Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Published near the beginning of his career (Fitzgerald wrote it in either 1921 or, at the very latest, early January, 1922), “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” shows a constellation of the motifs that would persist throughout the author’s career. Despite the fantastic trappings, it tells a radically autobiographical tale. Fitzgerald situates Hades, the Ungers’ hometown, on the Mississippi—like his own St. Paul—and devotes the story’s initial pages to ridiculing its pretensions. (Even a Chicago beef-princess, the author sneers, would judge the most sophisticated social functions in Hades to be “perhaps a little tacky.”) John Unger reflects the self-congratulatory boosterism of his provincial upbringing, and in this respect he is a target of satire. John also, however, evokes sympathy as a young man daunted by an unshakable sense of his unworthiness among the aristocratic rich. The model is unmistakable. In a letter to John O’Hara in 1933, Fitzgerald described himself as having “a two cylinder inferiority complex. So if I were elected King of Scotland tomorrow after graduating from Eton, Magdelene the Guards, with an embryonic history which tied me to the Plantagenets, I would still be a parvenue [sic]. I spent my youth in alternately crawling in front of the kitchen maids and insulting the great.”
Fitzgerald attributed his problem, in the same letter, to the tensions inherent in being “half black Irish and half old American stock with the usual exaggerated ancestral pretensions” (his paternal forebears included Francis Scott Key, after whom he was named). Precisely this personal conflict constitutes the story’s subtext. As midwestern burghers, the Ungers suggest his mother’s side of the family: Grandfather McQuillan rose from poor immigrant to wealthy...
(The entire section is 737 words.)
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