If The Great Gatsby were college, Chapter 2 would be the drunk frat party that gets way out of control, with Tom Buchanan as that guy yelling at everyone to chug. That's because this chapter is all about Tom's double life: Nick meets his mistress, gets wasted at her small apartment party in Manhattan, and gets an up close and personal view into Tom's violent tendencies.
Read on for a full The Great Gatsby Chapter 2 summary, plus explication of connections to the book's main themes and analysis of important passages!
Quick Note on Our Citations
Our citation format in this guide is (chapter.paragraph). We're using this system since there are many editions of Gatsby, so using page numbers would only work for students with our copy of the book.
To find a quotation we cite via chapter and paragraph in your book, you can either eyeball it (Paragraph 1-50: beginning of chapter; 50-100: middle of chapter; 100-on: end of chapter), or use the search function if you're using an online or eReader version of the text.
The Great Gatsby: Chapter 2 Summary
Nick describes the "valley of ashes" that is the area between the rich suburb of West Egg and Manhattan. This is the gray and dirty part of the borough of Queens that you drive through to get from Long Island to NYC.
Above this bleak, smoky, unpleasant landscape is a giant billboard advertising Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, an eye doctor. The billboard is a set of giant eyes that seems to be surveying or judging everything below.
Tom's mistress lives in this "ash heaps" area.
One day, when Nick takes the train with Tom to Manhattan, Tom suddenly makes him get off at a random stop to meet her.
They go to a garage owned by George Wilson, who seems to be in the middle of buying a car from Tom. Myrtle Wilson, George's wife, comes down to the garage. She isn't beautiful, but is attractive because she is plump and lively. Tom quickly makes a plan to meet her in the city. He and Nick leave, and Tom explains that George has no idea that Myrtle is having an affair with Tom.
Tom insists Myrtle meet him in Manhattan, so she boards the same train as Tom and Nick, but she sits in a different car to be discreet, and they then meet up at the station.
Myrtle decides she would like a dog, and Tom buys her a puppy from a condescending passing salesman.
Nick tries to leave Tom and Myrtle, but they insist he come up to their apartment very far uptown. The apartment is small, gaudily decorated, and uncomfortable. Tom brings out a bottle of whiskey.
For the second time in his life (or so he claims), Nick gets drunk, so his memory of what happens next is somewhat hazy. Nevertheless, we get the sense that Tom and Myrtle have sex while Nick politely reads a book in the other room.
Then some guests come over: Myrtle's sister Catherine, as well as a photographer named McKee and his horrible wife. Myrtle lords it over her guests. The McKees fawn over her and Tom, complimenting her dress and devising ways of photographing her artistically. Tom plies them with alcohol. Meanwhile, Catherine tells Nick that she's been to a party at Gatsby's house. According to her, Gatsby is so rich because he is Kaiser Wilhelm's cousin.
Catherine then tells Nick that both Tom and Myrtle hate the people they're married to; she wonders why they don't divorced and marry each other instead. When Myrtle overhears, she says something obscene about George Wilson. According to Catherine, these divorces don't happen because Daisy is Catholic. Nick, who knows that Daisy is not Catholic, is shocked by what has obviously been Tom's lie.
Nick then remembers Mrs. McKee using an anti-Semitic slur to talk about a failed suitor. Myrtle responds that her own mistake had been to marry the suitor that she should have ignored.
Nick keeps trying and failing to leave the party.
Myrtle tells him the story of how she first met Tom on the train. He picked her up by pressing himself against her when they got out on the platform.
Later that night, Myrtle and Tom have an argument about Daisy and Tom hits her so hard that he breaks her nose.
Nick leaves the party and goes home with McKee, the photographer. The narrative gets harder and harder to follow as Nick's inebriation really catches up with him. Nick somehow ends up at the train station, waiting for the 4 am train to get back to West Egg.
One interpretation of Nick going home with the photographer is that Nick is actually gay. We delve into this theory on NIck's character page.
Key Chapter 2 Quotes
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. 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. (2.1)
Every time anyone goes from Long Island to Manhattan or back, they go through this depressing industrial area in the middle of Queens. The factories located here pollute the air and land around them—their detritus is what makes the "ash" dust that covers everything and everyone. This is the place where those who cannot succeed in the rat race end up, hopeless and lacking any way to escape. Check out our focused article for a much more in-depth analysis of what the crucial symbol of "the valley of ashes" stands for in this novel.
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 nonexistent 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. (2.2)
There is no God in the novel. None of the characters seems to be religious, no one wonders about the moral or ethical implications of any actions, and in the end, there are no punishments doled out to the bad or rewards given to the good. This lack of religious feeling is partly what makes Tom's lie to Myrtle about Daisy being a Catholic particularly egregious. This lack of even a basic moral framework is underscored by the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, a giant billboard that is as close as this world gets to having a watchful authoritative presence.
