Study Guide

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz Summary

John T. Unger is a sixteen-year-old boy from an affluent family in Hades, Mississippi on his way to St. Midas' preparatory school in Boston, the most exclusive and expensive prep school in the world. There, he hobnobs with the wealthy and meets another student named Percy Washington. Percy invites John to spend the Summer with his family "out West," and John, who loves being with the super-wealthy, agrees.

On the train ride West, Percy reveals that his father is the richest man in the world. He has a diamond the size of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. John soon discovers that Percy is telling the truth. Percy's father, Braddock T. Washington, has built an enormous château on a mountain that is literally one solid, flawless diamond. The diamond sits in the middle of five square miles in the woods of Montana – the only part of the country that has never been surveyed. The United States doesn't know that these five square miles exist at all, and the Washingtons plan on keeping it that way.

As a guest at the enormous estate, John soon learns the history of the Washington family. Braddock's father, Colonel Fitz-Norman Culpepper Washington, discovered the diamond mountain shortly after the Civil War had ended. He realized he was in a bit of a pickle: by owning the diamond, he was the richest man in the world. But if anyone ever discovered the diamond, it would lose its value, as diamonds would no longer be a rare gem. (The diamond is so large that it would essentially flood the market.) So he decided to hide its existence, at all costs. He brought slaves out from his home in Virginia after convincing them that the South had won the Civil War and that slavery was still legal.

Braddock inherited the diamond and a large number of slaves from his father, as well as the mission of keeping the diamond hidden. Today, he shoots down any planes that fly overhead and keeps the aviators prisoner in a hole in the ground (though he treats and feeds them well). We learn that, recently, an Italian prisoner escaped, much to Braddock's distress. He sent men after the fugitive, but he's not sure if any one of the men they killed was indeed the wanted man.

John seems to have no issues with the Washingtons' system; he has a grand old time spending the summer enjoying the Washingtons' lavish wealth, great food, and endless stream of servants. He also falls in love with Kismine, Percy's younger sister. The two of them make adorable plans to get married next summer. It's all going just swimmingly until Kismine reveals, accidentally, that her father never allows guests to leave their estate. Instead, he murders them in their sleep, in order to safeguard his diamond. Kismine doesn't seem to think there's anything wrong with this. She thinks that it's only right that she and her siblings should get as much pleasure as possible out of life.

Naturally, John is upset. He and Kismine make plans to run away and elope. Before they can, however, they find themselves under a nighttime attack from about a dozen fighter planes (presumably brought by the Italian who escaped from Braddock's prison). John, Kismine, and her older sister Jasmine escape to the woods. As they leave the château, John advises Jasmine to take a pocketful of jewels with her, which she does.

From a safe hiding spot in the woods, John watches a strange sight. Braddock has two of his slaves bring a giant diamond to the top of the mountain. As the fight planes continue to bomb his estate, he holds the diamond up to the sky and attempts to bribe God. He declares that, if God just clears up this whole mess, he will build Him a giant cathedral out of the biggest diamond the world has ever seen. God declines.

So Braddock leads his family into the mountain which, Kismine explains to John, is wired to blow. The whole place goes up in a massive explosion, killing the rest of the Washington family (Percy, Braddock, and Braddock's wife) as well as all the aviators who had landed on the mountain. John, Kismine, and Jasmine, however, are safe in the woods.

After the fireworks are over, the three make their way away from the mountain. When they stop to rest for the next night, John asks Kismine to bring out the jewels she took as they were escaping. Unfortunately, Kismine went for the wrong drawer and accidentally grabbed a handful of rhinestones. This doesn't bother her, however, as she was bored of diamonds and, beside, she thinks being poor for a change might be exciting. The three of them make plans to go live in Hades, where Kismine looks forward to working as a washerwoman. They fall asleep for the night.

