Themes and Meanings
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.
(The entire section is 1,641 words.)