illustrated profiles of Amory and Beatrice Blaine

This Side of Paradise

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Themes of Religion and Tradition in This Side of Paradise

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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...

(This entire section contains 1586 words.)

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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 “not a bit like yourself,” and it includes the statement, “Beware of losing yourself in the personality of another being, man or woman,” which refers to Rosalind but is ironic because it could be applied to Monsignor as well. Then, after Monsignor’s death, Amory appears to renounce the priest’s religion and moral system, counting instead on a newly discovered philosophy of reliance on the self and one’s inner convictions.

In this egotistical break from tradition, Amory goes so far as to declare that the books of previous generation were all lies, and it is in ideas like these that the widening difference between him and Monsignor becomes clear. A “reincarnation” of a figure like Monsignor in Amory’s generation will not, it seems, have a very similar life to the priest at all, and this is in fitting with the new artistic movement’s radical goals and convictions. During the penultimate scene of the novel, when Amory finds himself in a cemetery at “the golden beauty of four,” Fitzgerald reminds the reader of Monsignor’s description of giving out “the genial golden warmth of 4 P.M.” when he first introduces Amory to the idea of “personage.” Unlike a personage of Monsignor Darcy’s generation, when the egotist of Amory’s age becomes a personage, it is by disavowing the generations that came before.

In addition to its generational significance, Monsignor and Amory’s relationship is a metaphor for the relationship between Europe and the United States before and after World War I. American modernist writers such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway were part of the generation involved in a bloody and devastating war in Europe that, many felt, was the culmination of all that was wrong with the European tradition. The war destroyed thousands of American soldiers; it contributed to many in Amory’s generation believing the “Gods dead”; and it was a significant factor in the death of the transatlantic cultural elite. Introduced as “rather like an exiled Stuart king” and a “Turner sunset,” which refers to the popular nineteenth-century English painter J. M. W. Turner, Monsignor’s identity as an American with firm European roots is what leads to the necessity of his death in a novel that envisions the collapse of this tradition.

The great shock of World War I led many young readers to sympathize fully with Fitzgerald’s metaphor for this political break. But Fitzgerald envisioned something even more extensive than a break with Europe’s politics and literary tradition; he very purposefully uses the image of a Catholic priest to represent the separation and, therefore, firmly connects it to a rejection of this faith. Indeed, the author’s agenda is much more radical than the satire and frankness about upper class America that offended many readers, because he is rejecting the very basis of Christian faith and replacing it with a boundless egotism like Amory has. The last chapter of the novel makes this atheism explicit with certain phrases, such as “There was no God in his heart,” and the stark newness and deep conviction of Amory’s break from the past should make the reader doubt that this atheism is simply a temporary phase.

The chapter “The Supercilious Sacrifice,” at the end of which Amory learns of Monsignor’s death, is the key evidence of the central importance of atheism to the intellectual content of the novel. Amory’s sacrifice by implicating himself with Jill, which he believes to be divinely inspired and later recognizes, in the form of something “featureless and indistinguishable” among the curtains, to be connected to Monsignor, is a religious sacrifice. However, it is not a selfless sacrifice as in the traditional Christian understanding; in fact, it is “supercilious,” or disdainful and self-important, because Alec will “secretly hate [Amory] for having done so much for him,” and because it is essentially a selfish endeavor. This is reinforced by the fact that the quotation that inspires Amory’s action is an incorrect version of Luke 23:28, in which Jesus says, “weep not for me, but for yourselves, and for your children,” and the fact that Amory leaves out the “for yourselves” in his version suggests that he misunderstands the place of the self in the sacrifice.

The point of Amory’s selfish sacrifice, which is inspired by a religious impulse but turns out to be useless and misdirected, is that it results in the subheading, “The Collapse of Several Pillars.” The last of these pillars is Monsignor Darcy and, with him, the pillar of religion in Amory’s intellectual and moral life. As Fitzgerald goes on to discuss more overtly in the form of Amory’s thoughts and conclusions in “The Egotist Becomes a Personage,” as far as the modernist egoist is concerned, religion has no place in the philosophy of the younger American generation.

