by 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. • (7021 views)