About half-way 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.
Nick describes what train passengers see on the way from the luxurious communities of Long Island to the more raucous opulence of New York. Nick implies that the railway was constructed to run along the valley of ashes for as short a period of time as possible so as not to bother or upset the wealthy people traveling to and from the city. Nick describes the land and structures as being built of ashes rather than simply covered in or obscured by them. This description tells readers that such a desolate place does not exist by mistake. Rather, it was created by the wealthy populations surrounding it who give no thought to populations without as much money.
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.
Nick explains that while he is riding the train to the city with Tom, Tom uses the stopped train as an opportunity to go get Myrtle, his mistress, from her husband’s car repair shop and bring her with them on the train. The night Nick spends with them quickly descends into debauchery, violence, and intoxication, all activities of which Nick does not approve. The fact that he begins this story with the description of the valley of ashes and why the train has to stop there shows that he sees the valley as a symbol of not only social decay but moral depravity as well.
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.
As Nick rides the train through the valley of ashes into the city with Gatsby, he notices Myrtle Wilson working at her husband’s shop. This visual contrasts Myrtle’s lifestyle with that of Daisy and Jordan, who are usually described as resting in Daisy’s home, never even close to “straining” or “panting.” Just as the physical desolation of the valley of ashes is in direct contrast to the beauty of East Egg and West Egg, so are the lifestyles of those who live there.
When I passed the ashheaps on the train that morning I had crossed deliberately to the other side of the car.
The morning after Daisy hits Myrtle with Gatsby’s car and kills her, Nick cannot bring himself to look at the scene of the crime on his way to work. Nick has already seen the valley of ashes as the idea of social and moral decay brought to life. Now, at the scene of Myrtle’s untimely death, which will go unpunished as a result of Daisy’s wealth and privilege, he cannot even bear to look at a place of such hopelessness.
Wilson’s glazed eyes turned out to the ashheaps, where small gray clouds took on fantastic shapes and scurried here and there in the faint dawn wind.
After Myrtle’s death, Michaelis talks to George Wilson, trying to comfort him. Here, Michaelis notes Wilson looking out to the valley of ashes, as if the landscape is speaking to him. Later, as if revealing the ashes’ profound effect on him, George will kill the person he believes to be responsible for his wife’s death and then kill himself. George’s evolution shows how living in such a place as the valley of ashes, made desolate and hopeless by exploiting the poor, can ruin a person’s spirit.