Study Guide

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz Themes

  • Wealth

    Wealth is the object of scrutinizing social satire in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz." In this story, America is a country obsessed with wealth to a gaudy, destructive, and shameful degree. Wealth has replaced religion; men worship at the altar of diamonds and gold. Horrible things are done in the name of wealth, including imprisonment and murder, and these actions are written off as natural consequences of success and expansion. The detrimental consequences of such an obsession are made clear. Wealth can be its own prison, the narrative argues, and blindly chasing it dehumanizes its pursuers and devalues human life.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. How does John feel about wealth at the end of the story as compared to at its start?
    2. Consider Fitzgerald's opinion on wealth as expressed in other works, specifically The Great Gatsby and " Babylon Revisited." Are the views expressed in those works consistent with those expressed here in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"?
    3. Are the Washingtons morally corrupt because they are wealthy, or did they only get filthy rich because they were morally corrupt? (This questions is a little bit like the chicken/egg question.)
    4. Diamonds are a natural resource, but how much of the Washington estate is natural? What is the relationship between wealthy men and the natural world around them?

    Chew on This

    "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" argues that one can be free only when one is poor.

    "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" argues that one can be free only when one is rich.

  • Visions of America

    Fitzgerald paints a critical view of society in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz." In this story, America is a place where the blind pursuit of wealth has replaced religion. Americans deify the rich and worship at the altar of money. It is a bleak landscape, where success and its pursuit have replaced morality. Fitzgerald creates an allegory for the expansion of America, particularly into the West, and argues that such expansion was at the cost of human values and human life. He critiques America's history of slavery as well, and doesn't shy away from implicating the founding fathers (like George Washington) as sharing in the blame.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. What specific words does Fitzgerald use to describe the natural landscape, first of Hades, and later of Montana? What effect does this have in contrasting the two settings?
    2. Compare the vision of America that Fitzgerald presents in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" with that presented in The Great Gatsby. Has his perspective changed between 1922 and 1925?
    3. Fitzgerald devotes a lot of text time to describe the situation of the slaves Braddock Washington keeps on his château. What importance does this element of the story have in the context of Fitzgerald's social critique?
    4. What arguments does Braddock Washington make to justify his behavior (toward the slaves, the prisoners, the murdered guests)? What do you think of his defense?

    Chew on This

    The history of the Washington family is an allegory for the expansion and growth of the United States.

    "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" satirizes immigration laws.

  • Religion

    "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is full of religious and mythological allusions, touching on everything from the Bible to Ancient Greek gods. Fitzgerald's story argues that, in America, religion has been replaced by wealth. In other words, Americans worship money, not God. Through very particular stylistic and tonal choices, Fitzgerald gives his story an element of timelessness; it reads like a myth itself. This suggests that the problems satirized in the story are timeless in themselves. Fitzgerald criticizes wealth, and so there an allusion to King Midas. He satirizes man's unstoppable, often destructive desire to reach higher grounds, and so references the mythical figure Prometheus.

    Questions About Religion

    1. In this religious allegory, two settings are contrasted: Hades and the Washington estate. Ultimately, which one is Heaven, and which one is Hell?
    2. Does Fitzgerald distinguish between religion and mythology in his allusions?
    3. Fitzgerald implies (even states a few times) that religion is absent from the world of his short story. What are the consequences of a world without God?
    4. What does it mean that God refuses Braddock's bribe? (For example, does this imply that God isn't there? Or that he cannot be bribed? Or something else?)

    Chew on This

    "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is presented in the style of a mythological tale, not a modern short story.

    "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" argues that America has abandoned God.

  • Youth

    One reading of "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is as an allegory for youth. The narrative follows the story of teenager John Unger as he spends the summer with an insanely wealthy family in their opulent château in the American West. There, he learns about the nature of wealth and experiences first love. The summer is a haze of diamonds, excess, and luxury, and Fitzgerald argues with his story that all of youth is a similarly hazy, dream-like state – "a form of chemical madness" (11.27). Fitzgerald also takes a look at the way young people experience time. Youth "can never live in the present," he argues, "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).

    Questions About Youth

    1. What does "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" conclude about the nature of youth? Consider the final few passages in particular.
    2. What part does John's age (sixteen) play in establishing his character and determining his reactions to the Washington estate? How would the story be different if John were an adult?
    3. Can we blame the Washington children (Percy, Jasmine, and Kismine) for the way they've turned out? Could they help it, given their upbringing and circumstances?
    4. What's the deal with Mrs. Washington? Why does she appear to not care about her two daughters, yet dote over her son?

    Chew on This

    "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is as much about the splendor of youth as it is about religion or wealth.

    John does not come of age in the course of this story.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" is the story of a man who owns a diamond so big his only goal in life is to safeguard its existence from the rest of the world. This means imprisoning those who discover it. It makes sense, then, that freedom is an important theme in the text. Part of the irony of this satirical story is that the diamond-owner is himself a prisoner of his own obsession with wealth. Because the story satirizes the expansion of America across the continent, there are implications as to our own founding history. Lastly, many read into "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" parallels to immigration, since the estate containing the diamond (parallel to America) is closed off to all outsides who cannot be used or manipulated for gain.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. John tells Kismine that you can be either free or poor, but not both. Does the story reject or support this statement?
    2. Who is imprisoned in this story, and who is free? How are these terms ("imprisoned" and "free") defined?
    3. Why does Washington imprison some men (like the aviators) but kill others (like his children's guests)?
    4. Why do Washington, his wife, and his son, choose to go down with the château?

    Chew on This

    When the story begins, John is imprisoned by his obsession with wealth; but by the end he is free.

    John is never able to escape from his obsession with wealth. This is the "prison" which holds him.