In his 1952 essay, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Edmund Wilson famously describes This Side of Paradise as “a gesture of indefinite revolt,” and this is true in the sense that the philosophical system offered as an alternative to the tradition represented by Monsignor is inconsistent and even incoherent. As Wilson points out, Fitzgerald’s literary references are often uninformed, and many of Amory’s intellectual conclusions have little substance. But the novel nevertheless has tremendous intellectual importance because its “gesture” is distinctly away from the European literary, political, and moral tradition. And one of the most important aspects of this revolt that is definite and substantial is its call for the modernist generation to turn away from religion.

Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on This Side of Paradise, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

This Side of Paradise: The Dominating Intention

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Considered opinion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel has not changed much since 1924 when Edmund Wilson labelled it “a phantasmagoria of incident which had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force, . . . really not about anything: intellectually it amounts to little more than a gesture—a gesture of indefinite revolt.” Those critics who discuss the book at all verify Wilson’s judgment; if the novel is at all significant, that significance lies in its stylistic place in the Fitzgerald canon or in its historic place in the Fitzgerald canon or in its historic place in the literary twenties. But This Side of Paradise does have unity and force, and it is about something. It is about what Fitzgerald’s novels are always about: the realization that “life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and . . . the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.” If the dominating intention is not as clear in This Side of Paradise as it is in The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, that is because this first novel, for all of its attempted unconventionalities, is a traditional bildungsroman. Amory Blaine does not begin to appreciate the redeeming things or understand what he should struggle for until the end of the novel. And it takes him that long because, unlike Gatsby, he is not immediately one of the free dispossessed; he inherits a system that seems to him attractive and viable. Amory and the novel move from spiritual marriage to that system to spiritual divorce, from instinctive questioning of it to total rejection, from a casual to a deliberate and necessary search for an alternative.

At Princeton he acquires a distaste for the social system based on “the bogey ‘Big Man’” and on “artificial distinctions made by the strong to bolster up their weak retainers and to keep out the almost strong.” By the end of the novel, the “bogey ‘Big Man’” has evolved into “the big man with the goggles” who gives Amory a lift to Princeton. The huge hedge and tall iron fence behind which Ferrenby lives are the barriers the socially strong erect for self-preservation. He represents “those who by inheritance or industry or brains or dishonesty have become the moneyed class,” the class to which Amory originally belonged. For Amory, he is also a symbolic father: Ferrenby’s son, a classmate of Amory’s killed in the war, “had borne off the crown that [Amory] had aspired to” at Princeton. Ferrenby’s invitation for lunch behind the huge hedge and iron fence is an offer to Amory of another crack at that crown, now the crown of class succession. But Amory knows this world has nothing to offer him; he tells Ferrenby he has got to get on.

He has to get on to Princeton. Although the university first attracted him because of its bright atmosphere and reputation for easy living, it is now a shrine to which Amory makes solemn pilgrimage. He wants to see if, in a world in which “all gods [are] dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken,” anything remains. He finds that something does:

as an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride.

The chosen youth cannot know that the world is muddled, unchastened, a turmoil because it has taken Amory the whole of This Side of Paradise to learn that this is, as Lionel Trilling terms it, “the condition, the field of tragedy” against which he must order his life.

Amory suspects that the world is a turmoil long before he knows that it is. He makes lists of all sorts of things in order “to get something definite.” Fitzgerald was only half kidding when he referred to This Side of Paradise as “A Romance and a Reading List”: there is a reading list for each stage of Amory’s development, and there are lists of what interests him at twelve, of the contents of a trunk, of Eastern prep schools, of Princeton buildings and clubs. The same impulse to get something definite prompts his repeated attempts to classify himself. At thirteen he formulates “a code to live by,” about as profound as any thirteen-year-old’s “philosophy” is likely to be. His premature summations of himself—Amory plus Beatrice plus Minneapolis plus St. Regis plus Princeton etcetera—are tedious, ludicrous. But the impulse is more important than the act, the need to create such formulation is more significant than the formulations. He is searching for order. It can be said of Amory’s lists and classifications what Tom Burnam says of Jimmy Gatz’s schedule and resolves: they represent “the boyish effort to reduce the world to terms in the Chaucerian sense of ‘boundaries,’” to impose “on the haphazard circumstances of life a purpose and a discipline.”

