Can Money set us free? Is economic wealth the perfect solution if one is looking for more freedom in life? Since the year one many people feel like that those who are economically richer than themselves (from now on for reasons of simplification: rich) can achieve everything, or at least much more compared to their own lives. Moreover, they seem to be free in every decision they make without any constraints such as having to choose between option A and option B, instead, they seem to be able to fulfill every single of their wishes, they seem to be ruling everything with their prosperity.
It had always been like that: most people equate greater wealth with greater freedom. But is this presumption actually true? In this paper, I will take a closer look at the story The Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald to analyze the relationship between money and freedom. Furthermore, I will establish that Fitzgerald demonstrates in his novelette that money and freedom don’t go hand in hand.
In The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, the seventeen-year-old John T. Unger from the small town Hades, Mississippi, befriends Percy Washington whom he meets at “the most expensive and most exclusive boys’ preparatory school, [St. Midas near Boston], in the world” (Fitzgerald 6), which is attended by the country’s wealthiest boys only. The rather taciturn Percy invites John to spend the summer with him and his family “in the West” (Fitzgerald 6) and Unger, who deeply enjoys the company of the super-rich, agrees.
On the train ride to Washington’s home Percy gloats that his father “is by far the richest man in the world” (Fitzgerald 6) who owns “a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel” (Fitzgerald 7). Later on, after he arrived at Percy’s place, John is astonished that the family’s chateau is indeed built on “one [tremendous] diamond, one cubic mile without a flaw” (Fitzgerald 10), which, so the boy learns, not only stands “on the only five square miles of land in the country that’s never been surveyed” (Fitzgerald 8-9) but is also protected by anti-aircraft guns to keep it that way. The next morning during breakfast, after the guest was bathed by one of Washington’s many black slaves, Percy adumbrates the history of his family, which traces back to Lord Baltimore, Lord Fairfax, and George Washington. Percy’s grandfather, Fitz-Norman Culpepper Washington, was the one who had accidentally discovered the staggering diamond when he essentially wanted to start a ranch with some slaves, but this venture didn’t work out.
At first, the Colonel started to sell some small and “medium-sized diamonds” (Fitzgerald 12), mainly in New York, which brought him an enormous fortune in gold, but then the gossip factory about the diamonds’ “mysterious sources” (Fitzgerald 12) started working overtime and Percy Washington’s grandfather found himself in a troubling quandary: “He was in one sense the richest man that ever lived – and yet was he worth anything at all” (Fitzgerald 13)? The worth of the diamond was to a great extent defined by its size and the fact that it’s “one solid diamond” (Fitzgerald 13) but “if his secret should transpire there was no telling to what measures the Government might resort to prevent a panic, in gold as well as in jewels. They might take over the claim immediately and institute a monopoly” (Fitzgerald 13).
Due to these circumstances, the man decided that the diamond must be kept a secret at all costs, so with the help of his younger brother he made himself a fortune by selling a diamond from time to time while doing everything to avoid his secret being exposed. Subsequent, after the discoverer of the diamond, has died, his son and Percy Washington’s father, Braddock Tarleton Washington, first followed his father’s policy and invested his wealth in rare minerals and elements, mainly radium, but then he decided that the family business “had gone far enough” (Fitzgerald 14) and so he sealed up the mine. Today he focuses solely on keeping the diamond hidden, for instance by using the aforementioned anti-aircraft guns, by imprisoning intruders for a lifetime, kidnapping and enslaving people who are of use to him and also not recoiling from murder to avoid being exposed, which John Unger is yet to learn from Percy’s younger sister Kismine, with whom he falls in love with.
She seems to him “the incarnation of physical perfection” (Fitzgerald 15) and almost immediately they start making plans for a common future and marriage. The young couple wears rose-tinted glasses until the girl unintentionally reveals that every friend and guest that ever visited the family was killed by her father, who feared they would talk about what they’ve seen, after the family got “all the pleasure out of them that [they could]” (Fitzgerald 21). While telling John, it doesn’t seem like Kismine thinks that there is anything wrong with her family’s thinking and acting. During the storyline with Kismine, John also gets to know that an Italian teacher, who was imprisoned by Braddock, escaped and the patriarch isn’t aware if one of the men his army has killed was the searched fugitive.
