The Great GatsbyTeaching and learning resources for the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I enjoy discussing The Great Gatsby because of how effectively it works on two levels, as both an entertaining story and a rich and carefully crafted work of literature. It also contains keen psychological insights and cogent diagnoses of the problems at the root of American society.
Two major points of critical discussion of the novel are what it says about dreams and ambitions, the American Dream in particular, and the symbolism of the valley of ashes described at the beginning of Chapter II. I’ve given some of my thoughts about these issues here as a starting point for further analysis, discussion, and writing.
Notes on Dreams in The Great Gatsby
We are often unable to attain our dreams.
- Gatsby is unable to be with Daisy despite years of effort and great success in other areas.
- Nick goes to the East to find success and prosperity, but ends up returning to the Middle West (now called the Midwest).
- Myrtle dreams of being with Tom and enjoying his wealth, but she never escapes her miserable life with her husband.
Our dreams often turn out to be empty and unfulfilling—not what we thought they were.
- Gatsby has an idealized view of Daisy, but she is revealed to be a rather ordinary, weak person (even if Gatsby never realizes this).
- Nick is disillusioned by what he experiences in the East; he loathes its emptiness and corruption.
- The rich, powerful, and popular people in the novel are not portrayed in a positive light; even though they have achieved the “American Dream,” they fight, they treat people badly, they’re unhappy and shallow, and many of them drink and attend parties in order to distract themselves from the emptiness of their lives – see examples in Tom’s behavior especially, but also other characters in the novel (or even people who just appear briefly).
Our dreams make us heedless of the consequences of our actions; we become so obsessed with them that we are willing to do anything to attain them, and in the process we become immoral, shallow, and uncaring.
- Gatsby gets involved in illegal business activities (e.g., making liquor during Prohibition; other things are hinted at in the novel—we know his involvement with Wolfshiem implies that he’s a criminal.
- Gatsby gets involved in a superficial, materialistic world and contributes to people’s shallow behavior.
- Gatsby abandons his name and his parents in the pursuit of his dream because they will hold him back (because they are poor, and also because of discrimination against Jews).
- Daisy gives up the deeper feelings she has for Gatsby in order to be with Tom, who is wealthier and is from the upper class.
- Jordan is suspected of cheating at golf (she competes in tournaments).
- Myrtle comes to hate her husband, treats him coldly, and cheats on him.
- None of the people to whom Gatsby gave so much bother to attend his funeral.
Notes © 2005 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.
Notes on the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby
One of the major themes of the book is the futility and emptiness of dreams. In particular, characters who are caught up in a search for wealth and social status (typical of the American Dream) tend to have unhappy lives and tragic fates.
Modern America, with its pursuit of material success, generates large amounts of physical waste in the process, waste that ends up in dumping grounds like the “valley of ashes.” That pursuit also generates the psychological waste of failed dreams, unhappiness, desperation, and immorality.
The ashes take on the “fantastic” shapes of our dreams (“fantastic” in the sense of “imaginary”—they are products of fantasy), the shapes that our minds impose on them, but they are “dim” and “already crumbling” as soon as they take shape, and they are doomed to fail.
The sense of emptiness and desolation in the scene is developed with words like “desolate,” “bleak,” “grotesque,” “ghastly,” and “gray” that are used to describe it.
The valley of ashes is “dismal” for the people who pass by it because it is a symbol of the unpleasant truth of their lives, and they don’t want to face that truth.
There is an implied Biblical allusion in the use of the ash and dust imagery that is important to see: these words and images are associated in the Bible with mortality, death, the destruction of the physical body. In funeral services the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is used to suggest human mortality.
In Chapter 8, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are likened to the eyes of God, passively “brooding” (Chapter 2) over this futile, shallow, empty human activity and seeming to be disappointed and alienated by it. The description in Chapter 2 of the eyes as being “dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain” might suggest that our lack of devotion to our moral and religious ideals has weakened the presence of God in our lives, our society, and our consciences.
Right before Wilson makes his comment about God seeing everything, there is another reference to the ashheaps and to “small gray clouds” taking on “fantastic shapes”—a reminder of the destruction of everyone’s dreams at this point in the story.
At the beginning of Chapter 8, the large amount of dust in Gatsby’s house and the cigarettes he and Nick smoke (which turn into smoke and ash as they are smoked) suggest a connection to the valley of ashes: Gatsby’s dream is dead.
Near the end of Chapter 8, Nick’s description of Gatsby’s realization of the failure of his dream uses a number of words and phrases that connect it directly to the descriptions of the valley of ashes: “material without being real,” “poor ghosts,” “breathing dreams like air,” “like that ashen, fantastic figure.”
Although Gatsby’s dream itself, his devotion to Daisy, is pure, the “foul dust” that “float[s] in the wake of his dreams” (from near the beginning of Chapter 1) is a product of his preoccupation with material wealth (and the social status connected to it)—and also, perhaps, his failure to see that Daisy is not worthy of the intensity of his devotion. Gatsby must achieve material success and high social status as a means of being with Daisy, but the pursuit of that success has tragic consequences.
Notes © 2011 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.