Study Guide for The Great Gatsby

By F. Scott Fitzgerald


Chapter Two (27-42) 

The Time: more than a month later, just a few days before the 4th of July


The Valley of Ashes (27-28)


What is on the billboard overlooking the Wilson garage in the Valley of Ashes? (27-28)

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 gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.


But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic-- their irises 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. (26-27)

What do you make of the symbolism Fitzgerald is using to describe 'the valley of ashes'? (Note the Biblical reference.) How is this desolate valley related to the opulent life on East Egg and West Egg? Who lives there/

Describe George Wilson. Does he realize that Myrtle is having an affair with Tom? Why doesn’t he do something about it? [Tom says, "He's so dumb he doesn't know he's alive." (31)]

I followed him over a low whitewashed railroad fence, and we walked back a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg's persistent stare. The only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land, a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it, and contiguous to absolutely nothing. One of the three shops it contained was for rent and another was an all-night restaurant, approached by a trail of ashes; the third was a garage-- Repairs. GEORGE B. WILSON. Cars bought and sold.-- and I followed Tom inside.

The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible was the dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner. It had occurred to me that this shadow of a garage must be a blind, and that sumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead, when the proprietor himself appeared in the door of an office, wiping his hands on a piece of waste. He was a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome. When he saw us a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes.  (29-30)

Note the manner in which Myrtle makes her entrance:

I heard footsteps on a stairs, and in a moment the thickish figure of a woman blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering. She smiled slowly and, walking through her husband as if he were a ghost, shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye. Then she wet her lips, and without turning around spoke to her husband in a soft, coarse voice:


"Get some chairs, why don't you, so somebody can sit down." (29-30)

Why has Tom Buchanon taken up with this woman? Why has he insisted that Nick come along with him to meet her? 



Party #2: The Mid-Afternoon Drunk at Myrtle’s New York Apartment (33-42)


How has Myrtle decorated her apartment? How does the décor reflect her character? How does she behave as the hostess at this afternoon soiree? (What fantasy is she living out? How will it end?)


What kind of time does Nick have at the party that ensues?

What are Myrtle's friends like?

  • What is Myrtle’s sister Catherine like? ("Her eye-brows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle, but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face." (35)

  • Why have the McKees come? "He informed me that he was in the "artistic game," and I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made the dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson's mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall." (35)

  • How does Myrtle get to behave in her apartment?  "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." (36)

  • And Gatsby’s name comes up again! What is the latest rumor about him?  "Well, they say he's a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm's." (36-37)

  • What has Tom told Myrtle is the reason why he will not divorce Daisy and marry her? "It's really his wife that's keeping them apart. She's a Catholic, and they don't believe in divorce." Daisy was not a Catholic, and I was a little shocked at the elaborateness of the lie." (38) Things get really offensive when Mrs. McKee talks about the man she nearly married. (39 )

  • How did Myrtle meet Tom? "It was on the two little seats facing each other that are always the last ones left on the train. I was going up to New York to see my sister and spend the night. He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes, and I couldn't keep my eyes off him, but every time he looked at me I had to pretend to be looking at the advertisement over his head." (40)

  • Why does Nick stay at this degenerate party?

I wanted to get out and walk southward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life. (40)

Why does Tom break Myrtle’s nose? (41) [What rule about infidelities among the rich and famous does she just not understand? What political point is Fitzgerald making?]

It was nine o'clock--almost immediately afterward I looked at my watch and found it was ten. Mr. McKee was asleep on a chair with his fists clenched in his lap, like a photograph of a man of action. Taking out my handkerchief I wiped from his cheek the remains of the spot of dried lather that had worried me all the afternoon.

The little dog was sitting on the table looking with blind eyes through the smoke, and from time to time groaning faintly. People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away. 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.

Then there were bloody towels upon the bath-room floor, and women's voices scolding, and high over the confusion a long broken wail of pain. (42)

Do some writing:

  • What do you make of the symbolism Fitzgerald is using in his depiction of the Valley of Ashes

  • How is the Valley related to the opulent life on East Egg and West Egg?  

  • What makes Myrtle an appropriate match for Tom?

  • How does this sad, drunken binge fit into Fitzgerald’s overall purpose in the novel?