  • Section 1

    • We meet John T. Unger, a sixteen-year-old who grew up in an affluent family in a small town called Hades, Mississippi. He is now heading off to St. Midas' reparatory school outside of Boston – the most expensive and exclusive prep school in the world.
    • The night of his departure, John says a tearful good-bye to his parents, who advise him to remember who he is and where he comes from.
    • So John heads off to prep school. Two years pass uneventfully. John spends his summers with the other (much more wealthy) boys at various fashionable locales. He is struck by how all of his friends' rich fathers seem to be all the same.
    • In John's second year at St. Midas', a new student enrolls. His is a "quiet, handsome" boy named Percy Washington (1.12).
    • Percy keeps mostly to himself, but chooses to form a friendship with John. He always keeps quiet about his family and hometown – even to John.
    • Eventually, Percy asks John to spend the summer with him in his home "in the West" (1.12). John agrees.
    • Finally, once they are in the train, alone together, on the way to Percy's home, Percy starts talking about his family. "My father," he says, "is the richest man in the world" (1.14).
    • John doesn't know what to say, so he starts rattling off figures about how many millionaires there are in the world.
    • But Percy quickly silences him by establishing that his father is much, much richer than all of them put together.
    • John is glad about this. "I like very rich people," he says (1.21). "The richer a fella is, the better I like him" (1.22).
    • Finally, Percy reveals that his father has one enormous diamond. A diamond as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

  • Section 2

    • The train arrives in Montana in "the village of Fish," a mysterious small town occupied by twelve men (2.1). Every once in a while, the transcontinental train on which Percy and John are now riding stops in this village of Fish, and the men who live there congregate to see the rare event. The narrator makes the point that these men of Fish are without religion, so they impart no spiritual significance to this strange, ritual occurrence.
    • Percy and John disembark and, in front of the twelve men of Fish, get into an old buggy and drive away from the depot.
    • After about half an hour of buggy driving in the dark of night, the black driver pulls the buggy over. They are approached by a huge, magnificent, gleaming automobile, greater than anything John has ever seen. Two black men get out of the automobile, "dressed in glittering livery such as one sees in pictures of royal processions in London" (2.5).
    • As the men transfer all their luggage, Percy explains to John that they couldn't get into the car right at the depot. It would never do for the men of Fish to realize that there was a family living nearby with that kind of wealth. While John gushes over the car, Percy writes it off as a piece of old junk that they use as a station wagon.
    • The boys travel for over an hour, heading towards a break between two mountains in the distance. Finally, they come to a stop at a small cliff. They meet up with several more black men who, with a series of cables and ropes, lift the car up to the plateau that was above them.
    • Percy tells John that this is where the United States ends. They are in the middle of the Montana Rockies, but inside five square miles of the county that has never been surveyed. It turns out that Percy's family has been protecting these five square miles from discovery for generations.
    • Now there's only one thing his father is afraid of, says Percy: airplanes.
    • The family shoot down anyone who flies overhead and then keep the aviators prisoner. It's a great worry for them, however, that someone might get away some day.
    • John begins to wonder what "terrible and golden mystery" lies hidden in these five square miles that must so urgently be protected (2.26).
    • Finally, they arrive at Percy's house – a magnificent château on the border of a lake and a forest of pine. It's a giant edifice with "a thousand yellow windows" and "many towers", flooded with golden light, the sound of violins, and the fragrance of flowers" (2.28).
    • As they ascend the great steps, the front door opens and John is introduced to Percy's mother.
    • Inside John is dazzled by the diamond-covered walls; the opulence of the interior is described in excessive detail.
    • John is so overwhelmed that he falls asleep at dinner with Percy's family. He wakes up in bed, where the servants have placed him, to find Percy standing over him. He apologizes for ever having doubted that Percy indeed had a diamond as big as the Ritz.
    • Percy explains that the diamond is the mountain on which their house rests. But before he can respond, John falls asleep again.

