The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, depicts the emptiness and recklessness of the 1920s. The sense of spiritual and emotional barrenness amidst great material wealth creates an image of the moral decline that escalates during the 1920’s. One tool that Fitzgerald utilizes to portray the extreme moral deterioration of society during this period is the imagery of the wasteland. The wasteland symbolizes that which was once fertile and fruitful but has now deteriorated into a bleak and desolate scene.
Even in scenes of profligate wealth the wasteland is present in that it lives inside the individuals who have lost themselves in the face of materialism. Through The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald reveals his derisive condemnation of the whole generation of the 1920’s, who are so caught up in a life of recklessness and wasteful behavior that they do not even realize the meaninglessness of their lives. When Nick travels the road from West Egg to New York City the first image of the decaying wasteland is provided.
The road is referred to as the “valley of ashes,” where everything, including men, are “ashes” in that they “move dimly and [are] already crumbling through the powdery air” (27). The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg add to this image of decay because they seem to knowingly gaze out at the “solemn dumping ground. ” Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s “persistent stare” is comparable to the persistent and blatant deterioration that manifests itself in the valley of ashes. When Tom and Nick stop in the “valley of ashes” to pick up Myrtle, Tom describes it as “a terrible place” because it annoys him to have to even briefly face such extreme poverty.
This area that glares of poverty lies not far beyond Tom’s area of great wealth. This is perhaps to demonstrate the moral corruption of the wealthy to be able to live so close to deprivation yet feel so little empathy towards it. To contrast this scene of the wasteland and demonstrate the extremes that exist between wealth and poverty, the next chapter depicts the hedonistic decadence that permeates Gatsby’s parties. There is evidence of wasteful materialism everywhere and Fitzgerald implements a great amount of detail to describe this so that the excessiveness of the situation will not be underestimated.
The narrator describes how five crates of oranges and lemons arrive from New York on Fridays and by Mondays all that remains are “a pyramid of pulpless halves” left to rot outside after the butler had extracted the juice. Inside, there are sumptuous buffet tables “garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvres, spiced baked hams and pastry pigs and turkey bewitched to a gold dark” (44). Even the entertainment is extravagant in that a whole full-sized orchestra arrives to divert the guests. Despite the material wealth that is blatantly present in every aspect of the party, the spiritual desolation clearly reveals itself through the guests.
They are all so self-absorbed that they are unable to develop any meaningful relationships with others. Nick observes this when he states that “the bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside… until the air is alive with introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names” (44). The superficiality of the guests reveals that no amount of material wealth can mask the emptiness that lies beneath the surface.
In the end it is Nick who prevails because although he is constantly surrounded by money, he never attaches himself to the idea of material wealth. He recognizes the money-driven corruption that pervades the lives of Easterners, and he ultimately renders himself “subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (184). This conclusion emphasizes Fitzgerald’s message that wealth and happiness are two separate entities and that neither is a means or an end to the other because the only thing that the excessive consumerism of the 1920’s did was to leave a whole generation spiritually desolate and empty.