The Diamond as Big as the Ritz

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Essay B
Analysis of the short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”

by F.Scott Fitzgerald
There are novelists who find their material almost entirely outside themselves, and there are others who find it almost entirely within themselves. Scott Fitzgerald‘s talent lay in an unusual combination of these two modes. The basis of his work was self-scrutiny, but the actual product was an eloquent comment on the world. He is that rare kind of writer, a genuine microcosm with a real gift of objectivity. Fitzgerald shows his unsurpassed mastery in full in a short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”.

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is an old good social satire. By exaggerating certain aspects of American culture – the obsession with wealth in particular – Fitzgerald holds his society up to ridicule. By creating a parable to the expansion of the United States across the continent, he also mocks at the Americans’ motives and methods for success. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”is considered one of Fitzgerald’s fantasy stories, mostly because of the existence of a giant diamond mountain in the middle of the uncharted, secret territory in the center of Montana.

For the most part, the author provides the reader with the bizarre events of this story alongside its protagonist, John Unger. We get to hear his thoughts, his perspective, and we generally are not privy to things outside of his own range of perception. Because of this, the reader sees the Washington Estate as an outsider. The estate is shown as a strange, unknown world because that is what it is to John Unger.

His adventure begins in the Southern town of Hades with the view of acquiring his New England education at St Midas’ school. The protagonist, who comes from a bourgeois middle class family, is invited to spend a summer holiday with his friend, Percy Washington whose father has “a diamond as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel”. John makes the acquaintances of Jasmine and Kismine, sisters of Percy, and falls in love with Kismine at once. This idyll is broken when John gets to know that the Washingtons are allowed to have friends to visit only because the guests are killed afterwards. The loving couple elopes while the castle is under the air raid.

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” may be a fun fantasy story, but it is also a major critique of American history and American values. One of the early tip-offs is Percy's explanation that his family descends from George Washington and Lord Baltimore – two men who were integral in the founding and expansion of their country.

The story of Fitz-Norman Washington, Percy’s grandfather, quickly becomes a parallel for the expansion of the US into the west. Fitz-Norman set out after the Civil War to seek his fortune; when he found that fortune, he exploited the country’s natural resources for his own material gain and then safeguarded that secret through the manipulation and pain of others. The slaves are a key image here. Fitz-Norman took advantage of them by convincing them that the South won the civil war and that slavery was still legal. He then made them believe that his giant diamond was a rhinestone mine, and kept all the profits for himself.

Fitzgerald makes the point that material success has its costs – and that those who seek it blindly falsely believe that the exploitation of others is natural for their own purposes. A great example of this is the passage in which we learn that Fitz-Norman “was compelled, due to a series of unfortunate complications, to murder his brother, whose unfortunate habit of drinking himself into an indiscreet stupor had several times endangered their safety. But very few other murders stained these happy years of progress and expansion”. Making use of the hyperbole, Fitzgerald points out how absurd it is to sacrifice human life in the name of material gain.

The giant diamond itself is a symbol in this overarching satire. To begin, it is an emblem of the garish excess of the Washingtons’ wealth. Excessively large diamonds are considered vulgar; so a diamond as big as the Ritz is the epitome of tacky glut. It's also significant that Washington built his château on top of the diamond - he has built his home, literally, on the mountain of his wealth.

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is abundant in religious and mythological allusions, both explicit and implicit. To begin with is the opposition of John’s hometown, Hades or Hell (Hades was the Greek God of the Underworld; the Underworld itself can also be referred to as “Hades”), and Percy’s home, which in contrast appears to be a spin on the Garden of Eden – paradise.

This is an important dichotomy because Fitzgerald keeps reminding us of the religious allusion inherent in the name of John’s hometown. The starting point is the reference to the inscription over the gates of Hades, “an old-fashioned Victorian Motto” that is, admittedly, “a little depressing”. This is a humorous allusion to the inscription over the gates of Hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. And everyone keeps jokingly asking John, in reference to his home town: “Is it hot enough for you down there?”

