Review: This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise
This Side of Paradise
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Edited and introduced by James L. W. West III
Scribner Paperback Fiction, New York, 1995

Review Copyright © 1999 Garret Wilson — April 1, 1999, 8:30pm

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine examines life. He holds it in his hand, turns it this way and that, and examines it. What does it hold for him? Who are those other people? What do they want? What does he himself want? And even more importantly, who is he?

It all happened at such a young age, too. While he was still defined in terms of Beatrice (a complex and interesting subject in herself).

But Amory, being on the spot, leaned over quickly and kissed Myra’s cheek. He had never kissed a girl before, and he tasted his lips curiously, as if he had munched some new fruit. Then their lips brushed like young wild flowers in the wind.

"We’re awful," rejoiced Myra gently. She slipped her hand into his; her head drooped against his shoulder. Sudden revulsion seized Amory, disgust, loathing the whole incident. He desired frantically to be away, never to see Myra again, never to kiss anyone; he became conscious of his face and hers, of their clinging hands, and he wanted to creep out of his body and hide somewhere safe out of sight, up in the corner of his mind.

"Kiss me again—" Her voice came from out of a great void.

"I don’t want to," he heard himself saying. (21)

What does he want? And even more importantly, who is he?

Answering those questions is no easy task. Should he go you Yale or Princeton? Should he be a "slicker" or a "big man" (40)?

The core analysis in the book seems to be Monsignor Darcy’s distinction between a personality and a personage. A personality is apparently very superficial and for-the-moment, a set of reactions to particular settings. A personage, as explained by Darcy, is "never thought of apart from what he’s done" (101), — very Marxist indeed. It is almost as if personality is to existentialism as personage is to Marxist Hegelianism.

Amory’s self-evaluation indeed sounds strangely like a Hegelian dialectic:

...If his reactions to his environment could be tabulated, the chart would have appeared like this, beginning with his earliest years:

(1) The fundamental Amory.

(2) Amory plus Beatrice.

(3) Amory plus Beatrice plus Minneapolis.

Then St. Regis’ had pulled him to pieces and started him over again:

(4) Amory plus St. Regis’.

(5) Amory plus St. Regis’ plus Princeton.

That had been his nearest approach to succces through conformity. The fundamental Amory, idle, imaginative, rebellious, had been nearly snowed under. He had conformed, he had succeeded, but as his imagination was neither satisfied nor grasped by his own success he had listlessly, have accidentally chucked the whole thing and become again:

(6) The fundamental Amory. (96)

Like a strange, cruel Hegelian dialectic that through all its twists, turns, and advances seems to nevertheless end up at its starting point.

Fitzgerald’s book is, as expected, a dark look into falls from lofty ambitions and recoveries from unfulfilled dreams. In the end, Amory claims, "I know myself, but that is all—" (260), but what (or rather, who) does he know? What is the "fundamental Amory?" After all, as his political/philosophical arguments with the "Big Man with Goggles" (246) showed, "his ideas were still in riot" (260). Perhaps it would have been better for Amory to exclaim, "I accept myself," because the only conclusion I have so far came to is that Amory reached a point where he could stop trying to attain things by "avoiding" his qualities but by "transcending" them (258).

This novel, Fitzgerald’s first, had not attained the level of writing as did The Great Gatsby. Its composition reflects its many modifications and revisions its went through, as explained in the Preface (VII). There are some parallels, however. Most vividly, I immediately recalled a scene of drunkenness from The Great Gatsby when I read Amory’s drinking spell in "Experiments in Convalescence" (185). Fitzgerald’s similarly here vividly depicts the stages of a downward spiral toward alcoholism, a he himself undoubtedly knew well, especially during his later "crack-up" period, as told in "A Brief Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald" (275). What is amazing is that this fall into drunkenness seems to be so easy for Amory to remove himself from and return, at least physically, to the real world.

At one point Fitzgerald foreshadows the style of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children with a single line: "She had been born and brought up in France. . . .I see I am starting wrong. Let me begin again" (207). This Side of Paradise, though, does not reflect a single style, although its content is quite single-minded. The story’s framework has been decorated throughout with references to literature and poetry that are promoted to a wistful, romantic level — another level that seems forever out of reach.

‘And now when the night was senescent’ (says he)

‘And the star dials pointed to morn

At the end of the path a liquescent’ (says he)

‘And nebulous lustre was born.’ (211)

The "says he" here seems to refer to the fact that Amory has misquoted the Poe’s "Ulalume" at certain places, although I’m not sure of the significance of this, unless it reflects Eleanor’s sarcastic "...and along comes a man saying in a pleasant, conceited way of talking:— " (211).

This Side of Paradise shows the progression of Fitzgerald’s ability to create a consistent novel: it wasn’t as good as The Great Gatsby. It does show a Fitzgerald peek into the minds and beings of people, although I still wonder at the end exactly what I’m looking at. And its pervasive poetic content places brings the emotions of verse to the moodiness of Fitzgerald’s prose. In short, something you’ll want to have read.