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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald Chapter II Summary And Analysis
This chapter opens with a description of the Valley of Ashes, a desolate area of land between West Egg and New York City. In this industrial wasteland, through which the commuter train must pass, everything is covered with dust, smoke, and ashes. But above this gray, ashen land, there is a sign of hope – a huge advertisement painted on the side of a building. The ad shows the large, blue eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckelberg, oculist, looking out from an enormous pair of yellow glasses. The eyes, which are just beginning to fade in color, appear to be brooding over the gray wasteland below them.
This bleak setting is the appropriate home of Tom Buchanan’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson. One Sunday afternoon in July, when Nick and Tom are riding into the city, the train stops at a drawbridge in the Valley of Ashes. While the train is at a standstill, Tom grabs Nick’s elbow, forces him from the car, and says, “I want you to meet my girl.” They walk through several blocks of nothingness until they enter Wilson’s Garage and Repair Shop. George Wilson, like the building and its surroundings, is covered in ash and spiritless in nature. In contrast to him, his wife Myrtle, in her mid thirties, is very sensuous, with an air of vitality about her even though she is faintly stout and unattractive. Tom taunts George with a promise to sell him his automobile and tells Myrtle to get on the next train. She is always ready to escape from the Valley of Ashes, and gladly obliges Tom. She discreetly sits in the next car, away from her lover. In New York, however, the three of them get in a cab together and head towards the apartment that Tom rents for her.
On the way to the apartment, Myrtle, possessed with purchasing things, insists upon stopping to buy a puppy being offered by a gray old man on the street corner. Tom pays the man for the dog and comments that “it’s a bitch,” words that Myrtle ironically could not say even though she is a mistress herself. Nick tries to leave the cab to take a pastoral stroll through the park in the soft warmth of the bright afternoon, but Tom insists that Nick come up to the bleak apartment, which is a small, crowded one bedroom flat on the top floor. (Symbolically, Nick is torn between the order of his pastoral Midwest and the chaos and flash of New York.)
The crowded apartment is soon packed with additional guests — Myrtle’s sister Catherine (described in ashen terms) and the McKees, who are neighbors from downstairs. A party of sorts ensues with much drinking and inane conversation. Myrtle, who has changed her clothes for the third time in a matter of hours, also changes her personality from the earlier vitality found in the garage to one of false pretension, with exaggerated laughter and phony gestures. She loudly complains to everyone present about her husband George and says, “I married him because I thought he was a gentleman…I thought he knew something about breeding.” She next goes on to tell how she was horrified to discover that he had borrowed the suit he had worn to their wedding. She then tells Nick about meeting Tom on the train for the first time, being attracted by his clothing, and convincing herself to go off with him since “you can’t live forever.”
By nine o’clock, Mr. McKee has fallen asleep, and Nick quickly goes over and wipes from his face a spot of dried lather that has bothered him all afternoon. Myrtle, by this time, is orally making a list of all the things she has planned to buy: a massage, a permanent wave, a collar for the puppy, a special kind of ash tray, and a wreath with a black silk bow that will last all summer for her mother’s grave. She then states, “I got to write down a list so I won’t forget all the things I got to do.” In the midst of it all, people seem to disappear and reappear, to make plans to go somewhere and then lose each other. Nick admits that he has had too much to drink and that everything appears vague and shadowy, as if Myrtle has brought the Valley of Ashes with her.
Nick describes himself at the party as being “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” The spell of the party, however, is broken around midnight when Tom and Myrtle argue loudly over her talking about Daisy. Tom insists that she not even mention his wife’s name. When Myrtle taunts him by shouting, “Daisy! Daisy!…I’ll say it whenever I want to,” Tom answers by striking her face and breaking her nose. Nick’s sense of moral order is repulsed by the violence, and he leaves in an alcoholic stupor, finally catching the 4:00 a.m. train back to West Egg.
It is intentional that Chapter I ends with Gatsby reaching out to his dream, a hope for something concrete, as symbolized by the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. By contrast, Chapter II opens with a description of the Valley of Ashes, a symbol of the hopelessness produced by modern, industrialized society in its thoughtless search for money. The ashes are the by-product of the wealthy, the foul dust that destroys dreams and the symbol of the spiritual decay of the times.
