West and East

Mid-Western values

The novel opens with an almost panoramic view of the space in which the action is set: the topography spans from the East to the Middle West of America, with Nick reflecting that his move to the East was born out of dissatisfaction with the Middle West following World War One, so that ‘it now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe’. By the final chapter, Nick has returned and presents a very different perspective on both East and West. Notably, he has become sentimental and nostalgic about the West, presenting ‘one of my most vivid memories’ as the return home from ‘prep school and later from college’, which is ‘thrilling’ and brightly illuminated. Another important feature of this memory is its social interaction and the sense of:

identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

 Such experiences are absent from the novel until this point, and serve to highlight the alienation and loss felt most strongly at the close of the novel.

Eastern distortion of values

Equally important is Nick’s comment that:

even when the East excited me the most… it had a quality of distortion

implying that its attractions and ‘superiority’ were seductive illusions. Nick alludes to the style of an El Greco painting, focussing on the anonymous, deathly and nightmarish elements of ‘four solemn men in dress suits’ taking a drunken woman to ‘the wrong house’, but ‘no one cares’.

Nick notes in Chapter 9 that:

Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

This may seem like an explanation for the events of the novel, but it is very problematic since the distinction between East and West cannot account for the ways in which the characters behave. It seems to be implied that their movement to the East has corrupted them and led to disaster in some way. Moreover, all the main characters are presented as equally affected; even the sentence structure balances Tom with Gatsby, Daisy with Jordan and Nick, although elsewhere Nick has a clear moral hierarchy (Gatsby being ‘worth the whole damn bunch put together’). Some critics have seen this comment about ‘Eastern life’ as a false trail, particularly the claim that ‘this has been a story of the West, after all’, since all the events of the novel occur in the East, and there has been no real focus on the qualities of the West until this point. 

Long Island: East Egg and West Egg

Nick’s house is in West Egg, next to Gatsby’s mansion, and looks across a ‘courtesy bay’ at East Egg and the Buchanans’ house, where Daisy and Tom live with their three-year-old daughter, Pammy, having Jordan as a frequent guest. These settings are on the North Shore of Long Island, described as ‘one of the strangest communities in North America’. 

The location is described in the first chapter as having this pair of ‘identical’ peninsulas which resemble ‘enormous eggs’ crushed flat at one end. The choice of matching names emphasises this feature. Nick’s description then offers a double perspective: firstly, that of a gull flying overhead, noting the similarity in size and shape, and secondly, that of the ‘wingless’, noting the dissimilarities. The difference is social and relates to how financially established and therefore fashionable the inhabitants are. West Egg is the ‘less fashionable’ and has large ‘new money’ residences which Nick’s modest house sits alongside, just fifty yards from the water. East Egg has ‘old money’ ‘white palaces’ which ‘glittered along the water’, including Daisy and Tom’s house.

Although West Egg is a fictional location, it is heavily based on Kings Point village in the Great Neck peninsula on Long Island, while East Egg is based on the Sands Point village in the Cow Neck peninsula. Fitzgerald lived in this area (6 Gateway Drive, Great Neck Estates, Long Island) from 1922 to 1924, and was well-placed to observe and experience the social tensions between the newly-rich and ‘old money’. 

Gatsby’s house


Beacon Towers 1920, an inspriation for Gatsby's homeThis is the first house that is described in the novel:

The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard – it was a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion.

The comment that this is an imitation and only has a ‘thin beard of raw ivy’ implies that the wealth of its owner is newly obtained, and therefore less secure. Nevertheless, the wealth is considerable, conferring millionaire status on Gatsby. The exterior of the house is hinted at further in the description of the party in Chapter 3.


There is greater focus on the interior of Gatsby’s house. Gatsby’s guided tour includes many rooms, including those with European associations: the Marie Antoinette music-rooms and Restoration salons, the ‘Merton College Library’. Everything seems to be a copy, particularly the library where the artificiality is noted in the surprise of ‘Owl Eyes’ that the books are real rather than fake. The library is another means of displaying wealth by reference to ancient and European models, this time a:

high Gothic library, panelled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas.

An expression of Gatsby

Many of the descriptions of the house make reference to light: ‘See how the whole front of it catches the light’. At one point, Nick even believes that the house is ablaze, such is the excessive illumination ‘from tower to cellar’. This display coincides with Gatsby’s anticipation of meeting Daisy again, and he is described by Nick as ‘looking at me with suppressed eagerness’. The house reflects Gatsby’s emotion, and it is very revealing that this is mostly achieved in terms of external appearances and public expression.

