At St. Midas’s School, John T. Unger befriends a new boy, Percy Washington, who invites him to spend the summer on the family estate in the Montana Rockies. Percy’s boast that his father owns a diamond as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel seems preposterous, but on arrival John learns that the Washingtons’ family chateau actually does sit atop a five-cubic-mile flawless diamond.
The next morning, Percy sketches the family history for his friend. In 1866, his grandfather Fitz-Norman, a “direct descendant” of George Washington and Lord Baltimore, left the defeated Confederacy accompanied by a group of faithful slaves to start a ranch in the West. The venture failed within a month. Then, while hunting for food, Fitz-Norman noticed a brilliant stone drop from a squirrel’s mouth—a perfect diamond worth one hundred thousand dollars. Returning to the site with his employees the following day, Fitz-Norman soon filled his saddlebags with diamonds. When the sale of a few of these gems in New York City loosed a wave of wild rumors, he realized that he would have to operate clandestinely lest the government seize his diamond mine and establish a monopoly to avert financial panic. Accordingly, he poured his gems into two trunks and peddled them to the courts of Europe and Asia. Later, his son Braddock (Percy’s father) sealed the mine and devoted himself to protecting the family’s incalculable fortune—and its secret.
The more complex of the story’s two strands unwinds from this effort at concealment. Fitz-Norman had corrupted the government surveyors and arranged for omission of the estate from official maps; Braddock, resorting to more elaborate measures, created an artificial magnetic field, tinkered with the surveyors’ instruments, and altered the area’s geographic features. The advent of the airplane, however, has made discovery of the Washington domain inevitable. At the time of John Unger’s visit, about two dozen aviators who have been brought down by Washington antiaircraft fire are being kept prisoner in a glass-lined pit; one of this group has recently escaped, however, and soon a squadron of American planes arrives and begins shelling the mountain in preparation for an invasion. Braddock, realizing that only divine intervention can preserve his family’s treasure and privilege, tries to bribe God with a diamond so huge that it requires two slaves to lift it. When the bribe is apparently refused and the planes land on the chateau’s lawn, Braddock sets off an explosion that reduces the entire mountain to dust.
Anchored in John’s role as protagonist, the plot’s other strand develops his romance with Percy’s sister Kismine. It crosses the story’s baseline at only two points: first, when, after falling in love with Kismine, John surmises that the Washingtons cannot risk allowing him to leave their El Dorado alive; and again in the ironic coda, when he learns that Kismine mistook the only rhinestones at the chateau for diamonds while hastily filling her pocket as they fled from the mountain’s apocalyptic destruction. However, even though the relationship between the young lovers weaves no web of significant actions, F. Scott Fitzgerald treats it as the central element; whatever the story’s resolved meaning may be, its focus is certainly not on Braddock Washington’s failure to escape retribution for his hubris; rather, it is on John’s recognition that, for some unspecified reason, he has lost his illusions. (In the torrent of philosophizing that serves as conclusion, it is John who pronounces two of Fitzgerald’s most quoted sentences: “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness” and “His was a great sin who first invented consciousness.”)
“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is Fitzgerald’s most successful fantasy...
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