Until hearing from Kismine that he might be killed too, John Unger enjoys his time with Washington’s very much without having any problems with their lifestyle. However, after the watershed, John and Kismine make plans to bolt. Nevertheless, before they can implement their propositions, the chateau is under attack from numerous battle-planes, probably due to the escaped Italian. The lovers and Kismine’s older sister Jasmine harness the situation: John asks Kismine to take some diamonds with her and then the three of them flee to the woods to a safe stash, where they still can observe the proceedings of the night. The adolescents witness Braddock Washington “offering a bribe to god” (Fitzgerald 25), a diamond so huge, that it needs two slaves to carry it. When God refuses to take the bribery Braddock, accompanied by his wife and his son Percy, blows up the diamantine mountain, himself and his companions as well as the aviators, leaving nothing behind but dust. The three survivors make their way only to then realize that Kismine didn’t take any diamonds but rhinestones, so their plans about a wealthy future are gone. Instead, they intend to live “free and poor” (Fitzgerald 24).
From the beginning of the story, wealth is omnipresent. The covert, heterodiegetic narrator led the reader to believe that America in The Diamond as Big as the Ritz is obsessed with it if it doesn’t even replace religion. Fitzgerald already refers to religion in the first sentence of his novelette, hinting at something dark while introducing the protagonist of the story: “John T. Unger came from a family that had been well known in Hades—a small town on the Mississippi River—for several generations” (5). Hades symbolizes all small, rather provincial towns where the ‘average middle-class people’ live. Since Hades is another name for Hell, the life the not super-rich live is equalized with something despicable, something only worth the devil. On the other hand, Washington’s home, the home of the world richest family, is presented as Paradise and put on a level with Heaven:
Full in the light of the stars, an exquisite chateau rose from the borders of the lake, climbed in marble radiance half the height of an adjoining mountain, then melted in grace, in perfect symmetry, in translucent feminine languor, into the massed darkness of a forest of pine (Fitzgerald 9).
By looking at the Religious Symbolism to this point, the deification of affluence conveys the feeling that only by being extremely wealthy one can achieve satisfaction and freedom in life, not just any freedom but divine freedom. This impression is strongly supported by the scene where Braddock Washington shows John T. Unger his prisoners who shout to the patriarch: “Come on down to Hell!” (Fitzgerald 17). Here is a double meaning to be found, not only are the prisoners imprisoned by Braddock Washington but also, they are imprisoned, in Hell, because they are ‘poor’. However, it seems like that between this divine freedom and hell there is nothing in between. This prevailing broad-brush feeling is as well promoted by the reliable narration, which is independent and detached from the fictional world and its characters and can be spotted for instance in the narrative’s coherence, thus in the fact that events lead to one another without any striking logical or temporal gaps, as well as it stems from the zero focalization Fitzgerald used. Zero Focalization means that “the perspective cannot be attributed to someone in particular, [it] has no restrictions and [therefore] can vary” (Meyer 82).
Nonetheless, as an antithesis to the aforementioned ‘divine freedom’ wealth seems to bring, F. Scott Fitzgerald addresses that the huge amount of wealth the Washington family possesses often comes with immoral conduct. In order to emphasize the opulence, the whole story is rife with hyperboles. From the description of John Unger’s school St. Midas’, which “is the most expensive and the most exclusive boys\’ preparatory school in the world” (Fitzgerald 6), to the point when Percy introduces his father as the “by far richest man in the world” (Fitzgerald 6). Especially vivid are Fitzgerald’s imagistic remarks about the chateau and the family’s belongings:
Full in the light of the stars, an exquisite chateau rose from the borders of the lake, climbed in marble radiance half the height of an adjoining mountain, then melted in grace, in perfect symmetry, in translucent feminine languor, into the massed darkness of a forest of pine. The many towers . . . the chiseled wonder of a thousand yellow windows with their oblongs and hectagons and triangles of golden light, the shattered softness of the intersecting planes of star-shine, . . . all trembled on John’s spirit like a chord of music (Fitzgerald 9).
Yet, not only John undergoes an emotional overload, but the reader too. For the intriguing, seemingly perfect world that opens up, it’s almost made easy to overlook Fitzgerald’s girds about the flawed behavior of the owners of the luxuriousness, which the reader already gets to know when we learn about Fitz-Norman Washington in whose life just a “few . . . murders stained [his] happy years of progress and expansion” (Fitzgerald 13). Another example of Fitzgerald’s use of satire is to be seen when Percy tells his friend how they kidnapped a gardener, architect or designer to build their estate but then “a moving-picture fella . . . was the only man [they] found who was used to playing with an unlimited amount of money . . .” (20).
