It amazes me that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise when he was 23 years old. The maturity and grace of the writing, the insight into human egoism and the disillusionment of a generation are so perfectly encapsulated that one could easily guess it was written by a man who had seen most of life; whose soul had been darkened by enough time and reality to eclipse out youthful eagerness and optimism towards the future.
This Side of Paradise is about the privileged youth of America in the early part of the twentieth century, whose social existence and morality (or lack thereof) centered around status seeking and greed, the pursuit of which forming the basis of relationships and love. Though World War I is in the distant background, the disillusionment it brought to the western world clearly shows in the aimlessness and lack of purpose that surrounds the young adults in the story.
Amory Blaine, the book’s protagonist, is based on Fitzgerald himself. Amory is from the mid-west, is well off, and is full of promise. His eccentric mother provides what guidance she can, though Fitzgerald’s description of her background does not bode well for her ability to infuse a moral foundation for Amory’s future.
All in all the sort of education that will be quite impossible ever again; a tutelage measured by the number of things and people one could be contemptuous of and charming about; a culture rich in all arts and traditions, barren of all ideas…
Religion played no part in Amory’s upbringing either, his mother more toying with it than embracing it.
She had once been Catholic, but discovering that priests were infinitely more attentive when she was in the process of losing or regaining faith in Mother Church, she maintained an enchantingly wavering attitude.
From where is direction to come? From what foundation will spring purpose?
After boarding school, Amory, and his large ego, go to Princeton, during which time much of the formative parts of the story takes place. On a trip back to Minneapolis, he meets and falls in love with Isabelle.
Her education or, rather, her sophistication, had been absorbed from the boys who dangled on her favor; her tact was instinctive, and her capacity for love affairs was limited only by the number of the susceptible within telephone distance. Flirt smiled from her large black-brown eyes and shone through her intense physical magnetism.
His relationship with Isabelle is mainly based on his physical attraction to her and, perhaps, his boredom. Yet, to have someone like her that others desired:
…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…Silently he admired himself…he heard footsteps coming. It was Isabelle…he held out his arms…as in the storybooks, she ran into them, and on that half-minute, as their lips first touched, rested the high point of vanity, the crest of his young egoism.
Amory soon tires of Isabelle and heads back to Princeton. He is then sent overseas to fight in World War I, though no real time or attention in the story directly focuses on this part of Amory’s life. On the war, Amory shows some wisdom gained, remarking “If we could only learn to look on evil as evil, whether its cloaked in filth or monotony or magnificence.” However, most of the impact of the war is implied through the disillusionment and aimlessness of the characters.
Once back from the war, and having lost his earlier wealth, Amory falls in love with Rosalind Connage, a New York debutante.
She wants what she wants when she wants it and she is prone to make everyone 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…She wants people to like her, but if they don’t it never worries her or changes her…She is by no means a model character. ROSALIND had been disappointed in man after man as individuals, but she had great faith in man as a sex. Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself–incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty…But all criticism of ROSALIND ends in her beauty…it was a delight to watch her move about a room.
Rosalind loves Amory also, and they have a torrid relationship. Amory claims he is a romantic, telling Rosalind “a sentimental person thinks things will last–a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional.” However, Rosaline decides to marry a wealthier man, leaving Amory emotionally crushed. A friend tries to cheer up Amory, to no avail with Amory responding:
Why don’t you tell me that “if the girl had been worth having she’d have waited for you”? No, sir, the girl really worth having won’t wait for anybody. If I thought there’d be another I’d lose my remaining faith in human nature.
Losing Rosalind leaves a gaping hole in Amory, similar to that the war left on his generation.
He was in an eddy again, a deep, lethargic gulf, without desire to work or write, love or dissipate. For the first time in his life he rather longed for death to roil over his generation, obliterating their petty fevers and struggles and exultations. His youth seemed never so vanished as now in the contrast between the utter loneliness of this visit and that riotous, joyful party of four years before. Things that had been the merest commonplaces of his life then, deep sleep, the sense of beauty around him, all desire, had flown away and the gaps they left were filled only with the great listlessness of his disillusion.
Amory never really recovers from his depression. Here, again, he criticizes sentimentalists in describing his wants:
…thinking I regretted my lost youth when I only envy the delights of losing it. Youth is like having a big plate of candy. Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again…I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the please of losing it again.
Amory contemplates his life, realizing many things he does not like about himself, though is unable to change or to really responsibility for his failings.
He knew that he could sophisticate himself finally into saying that his own weakness was just the result of circumstances and environment.
Amory is broken. To Fitzgerald, this broken-ness is a reflection on the society and times in which Amory lives. In a paragraph that perfectly encapsulates “the lost generation”, Fitzgerald writes:
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; a new generation dedicated more than the last to fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…
Like it does to all men, Fitzgerald says of Amory that “the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul.” What beautiful, almost lyrical, wording. The book is an intellectual feast, extremely well written, deeply contemplative, exploring a man and society losing faith in itself, discovering ugly truths about himself/itself. Perhaps redemption will come from self-recognition?
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) is indelibly linked in the American mind to the roaring 20’s and the Jazz Age. His The Great Gatsby (1925) is one of the most famous and well known of American novels. Gatsby, along with This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), and Tender is the Night (1935) firmly establish Fitzgerald as one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century. Fitzgerald also wrote a number of well thought of short stories, and an unfinished fifth novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published after his death. Fitzgerald and wife Zelda Sayre had a famously stormy relationship, plagued by their drinking and her mental health problems.
About the Edition
- Illustrated by Christopher Brown
- Bound in cloth, printed and blocked in silver and black with a design by the artist
- Set at the Folio Society in Adobe Caslon with Gills Sans display
- Printed in Great Britain at the Bath Press, Bath, on Cordier Wove Paper
- 8¾” x 6¾”, 280 pages
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