the world in which he lived during the summer of 1999: the world of East Egg and West Egg, Long Island. Fitzgerald designed The Great Gatsby very carefully, establishing each of the locations in the novel as a symbol for a particular style of life. West Egg, where Nick and Gatsby live, is essentially a place for the nouveau riche.
There are two types of people living here: those on the way up the social ladder who have not the family background or the money to live in fashionable East Egg; and those like Gatsby, whose vulgar display of wealth and connections with Broadway or the New York underworld make them unwelcome in the more dignified world of East Egg. Nick describes his own house as an eyesore, but it is a smaller eyesore than Gatsby’s mansion, which has a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy. Words like new, thin, and raw describe some of the reasons Gatsby’s house is a monstrosity. By contrast, East Egg is like a fairyland. Its primary color is white, and Nick calls its houses white palaces that glitter in the sunlight.
The story actually opens in East Egg on the night Nick drives over to have dinner with Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Since Daisy is his cousin and Tom, a friend from Yale, Nick has the credentials to visit East Egg. Their house is a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial Mansion overlooking the bay. And the owner is obviously proud of his possessions. Our first view of Tom Buchanan reveals a very powerful man standing in riding clothes with his legs apart on his front porch.
He likes his power, and like the potentates of Eastern kingdoms, he expects the obedience of his subjects. We are ushered into the living room with its frosted wedding cake ceiling, its wine-colored rug, and its enormous couch on which are seated two princesses in white: Jordan Baker and Tom’s wife, Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald controls the whole scene through his use of colors–white and gold mainly–that suggest a combination of beauty and wealth. Yet underneath this magical surface there is something wrong. Jordan Baker is bored and discontented. She yawns more than once in this very first scene.
There is something cool and slightly unpleasant about the atmosphere–something basically disturbing. Tom talks about a book he has read, The Rise of the Colored Empires by Goddard. It is a piece of pure Social Darwinism, advocating that the white race preserve its own purity and beat down the colored races before they rise up and overcome the whites. Daisy, who seems not to understand what Tom is talking about, teases him about his size and about the big words in the book. The telephone rings, and Tom is called from the room to answer it. When Daisy follows him out, Jordan Baker confides to Nick that the call is from Tom’s woman in New York.
The rest of the evening is awkward and painful as Tom and Daisy try unsuccessfully to forget the intrusion. Daisy’s cynicism about life becomes painfully clear when she says about her daughter’s birth: ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’ NOTE: Under the veneer of the white world, there is hollowness. Nick has said at the very beginning that Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. Even in this opening chapter, we are getting hints that Tom and Daisy are part of this foul dust.
In Nick’s eyes, Tom and Daisy belong to a rather distinguished secret society, whose members have powers the outside world can neither understand nor control. Nick finds both of them smug and insincere. The evening ends early, around ten o’clock. Jordan Baker, a competitive golfer, wants to go to bed since she’s playing in a tournament the next day. Before Nick leaves for West Egg, Tom and Daisy hint that they would welcome his attention to Miss Baker during the summer.
Nick arrives home, and (in the final paragraph of the chapter) gets his first glimpse of Gatsby. Gatsby is standing on the lawn, stretching out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way. Nick, from his own house, believes that he can see Gatsby trembling. As Nick looks out at the water, he can see ..nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. NOTE: THE GREEN LIGHT AS SYMBOL This is the first use of one of the novel’s central symbols, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.
What Fitzgerald seems to be doing is merely introducing a symbol that will gain in meaning as the story progresses. At this point, we don’t even know that the light is on Daisy’s dock, and we have no reason to associate Gatsby with Daisy. What we do know–and this is very important–is that Nick admires Gatsby because of his dream and this dream is somehow associated with the green light. The color green is a traditional symbol of spring and hope and youth. As long as Gatsby gazes at the green light, his dream lives.
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. NOTE: 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.