In The Great Gatsby, between the glittering excitement of Manhattan and the stately mansions of East and West Egg, there is a horrible stretch of road that goes through an area covered in dust and ash from the nearby factories.
Why does the novel insist on spending time in this depressing place? Why, instead of simply calling it Queens, or giving it a fictional name, does Nick refer to it by the vaguely Biblical-sounding "valley of ashes"?
In this article, I'll dissect this potent symbol of the failure of the American Dream, analyze the places it occurs in the text, figure out the characters who are most closely associated with this location, and give you some tips on writing essays about this image.
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.
What Is the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby?
The valley of ashes is the depressing industrial area of Queens that is in between West Egg and Manhattan. It isn't actually made out of ashes, but seems that way because of how gray and smoke-choked it is.
This grayness and dust are directly related to the factories that are nearby—their smokestacks deposit a layer of soot and ash over everything.
The valley is next to both the train tracks and the road that runs from West Egg to Manhattan—Nick and other characters travel through it via both modes of transportation.
The area is also next to a small river and its drawbridge, where the products of the factories are shipped to their destinations.
Key Quotes About the Valley of Ashes
Before we can figure out what the ash heaps mean as a symbol, let's do some close reading of the moments where they pop up in The Great Gatsby.
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. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight…
The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour. There is always a halt there of at least a minute and it was because of this that I first met Tom Buchanan's mistress. (2.1-3)
After telling us about the "fine health to be pulled down out of the young breath-giving air" (1.12) of West Egg in Chapter 1, Nick shows us just how the glittering wealth of the nouveau riche who live there is accumulated. Much of it comes from industry: factories that pollute the area around them into a "grotesque" and "ghastly" version of a beautiful countryside.
Instead of the bucolic, green image of a regular farm, here we have a "fantastic farm" (fantastic here means "something out of the realm of fantasy") that grows ash instead of wheat and where pollution makes the water "foul" and the air "powdery."
This imagery of growth serves two purposes.
- First, it's disturbing, as it's clearly meant to be. The beauty of the natural world has been transformed into a horrible hellscape of gray ashes. Not only that, but it is turning regular humans into "ash-grey men" who "swarm" like insects around the factories and cargo trains (that's the "line of grey cars"). These are the people who do not get to enjoy either the luxury of life out on Long Island, or the faster-paced anonymous fun that Nick finds himself enjoying in Manhattan. In the novel's world of haves and have-nots, these are the have-nots.
- Second, the passage shows how disconnected the rich are from the source of their wealth. Nick is annoyed when he is a train passenger who has to wait for the drawbridge to lead barges through. But the barges are carrying the building products of the factories. Nick is a bond trader, and bonds are basically loans people give to companies (companies sell bond shares, use that money to grow, and then have to pay back that money to the people who bought the bonds). In the 1920s, the bond market was fueling the construction of skyscrapers, particularly in New York. In other words, the same construction boom that is making Queens into a valley of ashes is also buoying up the new moneyed class that populates West Egg.
"Oh, sure," agreed Wilson hurriedly and went toward the little office, mingling immediately with the cement color of the walls. A white ashen dust veiled his dark suit and his pale hair as it veiled everything in the vicinity--except his wife, who moved close to Tom. (2.17)
In the valley, there is such a thick coating gray dust that it looks like everything is made out of this ashy substance. It's important to note that from a general description of people as "ash-grey men" we now see that ashy description applied specifically to George Wilson. He is covered in a "veil" of desolation, sadness, hopelessness, and everything else associated with the ash.
Also, we see that Myrtle Wilson is the only thing that isn't covered by ash. She visually stands out from her surroundings since she doesn't blend into the "cement color" around her. This makes sense since she is an ambitious character who is eager to escape her life. Notice that she literally steps towards Tom, allying herself with a rich man who is only passing through the ash heaps on his way from somewhere better to somewhere better.
"I'm going to make a big request of you today," he said, pocketing his souvenirs with satisfaction, "so I thought you ought to know something about me. I didn't want you to think I was just some nobody."...
Then the valley of ashes opened out on both sides of us, and I had a glimpse of Mrs. Wilson straining at the garage pump with panting vitality as we went by.
With fenders spread like wings we scattered light through half Astoria--only half, for as we twisted among the pillars of the elevated I heard the familiar "jug--jug--spat!" of a motor cycle, and a frantic policeman rode alongside.
"All right, old sport," called Gatsby. We slowed down. Taking a white card from his wallet he waved it before the man's eyes.
"Right you are," agreed the policeman, tipping his cap. "Know you next time, Mr. Gatsby. Excuse me!"
"What was that?" I inquired. "The picture of Oxford?"
"I was able to do the commissioner a favor once, and he sends me a Christmas card every year." (4.43-54)
While West and East Egg are the settings for the ridiculous extravagance of both the old and new money crowd, and Manhattan the setting for business and organized crime, the valley of ashes tends to be where the novel situates the grubby and underhanded manipulations that show the darker side of the surrounding glamor.
Check out just how many unethical things are going on here:
- Gatsby wants Nick to set him up with Daisy so they can have an affair.
