An Allegory for Political Events in Fitzgerald's Time

Because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is written so like a fable, it is natural for the reader to try and ferret out a moral, a lesson to be learned. Is it a cautionary tale against greed and materialism? An indictment of the entire capitalist system? Or an allegory for something else entirely?

The time period in which this story was written (the early 1920s) was an eventful one in U.S. history. If Americans had materialistic tendencies, as the story would suggest, then the postwar boom of the time would have made these tendencies more obvious than ever. The end of World War I in 1918 helped boost the economy, women had just been given the right to vote (in 1920), and average wages increased, putting the country in the mood to celebrate. This made the restrictions of Prohibition (the Eighteenth Amendment, which made the consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal beginning in 1920) even more chafing to those who, like Fitzgerald, enjoyed high living.

While the economy was booming, the political climate was one of isolationism and suspicion. In 1917 in Russia, communist revolutionaries called Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian government, and in 1918, they executed Czar Nicholas II and his family. In the United States, this action generated a so-called Red Scare, paranoia over communism that led to even more restrictions on Americans’ freedom of expression. In addition, immigration restrictions drastically reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. The country had become a moral dichotomy: On the one hand, there were the irreverent flappers, speakeasies, and wild behavior associated with the Jazz Age, but on the other hand, a puritanical segment sought to impose a rigid moral code on the country through Prohibition and other restrictions.

Read in the light of these historical events, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” can be interpreted as a political allegory in which the theme of imprisonment becomes more important than the indictment of materialism and greed. In such an interpretation, Braddock Washington’s hidden Montana empire represents the United States and capitalism. Washington himself seems to consider his land a country unto itself; when they reach the property, Percy tells John, “This is where the United States ends, father says.” Logically, John asks if they have reached Canada, but Percy tells him they are in the Montana Rockies, on “the only five square miles of land in the country that’s never been surveyed.” Washington’s country has its own anti-aircraft defense system, political prisoners (the aviators), even the capability to start war. (When Jasmine is disappointed that World War I ends before she can become a “canteen expert,” Washington takes steps “to promote a new war in the Balkans” for her benefit.) This country even has its own languages; the Washingtons’ slaves, so long isolated from the rest of the world, have developed their own extreme version of their original southern dialect, which only they can understand.

Like the United States, Washington’s country has...

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