The most significant classification is the “personality- personage” formulated by Darcy:

Personality is a physical matter almost entirely; it lowers the people it acts on—I’ve seen it vanish in a long sickness. But while a personality is active, it overrides “the next thing.” Now a personage, on the other hand, gathers. He is never thought of apart from what he’s done. He’s a bar on which a thousand things have been hung—glittering things sometimes, . . . but he uses them with a cold mentality back of them.

In itself, this is not very meaningful. But later, “personality” will evolve into the “spiritually married man” and “personage” into the “spiritually unmarried.” Amory does not realize the implications of the personality-personage distinction because, at this point, he does not have to. The spiritually married- spiritually unmarried distinction, however, will be the product of a painful passage through disillusionment and of a deliberate and necessary search for meaning.

Also foreshadowed early in the novel is Amory’s later conclusion that the problem of evil has to do with the problem of sex, that evil is inseparably linked with beauty because both beauty and sex have “too many associations with license and indulgence.” License and indulgence become synonymous with evil, and their contraries—order, restraint, purposefulness— with good. Darcy correctly perceives that Amory is prudish about sex not because of convention but because he fears he “would run amuck.” Concerning this problem of evil, Kenneth Eble maintains that Amory’s “awareness is not directed toward recognizing an abstract evil but toward understanding the distinctions which mark one man, one portion of society, off from another. His knowing of self is not an appreciation of his or mankind’s metaphysical nature but of his social nature.” But on the contrary, Amory discovers a significant relationship between man’s metaphysical and social natures. He begins to gain this understanding in “the Devil scene,” which Eble must dismiss as “padding,” as “neither very relevant to the novel nor of great importance in itself.” True, Amory never succeeds in giving this experience an appropriate value, but Fitzgerald does give it one.

The Devil scene takes place in New York, where, as Nick Carraway is to say, anything can happen. Amory has come to the city from Princeton for a night on the town with a friend and two girls, Axia and Phoebe. They spend the evening drinking in a crowded, noisy club. Amid this chaos, Amory sees a man whose strange appearance disturbs him. The quartet then goes to Axia’s apartment, and it is here that beauty and sex are linked inseparably with license and indulgence. At the precise moment “temptation crept over him like a warm wind, and his imagination turned to fire,” Amory sees, right before him, the man he saw in the club. This “devil,” then, prevents Amory from starting what he might not be able to stop. He flees the apartment, but “the footsteps were not behind, had never been behind, they were ahead and he was not eluding but following.” In short, Amory is in danger of “going to the Devil,” literally and figuratively. By an act of will, he resists the meeting, but not before he sees that “the Devil’s” face is Dick Humbird’s.

Ever since freshman year, [Dick Humbird] seemed to Amory a perfect type of aristocrat. . . . Everything he said sounded intangibly right. He possessed infinite courage, an averagely good mind, a sense of humor with a clear charm and noblesse oblige that varied it from righteousness. . . . People dressed like him, tried to talk as he did. . . . He seemed the eternal example of what the upper class tries to be.

He is also the example of what Amory tries to be throughout the first hundred pages, an ideal he has pursued as he now pursues the Devil down a dark New York street. But Dick is a false ideal; his infinite courage is fatal recklessness. Far from being eternal, he kills himself in a car crash on his way back to Princeton from a New York party at which he had drunk too much, a party not unlike the one Amory has just fled.