- Mrs. Wilson's "panting vitality" reminds us of her thoroughly unpleasant relationship with Tom.
- A policeman lets Gatsby off the hook for speeding because of Gatsby's connections.
- Nick jokes about Gatsby's shady-sounding story about being an Oxford man.
- Gatsby hints at doing something probably illegal for the police commissioner (possibly supplying him with alcohol?) that makes the commissioner be permanently in his pocket.
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Wilson's glazed eyes turned out to the ashheaps, where small grey clouds took on fantastic shape and scurried here and there in the faint dawn wind. (8.101)
This brief mention of the ashheaps sets up the chapter's shocking conclusion, once again positioning Wilson as a man who is coming out of the gray world of ashy pollution and factory dust. Notice how the word "fantastic" comes back. The twisted, macabre world of the valley of ashes is spreading. No longer just on the buildings, roads, and people, it is what Wilson's sky is now made out of as well. At the same time, in combination with Wilson's "glazed" eyes, the word "fantastic" seems to point to his deteriorating mental state.
No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o'clock--until long after there was any one to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (8.110)
The final reference to the ash heaps is at the moment of the murder-suicide, as George skulks towards Gatsby floating in his pool. Again, the ashy world is "fantastic"—a word that smacks of scary fairy tales and ghost stories, particularly when combined with the eerie description of Wilson as a "gliding figure" and the oddly shapeless and out of focus ("amorphous") trees.
It's significant that what threatens the fancy world of the Eggs is the creeping encroachment of the ash that they so look down on and are so disgusted by.
But, truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of dust getting into my house either.
The Meaning and Significance of the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby
In the world of the novel, which is so much about the stark differences between the rich, the strivers, and the poor, the valley of ashes stands for the forgotten poor underclass who enable the lifestyle of the wealthy few. The people who live and work there are the factory employees whose production is driving the construction boom that supplies the residents of West Egg with wealth and also allows the criminal underclass to prosper by creating fake bonds to cash in (this is the illegal activity that Gatsby tempts Nick with).
This region of industrial production is shown burying its inhabitants in the polluted byproduct of its factories: ash that covers everything from cars to buildings to people. This literal burial has a symbolic meaning as well, as those who cannot connive their way to the top are left behind to stagnate. The valley is a place of hopelessness, of loss, and of giving up. Highlighting this is the fact that Myrtle Wilson is the only ash heaps resident who isn't covered in the gray dust—she has enough ambition to try to hitch her wagon to Tom, and she hopes to the very last that he will be her ticket out of this life. On the other hand, although Wilson also tries to leave the ash heaps by moving to a different part of the state, his defeatist attitude and general weakness doom his escape attempt to failure.
At the same time, the phrase "the valley of ashes" connects to the Biblical "the valley of the shadow of death" found in Psalm 23. In the psalm, this terrifying place is made safe by the presence of God. But in the novel, the valley has no divine presence or higher moral authority. Instead, the ashes point to the inexorable march toward death and dissolution, linking this valley with the Anglican burial services reminder that the body is "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Even when George tries to sense a divine presence through the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, the fact that no one else is impacted by this billboard's inanimate presence ultimately dooms George as well.
Characters, Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Connected to the Valley of Ashes
George Wilson: George Wilson's garage is right in the middle of the valley. He is so strongly identified with this place that by the end of his book he is described as an "ashen figure"—he is almost made out the dust that covers everything in this Queens neighborhood. He is also the book's weakest, most hopeless, and least ambitious character—traits that doom him in the cynical, self-serving, amoral world that Fitzgerald is describing, and traits that align with what the ash heaps represent.
Myrtle Wilson: George's wife remains vibrant and colorful despite her 11 years living in the middle of the ash heaps. Her dreams of escape enable her to avoid being covered with the dust that ends up burying everyone else. However, because her path to leaving centers on Tom, the valley of ashes ends up being Myrtle's death trap.
Society and Class: Everyone who can afford to move away from the dirty and depressing valley does so, which means the only people that left to live and work there are those who have no other options. The state of this area shows what happens in a culture where getting ahead is valued above all other things: those who cannot succeed on these vicious terms have no recourse but being buried alive by pollution and misery.
The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg: The billboard that features the strikingly disquieting disembodied giant eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is located in the middle of the valley of ashes, right next to Wilson's garage. Just as the ash heaps reveal the huge gulf between the poor and the rich, so the eyes stare at the devastation that heedless capitalism has created. This stare seems accusatory, but of course, the eyes are completely inanimate, and so whatever guilt they produce in the person they are looking at dissipates almost immediately. The eyes speak to the lack of God/religion in the novel, and that how George is the only one who outwardly grants them any larger significance beyond Nick and Tom's half-hearted discomfort under their stare.
Symbols: Colors. Fitzgerald doesn't deviate from the standard association of the color gray in this novel. It describes things that are dirty, unpleasant, dull, uninteresting, monotonous, and generally depressing—all qualities that are associated with the ash heaps as well. When this color is combined with the ashes, it also stands for death, decay, and destruction (all the fun "d" words).
