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.
One of the best ways of learning to write better is to study how amazing writers, past and present, have done those things you aim to achieve in your own stories. Read my post on read like a writer to find out more.
I teach The Great Gatsby nearly every year, and one of the things my students remember most vividly about the book is how Fitzgerald uses various settings to make his novel come to life. The most vivid of these is The Valley of Ashes, a place that Gatsby, the Buchanans and the other privileged residents of Long Island Sound, have to go through on their way to New York.
The Valley of Ashes works on a number of levels, as all good settings should. It weaves in the central themes of the novel, it reveals character and relationships, it serves to foreshadow the key events to the novel and it also captures the spirit of the age (the roaring twenties in America), which is part of Fitzgerald’s magic.
I’ve recently used this workshop with pupils from Downe House and Radley on their special America Day. I hope you enjoy it.
To create a setting which captures the spirit of our age by studying Fitzgerald description of The Valley of Ashes from The Great Gatsby.
1. Read the extract below, underlining or highlighting key words, phrases and techniques that contribute to making makes this description of setting so powerful.
2. Make a mind map of what you’ve learnt from the passage using the following categories:
- Use of colour
- Use of contrast
- Use of the senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, sight)
- Literary techniques (similes, metaphors, personification etc.)
- How character and setting interact
- How the natural world interacts with the man-made world
- Aspects of the setting which serve as symbols
- Aspects of the setting which point to key themes (ideas) it he novel
- Write out the line you find most powerful and think about why you chose this line
3. Choose a powerful contemporary setting that you want to bring to life. Something which captures the way we live now. This can be anywhere in the world but try to be as specific as you can. If you’re stuck, here are some ideas:
- A skateboarding park
- A run down high street
- A multi-story car park
- A 24 hour supermarket
- An expensive hotel
- A major airport
- A football stadium
4. Before you start writing, brainstorm how you are going to bring that setting to life using the techniques you’ve learnt from Fitzgerald. Spend at least five minutes doing so that you access some original ideas – sometimes, when you start writing to fast, there’s a danger that you don’t get post those superficial ideas that flit on the surface of your mind.
5. Write 500 words: bring your setting to life.
6. Give your piece a title, just as Fitzgerald gave his setting the powerful title: The Valley of Ashes.
7. If doing this in a class context, read your piece out loud and ask your peers to comment on what works and what could be made stronger.
- Think about how you can use the passage you’ve written in a story or novel you are working on.
- Choose a completely different setting and write about that, using the techniques you’ve learnt, and think about how powerful it would be to juxtapose the two settings in a short story or novel, just as Fitzgerald juxtaposes The Valley of Ashes with New York or East and West Egg on Long Island.
- Look at the two film versions of The Great Gatsby and see how the respective directors, Jack Clayton (1974) and Baz Lurhman (2013) portrayed The Valley of Ashes.
Extract for study:
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
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. But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.
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.