Chapter 2 begins with a description of the valley of ashes, a desolate and forsaken expanse of formerly developed land that marks the intersection of the city with the suburbs. In addition to its desolate feel and uniform grayness, this forlorn area is home to a decaying billboard that calls attention to itself. Depicted on the advertisement are the Eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, which are described as "blue and gigantic — their retinas are one yard high." It was in the valley of ashes that Nick first meets Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson. The two men are headed to New York when Tom insists they get off the train in order for Nick to "meet [his] girl."
The two men proceed to a car repair garage owned by George Wilson, a "spiritless man" who is also Myrtle's husband. Tom chats briefly with Wilson about business matters. Myrtle, a sensuous, fleshy woman in her middle thirties, joins the men. Tom quietly informs her he wishes to see her and so she arranges to meet them shortly, leaving her husband under the pretense of visiting her sister in New York. While on their way to Tom and Myrtle's apartment, Myrtle spies a man selling dogs and insists on having one. Once at the apartment, Myrtle phones her sister, Catherine, and her friends, the McKees, to join the party. The six people spend the afternoon in a haze of drunkenness. As the afternoon wears on and she becomes increasingly intoxicated, Myrtle becomes more and more outspoken about her situation in life, her marriage, her impassioned first meeting with Tom, and finally, Tom's marriage. Upon mentioning Daisy's name, Myrtle becomes enraged, shouting "Daisy" at the top of her lungs. Tom, incensed by this outburst, lashes out with his open hand and breaks Myrtle's nose in one "short deft movement." The party enters into a downward spiral and the guests take their departure. The chapter ends with Nick seeing Mr. McKee home and then heading home himself.
Whereas Chapter 1 ended with the mysterious Gatsby reaching out to his dream in the night, Chapter 2 opens with a striking contrast. Nick tells us about a stretch of land lying "about half way between West Egg and New York" which is so desolate that it is merely a "valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into the ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses . . . [and] with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air." As the geographic midpoint between what is in effect the suburbs and the city, the valley of ashes, a dreamless, colorless place bound on one side by a putrid river, is home to the sorts of people that the wealthy citizens of the Eggs and the sophisticated people of the city are content to overlook.
The ashen quality of the community is reflected in every element — including the dilapidated billboard of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, perhaps the second most memorable image in The Great Gatsby (following closely behind the green light at the end of the dock). In many regards, the mysterious eyes hovering above the valley of ashes serve as spiritual force. They are, as George Wilson says, the eyes of God. The faceless eyes hover over all that goes on in the book — a book decidedly void of traditional spirituality. The eyes, in this sense, represent the lack of Godliness in the lives of the characters, and by extension, the society on which Fitzgerald comments. The 1920s, for a certain sect of society, were characterized by an increasing freedom and recklessness — Gatsby's parties are perfect testament to the growing debauchery of the upper class. Through Doctor Eckleburg's sign, Fitzgerald indicates that although people are turning away from traditional (established) morality and rules of socially acceptable behavior, neglecting to tend to their spiritual side, the eyes of God continue to watch all that passes. Even though God's image may become increasingly removed from daily life (just as the face surrounding Eckleburg's enormous eyes has faded and disappeared), His eyes continue to witness all that passes. Through the eyes the reader has an implicit call to action, reconnecting with a lost spiritual connection.
After Nick and Tom get off the train (notice how Tom orders Nick around and announces what it is they are going to do; these are clear indicators of Tom's nature and continue to mark him as the story continues), they proceed to George Wilson's repair garage. Much can be learned about Wilson, as well as everyone trapped in the valley of ashes, through the brief exchange. There is little about Wilson to indicate he will ever be anywhere but the desolate wasteland of the valley. He is common, "blond," "spiritless," "anæmic" and only faintly handsome. His business totters on the brink of failure, and he seems ignorant of what goes on around him. It is unlikely that he is, in Tom's elitist words, "so dumb he doesn't know he's alive," but he does seem trapped by an unnamable force.
Myrtle Wilson appears in striking contrast to her husband. Although she does not possess the ethereal qualities of Daisy, in fact, she appears very much of the earth, she does possess a decided sensuality, as well a degree of ambition and drive that is conspicuously absent in her husband. After a few attempts at social niceties (showing that Myrtle, despite being trapped in a dead-end lifestyle, aspires in some sense to refinement and propriety), Nick and Tom leave, with the understanding that Myrtle will soon join them to travel into the city to the apartment that Tom keeps for just such purposes. It is worth noting, however, that Myrtle rides in a different train car from Tom and Nick, in accordance with Tom's desire to pander, in this small way, to the "sensibilities of those East Eggers who might be on the train." The irony runs deep, giving a greater sense of Tom's character. He is bold about his affair, not worrying that Daisy knows, but he sees the need to put up a pretense on the train, as if that one small gesture of discretion makes up for all the other ways in which he flaunts his affairs.
As soon as the group arrives in New York, Myrtle shows herself to be not nearly as nondescript as is her husband. She is, however, far from refined, despite how she may try. Her purchases at a newsstand (two tabloid-like publications), as well as the way she painstakingly selects just the right taxicab (lavender with gray upholstery) suggests that she is concerned with appearance and fashion, aspiring to be part of the jet-set that she reads about in her magazines and which, she thinks, she can gain entrée to through her wealthy lover.