No wonder Amory fails to assign the experience an appropriate value. He is too close to this complex of beauty and sex, license and indulgence, aristocracy and death, to see the pattern in it. But there is a pattern: beauty and sex make up the particular context in which Amory, for the first time, consciously confronts his inheritance, that perfect type of aristocracy Dick Humbird represents, and the dangers inherent in what the upper class tries to be. By an act of will, he rejects the path Dick Humbird followed, not because he prefers another path but because Dick’s leads to death.

However, the matter is even more complicated than this. If beauty, sex, and aristocracy are inseparably linked with license and indulgence, they are also linked with their contraries—order, responsibility, purposefulness. Fitzgerald’s golden girls— his chief representatives of beauty, sex, and aristocracy—embody these contradictions in their very natures. Isabelle, as her name suggests, is a beauty, and a flower, too, “a bloom.” She is also careless, “capable of very strong, if very transient emotions”; to her, “all impressions and, in fact, all ideas were extremely kaleidoscopic.” But her effect on Amory is not kaleidoscopic: “he realized that he was enjoying life as he would probably never enjoy it again. Everything was hallowed by the haze of his own youth. He had arrived, abreast of the best in his generation at Princeton. He was in love and his love was returned.” Love, then, provides unity. But when love fades—and it must if the loved one’s emotions are transient—the unity dissolves into chaos. This brief interlude with Isabelle establishes the pattern for Amory’s deeper affair with Rosalind, and, indeed, for the loves of all the Fitzgerald men: love for a flower, total commitment to that love, fulfillment and unity as a result of that commitment, defection of the loved one, collapse of the unity, a lesion of enthusiasm.

He falls in love with Rosalind Connage at first sight and, of course, “all life was transmitted into terms of their love, . . . all experience, all desire, all ambitions were nullified.” He finds the unity once again, closes “the book of fading harmonies at last and stepped into the sensuous vibrant walks of life.” Amory’s commitment is complete because it has to be, because, like all the Fitzgerald men to follow, he loves a girl who

wants what she wants when she wants it and she is prone to make every one around her pretty miserable when she doesn’t get it—but in the true sense she is not spoiled. Her fresh enthusiasm, her will to grow and learn, her endless faith in the inexhaustibility of romance, her courage and fundamental honesty— these things are not spoiled. . . . She is quite unprincipled; her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez-faire for others. . . . Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty.

Rosalind is, of course, a bundle of contradictions. Fundamental honesty vs. petty dishonesty, courage vs. cowardice—these are conflicts between her identity as Rosalind and her identity as woman. “But all criticism of Rosalind ends in her beauty”—when she must choose between identities, she will do so on the basis of practicality, not of romance. She will choose what is best for her beauty, her raison d’etre.

She really has no choice at all; it is the choice between life and death. She knows the world’s threat to a flower’s beauty, knows that “beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses.” Although the death of roses is inevitable, the rose must try to cheat that death, or at least forestall it as long as possible. And that is only possible in the hothouse only wealth can build and maintain—“safe and proud above the hot struggle of the poor,” as Gatsby will see Daisy. Marrying Amory means the immediate death of roses and, although Amory cannot see it because he, more than Rosalind, believes in the inexhaustibility of romance, it would be death for him, too: “I can’t be shut away from the trees and flowers, cooped up in a little flat, waiting for you. You’d hate me in a narrow atmosphere. I’d make you hate me. . . . I wouldn’t be the Rosalind you love.” At the end of the novel, Amory can say, “I know myself, but that is all”—but Rosalind knows herself now: “I like sunshine and pretty things and cheerfulness— and I dread responsibility. I don’t want to think about pots and kitchens and brooms. I want to worry whether my legs will get slick and brown when I swim in the summer.” She chooses rich Dawson Ryder because “he’d be a—a background,” the background that she needs if her beauty, which is to say, her significance, her identity, is to survive.

