"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is definitely satirical (see "Genre"), so we expect a certain sarcastic bent to the tone. And that's exactly what we get. Fitzgerald parodies the Washingtons' indifference to the suffering of others and their willingness to sacrifice others for their own success. He does so indirectly. While saying with words that this behavior is perfectly natural, he says with his tone that it's clearly not. Example:
[Fitz-Norman Washington] 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. (4.11)
Humor aside, Fitzgerald is still Fitzgerald, and he can't help but insert a gem or two of philosophic gold, not to mix our diamond-encrusted metaphors. He manages to sneak in a few comments here and there. He says, for example, that youth is nothing but chemical madness, that one can not be both free and poor, that the young live in the future rather than the present. And we're betting you can find a few more.
"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is good old 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 American motives behind and methods for success. The Washingtons, for example, are supposed to be descended from George Washington and Lord Baltimore – two leaders in early American history. Washington's willingness to manipulate and hurt others for his own financial gain is then a dig at the country's own tendency to do the same in its early expansion. (Braddock's slaves are a particularly potent example).
We're also looking at a coming-of-age story, though to a lesser degree. John is sixteen when the story begins and leaving home for the first time. In the course of the narrative, he learns a few lessons (maybe), experiences his first love, and all around grows up.
Lastly, "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is considered one of Fitzgerald's fantasy stories, mostly because, as far as we know, the existence of a giant diamond mountain in the middle of uncharted, secret territory in the center of Montana is the workings of an imaginative mind.
The obvious answer is that this story is about a diamond that is, literally, as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. But lest we give Fitzgerald and his title short shrift, we should try to dig a little deeper.
First is the idea of exaggeration. We talk in "Writing Style" about the way that Fitzgerald exaggerates everything in this story. It's all about the hyperbole. And that's exactly what's going on in the title; it's not just a large diamond, but a huge, enormous diamond the size of a giant hotel. It's all about garish excess.
Second, comparing the diamond to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel connects the fantasy wealth of the story (a giant diamond) with the wealth of Fitzgerald's American readers (hotels, luxury cars, etc.). It brings in the satirical aspect of the story. In 1922, when Fitzgerald was writing, hotelier Cesar Ritz had recently died (in 1918), but his hotel legacy was gaining its ground. (Fitzgerald himself used to frequent the Ritz Hotel in Paris.) By using the name "Ritz" in the title, Fitzgerald brings to the front of his reader's mind the image of extravagantly wealthy Americans – the subject of the story's satire (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for a closer look). Incidentally, it's interesting that the benchmark of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel chain would turn out to be the Boston branch – thus an appropriate reference for young Percy – but not until 1927, several years after the story's publication. Fitzgerald's title is even more apt now than it was in 1922.
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 some one. Now they frighten me. They make me feel that it was all a dream, all my youth" (11.27). John makes an even more cryptic reply: "It was a dream […]. "Everybody's youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness" (11.27-28).
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. (5.3)
This starts us thinking that, while "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" contains religious allegory and social satire, it is also an allegory of youth. 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.
As John and Kismine are escaping from the château, he tells her that "it's impossible to be both [free and poor] together," adding that he "should choose to be free as preferable of the two" (9.29). By this reasoning, he tells Kismine to take a pocketful of diamonds with them as they leave. The idea is that, if they have the diamonds, they will be rich, and this will allow them to be free.
Except it turns out that Kismine, clearly not fated to be a jeweler, took rhinestones instead. So what does this mean in terms of John's plan? One interpretation is that, since they are now poor, they are necessarily not free. Another is that John was wrong in his assertion and the ending proves it – they escaped from the château and are free, despite being poor. Yet another possibility is that the ending forces us to reinterpret the ideas of "freedom" and of "wealth." John has his life and a woman who is ready to be his wife; in this sense, he is "rich." You could also argue that John, despite having escaped from the Washingtons is still captive to his own preoccupation with wealth. The ending leaves it up to you to interpret John's earlier claim on freedom and poverty.
In "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," we discus the fact that John is from Hades, which in Greek mythology was another name for Hell. We also take a look at the Washington estate as representing a sort of Garden of Eden-like paradise. At the end of the story, then, we see that John, Kismine, and Jasmine have escaped from Eden, in order to go live in Hell.
