This is the adventure of John T. Unger from the Southern town of Hades who was sent to acquire his New England education at St Midas’ school. He is invited to spend a summer holiday with Percy Washington. The Washington family is very wealthy, which impresses Unger. Washington reveals that his father has “a diamond as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”
In the dismal village of Fish, twelve men watch the Transcontinental Express deposit passengers, who then travel on from the bleak place by buggy. Washington and Unger are transferred from the train to a buggy, then a bejewelled car which is hoisted by cables to a private road. Washington explains that they have reached “the only five square miles of the country that have not been surveyed.” He reveals how his grandfather and father have worked to keep the location secret: the only threat to detection being from the air. Unger is disturbed at the lengths the Washington family have gone to – “a few deaths and a great many prisoners.”
The elaborate house is “a sort of floating fairyland”. Unger is made drowsy by the “honeyed luxury” and is bathed while asleep. When he wakes, Washington tells him that the diamond is the mountain that the chateau rests on. Unger is bathed in a blue aquarium of rosewater, with a personal moving picture machine at his disposal, offered by the enslaved African American manservant. All is decadence and lavishness.
Washington recounts the history of his family. They are descended from George Washington. His
grandfather discovered the diamonds when he got lost while riding. He lied to the enslaved men who dug for him, telling them that the stones were rhinestones and that the South had won the Civil War. They never learned that slavery had been abolished, and so have remained enslaved by the Washingtons.
The irony of the giant diamond was that by its revelation it would be hugely devalued. Washington senior travelled the world selling the smaller stones, many of which caused wars and revolutions soon after they were passed on.
As Unger explores the Washington property he meets Percy’s younger sister, Kismine, who appears to him as “the incarnation of physical perfection.” The grounds are physically perfect as well: the golf course has “no fairway, no rough, no hazards.” Braddock Washington does have a pit in which he keeps his prisoners, however. He believes he is fair to his captives: if they can think of a way to leave without jeopardizing his family’s lifestyle, he will consider it. No one has. One prisoner is already on the loose – a man who had made a bid to teach the girls Italian. Percy explains that despite having a gardener, an architect, a designer and a poet captive, the property was eventually designed by a “moving-picture man.”
Kismine and Unger fall in love and agree to get married. But Kismine reveals that the Washingtons are allowed to have friends to visit only because the guests are killed afterwards. She is philosophical about the situation, explaining that she should harden herself to it. Unger is horrified by her response, but his love for her overcomes this feeling and they decide to elope together.
As Unger leaves his room, he realizes that there is more tension aroused than should be by their planned escape. Kismine tells him that there are aeroplanes approaching. The house is bombarded. Unger takes Kismine and her sister Jasmine. They see Braddock Washington, turned mad, trying to offer a bribe to God. He is unsuccessful. Percy, his parents and two servants disappear into a trap door in the mountain, which is then destroyed.
Jasmine, Kismine and Unger survive. The jewels Kismine took with her are revealed to be rhinestones, so they will be poor. Jasmine romanticizes the idea of taking in washing, and Kismine asks if their father will be in Hades. Unger explains that he is dead. Jasmine says that what they have been through is a dream, like youth, a “chemical madness.”
The story was written purely for Fitzgerald’s own amusement, and was not as popular as his more realistic fiction. However, behind the fantasy and extravagance, the recurrent themes of selfishness, beauty, artifice and excess are still evident in this story as much as any other of Fitzgerald’s collected works.
Unger, the protagonist of the story, comes from a town called Hades, which in Greek mythology refers to the underworld. Unger indeed comes from the depths of society to the dizzy heights of the Washingtons’ diamond mountain and then, it is implied, back to Hades again. His epic journey is a moral fable as he learns the extremes of selfishness and greed, but also innocence and hope.
Unger states that he loves “very rich” people, but he becomes repulsed when he realizes that Braddock Washington captures and even kills those who threaten the anonymity and seclusion of their private paradise. Particularly striking is the cruelty of keeping men enslaved under the pretense that slavery remains a legal arrangement in the United States.
The passage through the strange village of Fish, bruised, desolate and mysterious, is a contrast to the Washington property. Both places are isolated and remote, but Fish is naturally barren whereas the Washington property is unnaturally lavish. The Washington property is designed by a “movie man”- the only person able to create artifice on the grand scale that the Washingtons desire. There is a Fitzgerald joke in the fact that the man who can create such magnificence cannot read or write.
Braddock Washington personifies excess. He is tied to his property and cannot cash in on his greatest asset. There is a splendid irony in that Washington has found the biggest diamond in the world, but if he made this known, it would devalue this and every other diamond. When Braddock tries to bribe God, he is clearly mad, but his reasoning has a chilling logic – “God had His price, of course. God was made in man’s image, so it had been said: He must have His price.” In Braddock’s experience of men, this is the case.
Kismine is representative of physical perfection, but there is little inner beauty to be found in her. She dismisses the killing of the friends who visit as something she will get used to, and she makes a cringingly naïve comment about how many people exist with only two servants. Unger is appalled at her simplicity, but is, for the time being, overcome by her physical beauty. Her sister Jasmine is deluded as well, imagining that doing laundry will be a romantic lark.
Unger’s final line in the story adds to the dreamlike quality of the story, but can also be interpreted as indicating the moral purpose of the tale. There is an allusion to the fall of Adam and Eve from the Bible when Unger reflects that “His was a great sin who first invented consciousness.”