Published in The Smart Set in 1922 and collected in Tales of the Jazz Age that same year, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is an interesting artifact of the “roaring twenties” with self-conscious roots in nineteenth-century Continental decadence. Fitzgerald – who pursued a somewhat lavish lifestyle himself, commanding thousands of dollars per short story – has said he began the story by trying to imagine the limits of material wealth in a playful daydream (“The Diamond”). The experiment revealed, however, that extreme wealth can be deadly.
The story describes the summer vacation of John T. Unger, a teenager from Hades, Mississippi, who is invited to spend the break at the home of his mysterious classmate, Percy Washington. The boys are both students at St. Midas’ boarding school in Boston, “the most expensive and the most exclusive boys’ preparatory school in the world” (76). With overt and repeated references to the mythical land of the dead (Hades) and the king whose touch turned objects to gold (Midas), the author foreshadows the death and decadence that accompany the Washington family’s wealth. Though it showcases Fitzgerald’s characteristic fluency with the idiom of the young and rich, the story quickly departs from the realistic in favor of the fantastic — the story might even be classified sci-fi/fantasy — setting it apart from the other stories in Tales of the Jazz Age.
On the westbound train Percy informs John that his father is the richest man in the world and that he owns a “diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel” (78). John is suitably awed by Percy’s wealth and by Percy’s claim that the family lives on “the only five square miles of land in the country that’s never been surveyed” (81). Nonchalantly, Percy explains that the one threat to the family land is airplanes and that they use anti-aircraft weapons accordingly. John is too overwhelmed by the splendor of the house — dishes made of diamond, walls made of ebony, and African slaves catering to his every need — to worry yet about the fates of the captured airmen or about the ethics of practicing chattel slavery.
John soon falls in love with Percy’s sixteen-year-old sister Kismine, but when Kismine reveals that previous visitors to the house — school friends of her older sister Jasmine — have been killed, John recognizes that he, like the airmen and the slaves, is an expendable part of the elaborate production. Before John and Kismine can run away together, however, airplanes — sent by the girls’ escaped Italian tutor — bomb the house and grounds.
John, Kismine, and Jasmine escape together, and from afar they see Mr. and Mrs. Washington, Percy, and the remaining slaves disappear into the mountain, which soon self-destructs. Nothing remains of the family’s treasures, and Kismine realizes that the few stones she grabbed before their escape are worthless rhinestones. The irony is that Kismine, whose everyday attire included sapphires in her hair, saved only her fake gems because their comparable rarity amongst her limitless real jewels made them her prize possessions. Now that the Washington wealth has been obliterated, the stones are utterly without value. Wealth is, it becomes clear by the end of the story, largely subjective, even imaginary.
The story is reminiscent of the kind of decadence portrayed in such works as À rebours (Against Nature), the 1884 French novel by J. K. Huysmans. The protagonist of that novel, like the Washington patriarch, is a reclusive aristocrat who conducts increasingly strange (and ultimately fatal) experiments with riches. Fitzgerald simultaneously draws upon and pokes fun at nineteenth-century decadence, noting that the Washingtons briefly kept “a decadent poet left over from the last century” in their employ, but that he “said nothing that was of any practical value” (98).
The story also demonstrates a concern with closing of the American frontier. A significant though perhaps overlooked element of Fitzgerald’s story of unchecked riches is the fact that the Washington family occupies the only unsurveyed land in the country. According to the U.S. Census, by 1890 there no longer existed a frontier in America — the West had been entirely mapped, claimed, and settled (Turner 9). A key element of Fitzgerald’s story is the maintenance of this illusion of a wild west open for plundering. Like the works of other modernist writers, such as his contemporaries Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather, Fitzgerald’s story reflects the tensions that result from nineteenth-century personalities attempting to cope with or forestall twentieth-century modernization. Washington’s scheme to live the life of a prospector and to continue the institution of chattel slavery fails, and, tellingly, it fails as a result of advances in technology — airplanes and bombs.
“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” argues not only for the impossibility of unchecked wealth but also for the impossibility of holding on to outdated systems. This concern with the imperative of modernization is one of the hallmarks of modernist literature and it is the conscience of this darkly humorous tale.
“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary.
1998. University of South Carolina. 6 Jan 2008
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. New York: Scribner, 2003. (All in-text citations refer to this edition)
Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature (A rebours). Trans. Margaret Mauldon. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History (1893). New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920.