The contrasts and symbolism continue throughout the chapter. The eyes of Dr. Eckelberg, painted on a building overlooking the wasteland known as the Valley of Ashes, symbolize the all knowing eyes of God, but the eyes are beginning to fade, as if the owner is losing hope, as if he can do nothing to control the ashes that mankind continues to create in abundance. Dr. Eckelberg’s large blue eyes are then contrasted to the eyes of George Wilson, a pathetic and spiritless product of the wasteland who is blinded and obliterated by the ashes. In contrast to her husband, Myrtle Wilson at first seems to have some vitality left in her despite her life in the Valley of Ashes. When she goes to the apartment in New York, however, she seems to bring the ashen life with her, creating a smoky air and disguising her vitality, which is replaced with false pretension to be something she is not and can never be. Throughout the chapter, Myrtle is developed in total contrast to the light and airy Daisy, who has no purpose or plan. Myrtle, a heavyset, plain woman, is preoccupied with appearances (she constantly worries about clothing) and petty planning (to buy a dog collar, an ash tray, a massage, and a wreath for her mother’s grave – all of seeming equal importance to her). Myrtle wants more than anything to permanently leave the Valley of Ashes, to rise above her low class, and pretends that dresses and purchases elevate her lifestyle. Her pathetic existence, while more active and organized than Daisy’s, is equally meaningless.
A sharp contrast is also developed between Nick and Tom. Nick, who longs several times in the chapter to take a pastoral walk through the park (subconsciously reflecting his desire to return home to the pastoral Midwest), is still a product of his orderly upbringing. He is horrified by Tom’s behavior and driven to distraction by a bit of dried shaving cream on Mr. McKee’s face. As soon as McKee falls asleep, Nick wipes the spot away, trying to put everything back in order. Tom, on the other hand, is violent and compulsive. He spiritually strikes out at Daisy by having this petty affair and displaying his common mistress for the world to see (much like he parades his horses) and he physically strikes out at Myrtle, breaking her nose in total brutality. In perfect contrast to the orderly Nick, Tom is a symbol of disorder and destruction — the product of his extreme wealth.
Tom is also contrasted to George Wilson, Myrtle’s husband. She claims that she married him because she felt he had “good breeding” but betrays him when she thinks that he does not act or dress like a gentleman. Ironically, she is attracted to Tom because he wears nice clothing and appears to be well bred. But George Wilson, covered in ashes and destined to poverty, really has better breeding than Tom. Incapable of violent action, George can only stand by and long for the woman he truly loves. The violent Tom, on the other hand, was born to wealth and class, but has no capacity to truly love.
It is significant to note that Gatsby is not seen and only mentioned in passing in this chapter. When Myrtle’s sister Catherine learns that Nick lives on West Egg, she inquires if he knows Jay Gatsby. She explains that she recently went to a party at his mansion. She also tells Nick that rumor says Gatsby’s money comes from being a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm. She ends her conversation about him by adding that “I’m scared of him. I’d hate to have him get anything on me.” Such brief and mysterious comments about the main character serve to heighten his intrigue and the reader’s interest in him.
It is also significant to note that Nick describes himself as both within and without the action in this chapter, just as he, as the narrator, within and without the plot of the story. Nick also shows he is within and without when trying to deal with his moral, orderly past. He does not want to meet Tom’s mistress, does not want to go to her apartment, wants to leave the party and take a peaceful walk, wipes the spot from McKee’s face (his moral order at work) and yet, because of Tom and Myrtle (symbols of depravity) and his fascination with them, he is caught up within the party, drinking himself into a stupor (for only the second time in his life). As his inebriation progresses throughout the chapter, the details of the evening and the conversations begin to blur, just like Nick’s moral stance is blurred at the party; but the bizarre gathering, that ends in ugly violence, clearly reflects the moral decay of the age. The chapter ends, as it begins, in a symbolic valley of ashes.