While The Great Gatsby is rightly seen as condemning Jazz Age wastefulness, the importance of actual waste in the novel is often overlooked. One of the early titles of Scott Fitzgerald’s book was Among the Ashheaps and Millionaires – and Kevin Trumpeter points out that the ashheaps are just as central as the millionaires.
In the suburbs of West Egg, Nick Carraway is confronted with the waste produced by his neighbour Jay Gatsby’s lavish lifestyle: “every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left by his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves”. Gatsby’s abundant possessions – shirts, cars and books – are paralleled by the abundance of garbage he creates.
Gatsby’s excesses are a symbol of the accelerated production of disposable goods that defined 1920s New York. Consumerism was on the rise, luxury goods abounded and the moneyed classes disposed of objects as thoughtlessly as they acquired them. They also wasted huge quantities of coal, another luxury – and the source of energy for the bright lights and electric gadgets filling Gatsby’s house.
Waste disposal was a new phenomenon, and remained entirely unregulated. As a result the privileged classes were often forced to travel through large, make-shift dumps as they moved from their suburban estates to the city. The novel’s most pivotal scenes occur on one such strip of land, a space that Fitzgerald describes as: “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 passage is based on the Corona dump in the borough of Queens, a swamp filled with garbage ashes and manure.
As a setting, the landfill helps to underline the moral and spiritual carelessness of Fitzgerald’s characters. The physical presence of waste also emphasises the important thematic distinction between the illusion of the American dream and the unsavoury reality of what it actually produces.
Below is the Connell Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: