By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Of all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s shorter works, ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ is perhaps the most celebrated and widely studied. Published in 1922, ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ appears to foreshadow a number of prominent elements of Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, published three years later.
The story tells of a young man who goes to visit a schoolfriend at the family home in the mountains during the holidays. This friend is from a family so rich that, he boasts, his father owns a diamond as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. You can read ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Fitzgerald’s story below.
‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’: plot summary
At school, a young man named John T. Unger meets an even wealthier boy, Percy Washington, who tells Unger that his father is so rich he owns a diamond that is as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
When the school year is over that summer, Washington takes Unger to go and stay with his family at their chateau in Montana, where Unger learns the family’s secret: Washington’s grandfather had got lost in the mountains one day when a squirrel had led him to an untapped diamond mine, which turned out to be a giant mountain that was one vast diamond.
Because selling such a large diamond would be impractical, and even selling big diamonds mined from the mountain would attract suspicion from the government, the Washingtons gradually and tactically sell off smaller parts of the mountain to raise their colossal wealth. Percy Washington’s father has resorted to elaborate trickery to avoid the area around the mountain being surveyed by the US government, so the mountain remains its own independent, secret enclave.
Then he stopped mining the diamond, having raised enough wealth to keep himself and the Washington family in luxury for generations to come. The important thing now is to keep the existence of the diamond mountain a secret. He is attended by black slaves who have been kept in ignorance about the fact that slavery was abolished in the United States decades ago, so that they believe their fate is somehow normal.
John meets Kismine, Percy’s sixteen-year-old sister, and falls in love with her. The pair resolve to get married the following June. They know that Kismine’s father will never agree to this, so they will have to elope in secret. However, while talking with her one day, John discovers that Kismine’s father has invited girls to socialise with her and her sister on the estate, only to have them murdered with poison before they could leave in late summer, to ensure they could never breathe a word of the place to anyone.
Meanwhile, John discovers that a group of aviators who had flown over the Washingtons’ land and been shot down have been imprisoned in a pit on the golf course; one man, who was allowed out to teach Italian to the daughters, has escaped from the estate and there have been fourteen accounts (of dubious authenticity) of the man being apprehended and killed, because Percy’s father has put out such a vast reward for whoever catches the escaped man.
Mr Braddock Washington, Percy’s father, is an ‘exacting’ man who had engineered the kidnap of a number of people, including an architect, a landscape gardener, and a poet, but they proved to be useless when confined to the estate. They had all gone mad and so they had been permitted to leave – so they could be transported to an insane asylum, where any babblings about the diamond mountain would be dismissed as the ramblings of madmen.
John realises that he will face the same fate as the girls Mr Washington had poisoned in their sleep if he doesn’t make his escape. Kismine insists that he take her with him. That night, John wakes to strange noises outside his room and wanders out to find Braddock Washington with three of his black slaves, clearly called to attend to some emergency.
John goes to find Kismine and discovers that the Italian who had escaped had raised the alarm to the outside world and the estate is being surrounded by aeroplanes. They plan to leave, with John telling Kismine to stuff her pockets with jewels from her drawer. Shortly after this, the planes start dropping bombs on the chateau and its surrounding buildings.
When the shelling has ceased, John finds Braddock Washington with a large diamond, presenting it to God as an offering in return for safe delivery from attack. There is a rumble of thunder, which John interprets as God’s rejection of this bribe.
As John rushes to get off the mountain with Kismine and Jasmine, he sees Mr and Mrs Washington and their son Percy dropping into a trapdoor into the mountain, presumably down to a secret tunnel through which they plan to escape. But then the whole mountain blows up, engulfing the aviators and the chateau and destroying everything.
John discovers that Jasmine opened the wrong jewellery drawer and, instead of leaving with some diamonds which they could sell so they could live comfortably off the proceeds, she has brought only worthless rhinestones. The three of them decide to live in relative poverty together in Hades.
‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’: analysis
‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ is a curious blend of fantasy and realism which, in some respects, anticipates the use of magic realism by later twentieth-century writers. In 1922, however, the story’s hybrid elements made it difficult for F. Scott Fitzgerald to find a publisher for it; it was eventually published in The Smart Set magazine under the title ‘The Diamond in the Sky’.
But in fact, the genres which Fitzgerald plundered for ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ are even more numerous than this. Indeed, the story is often analysed as a modern fairy tale, with Kismine representing the princess in the palace whom the relatively obscure (and less wealthy) hero, John, falls in love with.
Certainly, the idea of a castle where people mysteriously disappear echoes a number of classic fairy tales, such as in the tale of Bluebeard’s disappearing wives; it’s worth bearing in mind, too, that the Washingtons’ house on the mountain is described as a ‘chateau’, from the Old French meaning ‘castle’.
In other respects, ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ represents Fitzgerald’s take on the Gothic novel, and the story can be analysed as an updating of the Gothic tale, with the mysterious castle set amidst a forbidding landscape being transformed into the Washingtons’ chateau in the mountains. Other key ingredients of the Gothic genre – the family harbouring a dark ancestral secret, the strange noises heard and shadows glimpsed at night, the mysterious disappearance of those who visit the castle – are also present.
Because of these disparate influences, it is difficult to categorise ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’. It is unusual in Fitzgerald’s canon in containing so many different borrowings from various literary genres and traditions. At the same time, certain elements clearly prefigure Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby (which we have analysed here), a novel which Fitzgerald began working on shortly after completing ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’.
The story acts as a precursor to that more ambitious work: we have the not-overly-wealthy protagonist being ushered into the fabulously opulent world of another character; the dark secret which lurks behind their wealth; the tragic denouement; and the acknowledgment of the slave labour and manual work which keeps the wealthy sustained in their state of luxury. (If Gatsby gives us the Valley of Ashes, ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ constantly reminds us of the literal slave labour that underpins Washington’s existence on his mountain.)
Indeed, the descriptions of opulence in the dreamy world of the Washington chateau seem to prefigure Nick Carraway’s descriptions, in Gatsby, of floating trays of cocktails that seem to glide through the Edenic garden of the title character’s home: when the third-person narrator of ‘Diamond’ describes the chateau as a kind of ‘floating fairyland’ where the marble of the building ‘melted in grace’, there is a distinct air of unreality to the place which we also find in Carraway’s response to Gatsby’s mansion.
And like Gatsby, ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ is a critique of American capitalism, whereby the Washingtons – their very name summoning both the first US President, from whom they are said to be descended, and that purveyor of American fairy tales, Washington Irving – only enjoy their obscene wealth at all because they must sit, quite literally, on a dark secret.
Their mountain contains enough diamond to feed everyone in America, but the irony is that, if the giant diamond were known about, it would reduce the value of diamonds everywhere to virtually nothing, because they would no longer be a rarity. The chateau on top of the diamond mountain is a neat symbol of how illusory wealth is, and how capitalism relies on the few owning a great deal and the many owning very little.