On the surface level, this refers to the fact that John is from the South. Notably, when John leaves home, his father tells him: “We’ll keep the home fires burning”. Eventually, Kismine asks John if her father will be in Hades when they get there. “Your father is dead”, he explains to her. “Why should he go to Hades? You have it confused with another place that was abolished long ago”. The tricky part here is to understand why John, Kismine, and Jasmine willingly look forward to going to Hades at the end of the story. Why would they want to go to Hell, especially having just left the Garden of Eden? That might sound a little backwards. One possibility is that Fitzgerald’s characterization of these locales is ironic; the point being that the Washington estate, which looks like Eden, is really its own form of Hell. Hades, on the other hand, can be a sort of Heaven, because it is free of the evils which plague the Washingtons.

All this Heaven and Hell business is merely one element of the network of religious allusions that runs through “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”. The village of Fish is another, and in fact a rather bizarre segment of the story. It’s one of the few places where the narrator breaks from John’s point-of-view to comment or explain more objectively what’s going on. Let's take a look at this confusing passage: “There were twelve men, so it was said, in the village of Fish, twelve somber and inexplicable souls who sucked lean milk from the almost literally bare rock upon which a mysterious populatory force had begotten them. <…> The observation of this pointless and preposterous phenomenon had become a sort of cult among the men of Fish. To observe, that was all; there remained in them none of the vital quality of illusion which would make them wonder or speculate, else a religion might have grown up around these mysterious visitations. But the men of Fish were beyond all religion—the barest and most savage tenets of even Christianity could gain no foothold on that barren rock—so there was no altar, no priest, no sacrifice; only each night at seven the silent concourse by the shanty depot, a congregation who lifted up a prayer of dim, anaemic wonder.

The religious allusion is to the twelve disciples of Jesus (who is often associated with the ichthus fish). But the village of Fish is a desolate, barren land, a land “poisoned” and “bruised” and otherwise destroyed. This village of religion has abandoned religion. If the men of Fish are “beyond all religion”, if “the barest and most savage tenets of even Christianity could gain no foothold on that barren rock”, then America truly has turned away from God.

So if Americans are not worshipping God – what are they worshipping? In a word: money. The religious terms in this story always refer to wealth, not to God. Consider St. Midas’ preparatory school, named in honour of Greek who could turn anything into gold. John reflects that “the simple piety prevalent in Hades has the earnest worship of and respect for riches as the first article of its creed”, and that if he deviated from this standard “his parents would have turned away in horror at the blasphemy”. Money is the new religion in this land – men deify the wealthy and worship at the altar of diamond and gold.

Speaking about altars of diamonds, how about that attempted bribe at the end of the story? Braddock, realizing that his own destruction is at hand, tries to bribe God by promising him a giant diamond. “[Braddock] would give to God, he continued, getting down to specifications, the greatest diamond in the world”. God simply is not there. Braddock offers a bribe - no result. This may indeed be a land devoid not only of religion, but of divine presence altogether. We could go a step further and say that the people who dwell in this land and deify wealth have killed God.

The last page of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is where the theme of youth comes into play. As three survivors – John, Kismine, and Jasmine – sit under the stars and plan their penniless future. Kismine makes a cryptic comment: “I never noticed the stars before. I always thought of them as great big diamonds that belonged to someone. Now they frighten me. They make me feel that it was all a dream, all my youth”. John makes an even more cryptic reply: “It was a dream <…>. Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness”.

This sends us back to the only other passage in the story that explicitly discusses youth. As John is enjoying the opulent luxury of the Washingtons, a strong narrative voice interrupts the tale to comment: “He was enjoying himself as much as he was able. It is youth's felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future—flowers and gold, girls and stars, they are only prefigurations and prophecies of that incomparable, unattainable young dream”.

While “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” contains religious allegory and social satire, one more aspect of the development of the central image is actualized through the evolution of Unger’s inner world. The time John spends at the Washington estate is a sort of dreamy haze – precisely, the narrative seems to argue, like youth itself. It is important that John is a teenager during his time at the château, and that he experiences the flush of first love while he is there. The shiny, gaudy opulence of the Washington estate has a lot to do with the excessive, dreamy way we live youth – or so Fitzgerald argues.

The story is based on the idea of the wealth maleficence. Everything falls back into place. The protagonist returns to his previous state but he has changed as he has walked his road of sorrows and lost childish illusions.

The story has a ‘touch of disaster‘ —a sense of the high emotional cost of human involvement in the times, a sense of the general spirit of psychic exhaustion involved in the commitment to youth and glamour, wealth and amusement.

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