The unity again collapses into chaos. Amory now realizes that he has no place in the system he inherited. Worse, he sees that the unity he built around Rosalind blinded him to the disunities of his world. The war, he now understands, “ruined the old backgrounds, . . . life is too huge and complex.” This is “the condition, the field of tragedy,” Trilling speaks of, the donnée of modern American life. But while chaos may be the given condition of a society’s life, it cannot be the condition of an individual’s. “Borne along a stream” or “left in an eddy,” “picked up on a wave’s top and swept along,” “without desire to work or write, love or dissipate” is “moral suicide.” If he is ever to emerge from the lethargy in which there is “no sense of waste, no sense of the present hope that waste implies,” but only “the great listlessness of his disillusion,” Amory’s search for meaning and order must become deliberate and intense.

He takes the first step during a sentimental pilgrimage to Atlantic City. He does not encounter the happy times of a few short years ago, only Alec Connage, Rosalind’s brother, who has brought a girl down from New York. In the middle of the night, there is a knock on the door of the adjoining room— Alec’s room—and Amory instantly decides to tell the house detective that he, not Alec, has violated the Mann Act. Charles Shain maintains that “no one would admire [Amory’s self-sacrifice] more than a Victorian mother,” but Amory’s motive would shock the Victorian sensibility. He literally sacrifices these remains of his former self—burden, not ballast—which still wed him, however tenuously, to his inheritance. He destroys his name and his reputation to be free, destroys his present so that he can begin to create his future.

The first fact that flashed radiantly on his comprehension was the great impersonality of sacrifice—he perceived that what we call hate and love, reward and punishment, had no more to do with it than the date of the month . . . that sacrifice was no purchase of freedom. It was like a great elective office, it was like an inheritance of power—to certain people at certain times an essential luxury, carrying with it not a guarantee but a responsibility, not a security but an infinite risk. Its very momentum might drag him down to ruin—the passing of the emotional wave that made it possible might leave the one who made it high and dry forever on an island of despair.

Amory accepts the responsibility, takes the risk: the brief notice of the incident appears in the newspaper the same day Rosalind’s engagement to Dawson Ryder is announced.

Amory is now one of “the fortunate or unfortunate few” for whom “the dominant idea, the foredoomed attempt to control one’s destiny,” is reserved. He has always been engaged in such an attempt, starting with those lists to get something definite and that thirteen-year-old’s code to live by. But only now does it become the dominant idea, although he knows “he could sophisticate himself finally into saying that his own weakness was just the result of circumstances and environment.” He rejects “the old epigram that had been playing listlessly in his mind: ‘Very few things matter and nothing matters very much.’” He realizes the implications of the earlier personality-personage distinction: the spiritually married man

takes human nature as [he] finds it, uses its timidity, its weakness, and its strength for [his] own ends. Opposed is the man who, being spiritually unmarried, continually seeks for new systems that will control or counteract human nature. His problem is harder. It is not life that’s complicated, it’s the struggle to guide and control life. That is his struggle. He is a part of progress—the spiritually married man is not.

The spiritually married man—Amory at the beginning— is wed to the system he inherits. Like personality, the system “lowers the people it acts on” because the spiritually married man is necessarily committed to the status quo and is, therefore, not a part of progress. But the spiritually unmarried man—Amory at the end—divorced from his inheritance, is, like the personage, “never thought of apart from what he’s done.” Having no system to preserve, he must seek one, not merely for the sake of having a system but in order “to guide and control life.” In Fitzgerald’s terms, that is always the hero’s struggle and Amory commits himself to it.

The place of This Side of Paradise in the Fitzgerald canon should now be clear: it has the same “dominating intention” as The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon. But it is not necessary to go outside the novel to find it worthy. This Side of Paradise is like the personage, “a bar on which a thousand things have been hung.” Too many things—albeit “glittering things sometimes”—have been hung on the bar of Fitzgerald’s first novel. But the bar is strong enough to hold them and emerges intact because Fitzgerald does use those things with a “mentality back of them.” Amory’s metamorphosis into the spiritually unmarried man should come as no surprise: from his first instinctive attempts to get something definite to his explicit commitment to the struggle to guide and control his life, that is where he is heading. Rather than “a gesture of indefinite revolt,” This Side of Paradise is a mature affirmation that, although all gods are dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken, man can—must—struggle to guide and control life, foredoomed though it may be.