That might sound a little backwards. One possibility is that Fitzgerald's characterization of these to locales is ironic; the point being that the Washington estate, which seems like Eden, is really its own form of Hell. (After all, prisoners are held there, no one can escape, and God turns his back as it is attacked.) Hades, on the other hand, can be a sort of Heaven in itself, because it is free of the evils which plague the Washingtons. Another possibility is that Hades really is like Hell, which is a sad (but not unhumorous) conclusion to the story.
The humor comes in when you consider the attitudes of our three remaining survivors as they look forward to their future in Hell. Kismine is excited at the prospect of being poor; John isn't even upset about the fact that she left her diamonds behind; and Jasmine's attitudes is best described as a sort of contented acceptance. "Oh well," they seem to say, "now we're going to be poor for the rest of our lives. No big deal; let's take a nap."
Because of this general attitude, and because of the religious allegory pervading the ending, we can't help but think of Candide, a satire written by Voltaire in 1759. In Candide, the story's protagonist and friends undergo a series of awful events – torture, natural disaster, rape, etc. – and yet come out at the end with an oddly optimistic attitude. Voltaire's point was to criticize the philosophy of Optimism, which he did by satirizing its followers. At the end of Candide, the various protagonists, crippled and deformed by their various misfortunes, set to work in a garden for the rest of their days. Their attitude is, just like the attitude of John, Kismine, and Jasmine, a sort of contented acceptance. "Oh well," they seem to say, "let's tend to our garden."
There are several ways in which "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" may allude to Candide in this final scene. First of all, the characters share the same absurd reaction to misfortune while contentedly anticipating a rather bleak future. You've also got the religious allegory to consider. The garden at the end of Candide certainly refers to the Garden of Eden, which means the characters have arrived at an ironic rendering of an Eden-like paradise. The characters in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," on the contrary, have left Eden and instead gone on to Hades, or Hell. It's an ironic twist on what is already an ironic satire – clever stuff, but nothing short of what we expect from Fitzgerald.
Most of "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" takes place on the five-square-mile land of the Washington estate, somewhere in the middle of Montana. By all accounts, the Washington château appears to be a paradise. Fitzgerald's lavish descriptions characterize the excess and opulence of the flawless chateau and its surroundings. It's hard to read into the estate a reference to the Biblical Garden of Eden – especially in contrast with Hades, or Hell, from where John hails. We talk about this fully in our discussion of religious allegory in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," so be sure to check that out.
One of the interesting elements of the Montana setting is the specific imagery Fitzgerald uses to describe the land in which Washington has set his estate. Take a look at the following few pages and see if you can find the common theme we're talking about:
The Montana sunset lay between two mountains like a gigantic bruise from which dark arteries spread themselves over a poisoned sky. (2.1)
Out of the blue-black bruise in the distance crept a long line of moving lights upon the desolation of the land, and the twelve men of Fish gathered like ghosts at the shanty depot to watch the passing of the seven o'clock train, the Transcontinental Express from Chicago. Six times or so a year the Transcontinental Express […] stopped at the village of Fish, and when this occurred a figure or so would disembark […] and drive off toward the bruised sunset. (2.2)
After half an hour, when the twilight had coagulated into dark, the silent negro […] hailed an opaque body somewhere ahead of them in the gloom. (2.4)
It was apparent that they had surmounted some immense knife-blade of stone. (2.17)
Terms like "gigantic bruise," "dark arteries," "poisoned sky," "blue-black bruise," "bruised sunset," and "coagulated" sure pack a imagistic punch. Fitzgerald uses the imagery of a physically injured body to describe the Montana landscape, suggesting that something – or perhaps someone – has hurt the land. You could interpret this any number of ways. Perhaps, by abandoning God and worshipping at the altar of wealth, the religion-less men of fish have bruised their land. Perhaps men like Washington have poisoned the country by exploiting its resources (like diamonds) for their own purposes. Perhaps you can come up with a third (or fourth) interpretation?
Read through "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" and find every superlative adjective you can, along with all the exaggerated descriptions and over-the-top characterizations. This is a story that is stuffed full with hyperbole – here's what we found on our own foray through the text:
St. Midas' School is the most expensive and most exclusive boys' preparatory school in the world (1.10)
[Percy]: "My father […] is by far the richest man in the world." (1.14)
It was the taillight of an immense automobile, larger and more magnificent than any he had ever seen. (2.4)
She was the most beautiful person he had ever seen […], the incarnation of physical perfection. (5.4, 5.11)
Starting to get the picture? If you want to see more, check out any one of the lengthy descriptions of the Washington estate – they're just glutted with showy clauses and expensive adjectives. And that's exactly the point. This is a story about garish excess of every kind – it's only fitting that its prose should be equally all about the bling.
