"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" as Satire
"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.
Religious and Mythological Allegory
"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.