The chapter begins in "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."
This is the description of Hell on earth, a world where the poor and working class have been forgotten. This is where the famed, and often over-cited eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg--an unambiguous metaphor for God--faded, a remnant of a man who may have "sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away." Here a "small foul river," an allusion to the river Styx, separates the world of the living ... from the world of the dead. It is here that Tom--Zeus-like in his arrogance--brings Nick along to once again steal Myrtle Wilson--in a sort of reverse-Persephone abduction--from the land of the dead in order to use her (and abuse her) before dropping her, broken, back into her ash-heap.
As I read the chapter, the description of George Wilson stands out. George is the living dead, a zombie, a ghost, a shade of humanity, "a blond, spiritless man, anaemic, and faintly handsome." This is the man Tom can simply step on, destroy, and steal from ... without remorse. When Myrtle Wilson sees Tom of the White Palace in the Valley, she simply walks "through her husband as if he were a ghost." Once Tom has what he wants, his toy for the night, he departs with Nick in tow, leaving the anaemic George to breathe in the ashes and "bleak dust." And with a parting shot, Tom adds to Nick, "'[George]’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.'” Dumb? Maybe not. Powerless? Yes.
This is where the chapter takes on its character for me. The motif of used material, used matter, of the waste left behind, becomes so apparent.
Myrtle decides she wants a dog once she arrives in New York with Tom and Nick. Myrtle states, "'I want to get one of those dogs .... I want to get one for the apartment. They’re nice to have — a dog.'" Tom later refers to the dog as "a bitch" before decisively insulting the seller. Sadly, Tom sees Myrtle in the same way he sees that dog. Myrtle is "nice to have" in Tom's mind.
This is the crux of the chapter. There is a world of used materials, the world where the waste resides and the waste is simply forgotten.
Later, as Nick gets drunk--for the second time in his life--the lines become blurred, and the darker side of this Tom's tryst merges clearly and instantly. Tom becomes bored as Myrtle's "laughter, her gestures, her assertions [become] more violently affected moment by moment, and as she [expands] the room [grows] smaller around her, until she [seems] to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air." The drunkenness breaking down walls, the lies flowing, the "little dog was sitting on the table looking with blind eyes through the smoke, and from time to time groaning faintly," along with Myrtle's "impressive hauteur" all lead to a brutal and quite utter revelation of Tom's true nature, as the lying vivisector.
Myrtle, Tom's newest soon-to-be-broken toy, idiotically, drunkenly decides to assert her place in Tom's life. The "couple" begin "discussing, in impassioned voices, whether Mrs. Wilson [has] any right to mention Daisy’s name. 'Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!' [shouts] Mrs. Wilson. 'I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai ——'
Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan [breaks] her nose with his open hand."
The girl from the ash-heap does not get to run away with Zeus. The girl from the ash-heap is left to fix her face and crawl, Leda-like, to another room.
The happy party ends with Nick's confused and aimless departure, only to find himself "lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train." Another bit of waste at the end of a chapter where everyone has been abused by the "hulking" Tom Buchanan.
To come back to the metaphors and motifs: here is a chapter focused on used materials. This the world of the poor, the broken, the misbegotten. It also stands in stark contrast to the palaces of chapter one. The forgotten world of the Valley should frighten the reader. Sadly, it's also a reality. Nick continues on his journey to learn the lesson, the Truth, he comes to to understand at the end of the novel: ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone …. just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’
Coming back to "Achtung Baby" for a moment; the second song, "Even Better Than The Real Thing" has an allusion to the fall of Icarus: "We're free to fly the crimson sky / The sun won't melt our wings tonight." Just as Icarus wants to escape Crete, Myrtle wants to escape the Valley of Ashes. But she learns her waxen wings, her belief in Tom's lies, melt when scorched by the cruel sun of reality.
The song, an ironic tune about "virtual reality" is the perfect companion for this chapter. The irony of a "virtual reality" being "the real thing / Even better than the real thing" is tragically missed poor Myrtle.
I hope you will continue to add your comments, your alternative readings, and what you understand about this incredibly import chapter from a great American novel ...