At the apartment in New York, after "throwing a regal homecoming glance around the neighborhood," Myrtle undergoes a transformation. By changing her clothes she leaves behind her lower-class trappings, and in donning new clothes she adopts a new personality. She invites her sister and some friends to join the afternoon's party, but her motivation for doing so goes beyond simply wanting to enjoy their company. Her intent is largely to show off what she has gained for herself through her arrangement. It is irrelevant to Myrtle that what she has gained comes through questionable means; clearly, for her (and Tom, too), the morality of infidelity is not an issue. Her affair with Tom allows her to gain something she wants — money and power — and therefore it can be justified.
As Nick describes, when Myrtle changes her clothes, she exchanges her earlier "intense vitality" (clearly a positive and refreshing attribute) for "impressive hauteur" (a decidedly unappealing quality invoking Nick's respect and disgust simultaneously). While entertaining, Myrtle comes across as perceiving herself to be superior, although that isn't hard to do, given the people with whom she surrounds herself. The McKees, for instance, are trying desperately to be accepted by the upper class, but are really shallow, dull people. Mr. McKee, despite his attempts to be seen as an artist, is conventional (even boring) in his photography. He skill is technical, at best, rather than artistic, as he would have people believe, as evidenced by the completely unoriginal titles he gives his photos — 'Montauk Point — the Gulls' and 'Montauk Point — the Sea.'
As Myrtle has more and more to drink, she becomes increasingly belligerent, ordering people about and assuming a false sense of social superiority, casually offering derogatory comments about various types of people — in many ways, mirroring Tom's sense of social superiority. By this point she sees herself not only as superior to her guests, she is Tom's equal.
All this changes, however, when Tom brutally reminds her of her place in his life. After bringing up Daisy's name, Tom and Myrtle stand "face to face, discussing in impassioned voices whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy's name." Myrtle, made bold by the whiskey, begins to shout Daisy's name while Tom, exhibiting the brute force Nick has known he was capable of since first meeting him, quickly hits Myrtle with his open hand, breaking her nose.
The shocking violence of this incident is calculated and underscores a nastier side of life that most people would like to ignore. Through Tom's assault, Fitzgerald not only demonstrates more about Tom and his callousness toward humanity, but also suggests a hidden side to the Jazz Age. Although most people associate good times and carefree abandon with the reverie of the 1920s, Fitzgerald suggests a much darker side. Tom is a decidedly unpleasant man, held in check by very few rules. The reader must wonder, if he is capable of this sort of violence, what else is he capable of? In just the second chapter of the book, Fitzgerald is already showing the seedy side to a supposedly charmed life. The incident piques the reader's interest, shocking and appalling as it is, making the reader wonder to what depths this society will fall — in the book and in real life, as well.
It is appropriate to briefly exploring the tones of homoeroticism that underlie the party at Tom and Myrtle's. Catherine, Myrtle's sister who is "said to be very beautiful by people who ought to know" (again introducing the notion of rumors and truth, as well as the idea that a certain portion of society has the right to set standards for other portions), speaks in couched terms about her travels and living arrangements with "a girl friend at a hotel." Although this does not, in any way, indicate that Catherine is a lesbian, it does introduce the possibility. As Fitzgerald shows by the afternoon's party, anything can happen. It's a wild time — people, particularly the trendy people, are eager to break established boundaries. It is not unlikely that they would challenge established social mores, as well. Nick, himself, has an encounter shrouded in mystery in this chapter, which again hints at challenging the accepted sexual morality of the time — homosexuality was not commonly spoken of at this time in history
At the end of the chapter, Nick says that after he sees McKee home, after a curious use of ellipses by Fitzgerald, he "was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands." Fitzgerald very purposely skirts the issue, dropping hints, but no concrete evidence, and leaves the reader to ponder the possibility of a sexual encounter between the two men. Some may argue that looking at this chapter's homoeroticism is pointless; if the author had wanted to focus on it, he would have made it more pronounced in the text. What these critics overlook, however, is the possibility that Fitzgerald is hinting at it, just as the society of which he was a part, hinted at it. By refusing to make the book's underlying homoeroticism pronounced, he is mirroring the refusal of society at large to acknowledge a lifestyle choice that was socially unacceptable in most circles. The hints of homoeroticism also bring into focus the debauchery which marks The Great Gatsby. The 1920s, Fitzgerald suggests, was not just a time of challenging social boundaries. It was also a time of changing sexual — and even spiritual — boundaries.
anæmic having anemia, an illness of the blood resulting in paleness and generalized weakness; also can mean anyone lacking vigor or vitality; lifelessness.
J.D. Rockefeller (1839-1937); U.S. industrialist and philanthropist.
Simon Called Peter Robert Keable's best-selling fiction work from 1922.
hauteur disdainful pride; haughtiness; snobbery.
Kaiser Wilhelm ruler of Germany, 1871-1918. Remember, the U.S. had not long prior fought WWI (1914-1918) wherein the Allies (Great Britain, Russia, France, the United States., Italy, Japan, and so on) fought against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary, and others).
kike a Jew: a vulgar term of hostility and contempt.