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Freedom and Confinement
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.... (1.8)
This is a veiled reference to the inscription that hangs over the gates of Hell in Dante's Inferno: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." It's ironic that John so easily leaves Hades (we would expect Hell to be a prison) and that so many are imprisoned at the Washingtons' estate (which quickly takes on the role of the Garden of Eden).
A function that in Hades would be considered elaborate would doubtless be hailed by a Chicago beef-princess as "perhaps a little tacky." (1.3)
Notice that John is set up from the beginning as somewhat of an outsider to the world of opulent wealth occupied by the boys at St. Midas' prep. His family may be affluent, but they are not on the same scale and not with the same social class as the urban families.
If the car was any indication of what John would see, he was prepared to be astonished indeed. The simple piety prevalent in Hades has the earnest worship of and respect for riches as the first article of its creed—had John felt otherwise than radiantly humble before them, his parents would have turned away in horror at the blasphemy. (2.12)
This is a reminder that John is the product of his upbringing – as are Percy, Kismine, and Jasmine. This is a sticky point when we rush to judge them for their obsession with wealth. Perhaps we shouldn't be too harsh with these young Washingtons. It has, after all, been ingrained in them since birth. They are prisoners of the ideology of their culture.
Fitz-Norman himself set out for foreign parts with one hundred thousand dollars and two trunks filled with rough diamonds of all sizes. He sailed for Russia in a Chinese junk and six months after his departure from Montana he was in St. Petersburg. He took obscure lodgings and called immediately upon the court jeweler, announcing that he had a diamond for the Czar. He remained in St. Petersburg for two weeks, in constant danger of being murdered, living from lodging to lodging, and afraid to visit his trunks more than three or four times during the whole fortnight. (4.8)
Fitz-Norman was, in many ways, a prisoner to his own wealth. It certainly doesn't sound like he's living a chipper life of freedom, at any rate.
[Braddock:] "All these n****es are descendants of the ones my father brought North with him. There are about two hundred and fifty now. You notice that they've lived so long apart from the world that their original dialect has become an almost indistinguishable patois. We bring a few of them up to speak English—my secretary and two or three of the house servants." (6.6)
Many of the prisoners in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" don't even know that they're prisoners – and the slaves aren't the only ones.
But Mr. Washington, followed by the two boys, was already strolling on toward the ninth hole of the golf course, as though the pit and its contents were no more than a hazard over which his facile iron had triumphed with ease. (6.61)
The prison – or rather the fact that Braddock will stop at nothing to keep his diamond a secret – is the hazard in the otherwise flawless green.
Braddock Washington, so Percy told him, had caused to be kidnapped a landscape gardener, an architect, a designer of state settings, and a French decadent poet left over from the last century. He had put his entire force of n****es at their disposal, guaranteed to supply them with any materials that the world could offer, and left them to work out some ideas of their own. But one by one they had shown their uselessness. The decadent poet had at once begun bewailing his separation from the boulevards in spring—he made some vague remarks about spices, apes, and ivories, but said nothing that was of any practical value. The stage designer on his part wanted to make the whole valley a series of tricks and sensational effects—a state of things that the Washingtons would soon have grown tired of. And as for the architect and the landscape gardener, they thought only in terms of convention. They must make this like this and that like that. (8.3)
"The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" shows us the difficulty of taking by force and imprisonment. All the wealth in the world doesn't necessarily mean that one can get what they want – or so Braddock should learn.
Jasmine, the elder daughter, resembled Kismine in appearance—except that she was somewhat bow-legged, and terminated in large hands and feet—but was utterly unlike her in temperament. Her favorite books had to do with poor girls who kept house for widowed fathers. John learned from Kismine that Jasmine had never recovered from the shock and disappointment caused her by the termination of the World War, just as she was about to start for Europe as a canteen expert. She had even pined away for a time, and Braddock Washington had taken steps to promote a new war in the Balkans—but she had seen a photograph of some wounded Serbian soldiers and lost interest in the whole proceedings. (8.2)
We start to see how wealth can be a sort of prison for the elite themselves. Jasmine appears to be trapped in a world that holds no value for her.
"It's impossible to be both [free and poor] together," said John grimly. "People have found that out. And I should choose to be free as preferable of the two. As an extra caution you'd better dump the contents of your jewel box into your pockets." (9.29)
At the end of the story, John is free (in the sense that he escaped from the château), but poor (because Kismine brought rhinestones instead of diamonds). Does this mean his claim here is false? Is he wealthy in some other way at the end of the story? Or is he trapped in some way at the end of the story?
But the little group of five which had formed farther up and was engrossing all the watchers' attention had stopped upon a ledge of rock. The n****es stooped and pulled up what appeared to be a trap-door in the side of the mountain. Into this they all disappeared, the white-haired man first, then his wife and son, finally the two n****es, the glittering tips of whose jeweled head-dresses caught the sun for a moment before the trap-door descended and engulfed them all. (10.26)
It's fitting that Braddock dies inside his mountain – his prison, as it were. It's also fitting that he goes in voluntarily (just as he's voluntarily committed himself to a prison of his wealth), and that he leads his family in there with him.
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