Gatsby’s bedroom

Gatsby’s apartment within the house is viewed only by Nick and Daisy once Gatsby has achieved his reunion with Daisy in Chapter 5. The most private room of the house is revealed as ‘the simplest room of all’. Very few items are noted in this chamber, with only the ‘pure dull gold’ toilet set and the cabinets full of expensive shirts to catch Daisy’s attention. Nick’s comment that, ‘Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily’ might suggest displaced emotion, but might equally be a parody of masculine comfort or even an indication of Daisy’s fundamental materialism overriding her romantic interest in Gatsby.

Emotional emptiness

After Myrtle’s death, Nick and Gatsby return to his house to find it ‘enormous’, filled with dust and ‘musty’ as if unoccupied. This could be seen as foreshadowing the demise of Gatsby, but it’s also possibly an aspect of the ‘grotesque reality’ now dawning on Nick and Gatsby. Wealthy and glamorous people are revealed as shallow and ruthlessly selfish; Tom and Daisy disappear into their house, plan their escape and use their wealth to maintain the illusion of innocence. Gatsby, like his house, is abandoned and alone.

Later, when Gatsby is dead, the house is an important element of Nick’s narrative. Gatsby’s father has a photograph of the house, which he treats as more real than the actual house, and which introduces a poignant sense of loss as his father explains that:

Of course we was broke up when he run off from home, but I see now there was a reason for it

as if exchanging his childhood home for a better one would be adequate reason for abandoning his family. 

Guests rather than family

Family life is an aspect of the novel which is almost completely absent: 

  • Nick leaves his family in order to move East
  • Tom and Daisy have a family, but their house is far from family-oriented - their daughter appears only once for a very brief conversation
  • Jordan is living with an aged aunt, but spends her time elsewhere. 

Houses are largely seen as places to entertain people, and Gatsby’s is the epitome of this, so that it is empty of any other meaning once Gatsby is no longer holding his lavish parties. Even when the house is being used for ‘afternoons’ with Daisy, it falls into decay, with new servants running it so that the kitchen becomes a ‘pigsty’. Nick’s comment on the changes at the house is delivered with an attitude of authorial omniscience:

So the whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes.

His language highlights the fragility of Gatsby’s party lifestyle, and its collapse indicates the dominance of Daisy over Gatsby.

Gatsby’s ‘failure’

The final signs of decay at Gatsby’s house are the reference to the obscene word scrawled on steps, and Nick’s judgement: ‘that huge, incoherent failure of a house’. In many ways, this applies also to Gatsby and his idealisation of Daisy, reinforcing the idea that the house is analogous to the character.

The Buchanans’ house

Tom’s possession

Tom and Daisy live in a house which largely reflects Tom’s dominance. He is seen standing on the porch in an attitude of possession and introduces the house with his own judgement: ‘I’ve got a nice place here,’ going on to explain its status in terms of its previous owner. 

The house is first seen in Chapter 1, as Nick is visiting Daisy and Tom in June 1922, then we return to it three months later in Chapter 7, as all the main characters meet there but quickly decide to leave for New York. When they return, at the end of Chapter 7, Nick and Gatsby remain outside, with Gatsby engaged in a kind of ‘vigil’ for Daisy. Nick then peeps into the house at a ‘rift’ in the window, in a very voyeuristic scene, to see Daisy and Tom seemingly conspiring together.

Light, colour and movement

Nick describes the house in Chapter 1 as:

even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian colonial mansion overlooking the bay.

Details of the exterior are given, focussing on the lawn and the light from ‘a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold’. Light, movement and sound are prominent features in the description of the ‘bright rose-coloured space’ within, in which Nick imagines Daisy and Jordan to be floating on ‘an enormous couch’. The porch, where Daisy, Tom, Nick and Jordan dine, is also ‘rosy-coloured’, while the library is ‘crimson’ and ‘bloomed with light’.

The significant green light at the end of the dock is only mentioned at the end of this chapter, as something seen by Nick once he returns home. It isn’t associated directly with Daisy’s house at all, and the connection is only made by Gatsby once he is reunited with Daisy in Chapter 5.

Chapter 7’s references to the house mirror those of Chapter 1. Although the salon is ‘dark and cool’, Daisy and Jordan are seated in a similar manner on ‘an enormous couch’ in white dresses, and there is movement of the air (this time created by the ‘singing breeze of the fans’ rather than the natural breeze of Chapter 1). The carpet is ‘crimson’, echoing the description of the library. Also similar is the sense of other rooms, created in each chapter by Tom’s movements in order to answer the telephone. When the party dines, this takes place in the dining room, but they also spend time on the veranda, looking outwards across the water and towards Gatsby’s house, again mirroring the events of Chapter 1.

