Revisiting This Side of Paradise: Which Side of (American) Paradise?

Fitzgerald brings universal issues to the fore in the novel, which still resonates a century after it was first published.

Literature Review

 

This Side of Paradise_Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Available via Bookshop.org.

 

When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise  was published on March 26, 1920 in the heart of the twentieth century, the novel’s critical reception was chiefly fervent and to an extent, even gushing. Many wondered how a book so strongly connected to a single era in history could possibly generate similar reactions over generations to come.

 

It is a task to read, or rather re-read this book today; perhaps it has lost much of its original vigour. However, it launched the author to fame at the age of only twenty-three and proved to be his bestseller. The novel has undercurrents of unsettled revolt throughout, and its enduring significance lies in its historic setting in the literary and turbulent twenties. 

 

The myth of American exceptionalism still persists but now, more than ever before, the ruptures are increasingly perceptible and difficult to deny, given the alternative spaces that have mounted an attack on the idea of America being a benign cultural melting pot. The multiplicity of discourses that produced the culture of America in the 1920s is found in the story of Amory Blaine – the protagonist of the novel – afflicted by questions and concerns of identity and what it means to be himself in the face of changing societal mores steeped in consumerist ethics and decadence. 

 

Amory's inability to divorce himself from the anxieties that enveloped his era have become representative of the predicaments, most of us, find ourselves in  today. Just as Fitzgerald communicates cognizance of social stratification in the novel, it also opens up a discourse about some dominant themes, like individualism vs. consumerism, disillusionment vs. decadence, progressive vs. conservative; that not only stimulated a whole new cultural movement also pushed it into the spotlight for good.

 

It is significant to delve deeper into these interrelated themes so as to situate the novel in its moment of production and understand the social currents that shaped it into being.

 

Believed to be a semi-autobiographical novel, This Side of Paradise  follows Amory during the developmental years of his life, beginning with his stark assessment that nothing productive came from his parents’ generation. The readers are led into the story through Amory’s eyes as he  chronicles each and every experience like a cultural envoy from inside his cohort. 

 

First- time readers of the novel are usually struck by its episodic structure and medley feel, while the author evaluates goals and ideas that are contemporary, pressing, and help proclaim a ‘philosophy of existence.’ "It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being," Fitzgerald writes – this is quite characteristic of Amory’s mindset. 

 

The novel is a traditional bildungsroman of sorts, as Amory fails to cherish the qualifying aspects of his personality, comprehend what sort of a figure he wants to cut, and what mode of conduct he wants to impersonate. While the first half is about his years at Princeton where his ideas are mostly in a riot, the latter half looks into his sexual and intellectual development as a young adult who feels largely at fault for America’s faltering response to World War I and rejects "an old epigram […] – very few things matter and nothing matters very much."

 

The triptych composition, with a short linking interlude – a narration about his time at World War I and how it has rendered his prior experiences and schooling irrelevant –  makes the arc of Amory’s transformation quite apparent.

 

Fitzgerald’s pellucid prose exposes a world of complexity, offering few reassurances, where the protagonist endeavours to understand his "thousand impulses and desires and repulsions and faiths and fears" as American society changes around him. 

 

I first encountered Paradise  in my early twenties in India and found it rather boring. Moreover, it came across as ‘a thrown together’ novel, in as much as the writing did not seem very deliberate. Now that it has completed its one-hundred-year anniversary and I picked it up for the second time, my recommendation would be to read it more closely and examine the text on its own. 

 

The novel is replete with sombre attempts at conjectural thoughts on literature, socialism and war. It takes little effort to understand the decadence Fitzgerald very poignantly foregrounds – resonating well with the contemporary ideological landscape of the United States. The world of 2020 is dominated by social media, considered to be a force for good, and has come a long way; or maybe not if one were to look back on what life was like in America a mere hundred years ago. The novel attempts to trace the possible progression of individuals in the United States in the post-war era. 

 

Back in the 1920s, to proclaim  self-revelation was to take a fearless stand, a pronouncement of personal independence, which can be now used like any other promotional slogan. However, every subculture, after generating some amount of curiosity, loses its edges to fit the mainstream culture. As the new generation emerged in increasingly quick succession with the modern era, new notions and technical advancement, conjointly, created something seemingly contrasting – individuality for the masses. 

 

Paradise  lauded the Jazz Age’s "fashionable hedonism" which was, according to English broadcaster Jon Savage, "the first mass adolescent consumer culture." Not only was it a culture of credit, altering the social landscape of America, but highly energetic and heterogenous. With its virtuous order in question, many aspects of social life seemed to become accommodating to change. The individuality it encouraged in consumers was consistent  with its capitalist economy. 

