Themes of Religion and Tradition in This Side of Paradise
Sigourney Fay, the person to whom Fitzgerald’s novel is dedicated, was a brilliant priest whom Fitzgerald met while he was in preparatory school in New Jersey, and with whom he remained close friends until Father Fay’s sudden death in 1919. Fay is, of course, the basis for the character Monsignor Darcy, and although the purpose of this essay is not to speculate about the particulars of Fitzgerald’s real life and their impact on This Side of Paradise, it is worth noting that Fay made an extraordinary impression on Fitzgerald. Their discussions greatly affected the author’s intellectual and artistic development, and Fay’s premature death assumed a unique significance in Fitzgerald’s symbolic world.
Monsignor Darcy’s death, on the other hand, is not in any way premature or untimely. It is exactly in line with Amory’s development and, coming as it does in the lines immediately preceding the novel’s last chapter, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage,” it allows Amory to complete what the novel terms his “education.” Monsignor is Amory’s father figure throughout the novel; while Mr. Blaine does not so much as make an appearance, Monsignor is introduced in the first chapter as Beatrice’s true passionate lover, and Amory’s mother predicts: “Amory will go to him one day, I know.” With Monsignor’s death, which represents, in symbolic terms, the death of the father, Amory’s religious faith dies as well, and he is finally able to contemplate artistic and intellectual ideas outside the European tradition.
Amory and Monsignor get along immediately when they meet during Amory’s first year at St. Regis and discover an intense affinity with each other. Their relationship remains close enough for Monsignor to constantly compare their similarities and even write that he considers Amory the “reincarnation” of himself. Monsignor’s description of a recurring dream of his in a letter to Amory during the novel’s “Interlude” is particularly enlightening on this subject:
I’ve enjoyed imagining that you were my son, that perhaps when I was young I went into a state of coma and begat you, and when I came to, had no recollection of it . . . it’s the paternal instinct, Amory— celibacy goes deeper than the flesh. . . . Sometimes I think that the explanation of our deep resemblance is some common ancestor.
Not only does this dream reinforce Monsignor’s significance as Amory’s father figure; it helps to establish the idea that Amory’s deep connection to Monsignor has been passed down from an ancient tradition of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic ideas. Like many of Amory’s relationships, Monsignor is chiefly important because of what he represents about Amory and Amory’s relationship with the ancient European literary, cultural, and religious tradition. Although Amory is still fairly ignorant of literature when he arrives at Princeton (he does not know who Oscar Wilde is, for example), his interest in “English and history” sparks at about the same time he meets Monsignor, and from then on the priest serves as the cultural and intellectual mentor that Amory never finds among the faculty at Princeton. Monsignor advises him on what to read, whom to idealize (“some such man as Leonardo da Vinci,” for example), and which philosophies to follow.
There is, however, a growing sense that Monsignor and Amory’s ideological connection is breaking apart. Monsignor’s letter in the “Interlude,” while Amory is in the army, is the first and perhaps most important signal of this break. Beginning by pointing out that, “you will never again be quite the Amory Blaine that I knew,” Monsignor then highlights the widening gulf between their generations: “your generation is growing hard, much harder than mine ever grew,” and the letter ends with the mysterious thought: “curiously alike we are . . . curiously unlike.” In his last letter to Amory, Monsignor stresses that Amory’s last letter was...
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