When the group returns to the house, there is still emphasis on light, so that Nick notes ‘two windows bloomed with light among the vines’ and later sees ‘two or three bright windows downstairs and the pink glow from Daisy’s room on the second floor’. Nick then finds Daisy and Tom in a room which has only a ‘small rectangle of light’. They are dining in the kitchen, in a less glamorous but more intimate setting but which suggests that they are perhaps facing reality in a more pragmatic and possibly ruthless manner.

The valley of ashes

Valley of AshesThis is a location which is introduced in Chapter 2 and mentioned again in chapters 7 and 8, as well as briefly in Chapter 4 as part of the car journey into New York. The gothic and hellish connotations of the language used in Chapter 2 establish this location as a dark contrast to the brightly-lit glamorous houses of the wealthy characters, but the underlying connections between these opposing places are revealed at the end of the novel, as Gatsby’s house and the Buchanans’ house are eventually deserted and we see Gatsby’s house fall into dusty decay. The ash heaps are situated on the commuter route between Long Island and New York City, so that train passengers and car drivers must pass through it regularly, and are even forced to halt there sometimes. Symbolically, wealth cannot inure them from the pervasiveness of death and decay. Topographically, the valley of ashes is juxtaposed with all the major locations of wealth.

Hellish environs

The description in Chapter 2 is the first sustained example of surrealism in the novel, with images like ‘ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens’ and

ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

The imagery is reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, at the point where Dante and Virgil are near to the city of Dis and the River Styx, implying that New York is at the centre of Hell itself, despite its seductive appeal. It also conjures up the vision of Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, of a ‘valley … full of bones’ which ‘were very dry’ Ezekiel 37:1-2

Inescapable death

The words ‘ashes’ and ‘dust’ have clear religious connotations, echoing the phrase from the Anglican burial service, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ Burial of the dead Committal. At a time of hedonism and self-indulgence, Fitzgerald provides a sombre reminder that material wealth and bodily strength are temporary. Even the name given to the location is an echo of ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ from Psalms 23:4.

Spiritual dearth

A more disturbing aspect of the valley of ashes is its representation of society’s spiritual dearth. Whilst Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones became the setting for God to bring new life, there is no such hope in the novel. A deranged Wilson interprets the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, ‘dimmed’ but brooding over the area, as the eyes of God, drawing on allusions such as Proverbs 15:3:

The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good (KJB)

However, within the novel these eyes are clearly shown to be merely an advertisement, already past its sell-by date. Far from there being a sense of divine justice, the bad end happily and good unhappily, with only Nick trying to impose some sort of moral order, using the power of language. 


It’s also worth noting that the dust of the valley of ashes area may be linked to:

what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams’ (Chapter 1)

Here, the interplay of dreams and disappointment is represented by the boating image of Gatsby’s ‘dream voyage’ (to ‘make it’ in the world and reclaim Daisy) which cannot escape the ‘foul’ detritus of death and decay in its wake. 

The Wilsons’ garage

The Wilsons’ garage is one of a row of three shops situated within the valley of ashes, hence Nick’s description of the exterior as: ‘a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land’. The interior is described in Chapter 2 as ‘unprosperous and bare’ by Nick, with Tom’s judgement being that it is a ‘terrible place’. 

The dust of the ashes pervades the scene, veiling ‘everything in the vicinity’ while the walls are described as the colour of cement. It is a ‘shadow of a garage’. Very few features are noted in the interior of this location, apart from the work table where Myrtle’s body is laid after the accident, and the doorway to the office where Wilson is often seen as standing, particularly as he becomes increasingly anguished over his wife’s death. The emphasis may be on this as a place of ceaseless, unprofitable work, the anteroom to madness and death, from which there is no escape.

The apartment in New York

Like Wilson’s garage, the New York apartment Tom has provided for Myrtle is another location associated with infidelity, dishonesty and violence. The apartment building is described by Nick as ‘one slice in a long white cake of apartment houses’, which echoes the description of the ceiling in the Buchanans’ house as a ‘frosted wedding-cake’. Myrtle has a ‘regal, homecoming’ attitude to the flat, but this is made comic or at least ironic by the descriptions of it being ‘small’ but having oversized furniture, and being uncomfortably filled with cigarette smoke. A moment’s respite from the oppressive flat comes when Nick looks out of the window: ‘The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean – then the shrill voice of Mrs McKee called me back into the room.’ 