Mrs. Wilson had changed her costume some time before and was now attired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream colored chiffon, which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room. With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change. The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air. (2.56)
This chapter is our main exposure to Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress. Here, we see the main points of her personality—or at least the way that she comes across to Nick. First, it's interesting to note that aside from Tom, whose hulkish physique Nick really pays a lot of attention to, Myrtle is the only character whose physicality is dwelt on at length. We hear a lot about her body and the way she moves in space—here, we not only get her "sweeping" across the room, "expanding," and "revolving," but also the sense that her "gestures" are somehow "violent." It makes sense that for Nick, who is into the cool and detached Jordan, Myrtle's overenthusiastic affect is a little off-putting. But remember this focus on Myrtle's body when you read Chapter 7, where this body will be exposed in a shocking way.
Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face discussing in impassioned voices whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy's name.
"Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!" shouted Mrs. Wilson. "I'll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai----"
Making a short deft movement Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand. (2.124-126)
This bit of violence succinctly encapsulates Tom's brutality, how little he thinks of Myrtle, and it also speaks volumes about their vastly unequal and disturbing relationship. Two things to think about:
#1: Why doesn't Tom want Myrtle to mention Daisy? It could be a way of maintaining discretion—to keep secret her identity in order to hide the affair. But, considering everyone in town apparently knows about Myrtle, this doesn't seem to be the reason. More likely is the fact that Tom does actually hold Daisy in much higher regard than Myrtle, and he refuses to let the lower class woman "degrade" his high-class wife by talking about her freely. This is yet again an example of his extreme snobbery.
#2: Tom is a person who uses his body to get what he wants. Sometimes this is within socially acceptable boundaries—for example, on the football field at Yale—and sometimes it is to browbeat everyone around him into compliance. It's also interesting that both Tom and Myrtle are such physically present characters in the novel—in this moment, Myrtle is the only character that actually stands up to Tom. In a way, they are a perfect match.
In my fanfic reworking of this scene, Myrtle would get to really go to town on Tom, MMA-style.
Chapter 2 Analysis
So how does this chapter contribute to our understanding of the novel's themes? And what are the most significant character beats to remember? I'll answer those questions in this section.
Themes and Symbols
Love, Desire, and Relationships. At the party, the guests discuss love and marriage. Two separate threads in this conversation stand out:
#1: In Catherine's eyes, the situation between Myrtle and Tom couldn't be clearer: both don't like their spouses, both are into each other, so the obvious solution would be for the two of them to run off together. Of course, we see that Tom would never leave Daisy for Myrtle—she is just someone he can feel free to abuse, since he can always buy her compliance with more cheap gifts.
#2: Myrtle describes her decision to marry Wilson as a case of mistaken identity. She thought he was a gentleman, but his veneer of class—exemplified by the fact that he "He borrowed somebody's best suit to get married in and never even told me" (2.116)—was almost immediately dispelled after the wedding. This is very reminiscent of both what happens to Daisy, as Tom cheats on her during their honeymoon, revealing his MO; and what almost happens to Daisy and Gatsby, who is yet another man who seems like a gentleman but is actually living in a borrowed "suit" and a borrowed identity.
Society and Class. After seeing the heights of the upper classes on East Egg and the lows of the factory workers in the valley of ashes, this chapter shows us what life is like for a segment of the middle class. Myrtle is desperate to get as far away from her depressing life with Wilson at the gas station as she can, surrounding herself with the material trappings that Tom can provide: an apartment, clothes, and an accessory dog.
The American Dream. In a novel that is all about the American drive to get ahead, Myrtle is one of the strivers, willing to put up with terrible treatment in exchange for a chance to climb higher. So are the people hanging on her coattails, like the McKees and Catherine. Seeing her with this shows us just how striated (separated into layers) society is, as Myrtle grabs every tiny opportunity to demonstrate her slightly higher status to her entourage.
The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. This world is defined by its lawless amorality, and there is no voice of moral authority to pass judgment on the bad behavior of the characters. All we get is an inanimate object that hints at the possibility of a divine watcher. But, even though these disembodied eyes do make wrong-doers feel uncomfortable under their gaze, they can't actually prevent anything. For example, Tom is entirely comfortable lying. He maintains a mistress, lying to Daisy about his phone calls. And it turns out that he is lying to Myrtle as well, telling her that the reason he can't divorce his wife is that Daisy is a Catholic. He winces under the eyes of the billboard, but it doesn't deter him in any way.
The Valley of Ashes. There are those who live in palaces in West and East Egg. There are those who party in apartments in Manhattan. But this chapter shows us what happens to the people who get left behind, and who can't muster up the luck and energy needed to "win." They end up in the gray wasteland of industrial Queens, enabling the rich to get richer through their depressing, polluted, and monotonous labor.
Are there any happy marriages in this book? Like, how are Nick's parents doing? Or that random horseback riding couple we'll see later? Anybody?
Crucial Character Beats
Tom drags Nick to meet Myrtle at Wilson's gas station, in the middle of the "valley of ashes" that is industrial Queens.
They arrange to meet in Manhattan, where Myrtle hosts a little party in her apartment.
Myrtle lords it over her guests and reveals how miserable she is in her marriage.
It's also clear that Tom has been lying to Myrtle about his own marriage in order to string her along.
The party breaks up after Tom punches Myrtle in the face and breaks her nose. He does it because she mentions Daisy's name.
Draw comparisons between Myrtle and Daisy to see how these two almost diametrically opposed women actually have some important things in common. Also, explore how each perceives her relationships with men.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.