All things truly wicked start from an innocence. – Ernest Hemingway
The narrator tells us that Jay Gatsby “was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that” (105). Note the text after the dash: it seems to be pointing the reader somewhere, but it actually points the reader nowhere. Much like the billboard advertising Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, calling Gatsby a “son of God” is an empty rhetorical action, what Barthes might have called a signifier without a signified. Going “about His Father’s Business” (105) gives the reader a bit more information about what that sort of work might entail, given the fact that the sacred appears to have left existence behind. “[T]he service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (105) appears to be what is left for Gatsby. The use of the word “meretricious” is interesting here, as it has several different definitions that could apply. One is “apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity” (Dictionary.com); another is “of or relating to a prostitute; having the nature of prostitution” (Merriam-Webster). The beauty that Jay Gatsby chases is one with a magnificent façade, as both the opulence of his home and the cascade of beautiful dress shirts from his wardrobe indicate. However, the mysterious nature of the phone calls he receives also indicates that there is a deep fault line running under his exquisite life. Behind the beautiful house, behind the glamorous guests, behind the mountains of food and drink that are consumed at Gatsby’s weekly parties, is nothing of value. This makes the first definition more applicable here – there is little that smacks of prostitution in his life, as he has dedicated himself, almost chastely, to the pursuit of Daisy’s hand. The fact that, once the party stops, Gatsby has no one and nothing of significance left, shows how tawdry the whole enterprise was. When one’s Father does not actually exist – as the dilapidated billboard indicates – there is no business to serve except to build altars to one’s illusions. Worshipping at those altars is what takes Gatsby’s sad dreams and gives them wicked undertones.
One of the most rhetorically awkward points in the story takes place when Daisy and Nick are in Gatsby’s dressing room. There are two “hulking patent cabinets which [hold] his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high” (99). The simile of the bricks implies that Gatsby has used the acquisition of clothing to give himself a sense of permanence and security. Whereas Tom and Daisy Buchanan live inside a huge mansion of bricks, Gatsby’s “bricks” are much more fragile – they are made of linen and silk. Nonetheless, Daisy is impressed by the sheer volume of beautiful fabric: “[s]uddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy [bends] her head into the shirts and [begins] to cry stormily. ‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sob[s], her voice muffled in the thick folds” (99). She tries to bury herself in this fabric, trying to create the sense of permanence in fine materials. The world that Gatsby has tried to create, in order to bring Daisy back to him, is indeed beautiful. However, the effect of this opulence on Daisy is only to make her sad. She realizes that Tom is too permanent, too secure for her to seriously consider leaving him. An affair might have been one thing; after all, Tom has his own romantic liaisons as well, and would have been closer to the “meretricious.” Gatsby wants it all, though – true love included – and when he makes that fatal error, he forgets the real truth behind his ascent to wealth and notoriety.
Even if Daisy had been willing to leave Tom behind and join Gatsby, it is not clear that Gatsby would have really stepped away from his service of the façade to form something real with her. Even when he was courting her, and they were approaching their first kiss, “he knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (119). In other words, if his relationship with Daisy crossed over from the imagined to the real, there would be limits placed on their connection. Before the kiss, he could imagine them being anything, and her doing anything, that he wanted. The closer they really became, though, the more he would have to compromise, the more he would have to give, the more he would have to cede to her. He would come closer and closer to the reality of his dirt-poor farming parents, not necessarily in terms of money but in terms of the give-and-take that a long marriage requires. There is nothing “vast, vulgar and meretricious” about the sort of interaction that goes into a successful marriage. Tom and Daisy have replaced something that might be real with the “vast, vulgar and meretricious”: they have replaced genuine emotions with the acquisition of a vast home – and vast properties elsewhere. They have replaced tasteful and dignified love with vulgar affairs – with vulgar people, as Myrtle Wilson’s behavior indicates. Because it is just money that holds things together, rather than genuine connection, the side of “meretricious” that has to do with prostitution begins to rear its head, as it becomes clear that it is the money holding Daisy, and Myrtle, and Tom’s other conquests in place – money in exchange for the verisimilitude of love, of sex, of happiness.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. E-book.