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This Side of Paradise – A Cynic’s View

I have always been drawn to This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  By this I mean the concept of it- the Jazz Age, glizty picture one gets of the 1920′s.  The pretty title taken from poetry.  Since I am still sort of on the 1920′s theme it fit right in.  Without knowing anything about the book except its reputation I was willing to be drawn in.

By the writing you can tell it is Fitzgerald- there are glimmers of the style and way of wording every sentence that will very soon make him famous.  There are also some unique add-ins, such as writing a few chapters in play form instead of prose- you can tell he is playing with form and different styles of storytelling.  The synthesis of the “Great American Writer” is occurring- but it is not yet complete in this work.

The work is obviously semi-autobiographical.  Fitzgerald tells his own story of growing up through Amory Blaine.  The problem is this- Amory Blaine is not always interesting and even occasionally annoying.  He is spoiled, lazy, and has an inflated sense of entitlement.  Sometimes when he is confronted by these facts it is amusing, sometimes it is sad, but what is really frustrating is that so often he learns nothing at all from it.  His development (the focus of the entire books) is often thwarted by his own unwillingness.  Fiztgerald spells it out for the reader very early on by describing his hero; “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.  This… was quite characteristic of Amory”

Throughout Amory’s school days he continually takes the path of least resistance.  He is not academically successful, either in prep school or Princeton.  He sees these places as avenues of influence, not education.  He believes he is going to be successful in life simply by attending and meeting others with more ambition or money, not through any work or initiative of his own.  He admires the gifted students, befriends them, and even has surprising profound discussions with them about the world, their generation, the future, etc.  It is clear that Amory has the brains for success and the artistic talent to perhaps be a very good writer/poet one day.  The only thing holding him back is himself; his lack of any ambition, and his feeling that the world will automatically present him with everything he wants on a silver platter just because he is Amory Blaine.

Amory’s romances are usually of a quick and passionate sort; he fairly falls into them and, with the exception of Rosalind, cares very little whether they continue or end, although he feels as if he ought to care.  His affair with Rosalind is only the second time that the universe Amory thought was so rosy and made things happen just for him showed him that it may not be on his side after all (the first instance was a friend’s death in a car accident).  Eventually his own abhorrence of work makes him quit his job and fritter away what little inheritance he has left.  Amory at the end of the novel is searching for that certain something; he knows that his life is vapid and incomplete, but doesn’t have sufficient drive to really knuckle down and start anything.  Amory becomes the ultimate drifter.

Even to the very end he plays the ultimate arrogant youth and gives a long and awkward diatribe for two older men who were kind enough to pick him up when he is hitch-hiking.  The subject of this lecture?  How his generation is a mess (very true), and then some rabble against “the Man” (I use the term loosely to mean ones in authority), and some speech championing Socialism.  Seriously?  Amory Blane- a product of rich parents, influential prep school, and Princeton who, when he suddenly wakes up to find himself with no job and little money, is so lost as a person his only goal is to sort-of wander back to Princeton (the location of his last successes).  To suddenly grasp at Socialism is just one more way for Amory to be trendy (it was the philosophy du jour among the intellectuals of the day) while not really thinking in depth about anything in his own life- the ultimate lazy cop-out.

As you can tell, Amory frustrated me to no end.  He was charming enough to love, but self-destructive enough to hate.  This is a rather cynical view of his character but, now that I have gotten it off my chest, in the next post I will show the opposite end of the spectrum with a Romantic’s view of This Side of Paradise.