Motif: Cars. Although most of the time, the novel treats cars as a dangerous, exciting, and liberating mode of transportation, these positive qualities fade away whenever cars enter the valley of death:
- On the more benign end, there is permanent traffic. (Nick complains about waiting for barges to cross under the drawbridge.)
- There is also the threat of running out of fuel. (Tom, Nick, and Jordan stop at Wilson's gas station to fill up because Gatsby's fake warning about the empty tank makes Nick nervous.)
- And of course, there are frequent wrecks (as evidenced both by the drunken accident Nick sees leaving Gatsby's party, and Tom's gleeful exclamation that a wreck means more business for Wilson's garage when they are nearing the scene of Myrtle's hit-and-run).
- Finally, the ash heaps are the scene of Myrtle's death by car, as Daisy runs her over, which leads us right back into the novel's ongoing theme of death and failure.
This might well be the first time a drawbridge was directly connected to murder...
Essay Ideas and Tips for Writing About the Valley of Ashes
Now that we've explored the layers of meanings behind the valley of ashes, you're in a good place to think about how to write about this symbol.
Tips for Writing About Symbols
Here are some tips for how to write an essay about the role of a symbol in a novel, including the valley of ashes:
- Build from the text out. In this article, I first looked at the valley of ashes as it appears as a location for events in the novel, and only afterward wrote about its general meaning and connections. The same approach is good to remember for your own essay. Work from small ideas to big ones, and you'll be supporting your argument.
- Make an argument. It's not enough to just describe the symbol and explain its possible meanings. Instead, you have to make sure that you're making some kind of point about why/how the symbol works. How do you know if you're making an argument and not just saying the obvious? If you can imagine someone arguing the opposite of what you're saying, then you've got an argument on your hands.
- Don't overthink it. Sure, the ash heaps can be said to represent lots of things: the failure of the American Dream, the low position of the working class in the novel, or the way death underpins the glittering high life in Manhattan and the Eggs. But that doesn't mean that it also stands for doomed love, Gatsby's mysterious past, or international cooperation. In other words, watch out for stretching your symbol analysis too far from what the text is telling you.
Essay Ideas for the Valley of Ashes
Here are some possible essay arguments. You can build from them as-is, argue their opposite, or use them as jumping-off points for your own interpretation.
The valley of ashes shows what happens to people who try to pursue the American Dream through honest hard work—they end up nowhere.
The valley of ashes is only the most obvious site of decay in the novel. In reality, all of the places show signs of rot and decomposition which underpins the seemingly glittering lifestyle of the rich characters.
For Myrtle, the valley of ashes is as inescapable a trap as the Buchanan mansion is for Daisy.
The whole place might as well have barbed wire around it for how easy it is to escape.
The Bottom Line
- The valley of ashes is the depressing industrial area of Queens between West Egg and Manhattan. It isn't actually made out of ashes, but seems that way because of how gray and smoke-choked it is.
- The valley is mentioned in:
- Chapter 2, where Nick describes what this place is like at length before he goes there to meet Tom's mistress Myrtle.
- Chapter 4, where it's the place Gatsby can flash his mysterious get-out-of-a-ticket-free card at a cop and also ask Nick to set him up with Daisy.
- Chapter 8, where a beaten down and despondent Wilson looks at the ash heaps to try to find divine moral guidance.
- This symbol is connected to discussions of:
- Class division, since it stands for the forgotten poor underclass who enable the lifestyle of the wealthy few.
- The way the working class is left behind, since this place is both literally burying its inhabitants in the polluted byproduct of its factories and figuratively burying those who cannot connive their way to the top to stagnate in hopelessness and despair.
- The absence of a moral value system, which is notably lacking in the valley, which has no divine presence or higher authority beyond a creepy inanimate billboard.
- The characters, themes, symbols, and motifs most closely connected to the valley of ashes are:
- George Wilson, whose garage is right in the middle of the valley.
- Myrtle Wilson, who remains vibrant and colorful despite her 11 years living in the middle of the ash heaps.
- Society and class, since everyone who can afford to move away from the dirty and depressing valley does so, which means the only people that left to live and work there are those who have no other options.
- The Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, a billboard that speaks to the lack of God or religion in the novel.
- The motif of colors, where gray describes things that are dirty, unpleasant, dull, uninteresting, monotonous, and generally depressing.
- The motif of cars, which lose their usually positive associations whenever they enter the valley of death.
Revisit Chapter 2, Chapter 4, and Chapter 8 to see the context surrounding mentions of the valley and its ash heaps. You can even explore why the valley of ashes almost made it into the title of the novel here.
Consider the characters of George and Myrtle Wilson to understand why he succumbs to the ash heaps and she rises above them. You can also read about all the other symbols in The Great Gatsby.
While the Valley of Ashes is all about imagery and tone words, there are several other literary elements at play in The Great Gatsby. Learn how to spot personification and rhetorical devices in action with our guides.
Need to review your knowledge of literary devices and poetic terminology for an English/Literature class? Read up on assonance, iambic pentameter, and point of view.
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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.