  • Section 3

    • John wakes up the next morning to find a servant waiting. The servant asks if he's ready for his bath, and then removes John's clothes and pushes a button that gently dumps John from his bed into a bath that's waiting ready beside him.
    • The servant than asks if John would like to watch a movie while he has his bath. John declines, and instead focuses on the beautiful sound of flutes emanating in from outside the window.
    • After his bath, John is treated to a shave and a haircut. He finally makes his way to his own personal living-room, where Percy is waiting for him, smoking in an easy chair.

  • Section 4

    • While they have breakfast together, Percy tells John a bit about his family history.
    • Percy's grandfather – his father's father – was Colonel Fitz-Norman Culpepper Washington. He was a direct descendent of both George Washington and Lord Baltimore.
    • When the Civil War ended, Colonel Washington, then 25-years-old, left his plantation to his younger brother and set out West. He took with him two-dozen slaves who worshipped him.
    • After a month in Montana, the Colonel loses his way while he is out riding. Finding himself very hungry indeed, he tries to shoot a squirrel for dinner. The squirrel gets away, but drops the acorn it was carrying.
    • The acorn turns out to be not an acorn, but rather an enormous flawless diamond. Colonel makes his way back to his camp, gathers his men, and brings them back to the mountainside to start digging near where he encountered the squirrel and the giant diamond.
    • To protect himself, he tells his slaves that he discovered an enormous rhinestone mine. None of them knows the difference.
    • Of course he quickly discovers that the mountain is not a diamond mine; rather, it is itself one gigantic diamond. He takes a few bags of stones chiseled off the sides and travels back East to sell them off. He has to keep the larger ones hidden, because they practically cause riots when seen by the public.
    • By the time Colonel Fitz-Norman Culpepper Washington gets back to Montana, the rumor mill is wild with stories of a new diamond mine – it's just that no one knows where it is.
    • Fitz-Norman takes a moment to think. He's in a pickle. He is the richest man who has ever lived, but if anyone ever finds the diamond mountain, diamonds will lose all their value (because the gem will no longer be a rare or scarce commodity). He realizes that the most important thing he has to do is keep the mountain hidden.
    • So Fitz-Norman brings his brother out to Montana and keeps him in charge of the slaves. Meanwhile, he tells all his slaves that the South beat the North in a post-war resurgence and that slavery is legal. They believe him.
    • With his brother holding down the fort, Fitz-Norman is free to travel the world selling his diamonds. He sells them to various royalty in Europe, but is always afraid for his life as he does so (lest someone kill him for the valuable gems he's carrying with him).
    • Things go on like this. Eventually, Fitz-Norman marries and has a son. Then he is "compelled [by] 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" (4.11). Fortunately, "very few other murders stained these happy tears of progress and expansion" (4.11).
    • When Fitz-Norman died, his son, Braddock Tarleton Washington, Percy's father, continued the work of his father. He converted all the wealth into the most expensive element in the world – radium – so that a billion dollars could be efficiently stored in a tiny cigar box.
    • Three years after his father's death, Braddock decides that they have enough wealth to last, roughly speaking, forever. He seals up the mine and sets his sights on forever concealing the diamond mountain.
    • And that's the story of the Washingtons.

  • Section 5

    • After breakfast, John heads outside to survey the incredible landscaping around the house. There he encounters the most beautiful girl he's ever seen.
    • She turns out to be Kismine, Percy's younger sister.
    • John has always been turned off by flaws of any kind in any girl he's ever known; but Kismine seems absolutely perfect to him.
    • As they chat, Kismine talks about her family. Her father has never punished his children for anything, she says, as he doesn't believe in it.
    • Kismine talks about her older sister, Jasmine, who is coming out soon (as a debutante). Kismine herself, the younger sister, is heading to New York for finishing school in the Fall.
    • The two of them flirt while talking, and it's clear that romance is blossoming.