 

The way men became obsessed with fashion – which Fitzgerald portrays through a dandy figure –  is an indication of the role played by the centrality of wealth in the novel. Amory attempts to be fashionable but also, soon enough, discovers that someone else is more fashionable than he is and fails to acquire the social status he desired for himself. He "wanted to be admired" and not be "some sweaty bourgeois." This shift from only women showing concern about their image to men also being conscious with their fashion choices impacted his experience with changed cultural expectations of 1920s America. 

 

Even though Amory was "born to a well-versed mother," received a good college education at Princeton, had a deluxe fortune , and displayed everything that the young might ask of life, he had hardly made anything for himself. Paradise  exists in an atmosphere of alluring, unearned money — which is not earned and spent but made and lost. Amory is one of those protagonists who makes no bones about his feelings in this background of aristocratic leisure and his dislike of poverty and the poor.

 

As such the book not only became the story of this new culture but "a social observer of the popular culture yet to come."

 

American literary critic and social historian Malcolm Cowley characterised this revolution as the shift from a production to a consumption ethic – a correlation between socio-economic patterns and codes of moral behaviour.

 

Up until this portion of the novel,  Amory has only comprehended life as "a succession of quick, unrelated scenes" and suspects that the world is a complete pandemonium long before he knows for sure that it is. He is "a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation." Through his principal occupation, i.e. talking, young Amory successfully reveals the emotional and intellectual make up of a young man who is grappling with the transitional times that he finds himself in. 

 

The story of Amory Blaine, in a way, mirrors the dialectical principle of popular culture – which is both progressive and conservative, as well as subversive and commercial. With consumerism providing a means to demonstrate identity, which thereby leads to expressing rebellious attitude and planting subversive ideas, the popular identity that Amory and the lot were searching for themselves had to "both utilize the public eye and keep its distance from it to reach a point where [their] individuality results in an independent entity."

 

Paradise  can also be read as a fictional representation of the war generation that was becoming aware of itself. For Amory, and the like, life was in disarray and the only way for him to find a safe haven was to take refuge in posturing as a ‘cynical idealist.’

 

World War I, in many regards, killed the idea of heroic individualism for those of his generation, so much so that the anguish that often looms large in Fitzgerald’s novels, cutting across genders, still finds its manifestation in how Americans are trying to make sense of a reality that is saturated within consumerism. 

 

The utter annihilation and wavering outcome of the war was disappointing and many began to question the significance and beliefs of Western civilization. When America was ramping up to enter the war on the Allied side, liberal and progressive Americans supported the idea and welcomed the move to serve as the guiding force in the reform of the whole wide world. During the 1920s, not only did America become a leading economic power, but with the launch of the consumer society its wealth doubled by 1929. 

 

For Amory and his cadre, perceiving the world in the wake of the war was to finally understand that "there were no wise men; there were no more heroes," even though he was interested in taking up aviation or infantry because "aviation sound[ed] like the romantic side of the war." There comes a point when he thinks of giving up on his studies and travel, "but the war made everything tiresome” and he “wanted to put the blame of the war on the ancestors of his generation." The war! It was the war that had made him a "passionate agnostic."

 

Part of Amory’s questioning of things around him also has to do with his romantic relationships.

 

In 1918 Fitzgerald completed a manuscript titled The Romantic Egotist  – this was the first version of This Side of Paradise.  The romantic egotist that Amory is, with a handful of superficial vices, is because he is a creature of his environment. His first philosophy was "a code to live by, a sort of aristocratic egotism" whereby "he marked himself a fortunate you." However, desire inevitably summons disappointment, for the void between actuality and probability is scarcely united in this world. 

 

Courtship rituals are often uncovered in the narrative as world-weary exercises in a mass culture, opening the way for the adulteration of romantic sentiments. In a fit to metamorphose the experience of loss into its own kind of pleasure, Amory is unable to attain a coherent character or to form a wholesome understanding of his ‘self.’ He is guilty of romanticizing the women he falls for, who are also his prime representatives of sex, beauty, class, and aristocracy – encompassing contradictions in their very natures. 

 

His quest for acceptance from others is quite apparent in his interactions with his romantic interests. As ambivalent as it can get, Amory’s first love affair with Myra reaches its apotheosis in a kiss, though as an unmistakable moralist he takes the responsibility of kissing rather too seriously. Moreover, his puritan-like sensibility does not let him fulfil the function of serving well as a symbol of revolt. Instead, the novel conveys an implied morality when the protagonist fails to differentiate between a genuine and an ingenuine emotion because he "lacked judgement to decide."

 

He falls in love with Rosalind at first sight and "all experience, all desire, all ambitions were nullified." However, Rosalind herself is a bundle of contradictions and hence the unity collapses into chaos yet again. Isabelle was a charmer and also heedless. To her, "all impressions and, in fact, all ideas were extremely kaleidoscopic" but her effect on Amory was not; love that could have provided unity, overturns into chaos. Eleanor was "the last time that evil crept close to Amory under the mask of beauty." The complexity of her character oozes out of the limitations that are forced upon her — she too has a head on her shoulders.  

