An early attempt at Style Analysis with The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is, above all else, a tale of unattained desires. Consistently the characters suffer because they wanted something and failed to act on it properly. Few characters do nothing about these desires, but invariably they act too late, act too timidly, or act inappropriately. It is a theme which absolutely permeates and defines the novel. Fitzgerald shows this theme directly in several instances through characters' experiences—most notably the main plot revolving around Gatsby's admiration of Daisy Buchanan. He also expresses it symbolically in many instances, such as with the green light at the end of the Buchanan's dock, representing Gatsby's goal being so apparently close, but ever beyond reach. Another important symbol of these missed opportunities is the subject of this passage, the so-called “valley of ashes.”

While most of the futile efforts expressed throughout the novel are those personal to his characters, Fitzgerald also expresses something of a pessimism about American life in general. This passage is no exception; in the passage he describes a very dreary landscape, a literal valley of disappointment and despair. The most overpowering image of the passage is the description in the first paragraph of the valley as “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens,” and of the ashes taking the forms of houses and “with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” There are two very significant choices of diction here: the simplest is the people, “already crumbling.” Not only are the people crumbling, figuratively speaking, with their withering ambitions and dreams, but they are already crumbling, speaking of the inevitability of this result. Another important choice is the depiction of the ashes as “growing like wheat.” In this choice of words, Fitzgerald states very subtly that the ashes, the disappointments, are the result of human efforts, that they were sown by toils of man and have grown only because of these efforts.

Fitzgerald goes on to describe a specific example of American disappointment. What is notable about this failure is that it is of a character whom we, the readers, never see. I speak, of course, of “the Eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.” These eyes, described as the efforts of “some wild wag of an oculist [who] set them there to fatten his practice...and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away.” These eyes stand set out distinctly from the bleak landscape (an impression aided by the fact that while everything else in the valley is described as gray, the eyes are described as blue and the spectacles as yellow). Yet, at the same time, the two symbols are joined closely and used almost synonymously. For example in chapter 7, it is stated that “Doctor T. J. Eckleburg's faded eyes came into sight down the road,” rather than directly stating that anyone had entered the valley. The apparent failure of the real Doctor is a perfect example of Fitzgerald's pessimism, that though he reached to “fatten his practice,” he slipped quickly into obscurity and did nothing but permanently add these eyes, his failure, to the other ashes, disappointments, of this valley.

The passage is very deliberately divided into two paragraphs: describing first the valley, then the eyes. In this way Fitzgerald has fully and completely introduced the idea of the dreary valley, only thereafter does he go on to describe the eyes, leaving the reader to draw the appropriate connections. He writes in long, but sectioned, sentences and uses figurative, metaphoric language. This sentence structure feels of both a very full description, but at the same time is very emotional. The metaphoric language is favored because it conveys much better than realism could, the complete gloominess and desolation of this place and the ideas it represents

This valley holds a lot for the story; it is the place where everyone's fate is eventually determined, where everyone's ultimate loss and failure is set in stone. There is, in fact, a lot of foreshadowing in the fact that Fitzgerald chooses to introduce Mrs. Wilson here and immediately after the place is described, making a connection for the reader between failure, this place, and this person. Overall this passage does quite a bit to sum up Fitzgerald's feeling of this time and, in some regard, his view of human nature. Even today there is something about this passage, something about this valley, that stirs readers' emotions. Perhaps they glance their own ashes here or perhaps they are simply stirred by Fitzgerald's valley's eerie resemblance to the “dust bowls” of the depression he practically predicts. Either way, this valley, this passage helps to define the novel's ultimate theme, that it is because of human desires and mistaken actions that so many people, like Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, drift into obscurity.