  • Section 6

    • We cut to an afternoon with John, Percy, and Mr. Washington. Percy's father is showing John around the grounds; he points out the slave quarters. John has a hard time making conversation with this man of such excessive wealth.
    • Braddock explains that all their servants are descendants of the original slaves that his father brought with him from Virginia, and that they only brought a few of them up to speak English. The rest of them use their own dialect.
    • He then continues the tour with the golf course, which has no hazards (water, sand, etc.) whatsoever.
    • Onward they move – to a cage in the ground where Washington is holding prisoner all the aviators he has shot down. He is irritated that one of the men – whom he took out of the cage to teach his daughter Italian – has escaped.
    • Braddock sent two dozen henchmen to track and kill the escaped prisoners, but he can't be sure that any one of the men they all killed was the fugitive he sought.
    • When he opens the top of the cage in the ground, the men all shout up to Washington. Naturally, they would like to go home and resent being held against their will. Washington explains to John that he treats them all well, and that if there were any way to guarantee his mountain would be kept a secret he would let them all go. Braddock tells the men that, if they come up with such a solution, he will happily let them go.
    • After playfully arguing with the men, Braddock closes the prison and continues his tour.

  • Section 7

    • It is now July, and John and Kismine are in love. They share their first kiss.
    • They decide to get married.

  • Section 8

    • Every day Mr. Washington and the two boys go hunting in the woods, or fishing, or playing golf together.
    • John finds that Mr. Washington is uninterested in any opinions other than his own, and that Mrs. Washington is aloof and indifferent to her two daughters, yet interested in her son, Percy. We learned from Kismine that she is a Spaniard, and she holds lengthy, rapid, unintelligible conversations over dinner with her son in Spanish.
    • We learn that Jasmine – the third sibling – looks like Kismine (though less perfect) but has a very different temperament. She always wanted to go to Europe to work as a canteen expert during World War I and was disappointed when the conflict ended. She doesn't have quite the same degree of arrogance that Kismine and Percy inherited from their father.
    • When John expresses his admiration for the landscape, Percy explains that his father captured a landscape gardener, an architect, a designer, and a French poet to design it. They didn't do such a great job, in part because they were being held against their will. He ended up getting a "moving-picture fella" who did a decent job, though (8.6).
    • As the month of August draws to a close, John regrets that he'll have to leave soon to go back to school. He and Kismine talk about eloping next June.
    • It's all going great until Kismine accidentally mentions the other guests they've had stay with them for the summer.
    • It soon comes out that Braddock always murders his children's guests before they can leave the estate – to make sure that the secret of his diamond mountain is never revealed.
    • Naturally, John is horrified at his impending death. But Kismine thinks that "it's only natural" that she and her family "get all the pleasure out of [their guests] that they can" before they are murdered (8.33).
    • Anyway it's never been a problem, she says – father always does it before she or Jasmine or Percy know it's time, that way they never have to deal with any tearful good-byes or anything. Apparently he just poisons the guests in their sleep. Besides, she says, she doesn't want to see John die, but she would rather have him murdered than ever kiss another girl.
    • She laments that she told John all of this, because now it will spoil their fun for the rest of the summer.
    • John is furious; he wants nothing more to do with Kismine. But he quickly realizes it is in his best interest to tell her that he still loves her and plan for the two of them to run away together. They do just that.

