This is a response to the passage below from Fitzgerald’s short story ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.’
- JOHN T. UNGER came from a family that had been well known in Hades−−a small town on the Mississippi River−−for several generations.
John’s father had held the amateur golf championship through many a heated contest; Mrs. Unger was known “from hot−box to hot−bed,” as the local phrase went, for her political addresses; and young John T. Unger, who had just turned sixteen, had danced all the latest dances from New York before he put on long trousers. And now, for a certain time, he was to be away from home. That respect for a New England education which is the bane of all provincial places, which drains them yearly of their most promising young men, had seized upon his parents. Nothing would suit them but that he should go to St. Midas’ School near Boston−− Hades was too small to hold their darling and gifted son.
Now in Hades−−as you know if you ever have been there−−the names of the more fashionable preparatory schools and colleges mean very little. The inhabitants have been so long out of the world that, though they make a show of keeping up to date in dress and manners and literature, they depend to a great extent on hearsay, and a function that in Hades would be considered elaborate would doubtless be hailed by a Chicago beef−princess as “perhaps a little tacky.”
John T. Unger was on the eve of departure. Mrs. Unger, with maternal fatuity, packed his trunks full of linen suits and electric fans, and Mr. Unger presented his son with an asbestos pocket−book stuffed with money.
“Remember, you are always welcome here,” he said. “You can be sure boy, that we’ll keep the home fires burning.”
“I know,” answered John huskily.
“Don’t forget who you are and where you come from,” continued his father proudly, “and you can do nothing to harm you. You are an Unger−−from Hades.”
So the old man and the young shook hands and John walked away with tears streaming from his eyes. Ten minutes later he had passed outside the city limits, and he stopped to glance back for the last time. Over the gates the old−fashioned Victorian motto seemed strangely attractive to him. His father had tried time and time again to have it changed to something with a little more push and verve about it, such as “Hades−−Your Opportunity,” or else a plain “Welcome” sign set over a hearty handshake pricked out in electric lights. The old motto was a little depressing, Mr. Unger had thought−−but now…. So John took his look and then set his face resolutely toward his destination. And, as he turned away, the lights of Hades against the sky seemed full of a warm and passionate beauty.
St. Midas’ School is half an hour from Boston in a Rolls−Pierce motorcar.
Perhaps one can read the clue to an interpretation of this passage in the title. The hyperbolic reference to the ‘Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ suggests a piece which will focus on wealth and pursuit of wealth. There is an implied boast in the, presumably metaphorical title, which ties in well with name of the school in the passage: St Midas’ School. Midas is famously a character from Greek myth whose greed caused all he touched to turn into gold as a punishment for offending Zeaus. Fitzgerald is presumably about to present an allegory in which the protagonist, John T. Unger will be involved in extreme wealth and from which he may not escape without suffering. However in our passage, we need to consider the wider settings mentioned.
It is clear that Unger is a Mid Westerner – like Fitzgerald – who will travel from West to East in an inversion of the Pioneer routes in a manner similar to Nick Carraway and the other characters from The Great Gatsby. This use of setting suggests the older, purer way of life of the Mid West being replaced by a society driven far more by pursuit of wealth than any part of the original American Dream. By naming the town of origin ‘Hades’, Fitzgerald is engaging in ironic humour and emphasising the passing of the mid West as an area of influence or prosperity. Hades is the land of the Dead in Greek Mythology – not necessarily evil, but certainly not a place of hope. We learn now that Hades is ‘too small to hold their darling and gifted son’, as Fitzgerald nods towards the ambition of those who travelled back to the East in search of money and wealth and the rather uncritical eye cast upon John by his parents.
Fitzgrald neatly ‘others’ the setting by creating clear contrast between Hades and the ‘fashionable’ education of those seeking advancement. He uses direct address to draw the reader into conversation, much as he will with Nick Carraway, the first person narrator of Gatsby. Here, the use of third person omniscience is rather more chilling – this narrator is in control of events and seems to be able to tell us detail without the fallibility of Carraway. A contrast is drawn between Hades society – long since dead – and the ‘beef-princess’ from Chicago. This title is not one suggesting high society, yet it reflects the enormous wealth found in that city – the capital of the Mid West – whilst establishing a new social order founded on money rather than breeding.
John T. Unger is foregrounded as the opening of the passage and our attention is drawn to the use of the initial ‘T’ which seems rather an affectation. It is as though he is clinging to his former familial ‘greatness’ by holding onto this initial. He is from the Mississippi, already something of a backwater in the 20th century, having been overtaken by rail as the prime source of transportation through the mid West. The setting, however, neatly echoes that of Huckleberry Finn and we might guess that Fitzgerald is going to present a critique of ‘sivilised’ society in this story, much as Twain had done in his novel. His parents are not named and show a mixture of ambition and an inability to shake off the world of faded grandeur, as Twain would put it, about living in the Mid West. His father’s cliched’ keep the home fires burning’ whilst punning on the idea of Hades/Hell also shows a significant reluctance to move with the times. His mother – an activist – has kept John abreast of fashion yet now will send him away, depriving the town of its’ most promising young men’ suggesting both that the area is doomed to lose out to the bright lights of the East and also to recall the issue of the ‘lost generation’ who travelled to Europe for the First World War and seemed unable to find their place back in society in the early 1920s.
The parental gifts accentuate this: the mother gives fine clothes and a fan with ‘maternal fatuity’ suggesting the pointlessness of this gift (and showing Fitzgerald’s tendency to belittle women in his writings), as many from mothers, being more emotional than functional. The father is more practical – a wallet ‘stuffed’ with money. The verb helping the reader to note the enormity of the quantity intended. The asbestos construction ties in well with the idea of money being a source of sin and also to a need to protect the carrier from the metaphorical fires which the money will set in his mind.
Neither parent seem emotional as John leaves. He on the other hand, speaks ‘huskily’, before weeping with ‘tears streaming from his eyes’ as though possibly aware that he will spend no more time in this town. This feels like a final parting. The father and son are given a brief passage of dialogue but little passes between them other than the father’s pride in his heritage and the rather forlorn wish that John should hold on to this idea, as though it will benefit him in the East. The sound-similarity between Unger and Hunger, suggests that hits might not be the case. He does, however, set out ‘resolutely’ and joins the many charaxcters in American Literature who engage in the ‘journey’ as a rite of passage reflecting the emergence of the Nation and the idea of Manifest Destiny in creating a nation fit for the mainly white, European settlers.
As he leaves, mention is made of the ‘old’ motto yet we do not see it here – perhaps because there is no need – it is a typically hyperbolic Victorian conceit. The wish of the father to focus on ‘opportunity’ would seem to be a hollow wish at a time when so many are leaving, and the idea of ‘welcome’ to a dying town representing a dying way of life seems similarly obtuse. Nevertheless it is a town of ‘warm and passionate beauty’ as the lights suggest that perhaps after all, hope resides there, rather than in the darker East to which John travels.
AS the passage ends, the tone shifts way from the conversational introduction to a statement of fact about the location of St Midas’. It is as though Fitzgerald is preparing the reader for what is to come. The proximity to the most patrician city in America is interesting – the setting has class but is not urban and the fact that the distance can be covered in an expensive and rare automobile serves it further distance Unger from his origin. The passage serves to prepare the reader for a tale of transformation from the homely Mid West to the wealthy East in order to warn the reader of the ills which can befall the innocent in this world, much as Fitzgerald will write in the Great Gatsby.