 

Fitzgerald’s hero is often analysed as the personification of a set of ideas concerning the nature of Romantic individualism and its functioning in the twentieth century. Amory often uses poetry to denote a very masculine heroism, however it introduces the risk of a person who is not able to receive and interpret inspiration from his surroundings and has no traditional masculinity to uphold.

 

He walks away from love – always when his dream girl begins to exhibit "irritating" signs of individuality – and is bewildered beyond limits when his romantic setbacks undercut his absolute, unquestioned superiority. His break-ups mark the beginning of the end of Amory’s upper-class aspirations. It would not be amiss to state that in orienting his first fictional character away from the practical problems of the day, the author clearly read the signs of his age and accurately reflects hedonism of its era. 

 

While much of the novel has to do with Amory’s personal immaturity, as he retains his moodiness, one should not overlook the role that Princeton University plays – where the foremost of his reasoning is directed toward achieving popularity. Always concerned about his social standing and striving to be one of the "hot cats on top," Amory’s dilemma is also rooted in his intellectual stagnation within the university’s social system.

 

Even though he received a "highly specialized education from his mother," in his pursuit of identity, the protagonist is eager to seek out upper class peers for guidance and counselling, which can be read as one of his romantic voyages to find his consummate self. 

 

The moral let-down accepted and enjoyed by the post-war generation drives the novel’s exploration of America’s moral deterioration. According to Amory, "Princeton invariably gives the thoughtful man a social sense," but later he establishes himself as a prototype for succeeding generations of young artistic men who dream of something greater and larger than life.

 

While scholars have read the novel as a thinly disguised autobiographical account of college life, it is equally important to read its flaws to unravel the mirroring of a larger cultural anxiety – the challenge of discovering one’s identity as a self in relation to the changing notion of modern selfhood. 

 

Throughout the decades leading up to the twenties, much of the American public was still connected to its agrarian past, pushing themselves to move ahead in reinterpreting the American Dream. For a number of men back then, success was based on having influence over other individuals. This is exemplified by Amory losing his firmness and frequently voicing anxiety about modern life taking a toll on his character. 

 

Princeton, the centre of the universe in Paradise,  encapsulates a Romantic setting and, in one way or another, has to make room for modernity since "Amory too realized that it was the last spring under the old regime." This university space almost becomes a modernist paradise for upper-class men like him who adored "Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic – like a spring day;" a paradise provisionally gained, but never forgotten.

 

It is nowhere but at Princeton that Amory acquires a disdain for the social system and pseudo dissimilarities made by the strong to buoy up their weak retainers. As he loses his standing on campus, he realizes that he lost many of his qualities. 

 

Apart from assessing it as a coming of age story, This Side of Paradise  continues to exist as a very solemn and studious novel. Even though it brought Fitzgerald a degree of critical success, the subtext of the story signals at significant personal and private meaning. Towards the end of the book, the author gradually seems to be investigating, through Amory’s musings, his own precariousness about his journey ahead as a writer and an artist. Fitzgerald uses Amory Blaine, who was not only broken by uber-wealthy New York City but cheated by his own expectations of leading a wealthy life, as a conduit for these ruminations. 

 

The identity of this typical American hero, as it is performed, is relatively unstable even when he "wanted to realize fully the direction and momentum of his new start," which is why the novel never reaches a closure in the conventional sense. Even if Fitzgerald did not accomplish emotional neutrality, he did find the means to infuse into Amory some sense of life and dynamism – as if all the mundaneness of his character was something to grow out of. 

 

The signs of disaffection, and unrest of economic discontent, and riotous divisions seem more crucial and serious after every re-reading of the novel. Rather than fighting the inequalities inherent in the microstructures and macrostructures of society, Amory chooses to "realize fully the direction and momentum of his new start." In favour of self-identity, he tries to emancipate himself by accepting the fact that a new world is in the making. As he declares in the end "I know myself – but that is all," Amory should also understand there is a paradoxical blend of detachment and investment in a self that is, mostly, constructed from outside. Perhaps he has not reached paradise at all, even though he does not regret his actions. 

 

This curious blend of having attained knowledge about oneself while knowing that one cannot make sense of oneself in isolation from one's surroundings manages to strike a chord even in 2020 as many of us are in the process of unlearning realities that have, unfortunately, become a part of our collective unconscious. But unlike Amory, we know that it is easier and far more effective to fight a battle by reaching out to others who share similar ideologies, rather than solely wallowing in self-pity and cynicism. 

 

Despite situating Amory Blaine in concrete socio-economic structures, Fitzgerald ended up bringing to the fore issues that are far more universal in scope, which is perhaps why he continues to resonate with readers on multiple levels, even a century after it was first published. 

 

 

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Literature, Books, Fiction, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Consumerism, Culture, Economy, Social Media, War, Academia, India