The overall effect of the description of the apartment is seedy and depressing, suitably reflecting the behaviour of the characters within. It is particularly ironic that this is the location of Myrtle’s ‘escape’ from an unhappy life.

The road to New York 

The road to work

The road connecting island home and city business appears a few times in the novel, firstly in Chapter 2, where it ‘hastily joins the railroad’ to ‘shrink away from’ the valley of ashes. Both the motor road and the railroad connect Long Island with the city of New York, passing through several areas along the way. The most detailed description of the road comes in Chapter 4, as Gatsby drives Nick into New York from West Egg; it’s a ‘disconcerting ride’ according to Nick, as it changes his perception of Gatsby from a ‘proprietor of an elaborate roadhouse next door’ to a uniquely compelling example of ‘romantic readiness’. 

Along the route, Nick and Gatsby pass through Port Roosevelt, a ‘cobbled slum’, the valley of ashes, then Astoria, then over Queensboro Bridge, crossing Blackwell’s Island and into the city. Notably, Nick comments that the bridge functioned as a point of transition from reality to a location where ‘anything can happen’. The mention of Blackwell’s Island (now renamed as Roosevelt Island) may imply the sacrifice needed to achieve this transition, since this was a site known for its asylum and prison.

The road to death

In Chapter 7, the road is traversed in both directions between East Egg and New York City, and on the return journey, Myrtle is killed. At this point, the road becomes more metaphorically connected with death. First Nick contemplates his advancing years, then they encounter the aftermath of the car accident which has killed Myrtle. On this road she had knelt, mingling her blood with its dust. Nick’s comment that ‘we drove on towards death through the cooling twilight’ is presented as an isolated single-sentence paragraph, emphasising its significance. He sees his life as tending towards death and uses the metaphor of the journey and the road as an obvious image for his idea.

The final journey which is represented in the novel is Wilson’s, on foot, to seek revenge. He is said to go from the valley of ashes, to Port Roosevelt, Gad’s Hill, then into West Egg and to Gatsby’s house. Some of his time is unaccounted for, leaving the possibility open that he visited Tom in East Egg. Again, the journey culminates in death, and Fitzgerald seems to achieve symmetry in terms of journeys by its inclusion.

New York

Nick’s status as an observer is particularly acute in his presentation of the city, which is frequently associated with magical, fairy-tale images. He notes that ‘anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge’ and Jordan adds a further element of potential:

I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone’s away. There’s something very sensuous about it – overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands.

In the evening, however, New York is at its most alluring. In a pause in Nick’s narrative, he tries to redress the balance of his focus on ‘the events of three nights several weeks apart’ by giving a fairly detailed account of his activities in the city, working, taking lunch and dinner, and then walking in the streets, experiencing the:

racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that then constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.

His fanciful musings on strangers lead to his admission that:

at the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others… young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

In some ways, this idea of New York has resonance with the image of the ash heaps, emphasising the melancholy and lack of meaning, even in an environment which seems bright and full of life. Nick’s language is depressing (‘gloomiest’, ‘sinking’, ‘wasting’, ‘waiting’, ‘faded’, ‘haunting’) more so because it is contrasted against the ‘romantic’ images of ‘gaiety… intimate excitement’ and people who are ‘sharing’ something. Nick is an outsider, but this is not unique to him, he says.

The beach 

In Chapter 9, Nick goes to the beach for a final look before his return to the East. This setting prompts a contemplation of the discovery of the New World as he imagines back to how the Dutch sailors first arrived on American land some 300 years earlier:

… for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

The ‘new world’ and this image of ‘the last and greatest of human dreams’, able to inspire wonder, is then connected with Gatsby’s belief in the:

green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.

The connection is made grammatically in a sentence which balances the two ideas:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder…

It is also achieved by using verbal echoes such as ‘the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes’, which echoes the description of how ‘At his lips’ touch, she blossomed for him like a flower.’ 

It is for the reader to interpret whether Gatsby’s ‘love’ for Daisy, symbolised by his yearning for the green light, is actually a transposed passion for the future, for colonising and possessing something, or is really about repeating the past. The greatest irony is that this effort to reach the green light is frustrated by a greater force, symbolised by the current, which bears us back to the past. The beach is a location which connects opposites, the sea and the land, and may represent the transition from one state to another. This is an appropriate location for Nick, who is at the point of moving from East to West, and for a consideration of Gatsby and his motivation, which remain somewhat enigmatic.

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