"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" may be a fun fantasy story, but it's 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 our country.
The story of Fitz-Norman Washington, Percy's grandfather, quickly becomes a parallel for the expansion of the U.S. 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 example 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 convinced them 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 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," (4.11). Through this 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's built his home, literally, on the mountain of his wealth.
"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is full of religious allusions, both explicit and implicit. To begin with is the dichotomy between John's hometown, Hades or Hell, and Percy's home, which in contrast appears to be a spin on the Garden of Eden – paradise.
We know this is an important dichotomy because Fitzgerald keeps reminding us of the religious allusion inherent in the name of John's hometown. To start is the reference to the inscription over the gates of Hades, "an old-fashioned Victorian Motto" that is, admittedly, "a little depressing" (1.8). This is a humorous allusion to the inscription over the gates of Hell: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." We also notice that everyone keeps jokingly asking John, in reference to his home town, "Is it hot enough for you down there?" (1.11).
On the surface level, this refers to the fact that John is from the South (as opposed to most of the New Englanders with whom he goes to school). But it is also a joking reference to the fact that Hades is Hell, and that Hell isn't exactly known for its air-conditioning. We also notice that, when John leaves home, his father tells him, "We'll keep the home fires burning" (1.5). Finally, at the end of the text, 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" (11.24). The tricky part here is understanding 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? Go ahead and read "What's Up with the Ending?", where we discuss the question fully.
Interestingly, we get another reference to Hell about halfway through the text – not in reference to Hades, but rather to the underground prison where Braddock keeps the aviators he's shot down. "Come on down to Hell!" the men call to John when Braddock opens their cage (6.17). This is fitting, since the prison is below ground while "Heaven" (or the Washington estate) is above.
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 (see "Narrator Point of View"). Let's take a look at this confusing passage:
The Montana sunset lay between two mountains like a gigantic bruise from which dark arteries spread themselves over a poisoned sky. An immense distance under the sky crouched the village of Fish, minute, dismal, and forgotten. There were twelve men, so it was said, in the village of Fish, twelve somber and inexplicable souls who sucked a lean milk from the almost literally bare rock upon which a mysterious populatory force had begotten them. They had become a race apart, these twelve men of Fish, like some species developed by an early whim of nature, which on second thought had abandoned them to struggle and extermination.
Out of the blue-black bruise in the distance crept a long line of moving lights upon the desolation of the land, and the twelve men of Fish gathered like ghosts at the shanty depot to watch the passing of the seven o'clock train, the Transcontinental Express from Chicago. Six times or so a year the Transcontinental Express, through some inconceivable jurisdiction, stopped at the village of Fish […]. 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. (2.1-2)
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 (see "Setting" for a full discussion of Fitzgerald's portrayal of the West). 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 aren't 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' prep, John and Percy's fancy school. They've chosen to make a saint of a king 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" (2.12). Money is the new religion in this land – men deify the wealthy and worship at the altar of diamond and gold.
Speaking of 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. Take a look:
[Braddock] would give to God, he continued, getting down to specifications, the greatest diamond in the world. This diamond would be cut with many more thousand facets than there were leaves on a tree, and yet the whole diamond would be shaped with the perfection of a stone no bigger than a fly. Many men would work upon it for many years. It would be set in a great dome of beaten gold, wonderfully carved and equipped with gates of opal and crusted sapphire. In the middle would be hollowed out a chapel presided over by an altar of iridescent, decomposing, ever-changing radium which would burn out the eyes of any worshipper who lifted up his head from prayer—and on this altar there would be slain for the amusement of the Divine Benefactor any victim He should choose, even though it should be the greatest and most powerful man alive. (10.14)
So what does it mean that Braddock's bribe doesn't work? This is tricky question, and we can't give you just one answer. It could be that Fitzgerald is making an argument that religion is so fundamental that it cannot be destroyed by our vapid worship of wealth. God is still there, the story seems to threaten, an we'll all have to own up to our actions at the end. There is certainly a Judgment Day feel about this final scene – the aeroplanes in the sky are described as "a dozen dark-winged bodies in constantly circling course" raining down fire on the land below (9.18). Later, the planes are described as "golden angels alighting from the clouds" (10.22). Braddock is being judged for his sins, and is ultimately forced to pay for them.
Another interpretation for God's refusal is that he simply isn't 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.
