Book Review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu   2/16/14
I just finished this novel and my opinion of Fitzgerald has not improved. I read The Great Gatsby some twenty years ago, and while it was superior to This Side of Paradise, it was not the great twentieth century novel I had expected. Of course, literary tastes have changed considerably in the last eighty to one hundred years, but many more ancient authors are still interesting and have something to say to us in the year 2014.

The novel deals with Amory Blaine, a rather insipid, supercilious and selfish male, from his birth to somewhere around his twenty-fourth year. Amory is the product of the upper-classes. His father is a non-descript cash-dispenser and his mother a bored hypochondriac. Both are illustrative of the aristocratic decadency of the late nineteenth century. Life is simply too tedious. While Amory appears to be brighter than his parents, he doesn’t fall far from the family tree as regards character.

Each chapter in the book deals with a particular period or important event in Amory’s life. Little which is mundane or everyday is mentioned. We travel with Amory to his prep school, then to Princeton and then to the ship taking him to Europe for WWI. We skip over the actual war and come back to New York City and his early manhood. Throughout we are treated to a portrait of an egocentric, bloodless and detached young man who has deep feelings for nobody, including his family. While he likes females, he is mostly indifferent to any particular one until he meets Rosalind with whom he falls deeply in love. In spite of her reciprocal feelings, she decides to marry another because Amory has no money and few prospects. Amory cannot understand this rejection and goes on a three week binge, after which he starts to gather himself and get on with life. Somewhat sadder but wiser.

The book ends with Amory sans money leaving New York and walking to Princeton as he can’t afford train fare. He is given a lift by two men, one obviously wealthy and the other equally obviously the rich man’s assistant. After a brief discussion about life, during which Amory spouts off about the only way forward being socialism, he finds out the wealthy man is the father of an old Princeton friend who was killed during the war. Declining an invitation to dine with his dead friend’s father, Amory alights from the car and continues his trek. Nearing the end of his journey, he sees the outline of Princeton cast against the dark sky. Looking into the distance he comes to the realization that the only thing he really knows is himself. Perhaps this is the beginning of wisdom.

This Side of Paradise is clearly auto-biographical. It is a book about a callow adolescent written by a slightly post-adolescent author. It is not a book for mature adults. I had to make myself keep reading, particularly the first half, in the hope that the book would improve; it didn’t.

On the positive side, Fitzgerald does flesh out Amory’s character in a believable manner. Amory is a good example of what could happen to a bright young man bereft of parental love and no need to work for anything in life. He drifts along in a fairly detached way having a rather inflated view of self and a cynical view of others. It is only after finding himself jobless without funds and all personal relationships stripped away that the dolt wakes up. Hmmm, perhaps he is not so bright as he thought.

Prolonged adolescence was not terribly serious in this case as Amory was, after all, a literary character and the type he represented but a small portion of the country. Unfortunately, his spiritual heirs are now legion and largely uneducated. One can only wonder how many of these self-regarding slackers will have their own epiphanies on the road to Damascus/Princeton. • (6342 views)

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14 Responses to Book Review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Damn, I was hoping this was a review of that Star Trek original series episode which is a true classic — the one with the utopia-inducing plant spores. Thanks for saving me some time. I can avoid that other one now.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    We had The Great Gatsby in 11th grade English, and I’ve never read anything by Fitzgerald since then that I recall. Of course, I can probably come up with a dozen writers (or more) that I had to read in high school and haven’t read since, though in some cases I’ve at least considered doing so. On the other hand, I do have omnibus collections of Poe and Shakespeare (and for that matter, the French playwright Jean Baptiste Poquelin aka Moliere), as well as at least some works by other writers that I had then. (I also have my 11th grade and 12th grade literature texts). My housemate has a large collection of English romantic writing, which provides excellent coverage for the likes of Blake and Shelley (and which I’ve made use of here), though all the Blake material I like best is already in the 12th grade text.

  3. NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

    KFZ – I think you’ve given an excellent short summary of this book, which as you point out was much inferior to The Great Gatsby. I suppose its main value at this point is to help us measure the growth of a great writer in the short span of time from 1920 to 1925. This Side of Paradise is grievously flawed compared to Gatsby but still worth reading. We might also mention that in the era before more modern examples of alienated youth such as The Catcher in the Rye became staples of high school English courses, Fitzgerald’s novel served the same function, namely, giving young readers characters they could readily identify with.

    As to Fitzgerald’s socialism, that is an unfortunate manifestation of his incomplete education and self-admitted envy. It does lessen his works, no doubt, and that includes Gatsby since Fitzgerald did not see that making Gatsby a bootlegger instead of an industrialist (or small businessman, as in Winter Dreams) diminished his hero’s stature considerably. Fitzgerald’s envy of the rich almost certainly came about because his own fiancee broke off their engagement due to his poverty. Yes, it was adolescent, and perhaps Fitzgerald would have outgrown it had he lived past the age of 44.

    Brad – I’ll gladly write a review of the Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise some time as it is surely among the best produced in that superior (at least in its first year) series. But it will have to wait as some of the recent antics of the Republican Establishment combined with what seems to be the complete intellectual collapse at National Review Online demands immediate attention, lest Establishment-itis infect us all.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      “We might also mention that in the era before more modern examples of alienated youth such as The Catcher in the Rye became staples of high school English courses, Fitzgerald’s novel served the same function, namely, giving young readers characters they could readily identify with.”

      Well said Mr. N.