  • Section 9

    • Long after midnight, John jerks awake. He hears a noise outside his bedroom door.
    • He rushes outside and sees at the end of the hallway Mr. Washington standing inside the elevator. There are three slaves in the hallway; John is certain that they were there to execute him.
    • Before John can do or say anything, Mr. Washington orders the three men into the elevator with him. The men depart, leaving John alone in the hallway. He knows that "something portentous" must have occurred to have "postponed his own petty disaster," yet he has no idea what that something is (9.7). He decides, this is a good time to make his escape with Kismine – while the men of the house are distracted.
    • John makes his way to Kismine's room. She tells him that at least a dozen planes flew overhead, probably sent by the Italian prisoner who escaped. They decide to go up the roof and watch the excitement. In the elevator, John kisses her.
    • Outside a great battle rages; the airplanes fire down ammunition at the great Washington estate.
    • John astutely decides that they'd better get while the getting is good.
    • As the entire slave quarters are bombed, Kismine laments that "there goes fifty thousand dollars' worth of slaves […] at pre-war prices. So few Americans have any respect for property," she adds (9.24).
    • John pulls her away from the spectacle. Kismine adds that the should wake Jasmine and take her with them. Meanwhile, she titters with the excitement that now they will be poor – free and poor, and won't it be fun?
    • John tells her that it is impossible to be both free and poor together, and that he would rather be free. As such, he tells her to take a handful of diamonds from her jewel box before they depart.
    • Ten minutes later, John, Kismine, and Jasmine make their way out of the palace and into a safe, hidden spot in the woods, from which they can safely watch the destruction.

  • Section 10

    • It is three in the morning as the three fugitives watch the fight from their spot in the woods. Jasmine falls off to sleep against a tree. After about an hour of bombing, the planes circle closer to the ground and the fighting starts to slow. Kismine, too, falls asleep.
    • John remains awake and, after some time has passed, begins to sense that others are present nearby. He peers through the trees and spots Braddock Washington standing in a clearing. The sun is just starting to rise, and so his figure is silhouetted against the brightening dawn.
    • Washington lifts his hand above his head and calls out, "You there!" several times.
    • At first, John doesn't know what's going on. Is Braddock praying? he wonders. He sees two slaves standing with Washington and raising a huge object to the sky.
    • Finally, he figures out what's up. The slaves are holding a giant diamond up to the sky, and Washington is trying to bribe God.
    • Braddock proceeds to detail, to God, exactly what he will provide him, should God smite all the airplanes and save his estate. The list includes a giant diamond chapel with an altar of radium, the greatest monument ever built to God.
    • When Washington finishes, there is a dull rumble of thunder in the distance. That's it. God has refused the bribe.
    • The airplanes land to complete their attack as morning comes. John wakes the two girls and they make their way off the mountain as quickly as they can.
    • They stop at some point to look back. John sees Mr. Washington, the two men with the giant diamond, Mrs. Washington, and Percy making their way slowly down the peak of the mountain. They open a trap door in the side of the diamond mountain and go inside.
    • John speculates, aloud, that this must be a secret underground escape route. No, sobs Kismine, when she realizes what is going on – the mountain is wired to blow.
    • Just as she says this, the mountain blows up. All the attacking aviators who had started their way up the diamond mountain are blown up along with everything else.

  • Section 11

    • At sunset that day, John, Kismine, and Jasmine stop to have the remainder of the food Jasmine had brought with her.
    • After supper, John asks Kismine to bring out the jewels that she took with her from the house. If she did well, he says, the three of them will be set to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
    • Kismine pulls out a handful of glittering stones.
    • Unfortunately, they are rhinestones.
    • Kismine emptied the wrong drawer into her pockets.
    • She finds this funny, however, as, being bored with diamonds, she thinks rhinestones are more interesting.
    • John plots for them to go live in Hades, then, where they will probably have to work for a living. Jasmine perks up – she loves washing clothes, so she can be a washwoman.
    • Kismine wants to know if they have washwoman in Hades. Then she wants to know if her father will be there.
    • John explains that her father is dead, and that she is confusing Hades with "with another place that was abolished long ago" (11.24).
    • When they get ready to go to sleep that night, Kismine muses that all that happened seems to her a dream, especially her wealthy youth.
    • It was a dream, says John – that's what youth is, "a form of chemical madness" (11.28). "At any rate," he concludes, "let us love for a while. […] That's a form of divine drunkenness that we can all try. 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). He makes sure they are all warm, and then the three of them drift off to sleep.