This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896. His reputation as a great American writer of the twentieth century rests firmly on his four novels (especially The Great Gatsby) and dozens of short stories that he wrote for magazines. More than any other writer of his generation, he was a chronicler of his age, which became known as the Jazz Age. He died in 1940, age forty-four, of a heart attack.
Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was 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 of anything except 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 Amory’s youth is rather tarnished by a series of unsuccessful love affairs with spoiled, vacuous debutantes. 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.
World War I is the defining event of Amory’s generation, but for him it’s no more than a blip. He enlists, as everybody else is doing, but he remains stationed on Long Island and doesn’t see any fighting before the war ends. He says later that he loathed the army.
After the war ends, Amory finds himself in a changed world. Some of his best friends from college have died in the war. 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.”
On examining 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 (probably contributing to his early death). 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 don’t know what Amory’s future life will be. Will he overcome his disillusionment and became a great writer? Will he find another love to fill the void left by the departure of Rosalind? Will he find the thing he wants, whatever it is, as soon as he stops looking for it? Probably not. He’ll probably die in his mid-forties of alcoholism, as unfulfilled as ever, never knowing of his literary legacy that will endure through the decades.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp