Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637
“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is Fitzgerald’s most successful fantasy story, a genre in which he worked mainly during the early phase of his career. While it contains what might be read as a happy ending, the story carries many of the tragic elements inherent in Fitzgerald’s most enduring theme: how a young man is destroyed by the wealth of the woman he loves.
The plot of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is relatively simple. John T. Unger, a young man from the small midwestern town of Hades, is sent by his ambitious parents to the exclusive eastern school of St. Midas. There he makes friends with Percy Washington and is invited to spend the summer at the Washington estate in the far West. Unger learns that the Washingtons are literally the richest family in the world, because they own a flawless diamond that is as large as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. There is also a darker side to this fortune: To protect it, the Washingtons have made their estate a fortress, completely isolated from the outside world, and intruders are held captive in a giant cage.
While in this strange combination of luxury and prison, Unger meets and falls in love with Kismine, Percy’s sixteen-year-old sister. From Kismine, Unger learns that all invited visitors to the Washington estate are murdered before they can leave. As Unger and Kismine flee, the place is attacked by airplanes, led there by one of the prisoners who managed to escape. The fabulous estate is destroyed as Unger and Kismine discover they have fled with worthless rhinestones instead of diamonds; they are free but penniless.
“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is a story full of symbolic and allegorical touches, many of them dealing with the soul-destroying potential of wealth. The hero, named Unger, is avid for more than his hometown can offer, and he seems to find it in Kismine Washington: young, beautiful, and heiress to a great fortune. The Washington fortune has become a prison for the family, however: They are isolated from the world, guarded by blacks who have been tricked into believing that slavery still exists. There is an obvious parallel between the two kinds of bondage, a parallel ironically emphasized by the family name of Washington, so closely associated with American freedom.
Wealth is also destructive in a religious sense. The train that carries Unger and Percy stops at the town of Fish, which has a population of only twelve men, who await the arrival of the train as a mystical event directed by the “Great Brakeman.” (The fish was an early Christian symbol for Jesus, who urged his followers to renounce wealth, often in extremely pointed terms.) Yet these twelve have no real belief: By mere proximity to the Washingtons, these counterparts to the twelve Apostles have been drained of all faith.
Even more emphatic are the baneful effects of incalculable wealth on the family. Their land is literally nowhere, as they have taken extraordinary measures to keep it off even official government maps. To protect their secret, the Washingtons are ready to perpetuate slavery, imprison the innocent, and even commit murder, including fratricide. When the estate is about to be overrun, Percy’s father offers a bribe to God—an enormous gem, backed by promises of human sacrifice—and then destroys his estate himself, rather than submit.
These various elements, which do not quite fit together in a consistently coherent fashion, are united by Fitzgerald’s use of both fantasy and realistic descriptions, which allow the reader to accept the fairy-tale premises of the story. In a sense, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is a magical counterpart to the more realistic The Great Gatsby, and the two explore many of the same themes and concerns.