In fact, the whole story is a skit where the author mocks Washington’s, as representatives for the American society in the 1920s, for their apathy towards the affliction and fate of others, how they are willing to sacrifice others for their own good, their own success, which means in Washington’s case to protect their secret at all costs. Fitzgerald does so while describing the character’s actions as totally natural like they couldn’t behave any other way but the tone, and therefore his attitude towards the whole subject, reveals that he clearly doesn’t approve of their behavior. This tone is made visible for instance when Kismine talks about the family’s visitors and how they all get murdered:
I never invited one. Jasmine did. And they always had a very good time. She’d give them the nicest presents toward the last. I shall probably have visitors too – I’ll harden up to it (21).
In addition, this quote shows Jasmine’s selfishness, but it also makes the reader realizes that it might not be Kismine’s fault that she thinks the way she does. She doesn’t know life any different than the way her parents and her older siblings taught her. The girl is sort of a prisoner of her family which is so obsessed with their wealth and their tremendous diamond, that it’s their own personal prison. To hide the diamond’s existence, Braddock Washington does not only imprison others but is imprisoned himself by the wealth, precisely by the diamond. The paterfamilias is isolated with no friends, only slaves and some prisoners he keeps to not utterly grow lonely. He always must be wary and in distress. Even his anti-aircraft guns do not just protect him and his family but dominate their life for they are the only defense they have against the airplanes. If they fail, Washington’s fall, just as they do in the end. Thus, it’s just fitting that Braddock freely goes into the diamantine mountain, his prison, just as he freely committed his life to it. “He [was] consumed completely” (Fitzgerald 27) by the diamond, haunted during his lifetime until his death.
John Unger’s life appears to constantly revolve around being wealthy too, or at least being with the wealthiest. This becomes pretty obvious from the way he thinks about Braddock Washington before he gets too know him: “He must be very rich[.] . . . I’m glad. I like very rich people . . . The richer a fella is, the better I like him.” (Fitzgerald 6). Immediately after Unger’s statement, we as the reader learn why John does so. Such as the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the boy belongs to the people who are taken in by the idea that the possession of enormous wealth leads to an illimitable lifestyle and unlimited power.
I know that when men get very rich, they never have to obey the laws, and I suppose it’s logical that if they’re rich enough they don’t have to pay the income tax either (Fitzgerald 6).
It’s impossible to be both [free and poor] together[.] People have found that out. And I should choose to be free as preferable of the two. As an extra caution you’d better dump the contents of your jewel box into your pockets (24).
The latter quote is taken from the moment when John and Kismine plan their escape. But then Kismine mistakes rhinestones for diamonds and they have no choice but plan their future life in Hades. For Kismine all seems like a big adventure while John realizes “it was a dream, . . . everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” (Fitzgerald 28).
So, in the end Braddock, his wife and his son are dead, Kismine, her sister and John are poor. But, are they free now? As I argued above, Braddock was his whole life obsessed with his secret so he couldn’t enjoy anything. Yes, he could buy material goods, bribe people but his “economic freedom [constrained other kinds of freedom, for instance] the freedom to enjoy unpolluted nature, the freedom for cultural self-creation, and non-conformist personal development” (Dierksmeier 11). For Braddock, Washington’s death might be a deliverance.
And his daughter and her fiancé? Although “Fitzgerald’s diamond, in its size and centrality, stands [during the whole story] as a materialization of the precious, beside which labor, as a source of value, might be thought to pale into anemia” (Godden 604), we ascertain from Kismines confusion that she is tired of her old life and so used to all the luxury that it has no real value to her anymore. Instead, she looks forward of being a washwoman and spending the rest of her life with John Unger in Hades. And John Unger? He gives the impression that he learned at least something, namely that “there are only diamonds in the whole world, diamonds, and perhaps the shabby gift of disillusion (Fitzgerald 28). The boy escapes the diamantine prison as well, he stays alive and is free to go with his girl. He might not be economically rich, but rich in other senses. Yet he can’t entirely let go of his dream for he “[he’ll] have that [disillusion] and will make the usual nothing of it” (Fitzgerald 28-29).
This leaves one open question: if F. Scott Fitzgerald showed us in his satiric yet philosophic way, that economic wealth and freedom don’t go hand in hand, why do John and Kismine go back to Hades in the end, back to Hell? There is more than one possible answer to this question but the one I choose is that Fitzgerald stayed ironic until the end: the as Eden presented estate of Washington’s in a matter of fact is Hell on which God has his back turned to. And Hades is a form of Heaven because it’s not under the dominion of wealth-obsession and a devil-like Braddock Washington. John, Kismine, and Jasmine are free to start all over without being “[distracted by] materialism . . . from more important values such as justice and altruism” (Diener and Diener 275). They might be poor with money but rich in intangibles. They are poor and free, and this both together!
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