illustrated profiles of Amory and Beatrice Blaine

This Side of Paradise

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Themes and Meanings

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Reflecting on his past, Amory refers to “the scrap-book of his life.” This Side of Paradise is a verbal scrapbook of Fitzgerald’s early experiences, yet the episodic nature of the work does not result merely from Fitzgerald’s lack of distance from the events he is relating. True, he did not have the perspective necessary to select what is important, what trivial, in the development of the artist. Yet this loose structure also expresses Fitzgerald’s belief at the time that the novel should be discursive, a theory that he adopted from H. G. Wells.

While Fitzgerald later rejected this view, he continued to espouse many of the other ideas present in his first novel. This work launched his career as spokesman for the Jazz Age. He chronicles the changing mores of the children of Victorian parents, children who indulge in petting parties, flirt shamelessly, and kiss promiscuously. He shows the freeing effects of the automobile and evokes America’s college life on the eve of World War I. He also demonstrates the demoralizing effects of that war and Prohibition. These moral crusades had not made the world better. Before Gertrude Stein made her pronouncement about the “Lost Generation,” Fitzgerald presciently wrote in the most famous passage of the novel, “Here was a new generation, . . . dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success, grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

Fitzgerald shows the hollowness of this new world. Even though he loved Zelda Sayre and Ginevra King, he realized that they could not fully return his feelings; they were too materialistic to form strong emotional bonds. In the novel, Rosalind wants money, which can insulate her from the world, so she marries J. Dawson Ryder, whose wealth will leave her no concerns more serious than whether her “legs will get slick and brown” in the summertime.

At the same time that Fitzgerald attacks the emotional and intellectual wasteland of twentieth century America, he expresses a yearning for financial success. Amory is poor but loathes poverty. He advocates socialism not because he seeks a more just social order but because he hopes that a revolution might advance him. He attacks ownership of property while clinging desperately to the family estate. In his contradictions as in his college experiences, Amory is Fitzgerald, who wrote the novel to achieve the financial success which he criticized in order to win the girl he recognized as unworthy of him.

Hence his tone is not critical but elegiac; he is the Jazz Age prophet not of jeremiads but of lamentations, of nostalgia. The best writers of the 1920’s believed that they and their world had lost something precious. F. Scott Fitzgerald seems already to stand at the end of the decade just beginning, as though he were surveying it from the perspective of the Great Crash and the ensuing Depression, shaking his head sadly and saying, “How vain, but how beautiful.”

Fitzgerald suggests that one’s first age is the best, that one is happiest in youth and innocence. He echoes William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”; he also seems to follow Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) in tracing the growth of the writer’s mind. Through Amory, Fitzgerald tries to understand not only his own development but also the development of any writer. His conclusion, too, is Wordsworthian, extolling the egotistical sublime: The writer must know himself.

Social Concerns / Themes

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Like many first novels, This Side of Paradise is largely autobiographical. Amory Blaine, the protagonist, is drawn from Fitzgerald's adolescence and young...

(This entire section contains 311 words.)

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manhood. The narrative follows Blaine from his relatively pampered childhood, where he had a very close relationship to his mother, through the difficulties of adjusting to the outside world in prep school and then on through his development as a "romantic egoist" at Princeton. The years at Princeton represent the first genuinely realistic depiction of American college life, and suggest that life on the campus is exciting and intellectually stimulating. For aspiring collegians, the first part ofThis Side of Paradise was like a guidebook, offering suggestions about how to behave socially, and some sense of the curriculum, mentioning sixty-four titles and ninety-eight writers. Fitzgerald later called the book "A Romance and a Reading List," and the romantic element included Blaine's unsuccessful courtship of Isabelle Borge.

The second part of the book follows Blaine's attempt to realize his destiny through a commitment to a religious vision of morality. Monsignor Darcy, the most sympathetic character in the book, encourages Blaine's search for religious meaning; and, although he is not able to convince Blaine to go to Rome, he is able to give him a firm sense of good and evil. This moral sense is tested by two romantic interludes. Blaine is unnerved when he loses Rosalind Connage because of his meager financial resources but turns to spiritual matters for some consolation. When he has a brief affair with Eleanor Savage, who is alluring but too wild for him, he finds similar comfort in justifying his behavior in terms of the nature of sin. His attempts to develop "personagehood" to compensate for his romantic disappointments is a kind of quest in which he hopes to fulfill his destiny by becoming a "leader" who serves humanity by his wisdom and moral guidance.