For the most part, we experience the bizarre events of this story along with its protagonist, John Unger. We get to hear his thoughts, his perspective, and we generally aren't privy to things outsider of his own range of perception. Because of this, we see the Washington Estate through the eyes of an outsider. The estate is painted as a strange, unknown world because that's what it is to John Unger. Consider how different things would appear if we heard the story through, say, Percy's eyes.
Though we do stick to John's perspective for most of the story, there is the occasional moment where the narrator breaks through and provides us with his pearls (diamonds?) of wisdom. When the village of Fish is described, for example, we know that this is the narrator speaking, not a glimpse into John's thoughts. Another important passage is the slightly cryptic message about youth inserted about halfway through the story ("it is youth's felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present" [5.3]).
The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is a fantastic example of the "Voyage and Return" Booker plot – it fits the mold to a T. In fact, Booker even cites this story as a key example of this pattern. So let's get to it already. In this initial stage, John, who loves rich people, eagerly anticipates spending a summer with the very wealthy Washingtons. He is a bit of an outsider to the world of the super-wealthy because of his own origins. Sure, the Ungers are affluent, but, as the opening passages tell us, not the kind of socially elite people that John hob-nobs with at St. Midas' prep.
John is both exhilarated by and uncomfortable with the world of the Washingtons. The fact that he keeps falling asleep his first night there shows us how truly overwhelmed he is at the opulence that Percy takes for granted. It's clear that he is an outsider in this strange world; it's not a place where he could ever feel at home, certainly. Kismine is part of the appeal of this new world.
If you didn't get the hints yet, it becomes increasingly clear that there's something wrong with this picture. John gets a real glimpse of Washington's darker side when he sees the prisoners in the ground – but even this doesn't totally faze him. It's not until he hears that his own life is in danger that he really gets worried.
This is the stage in which the hero is seriously threatened. In John's case, he is first threatened by Braddock's own men – he discovers them in the hall and is certain that they were on their way to kill him. Then, he is threatened by the air-strike pioneered by Braddock's escaped prisoners. Will John make it out alive?
John's escape was not just a literal escape from the doomed château, but also from the world of wealth he entered at the start of the story. Notice that he plans a return to Hades, not to St. Midas' prep – meaning that the school and the Washington estate were part of the same foreign world. In his description of the seven basic plots, Booker says that a fundamental question arises at the end of the "Voyage and Return": have the main characters been fundamentally changed, or was it all "just a dream"? John and his companions actually consider this very question at the conclusion – see "What's Up with the Ending?" for more on this note.
This stage is comprised of the background info on John, his family, and the town of Hades, as well as the time John spends at St. Midas' school. You've also got the anticipatory train ride to consider in this stage.
The diamond itself isn't a conflict, but there is a seriously conflict-ridden aspect to all this wealth and extravagance. This conflict is evident in every element of the estate and the story of its history, from the slaves who are kept there by deception and exploitation, to the prisoners in the ground, to the fact that old Fitz-Norman murdered his brother to keep his secret safe.
John doesn't really get the fact that this conflict applies directly to his own life – not until Kismine as much as spells it out for him. But the reader should have an inclination of this complication much earlier in the text – at least by the time we see the prisoners in the ground.
When an enormous bomb goes off, whether in the realm of English class or action movies, you're probably looking at a climax. In this case, Fitzgerald doesn't hold back. This climax has all the fire power of any good Bruce Willis flick. We can start to see what Times critic Donald Adams meant when he wrote that Fitzgerald "out-Hollywoods Hollywood" in this story.
We should have a feeling that something is bound to go wrong here, mostly because Kismine has so far proven herself to be not the smartest person in the world. So we don't rest easy until she pulls the jewels out of the pocket, at which point out suspicions are confirmed. They're rhinestones instead of real jewels.
Now that the excitement is over, John, Kismine, and Jasmine look forward to what appears to be a rather bleak future. There is no real "explanation" or "revelation" part to this denouement.
You've got us here – the ending to "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is just plain strange. From religious allegory to literary allusions, any number of things could be going on here. See "What's Up with the Ending?" for a full discussion, but don't expect a definitive answer.
John leaves his home for St. Midas' prep. He meets Percy and then travels with him to his home in Montana.
John spends the summer with the Washingtons. He falls in love with Kismine and then discovers that he is to be killed. He wakes in the middle of the night and finds men in the hallway outside his door.
The château is under an air strike. John escapes to the woods with Kismine and her sister, watches it all go up in flames, and then plans for his future.