This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
F. Scott Fitzgerald had his first novel, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, when he was only twenty-four years old. The central character in the novel is Amory Blaine, an arrogant, good-looking, heavy-drinking young man from a prosperous family. He has an indulgent mother who spoils him and a mousy father who doesn’t do much besides make money. Amory has what might be called a “golden” youth. He attends Princeton University where he and his friends spend a lot of time drinking, socializing, talking and intellectualizing, and having a good time. The glory of his youth is rather tarnished (it seems) by a series of unsuccessful love affairs with pretty but vapid girls. Each time he begins a new love affair, he believes it is the all-consuming passion of his life that will bring him eternal happiness and peace. None of them turn out the way he wants them to, however. He plans on marrying a girl named Rosalind Connage, but she throws him over at the last minute because she thinks he is essentially a loser who won’t ever be able to make enough money to suit her. Here we have one of the major themes of the novel: how the quest for money and social standing kill romance.
In his second year of college, the Great War (WWI) obtrudes. Amory enlists in the army because he believes it’s what he’s supposed to do (and because everybody else is doing it) and finds himself in France. While some of his best friends from college die in the war, Amory returns home (later he says he hated the army) to find a changed world. His father dies and his mother discovers they don’t have nearly as much money as they thought they did. (Is Amory going to be forced to go to work to earn a living?)
As Amory grows older, he becomes more disillusioned. His mother dies. His college friends die or drift away. Some investments left by his family that provide a portion of his income dry up (and this is long before the Depression). He’s afraid of being poor. He wants to write but doesn’t. He sees his youth slipping away, its promise unfulfilled. The book concludes with a long philosophical conversation he has with two men he doesn’t know (one of them turns out to be the father of a college friend who was killed in the war), in which he espouses his belief that Socialism will cure all the world’s ills. After all he goes through, he ends up by saying, “I know myself, but that is all.”
If we examine Fitzgerald’s life, we see that This Side of Paradise is largely autobiographical. Amory Blaine, his protagonist in the novel, is a heavy drinker, as was Fitzgerald (which probably contributed to his early death at age forty-four in 1940). Like Amory Blaine, Fitzgerald attended Princeton University, served a brief stint in the army during the war without seeing any real action, had some unhappy love affairs with debutantes, experienced financial reverses, and was disillusioned in early middle age.
This Side of Paradise is a novel that stops rather than ends. We imagine Amory Blaine going on for years to come, but we don’t know whether he’ll find happiness or not. He concludes, cynically, that if he finds someone to fall in love with and gets married, it will ruin him and keep him from being anything or doing anything. Romance is not the answer to anything. Will he find whatever he needs to make his life worth living? Probably not. He’ll more likely than not drink himself to death in a squalid hotel room with fly specks on the curtains and questionable stains on the carpet around the bed.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp