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I've decided to catch up on all the books we should have read in high school, but before I get to Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, and Brave New World, I'm starting with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I tripped over a line in chapter 2 that I'm having trouble deciphering. It doesn't seem critical to the story much, but I'd like help with it regardless.

I followed him over a low whitewashed railroad fence, and we walked back a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg's persistent stare. The only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land, a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it, and contiguous to absolutely nothing.

Specifically:

...a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it, and contiguous to absolutely nothing.

I understand what ministering and contiguous mean, but I can't scrape off a meaning from the sentence itself. Can someone explain what the author is trying to say here?

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    Fitzgerald drank a lot. ;-) Mar 30, 2017 at 15:31
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    Sounds like the little brick building acted as civilization (Main Street) offered to the waste land, but not logically next to anything really. Mar 30, 2017 at 15:42
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    "Ministering to" is perhaps best interpreted here as "providing services to". I would wager Fitzgerald used "minister" because the religious sense of the word would be ironic. Mar 30, 2017 at 15:55
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    It was a brick building with a bit of street in front of it, and nothing else.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 30, 2017 at 23:07
  • The misquote affects the analyses. The quote should be "...a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it and contiguous to absolutely nothing." No comma.
    – JEL
    May 9, 2017 at 3:25

4 Answers 4

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In the sentence

The only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land, a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it, and contiguous to absolutely nothing.

I think that the author is simply saying that the block (or rectangular structure) of yellow brick is contiguous (next door) to nothing, and that the "compact Main Street" (that is, public road of modest size) leads up to it.

Under this reading, the "it" in "ministering to it" is the "block of yellow brick" (a commercial structure large enough to accommodate an empty and unrented shop, an all-night restaurant, and car repair shop); the street is "ministering" to the yellow building because it exists only to connect the building to the intercity roadway that (Fitzgerald points out earlier in the chapter) parallels a railway line on the edge of a "waste land" (which is, in fact, a tract of land covered with ashes—presumably a dump for incinerated garbage from New York City); and the building is contiguous to nothing because it is the only building on this spur street off the main roadway.

The further notion implied by "Main Street" here (as Tim Lymington notes in his answer) is that the three-business commercial building is effectively the business district of the ash dump community—except that there is no real community: no homes, no municipal buildings, no retail shops to serve a town or village of permanent residents; just a place where laborers at the dump can buy a meal and another place where passing motorists can get their cars repaired.

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 To me it seems like the yellow brick building contrasts with the fact that it's in a "waste land". When it's compared to a main street, although the building is small, the diction leads me to believe a sort of aura that the building possesses. It seems to have a positive connotation and it almost seems hopeful, it reminds me of the saying "the light at the end of a tunnel".

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    Hello, jhgfds! Your post approaches the poetic aspects of the text, which is important. You could improve it by addressing the grammatical meaning of the sentence in question. Please give some time to take the tour if you haven't yet. Welcome to EL&U, Cheers!
    – Conrado
    Sep 22, 2020 at 20:18
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"Main Street is a generic phrase used to denote a primary retail street of a village, town or small city in many parts of the world." (Wikipedia: I would say it is a United States usage, but perhaps Wikipedia means by 'many parts of the world' both North and South Dakota).

So this building is the central part of - nothing very much.

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  • It's also a metaphor for small and local businesses. Consider the frequent "Wall Street vs Main Street" distinctions that were made during the financial crisis.
    – Barmar
    Mar 30, 2017 at 23:05
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    I'd say "Main Street" is a two-lane road "ministering to" the "only building,"i.e., providing access to it (the only building).
    – Xanne
    Mar 31, 2017 at 3:00
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The sentence is confusing because it's hard to tell what the word it refers to, the building or the waste land.

It's hard for me to imagine how a waste land could minister (provide services) to a building, so I think it must refer to the waste land. Therefore, I think he's saying that the yellow building is like the stores on Main Street, providing services for the waste land.

contiguous to absolutely nothing means that there are no other nearby buildings. This is redundant, since he already said that this was the only building in sight; I guess this is meant for further emphasis of how barren the area is.

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