Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories | The Diamond as Big as the Ritz | Summary

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Summary

John T. Unger, age 16, travels from his hometown of Hades on the Mississippi River to St. Midas' School near Boston to further his secondary education. There he befriends Percy Washington, a quiet boy who invites John to visit him at his home in the West. On the train Percy portentously informs John that his father is "by far the richest man in the world."

It turns out Percy is not joking. In Montana the Washington forebears (descended from George Washington, we are told) discovered an enormous diamond—a diamond, in fact, quite as large as the fabled Ritz-Carlton Hotel (probably the original Ritz-Carlton in Boston, Massachusetts, which set a new standard for luxury in American hotels in the early 1900s). Percy describes the size and quality of the diamond as "one cubic mile without a flaw." The Washington family's only problem was how to monetize this immense gem. To attempt to sell it would have crashed the diamond market. The family needed to somehow make the diamond a practical and continuing income stream.

Once they arrive John and Percy start to enjoy the incredibly lavish surroundings of the Washington property. John is bathed in rosewater. A fleet of servants, many of them African American, stand ready to do his bidding. Then a darker side of the Washingtons' presence in Montana begins to dawn on John. The family did not inform the servants of the historical truth about the outcome of the Civil War. Thus the African Americans who work for the Washingtons are under the impression that the South was the victor and slavery is still a prevailing institution in the United States.

The Washingtons have been able to keep their fiefdom in Montana mostly secret. Their property has never been surveyed. They are vulnerable from the air only. For this reason they are especially concerned with airplane pilots who have had the bad judgment to fly over their land. Braddock Washington, Percy's father, oversees the confinement of a number of these pilots in a special prison called "the cage."

John meets Percy's sister Kismine. He envisions her as the epitome of physical perfection and quickly becomes determined to marry her. Before long, though, Kismine delivers an upsetting revelation: guests at the Washington property are welcomed and tolerated for a while but are then murdered, lest they reveal the secrets and abhorrent practices on the estate. This revelation doesn't make too lasting an impression on John, though. With apparent perversity, he continues in his infatuation with Kismine.

The latter part of the story descends into surrealistic chaos. We are presented with a bizarre tableau of Braddock Washington offering God a bribe to try to avoid the bombardment of his mountain. The young people's survival at the end of the story is a strange denouement.

Analysis

In the opening paragraph, the story's outsized satirical bent can hardly be mistaken. Fitzgerald's proper names are often significant. Here we find that John T. Unger hails from the small southern town of "Hades" on the Mississippi River and that he journeys for his prep school education to "St. Midas' School" near Boston. Hades is the abode of the dead in classical Greek and Roman mythology while Midas is the Phrygian (Asia Minor) king in Greek mythology who acquired a touch that turned everything to gold. (One strand of the myth records Midas was subject to starvation since his touch rendered all his food inedible.)

The most obvious explanation of Fitzgerald's purpose in this story is to present a harsh and darkly humorous satire of American materialism in the early 1920s (the story was first published in 1922). However, the scale of Fitzgerald's fictive imagination is so staggering that he seems to have taken inspiration from the canvases of the Cubists and Surrealists in the visual arts of the same period. American myth has always championed individualism and exceptionalism, but here Fitzgerald has inflated such mythology to produce a horrendous, murderous lineage—ironically styled "Washington"—a family that has cornered the market on the most precious gems in the world and has singlehandedly, in their protected fiefdom, inverted American history to condone the continued enslavement of African Americans. Even more unnerving, the outsider John T. Unger seems to see nothing wrong with such arrangements, at least until Kismine casually informs him he is probably a candidate for assassination.

How are we to interpret this dark tale of 1922? At the end of the story, Fitzgerald seems to hold out insanity as a realistic alternative to reality. This story is perhaps the most blatantly satirical tale in the collection, with Fitzgerald deliberately pushing the envelope of credibility to underline the ludicrous excesses of materialism, racism, and isolationism so prevalent in his era.

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