Study Guide

John T. Unger in The Diamond as Big as the Ritz

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John T. Unger

John T. Unger begins the story as guilty of wealth-worshipping as anyone else. "I like very rich people," he tells Percy. "The richer a fella is, the better I like him" (1.22). John comes from a town where "the simple piety prevalent […] has the earnest worship of and respect for riches as the first article of its creed," and he seems to have taken this creed to heart (2.12). Upon arriving at the Washington estate, he can do little more than stare in wonder and worship at the extravagant wealth of his friend's family. He is so overwhelmed, in fact, by the sensory cascade of the lavish château, that he simply falls asleep at dinner.

To be sure, John is an outsider – both at the Washington estate and in his time at St. Midas'. Sure, his family is affluent, but they live in a small town in Mississippi, where "a function that would be considered elaborate would be doubtless hailed by a Chicago beef-princes as 'perhaps a little tacky'" (1.3). When he goes off to school, he journeys into a new world – a world where wealth reigns supreme. And if St. Midas' is the gateway to this world, the Washington estate is the inner sanctum.

John's time at the Washingtons' estate is interesting, because it's never exactly clear if he's there as a guest or as a prisoner. We suspect from the start that he won't be allowed to leave (given the extent to which Braddock has gone to ensure his diamond stays secret), but John doesn't realize this until Kismine gives the game away, nearly at the end of his stay. On the one hand, he is treated like royalty while he's there – but on the other hand, the dark threat of murder or imprisonment hangs overhead the whole time.

One question to consider when thinking about John's character is whether he's learned anything from this mess. After escaping from the château with Jasmine and Kismine, he makes plans for his life in Hades. There are several confusing lines here, and we talk about them in our discussion of the ending as a whole in "What's Up with the Ending?" But there is one specific line we'll look at here. After Kismine posits that her entire youth has been a dream, John agrees that this is the nature of being young. Then he adds:

"There are only diamonds in the whole world, diamonds and perhaps the shabby gift of disillusion. Well, I have that last and I will make the usual nothing of it." (11.30)

John claims here that he has been disillusioned – and that such disillusionment is valuable. Do we believe him? Has he learned his lesson about the dangers of extravagant wealth and the immorality of attaining it on the backs of others? It's hard to say. What is interesting is that John presents this disillusionment as a sort of wealth in itself. Perhaps in this way, then, he is not as poor as he seems to be.

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