      I also believe it is not by chance that the book was published in 1920. This was the first time in history that a largish percentage of humanity had attained a living standard where children were not required to work thus “the kids” were shielded from some of life’s harder lessons, not realizing what it took for their parents to keep those goodies coming. Furthermore, since the kids didn’t have to keep their noses to the grindstone, they had plenty of time to sit and brood on petty personal issues. What’s the old saying? “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” More like idle minds.

      Perhaps this is the period in American history during which the seed, which became our youth culture, was planted. Ugh.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Well, we had The Catcher in the Rye in 11th grade (as well as several short stories by Salinger), and I never identified with Holden Caulfield, nor did I develop any interest in reading anything more by (or about) Salinger. And it wasn’t from a lack of teenage angst, since I had memorized Dorothy Parker’s lightly grim “Resume” the year before when our poetry collection included it (though I don’t think we actually had it in class). That last makes me wonder how teachers would have responded to me today if they knew about such an attitude. (I also later memorized Blake’s “A Poison Tree” and Parker’s lightly grim bookend poem “Frustration”, though that was many years later.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Looking forward to the Star Trek review, Nik. And — geez — I know you read that recent pro-establishment article by Cooke because I read some of your comments. What are these people smoking over there? Somebody put NRO out of its misery. And McCarthy had another thoughtless article. A man with his skills and knowledge could, without deviating an angstrom from propriety, defend the Constitution and rat out this statist cancer eating us from within. Instead, he seems stuck on his one narrative.

      Here, we try not to do narratives. If McCarthy can make the case that the NSA is actually vital in preventing massive terrorist attacks (perhaps he has some inside knowledge on this), then fine. But we haven’t heard that. We’ve instead gotten little but legalism in defense of the state when the legal arguments must certainly exist strongly on the side against mass spying and the establishment of a Ministry of Information.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Would that be the Cooke piece on guns and voter ID? Not a bad one, and I did comment on it. (I usually only comment once or so because I avoid answering the trolls these days, so there usually isn’t a whole lot of reason to get involved in multi-party blogs.) I also was unhappy with McCarthy’s article, and responded by quoting the Fourth Amendment in full and asking which part he doesn’t understand.

        • NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

          No, Brad was referring to Cooke’s earlier piece (I think about 2/12) heaping praise on – you won’t believe this – the Republican Establishment in the persons of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell!

          I saw your reply to McCarthy, by the way, and posted one of my own, but I didn’t read Cooke’s piece on guns and voter ID. I suppose I should, but he’s “gone native” and I think NRO only deserves occasional glances from me at this point.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I think I read that one too. I also think I responded to it, and not favorably. (McConnell is one thing — I’m still undecided on the Senate primary, which after all is still 3 months away — but I am MOST displeased with Boehner, and especially the contrast between his surrender on fiscal sanity “in order to avoid distracting from Obamacare” and his evident desire to surrender on immigration “reform” despite the fact that it would distract from Obamacare.)

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            There must be great career opportunities in wrapping your lips around the Establishment’s backside (speaking mainly of Cooke, not McCarthy…I believe McCarthy is just misguided, not genuflecting to some clique). I’d be embarrassed to do a piece so blatantly lacking in intellectual integrity. But Jonah blazed this trail over a year ago and now others are following.

            If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The problem is, the Republican Establishment has no wish to beat ’em (unless you’re talking about the Tea Party) and hasn’t even tried.

            You all have permission to slap me upside the head if I ever write something so disingenuous.

            If I ever give up on America, I’ll let you know, and I’ll do it clearly and honestly. I will state my reasons forthrightly and not leave you guessing nor give you disingenuous excuses.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I shall put this mini review of 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” here since it’s hardly deserving of a space all of its own.

    I’ll take it for granted that “The Great Gatsby” is a fine book. I haven’t read it, but I’ll stipulate that it probably is. But it’s a book I shall never read now, especially after having viewed this horrid movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby.

    First off, none of the characters in this movie are compelling. This is a pretty poor casting and directing job. Nothing about DiCaprio’s performance brings even the slightest “greatness” to Gatsby.

    And this rather bland story is made all the blander by the dull and hackneyed narration by Tobey Maquire as Nick Carraway. Spider-Man tries to put emotion into his voice but it just comes off as tacky. And you soon get tired of what is, after all, a fairly weak and uninteresting acting voice.

    At least the visuals are splendid, although the CGI gets overdone. Much like the rest of the movie, it lacks proportion, sincerity, and depth. But this is the best aspect of the movie by far.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the rap music. Why there is rap music in this 1920’s-era movie is beyond me. But it’s right in line with the rest of the poor aesthetic that lacks dexterity, skill, and artistry in nearly every component of this picture. There is nothing in particular about this movie that is worth watching.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      But other than that, how did you like the film?

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        LOL. Once again, people who I respect here like the book, so I’m going to assume the book is much richer than this POS movie. But the plot of the movie can be summed up as: Man loses girl. Man gets girl back for a time and then loses her when he becomes too obsessive. There is then an automobile accident. Man then is killed by the husband of the woman who is killed in this accident. Tobey Maquire then drones on and on in his squeaky change-of-adolescent-voice in forced, artificial emotion-laden tones about what all this supposedly means. The end.

        And I’ll grant that even fairly simple plots can be good if the characters are interesting and the writing descriptions are artful and deep. This movie has none of that. Leonardo has absolutely no gravitas for this role. You don’t care about these characters, one way or the other. The only actor/character that rises above the level of apathy is Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. But even then, his face and performance actually seem a bit CGI’ed. There’s something artificial about it.

        Daisy Buchanan is a bore. There is no charisma or charm surrounding any of these characters. They’re all puppets marched around in this artless plot filled with a bit too much CGI.

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