Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The composition of This Side of Paradise was a quest for self-knowledge. Consequently, ideas sometimes remain inchoate, especially toward the end of the novel, which degenerates into lengthy, rambling monologues. Nevertheless, the novel helped Fitzgerald to clarify for himself a number of issues. He accepted his alienation from the Catholicism into which he was born. He developed the stance he would take toward his generation, a position both within and without, at once critical and admiring. He found his subject—the lives of the rich—and his style, always graceful and often lyric, sensuous and evocative.

He also came to an understanding, however tentative, of his own life, which he would retell repeatedly in his fiction. Amory and Rosalind resurface as Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert (The Beautiful and Damned, 1922), as Gatsby and Daisy (The Great Gatsby, 1925), and as Dick and Nicole (Tender Is the Night, 1934). Fitzgerald was also moving toward a grasp of the historical forces that had shaped the present. Only one scene in this novel explicitly invokes the past—Amory’s brief visit to a Union cemetery in New Jersey. This episode may have been the germ, however, of the panoramic survey of the American past that informs The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald hoped not only to clarify his ideas but also to make a large amount of money with this novel, and in this regard, too, he succeeded. He later remarked, “The presses were pounding out This Side of Paradise like they pound out extras in the movies.” Between its publication in March, 1920, and October, 1921, it sold forty-nine thousand copies. For all its flaws, it spoke to the generation of the 1920’s; Glenway Wescott said that it “haunted the decade like a song.” Fitzgerald was to write better novels, but none more popular.

It remains the best, as it was the first, record of the music, speech, dress, dances, and literary enthusiasms of the period. Yet it transcends the mere period piece in its depiction of the struggle of a youth to find himself and his place in society. Like all good writing, it is rooted within its time; like the best of writing, it presents characters and issues that are timeless.