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I am reading The Great Gatsby, and came to be curious as to what "the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" means in the following sentences:

His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.

The young Gatsby found his humble family background unsatisfactory; that was why he began to imagine himself as somebody different, divine. Thus he started to reach for a higher goal in his life, such as earning a huge amount of money or winning Daisy's love.

But I could not understand especially what "the service of" meant. Does it mean that he provided such beauty? Or that he believed in such beauty?

And since "His Father's business" has some Biblical undertone in it, I would like to know whether the boldfaced phrase also has such a tone in it. I am not much knowledgeable when it comes to the Bible, so I would like to know whether there is some description that Jesus serviced some beauty, just like Gatsby, because I think that could give me some hint as to what was indeed "a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty."

I would very much appreciate your help.

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The phrase is purposefully biblical and is used to denote Gatsby's inflated but empty ego.

First, let's provide a dictionary definition of the unusual word "meretricious".

apparently attractive but having no real value.

So, the "vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty" is something impressive but ultimately empty.

Prior to making this statement, the author indicates that the biblical undertones here are to be taken literally. Gatsby's self-image is that of a "son of God", so his "Father's work" means the work of God. The implication is clear: that Gatsby's ego is so huge as to believe himself to be divine.

Fitzgerald may have taken this striking metaphor from the work of philosopher Ernest Renan, whom he is known to have admired. Renan's book, The Life of Jesus, posits the idea that Jesus was a historical figure who invented himself as the son of God and became so invested in his self-deception that he allowed himself to be crucified. This is not dissimilar to Gatsby's life in the story.

The key difference between Jesus and Gatsby here, however, is that Jesus wanted to spread a positive message of peace and love. Gatsby, however, creating himself in his own image, is instead spreading an empty "meretricious" message which appears superficially attractive but contains nothing of value. The text does not make clear that he's spreading his beliefs, but the religious overtones still suggest a certain level of proselytizing going on.

This can also be read as a metaphor for the corrupting influence of capitalism. Ancient society looked up to religious ideals of self-improvement. Modern society worships only the tawdry business of acquisition. A quest for genuine self-improvement has been replaced by one in which the show of making the effort is more important than the outcome.

References:
- The Mystery of Ungodliness: Renan's Life of Jesus as a Subtext for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and “Absolution”, Bryce J. Christensen, 1986, Christianity and Literature

  • Thank you so much for the detailed explanation, Matt Thrower! Your explanation really helped me in understanding the novel even deeper. Then can I take that "the service of" such a beauty here means "to spread" it? – Pasta Addict Apr 12 '18 at 9:24
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    @PastaAddict I would say so. While you can't read this directly into the quote, the religious nature of the metaphor lends itself to thinking about it as proselytizing. – Matt Thrower Apr 12 '18 at 10:18

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