Themes

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Generational Conflict
Although Fitzgerald’s novel may seem less shocking now, it created a sensation when it was published because of its representation of a younger generation that perceived itself as departing entirely from the tradition of the generations before it. Amory’s vanity and egotism, his flirtatious affairs with young women, his startling ideas (such as about socialism), and his vague contempt for nineteenth- century tradition all struck a chord with a generation that blamed their parents, for example, for the horrors of World War I.

This generational conflict was a key motivation for the modernist literary movement in the United States. In This Side of Paradise, the intellectual and aesthetic aspects of the conflict are first revealed by Burne Holiday, who inspires many of Amory’s own convictions against nineteenthcentury tradition. And Amory’s meditations and convictions in “The Egotist Becomes a Personage,” although many critics have noted that they are not necessarily well informed or even coherent, are nevertheless something of an intellectual manifesto for his generation. As Amory says while he is arguing with Mr. Ferrenby about socialism, “I’m a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation.” While his specific intellectual theories are unclear, and, for example, Amory does nothing but dabble without conviction in socialism, this wavering is consistent with Amory’s previous statement: “I’m in love with change and I’ve killed my conscience.”

Such a demand for progress away from the previous generation without a clear view about the direction that this progress should take led to criticism of the novel such as that of Edmund Wilson in his essay, “F. Scott Fitzgerald”: “In short, one of the chief weaknesses of This Side of Paradise is that it is really not about anything: its intellectual and moral content amounts to little more than a gesture—a gesture of indefinite revolt.” Whether this revolt was “indefinite,” however, it moved and excited many readers, and was key in defining Fitzgerald as a spokesperson for his generation.

Egotism
Amory’s vanity and narcissism is more than a character trait; it is an emblem of the theme of “egotism” that pervades Fitzgerald’s novel. When Amory says that he is an egotist, he does not simply mean that he is self-absorbed; he is revealing an essential philosophical trait of the novel, which is that the self is all-important. He best expresses this idea in the final chapter of the novel, “The Egotist Becomes a Personage,” with statements such as, “This selfishness is not only part of me. It is the most living part.” Like many people in his generation feeling cut off from tradition and drastically changed after World War I, Amory comes to think that his self is, in a sense, all that he has.

This idea, which is common in other important modernist texts (such as Ezra Pound’s famous magazine, the Egoist), is influenced by Freudian psychology, by the modernist generation’s disavowal of past traditions, and by the individualism that was important to many writers of the time. Often, however, Fitzgerald is also critical and satirical of Amory’s egotism, and he certainly mocks its more superficial form of vanity, a trait that characterizes Amory’s youth as well as his first love, Isabelle. The egotism and snobbishness of many aristocrats in the novel is also something that Fitzgerald alternatively ridicules and admires. By the end of the novel, it is not necessarily clear whether Amory fully embraces egotism, although he does seem to recognize its valuable artistic and intellectual aspects.

Elitism and the American Aristocracy
Throughout This Side of Paradise, Amory encounters social hierarchies, aristocratic families, elitist standards of behavior, and vast amounts of wealth that allow a unique insight into the American upper class in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Since Amory is an elitist himself, he is continually coming into contact with the institutions and practices of upper class families such as the Connages, and upper class institutions such as Princeton University. Fitzgerald offers a thorough satire of the vanity and hypocrisy of the aristocracy (such as when Rosalind rejects Amory for a wealthy husband) at the same time as he suggests its enormous allure in the form of Beatrice, Monsignor Darcy, and Rosalind, despite their faults. His satire of the “petting party,” in which young upper class girls kiss and make promises to a variety of men, was particularly shocking to the aristocracy, as was his ridicule of various Princeton clubs and elitist hierarchies.

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