Source: Barry Gross, “This Side of Paradise: The Dominating Intention,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1969, pp. 51–59.

A Chronicle of Youth By Youth

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“Just as the boiling pot gives off heat, so through youth and adolescence we give off calories of virtue.” Since this, as Mr. Fitzgerald sees it, is the process of molten youth as it takes shape and hardens, his novel is less a history of its assumption of form than of its loss of radiance. Were this all, This Side of Paradise would contain little new. More tolerantly, certainly more humorously, the same process has been set forth by a score of English novelists. But though referred to still as “the younger group,” they show by their very tolerance and humor that they have passed on, that their experiences have already become recollections. They are reviewing youth with a memory— not a sensation—of its joy and bitterness, and are looking back to its problems with a wistful patronage. Mr. Fitzgerald, in contrast, gives the impression of being still in the thick of the fight, and of having the fierceness of combat. The dust of conflict is still in his eyes and he does not even see very clearly. At times he cannot distinguish youth’s friend from its foe or perceive where it has met with defeat and where conquered. The battle is on and the besetting forces loom very large. They take shape allegorically; it is their exaggeration and the very solemnity with which they are viewed that give the book value, for they make it a record at the very moment of the encounter.

Amory Blaine, the hero of this tale, starts life with a handicap. “From his mother he inherits every trait except the inexpressible few which make him worth while.” An exotic she may no longer be called, for in novels her species has become indigenous to the Middle West and is constantly culled there whenever costly and poisonous beauty is needed to color the page. Unfortunately for her son, whose coming she had looked upon as a burden, she finds him a source of diversion and takes delight in the precocity developed by her companionship. Had it not been for his heritage from his father, the calories of his virtue must have been multitudinous to have held out. As it is, the worst that she does for him is to cut him off from his kind and from a normal boy’s “roughing it,” to make him acutely conscious of his good looks, and to give him a snobbish belief in himself as a personage reserved for special adventure. But once she has worked what havoc she may, she drops him with a swiftness amazing even in a person of her fleeting interest, and he is left to the leveling process of school and college. From both as well as from the war, he emerges with mind awakened and consequently with a lessened conceit, save where it is concerned in the amourettes which lead up to the tragedy, so splendidly black, of the lost Rosalind. It is in relation to these that the author sets himself the task of the social historian, presenting society in its mad reaction to war. For the hero does not need to go to the underworld in his quest for excitement. The débutante of old days, the Victorian “virginal doll,” has been transformed to the “baby vamp,” who if she is too hard-headed to follow in morals the Queens of the Movies, has at least adopted their manners. Against her, Amory hasn’t a chance. And when to disillusionment is added the loss of money and of his friends who are pushed out of the story in a way to which no vigorous characters would submit, he goes down like Brian de Bois Guilbert, “the victim of contending passions.” One would think in such a moment that it would be small comfort to “know one’s self,” though it is with that triumphant if unconvincing protestation that the book closes.

Such a summary is undoubtedly too hard on the book, for it overstresses its failure to arouse sympathy. It also fails to take into account passages, sometimes whole chapters, of brilliant cleverness— those for example where the author takes a fling at modern literary movements or satirizes the already jaded débutante as she makes her curtsy to the world. Little, moreover, does Mr. Fitzgerald care for the conventions of form; and there is something very taking in the nonchalance with which he passes from straight narrative to letters, poems, or dramatic episodes. Quite as wilful is his style. But in all its affectations, its cleverness, its occasional beauty, even its sometimes intentioned vulgarity and ensuing timidity, it so unites with the matter as to make the book a convincing chronicle of youth by youth.

Source: Margaret Emerson Bailey, “A Chronicle of Youth by Youth,” in the Bookman, Vol. 51, June 1920, pp. 471–72.


Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview