The second chapter begins with a description of the valley of ashes, a dismal, barren wasteland halfway between West Egg and New York. A pair of enormous eyes broods over the valley from a large, decaying billboard. These are the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, an optometrist whose practice has long since ended.
Tom Buchanan takes Nick to George Wilson's garage, which lies at the edge of the valley of ashes. Wilson's wife, Myrtle, is the woman with whom Tom has been having an affair. Tom forces both Myrtle and Nick to accompany him to the city. There, in the flat in which Tom maintains his affair, they have a shrill, vulgar party with Myrtle's sister, Catherine, and a repulsive couple named McKee. The group gossips about Jay Gatsby: Catherine claims that he is somehow related to Kaiser Wilhelm, the much-despised ruler of Germany during World War I. The group becomes exceedingly drunk; as a result, Myrtle begins to grow garrulous and harsh. Shortly after Tom gives her a puppy as a gift, Myrtle begins chanting Daisy's name to irritate Tom. Tom tells her that she has no right to say Daisy's name; she continues taunting him, and he responds by breaking Myrtle's nose.
The road from West Egg to New York City exemplifies decay. It is a "valley of ashes," a place of uninterrupted desolation. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are an indelibly grotesque image: these are eyes unattached to any face or body, gazing out over a hellish wasteland. Fitzgerald's description of the drawbridge and passing barges makes an allusion to the River Styx, a mythological river which one crosses to enter the realm of the dead. The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg seem to be a monstrous parody of the eyes of God: they watch, but they do not see; they are heartless, and entirely unknowing. Like the scene in which Gatsby reaches for the green light, high symbolism is given priority over the demands of realism: the reader is presented with an implausible, but highly effective image of two detached eyes looking out over dust and ashes.
The novel's only non-wealthy characters live in the valley of ashes; it is the grim underside to the hedonism of the Eggs, and of New York City. George Wilson, Myrtle's dejected husband, seems almost made of ashes: "ashen dust" coats his clothes and his hair. Fitzgerald represents poverty as lying beneath wealth and providing the wealthy with a dumping ground. It is what the wealthy wish to avoid seeing at all costs.
In comparison to Daisy Buchanan, Myrtle Wilson is sensuous and vital. While Daisy wears pale white, Myrtle dresses in saturated colors and her mouth is a deep red. While Daisy is affected and insubstantial, Myrtle Wilson is straightforward, fleshy, almost coarse. Fitzgerald presents her fleshy breasts and large hips as a sign of her robust femininity.
At Tom's party, the characters engage in vulgar, boorish behavior: Myrtle Wilson reads tabloids; she and her sister gossip viciously about Gatsby and each other; Mr. McKee does not say that he is an artist, but instead claims to be in the "artistic game."
Clothing plays an important role in the development of character, and is reflective of both a character's mood and his or her personality. This device emphasizes the characters' superficiality. When Myrtle changes into a cream-colored dress, she loses some of her vitality. Like Daisy, she becomes more artificial; her laughter, gestures, and speech become violently affected.
This chapter explores a world that has collapsed into decadence: Fitzgerald's society is a society in decay. The only rationale that Myrtle gives for her affair with Tom is: "You can't live forever." Nick Carraway remains both "within and without" this world: though he is repulsed by the party's vulgarity, he is too fascinated to compel himself to leave. It becomes patently clear in this chapter that Tom is both a bully and a hypocrite: he carries on a highly public affair, but feels compelled to beat his mistress in order to keep her in her place. The fact that Tom feels no guilt about his violence toward Myrtle (indeed, he seems incapable of feeling guilt at all) becomes pivotal in later chapters.