The Great Gatsby

by: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Setting

The action of The Great Gatsby takes place along a corridor stretching from New York City to the suburbs known as West and East Egg. West and East Egg serve as stand-ins for the real life locations of two peninsulas along the northern shore of Long Island. Midway between the Eggs and Manhattan lies the “valley of ashes,” where Myrtle and George Wilson have a run-down garage. This corridor between New York and the suburbs encompasses the full range of social class. Whereas the valley of ashes is a place of evident poverty, both the city and the two suburbs represent bastions of affluence. Nick describes the profound optimism he feels when arriving in the city by train: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” He goes on to assert, “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge.” Yet for all that New York appears full of possibility, Nick often finds his actual experience there sad, as when, in Chapter 3, he observes “young clerks . . . wasting the most poignant moments of the night and life.”

While both East and West Egg are wealthy communities, families with inherited wealth, or “old money,” live in the more fashionable East Egg. In West Egg, by contrast, residents whose wealth is new, like Gatsby, conspicuously mimic European aristocracy to appear established. Gatsby’s house is modeled on the Hotel de Ville (French for city hall) in Normandy, France, and was built by a brewer who offered to pay the neighbors to live in thatched cottages, like peasants. While many of the descriptions of the houses in the novel seem over the top, they are in fact based on real mansions that existed on Long Island in the 1920s. For example, an estate named Harbor Hill was also modeled on Hotels de Ville, and included farms, a blacksmith, a casino, and Turkish baths on its 650 acres. Despite such opulent displays of wealth, the novel suggests that the city, the suburbs, and the valley of ashes all share a sense of spiritual desolation and psychological desperation. In the end, then, it seems to matter little where the characters find themselves along the corridor between New York and the twin Eggs. Nobody in The Great Gatsby is happy about their lot in life.