Many times we hear of society’s affect on people; society influencing the way people think and act. Hardly mentioned is the reverse: peoples’ actions and lifestyles affecting society as a whole and how it is characterized. Thus, society is a reflection of its inhabitants and in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is a wasteland described as the “valley of ashes.” Since the characters of this novel make up this wasteland, aren’t they the waste? Symbolically, this waste represents the lack of ethics of the 1920’s society and civilization’s decay. In The Great Gatsby, morals deficiencies such as a lack of God, selfishness, and idleness are reflective of a society doomed as “the valley of ashes.”
The worldliness of the 1920’s society contributes to the image of the wasteland as “hell-like” and deprived of God. The “valley of ashes” symbolizes a society which has forgotten the importance of God, who takes a back seat to profane desires. A lack of seriousness towards God is evident in this corrupt society when Gatsby uses God’s name in a lie, declaring ?”I’ll tell you God’s truth.’ His right hand suddenly orders divine retribution to stand by. ?I am the son of some wealthy people in the middle West- all dead now.'” (p.65) During the Puritan era, this would be considered blasphemous in contrast with the moral standards of the 1920’s society. A backwards people have dethroned God, replacing him with false gods of pleasure, greed and money relating to the Latin phrase Deus Absconditus,
equivalent of “God has departed.” Although the “valley of ashes” is hell- like and without a solid foundation of God, people still cling onto the idea that there is a god. Wilson, questioning his wife’s fidelity, warns her that “God sees everything.” (p.167) Though he speaks of God, his god is in the form of a billboard for an oculist named Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. He is unable to distinguish God from false idols. Perhaps the society is so far astray from God that they no longer can rectify their immoral ways. After all, the wasteland is like hell, and there’s no turning back.
Selfishness is a vice that contributes to New York’s image as “a valley of ashes.” This egocentrism is commonplace in the characters of The Great Gatsby and gives the impression of a society where people have adopted the “me first” rationale and a carelessness for altruism.Gatsby’s relationship with Nick first started out that way. Gatsby became friends with Nick so that “he could ?come over’ some afternoon to [ Nick’s ] garden” (p.83) and catch a glimpse of Daisy whom he had waited five years for. Gatsby was using Nick to see her. His friendship with Nick became secondary to his passion for Daisy. Had Gatsby not loved her, he would have never been friends with Nick because he would not have someone to use. This selfish behavior is also present in Klipspringer, Gatsby’s house guest, when he replies to Nick with uncertainty about his presence at Gatsby’s funeral, “?Well, I’ll try.. I’m staying with some people in Greenwich and there’s a picnic or something. What I call!
ed up about was a pair of shoes I left [at Gatsby’s house].” (p.177) Klipspringer takes Gatsby’s death with such levity, implying that the funeral is on the same plane of insignificance as that of a leisure picnic. Klipspringer displays more concern for his shoes than for the man who gave him a place to stay. He is like a parasite, taking only and giving back nothing, using
Gatsby’s wealth and home as the host. Klipspringer is a selfishly motivated man, and a sad reflection of the 1920’s society.
As the wasteland may be a place without morals, the “valley of ashes” is also without a sense of time. The 1920’s society is aimless and idle. Daisy utters “?What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon, and the day after that, and the next thirty years?'” (p.125) as Daisy, Tom, Jordan and Nick sit around lazily in the room. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters are time wasters. This dawdling shows a lack of concern over their lives and the need for objectivity. Because the wasteland is a Godless place, John 6:12 need not apply, which states, “Let nothing be wasted.” Again, Daisy sums up the 1920’s society attitude of time saying, “?Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.'” (p.16) Thus, life in the “valley of ashes” is just a waste of time and is insignificant. The characters in The Great Gatsby are symbolically in hell; they will have all of eternity to waste.
The wasteland is a terrible place where life is corrupt and meaningless. The “valley of ashes” is without a God, and symbolizes a spiritually sterile lifestyle in the world highly appropriate for the 1920’s society image. Without the presence of God, there are no morals; selfishness being one of the diseases of the 1920’s. The absence of altruism and the focus on self- indulgence is also responsible for the lack of tender -heartedness of the wasteland society. Time is indifferent to Fitzgerald’s characters and their lives seem aimless and carelessly wandering. This corruption in society is what make up the ash covering New York. The “valley of ashes” literally speaking is really not a dumping ground, but the wasteland of immorality covering the society of 1920.