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Geography in the Great Gatsby: Its Role and Purpose

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Connor Guess

on 15 April 2013

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Transcript of Geography in the Great Gatsby: Its Role and Purpose

Geography in the Great Gatsby:
Its Role and Purpose East vs. West:
A Comparison So, what is it? In The Great Gatsby, geography repeatedly underscores the established social differences between the "nuevo riche" and "old money," (or the established social elite). But it doesn't stop there. Geography also helps deliver many of Fitzgerald's important messages such as commentary on the cost and quest for success, both economic and social. Indeed, Fitzgerald's political views even factor in at times. We see this over in over again in East vs. West Egg, the Valley of the Ashes, and even the final lines of the novel as Fitzgerald describes the boats beating on and on against the current. East Egg vs. West Egg: What's the Difference? West Egg East Egg Wealth Established wealth "History" Condescending Greater wealth East Coast-ers Power Social Elite West Coast-ers "Nouveau Riche" Significant wealth, but probably less Geographically smaller Better examples of "The American Dream" East vs. West:
Reality Part of the United States West East Less populated Newer part of the country Geographically different Less affluent than East Older, more established part of the country More populated Greater affluence More professional, less labor oriented Wealth Pursuit of "The American Dream" All joking aside, though... Geographical location of East/West Egg WEST EAST Now let's do some comparing. Fitzgerald's comparing and contrasting of East Egg and West Egg is consistent throughout the entire novel, and serves to underscore his points about social mobility and the corruption of the American Dream. Fitzgerald sets this tone of "class conflict" and a social crisis of identity from the very beginning, declaring on p. 5:
"I [Nick] lived at West Egg, the--well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them."

He further compares the two when, a paragraph later, he describes East Egg as "fashionable East Egg." The difference between East and West Egg is significant--as seen in the Venn diagrams above--but it's important to take note of the messages that Fitzgerald wishes to convey through these differences. Very much so, the contrast between old money and new money--East and West--is social commentary on what Fitzgerald sees as the corruption of the American Dream. While those such as Gatsby and Nick have both worked to earn their wealth, they still will never be the same as the "old money." They lack the intangible established history possessed by the East Egg-ers; a possession used so frequently to distance the old money from the new, as people such as Tom Buchanan eschew the new found success of West Egg. This corruption of the American Dream is indeed significant, as Fitzgerald highlights the reluctance of the established wealth to accept the new money, while also showing the corruption of some of the West Egg-ers themselves, such as Gatsby, that have engaged in criminal activity to rise to the top. Fitzgerald uses geography to point out the differences between the wealthy elite, which he then uses as a platform to expand upon the idea of the corruption of the American Dream. The physical difference between the locations is very much the same as the social difference. "Well that's cool," you remark, "but is there any other role that geography plays other than highlighting differences between old and new money? I suggest that we take a look at... The Valley
The Ashes First off, let's take a look at the physical location seen above. "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 a 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. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight."
--Nick Carraway describing the Valley of the Ashes (Chapter 2) (Images courtesy of http://thegreatgatsbysandm.blogspot.com and Ellie Quiney) Valley of the Ashes: A Visual Representation While The Great Gatsby is quite obviously a product of its times, it's important to remember that Fitzgerald, too, is also a product of the 1920s. Though maybe not overt, it would not be in any way too far to consider possible personal political reflections on the part of F. Scott Fitzgerald that are revealed in the Great Gatsby.

The Valley of the Ashes is one such manifestation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Progressivism. "You're taking this too far..." you respond.

No, I truly don't believe I am. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as the United States had become increasingly progressive--a political philosophy which entails "positive government," and greater regulation of business for the betterment of society. Fitzgerald's depiction of the Valley of the Ashes could very well be a literary manifestation of the politics of the day. The valley sits in an unarguably poor state as large amounts of soot and ash cloud the valley due to the passage of trains. Fitzgerald, in depicting a place so plagued with destitution and dilapidation, could very well be creating an example of the need for business regulation. Such a message would in no way be surprising, considering the time period in which Fitzgerald wrote the novel. The specific use of geography is significant, as once again, it proves a key medium in delivering one of Fitzgerald's key messages. The vivid imagery surrounding the Valley of the Ashes compels the reader to question the reason behind the town's dilapidated and deteriorated state. Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator," giving a speech outlining what may be considered as many tenets of Progressivism. Other examples of the destitution in the Valley of the Ashes:
"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." (P. 24)

"The only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the wasteland, a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it, and contiguous to absolutely nothing." (P. 24)

And, more bluntly:
(Upon entering Wilson's home) "The interior was unprosperous and bare..." (P. 25)

There can be no doubt that Fitzgerald paints the image of substandard living in the mind of the reader, but the motives for doing so could arguable be political in origin. The Valley of the Ashes already plays well into the theme of the corruption of the American Dream, and it would be no stretch to suggest that Fitzgerald underscores his own political beliefs with these depictions. He could very well believe that areas such as the Valley can be prevented via government regulation--the regulation of business being a key tenet of Progressivism. Side note: Charlie Chaplin Speech Metaphorical Geography: Nick Carraway's Method of Delivery Sources: http://silentink.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2010/11/13/the-green-light/ and http://www.blohardsblog.com/pjs_posts/ Geography is used by Fitzgerald in one final manner with practically unmatched profundity. Here, geography is used more as a matter of distance to underscore the significance of the points Fitzgerald wishes to deliver. The distance of the green light and the endless ocean and current in which the boats beat on and on provides Fitzgerald with his platform. The first mentioning of the Green light comes at the end of the first chapter, as Nick observes Gatsby staring out at sea. Nick recalls:
"Involuntarily I glanced seaward--and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness."

The light remains a mystery for much of the novel. Finally, though, Nick reveals its true purpose and symbolic significance in the final lines of the text:
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter-to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning--
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The final lines of the Great Gatsby are perhaps among the most quoted in all of American literature. The role of geography in the delivery of the novel's most important metaphor is essential. When Nick speaks of the green light, he speaks literally of "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us." What this means is that, as young people, they are seeking their ultimate dreams of happiness in their future and the perfection of their goals and accomplishments. These goals are obviously very difficult to attain, and often impossible; such is the nature of perfection. But still, they strive on for perfection because in their pursuit, they achieve more and more unprecedented happiness and greatness, even if their ultimate goal is never attained. Because of this, they are doomed (or privileged) to repeat their quest for all of eternity, "borne back ceaselessly into the past." The great distance of this goal is represented by the literal distance of the green light in the novel, as well as the use of the ocean--the vast expanse of unending waters in which the boats pursue their goals. Only with the careful, calculated use of geography in the ideas presented here does the metaphor truly hold. So, in conclusion, the role of geography in the Great Gastby is clear and specific, but also widespread. On multiple occasions Fitzgerald uses it as social commentary, as a platform for his own political views, and as a vehicle for the delivery of complex--but deeply profound--metaphors. There can be no doubt that without the use of geography, the Great Gatsby would be arguably far less memorable, especially considering the deep profundity of the closing line's impact upon Modern literature. It truly does prove key in the delivery of Fitzgerald's messages time after time.

So, with all that said and done, thanks!

I hope you enjoyed it.

Final note: Make sure you listen to this cool song that's playing right now. It was performed by Olivia Newton-John, and touches on the same subjects on which The Great Gatsby touches.
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