What Is the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby?

Last Updated: October 25th, 2023 by Kerry Wisby (Teacher-BA English Literature, 1920s & Great Gatsby Expert)

F. Scott Fitzgerald Valley of Ashes

In The Great Gatsby, author F. Scott Fitzgerald uses many places and people to symbolize the times that he was living in. The Valley of Ashes is one place that Fitzgerald describes, but what does it represent?

As you read the novel, you’ll realize that the Valley of Ashes represents the moral and social decay resulting from the activities of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. It also shows the great disparity between the working class and the old- and new-money rich. 

Is the Valley of Ashes a real place? Why would anyone live there?

Keep reading to discover more about this depressing location and what it represented in The Great Gatsby.

What Is the Valley of Ashes?

The Valley of Ashes is a little more than a train stop along the main road between the East and West Eggs and New York City.

This small town lies between the luxurious residences of the Eggs and the glamourous big city. Those traveling to either will see this gray, desolate area that seems to be made up of ashes.

Valley of Ashes Located between two wealthy cities in Gatsby

Of course, the city itself isn’t physically built of ashes, but it is covered in them. Ashes from the train, ashes and dust from the cars, everything that the city and the Eggs don’t want get dumped here.

Nick makes it clear that this city wasn’t a mistake or a byproduct of progress. Rather, it was carefully constructed by the wealthy on both sides as a place where the poor could live but which the rich don’t necessarily need to see or be bothered by.

Nick tells the reader:

“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.”

This sad and pathetic place is nothing more than a stop or an inconvenience for the rich who are passing through, but for those who live there, it must seem like hell or limbo at best.

How Does Nick Describe the Valley of Ashes?

In Chapter 2 ( see The Great Gatsby Chapter 2 Quotes ), Nick and Tom are sitting on a train en route from Long Island to New York City for lunch.

The train makes several stops, one of which is the Valley of Ashes, described as being halfway between the Eggs and New York.

Nick talks about this place and describes it:

Nick Describe the Valley of Ashes

“About halfway 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 the 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.”

Even the railroad was built so that it spent as little time as possible in the Valley of Ashes so that the wealthy would be spared looking into the dirty lives of the poor.

What Does the Valley of Ashes Symbolize in The Great Gatsby?

Author F. Scott Fitzgerald filled The Great Gatsby with symbolism ( read more on F Scott Fitzgeral quotes here ), indirectly pointing out what he saw as the ugliness of the Jazz Age.

The Valley of Ashes is no exception. Located between two wealthy cities, this dirty, run-down part of the country represents what Fitzgerald believed was the result of the unabashed pursuit of money at any price.

aerial view of the valley of ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
The “valley of ashes,” a sprawling refuse dump located in New York City during the 1920s. The dump was made famous in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby By New York (N.Y.). Bureau of EngineeringFairchild Aerial Camera Corporation

This city also represents the moral and social decay that the wealthy leave in their wake in the pursuit of pleasure, good times, and, of course, the search for ever greater sums of cash to add to their already swelling bank accounts.

One might also say that the author wanted to show how the working poor, such as Tom Wilson, struggle to earn a living, while the rich drive past them in their expensive cars or wait for the train to bring them to bigger and better places.

Who Lives in the Valley of Ashes?

The Valley of Ashes is occupied by the working poor. The wealthy look down on these people, but these are the same people who make it possible for the rich to enjoy their lifestyles.

George Wilson, an auto mechanic and gas station owner who lives in the Valley of Ashes, is described as having lifeless eyes. It was the author’s way of saying that despite Wilson’s hard work, the American Dream won’t be within his reach anytime soon.

The Valley of Ashes is simply a dumping ground for the wealthy and a living nightmare for the poor who are forced to live and work there.

Where Do the Ashes Come From?

Industrial Factory as Great Gatsby's Valley of Ashes

Whether it is actually ashes or fallout, Nick describes the air as being “powdery”. This is due to the city’s unregulated factories pumping out smoke, ash, and other substances into the air.

These factories produce the items that the rich want to buy, but the irony is that the poor who slave away in these factories will never be able to purchase the very items they are manufacturing.

The Valley of Ashes Quotes

Fitzgerald spends quite a bit of time describing the Valley of Ashes, with some very unforgettable quotes.

In addition to the descriptions above, you’ll find more about how Nick views this desolate place.

The Valley of Ashes Quote from Nick Carraway

“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.”

Nick tells the reader how it appears that everything in this place is as grey as ashes, which is how this city got its name.

“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.

Here we see that everything seems to have a whitish grey color to it, even George Wilson’s suit and hair.

In Chapter 4 ( read Great Gatsby Chapter 4 Quotes ), as Nick is on the train to the city, he notices Myrtle Wilson, working at her husband’s gas pumps, very different from the life she hopes to lead with her lover Tom Buchanan.

“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.”

The morning after Myrtle Wilson is killed by Gatsby’s car, Nick rides the train to work, and he can’t bear to even look at the scene of her death.

“When I passed the ash heaps on the train that morning, I had crossed deliberately to the other side of the car.”

Even restaurant owner Michaelis notices that George is staring out at the ash heaps of the city, as if these piles of garbage were speaking to him, directing him as to what course of action to take.

“Wilson’s glazed eyes turned out to the ash heaps, where small gray clouds took on fantastic shapes and scurried here and there in the faint dawn wind.”

You can read more about George Wilson here.

The Valley of Ashes is a grey land representing horrific poverty and hopelessness where the American Dream goes to die.

What Page and Chapter Does Nick Describe the Valley of Ashes?

While the Valley of Ashes is talked about in several places and chapters, we get our first true look and Nick’s detailed description of this depressing dumping ground of the rich in Chapter 2, page 26.

This is also where Nick describes the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, which is an advertisement from long ago, posted on a billboard where the train stops.

Final Thoughts

From Nick’s descriptions, it’s clear that the Valley of Ashes is a barren place where the poor toil in filthy conditions so that the rich can live a life of leisure and pleasure.

Note Nick’s quote above where he describes Myrtle Wilson as “panting” as she works the gas pumps at her husband’s business. Nowhere else in this novel will you read about the wealthy Daisy Buchanan as “panting” as she does manual labor.

While Nick does describe the sweat on the upper lip of Jordan Baker ( read more Jordan Baker Quotes here ), this didn’t come from manual labor, not even from golfing, but simply because of the hot weather!

At most, the wealthy women in this novel might be dancing, but not once are they ever described as panting, being out of breath, or doing manual labor of any kind. Take that in contrast to what Nick sees Myrtle doing in the Valley of Ashes.

The Valley of Ashes is a desolate place filled with hard-working but equally desolate people who have no other option but to serve the rich and their endless appetites.

What Is the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby?
What Is the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby?
In The Great Gatsby, Nick describes a place he calls the Valley of Ashes. Does it really exist? Find out what you need to know about the Valley of Ashes here.
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