Fitzgerald’s debut novel maintains the air of a first novel: it seems very experimental, the narrative is often disjointed & episodic, and if you asked me to extract a particular plot – I would struggle. However, all of this adds to its style. This Side of Paradise is written as poetic prose, features multiple poems & songs, flaunts a very mixed style (a couple of chapters are formatted like a play), and tells the story through a series of vignettes which are separated into two books & nine parts. I really liked the vignettes – they read like a play of tableaux, which also made it very easy to stop and pick up reading. Overall, the form of the novel is as interesting a topic of discussion as the novel itself. Why is it so eclectic? I would argue that the poems & songs create the atmosphere of Amory’s headspace: his life always mingles with his imagination & creativity, the literature he’s read, the pieces of culture he has accumulated over the years. The chapters in play format might suggest that point in Amory’s life seemed unreal, or felt dramatized, or even staged.
Two of the central topics of the novel (in my opinion) are education & individualism – and specifically the need to be egotistic. (The novel actually evolved from Fitzgerald’s earlier attempt entitled The Romantic Egotist, nudge-nudge.) Amory is a very vain & self-absorbed character, and while he gradually lets go of his destructive vanity, he can never truly shake off his egotism. And does he have to? I would argue that we all need to be selfish to become individuals for, after all, how can we discover ourselves without being concerned with & interested in our own selves? Here’s a cool passage from the book:
“If his reaction 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’s had pulled him to pieces and started him over again:
4. Amory plus St Regis’s.
5. Amory plus St Regis’s plus Princeton.
That had been his nearest approach to success 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, half-accidentally chucked the whole thing and become again:
6. The fundamental Amory.” (96, Premier Classics edition)
We are always shaped by our environment and education, but how can we balance that influence with our innate character? Amory is “made up”, and it is almost beyond his control (notice the language: the prep school has “pulled him to pieces and started him over”). However, the egotist wakes up and shakes his ego to return to some fundamental self.
Throughout the novel Amory struggles to find a vocation, struggles to define what it is he wants, and doesn’t know how to attune his education to his desires. The last line is simple and brilliant because of its simplicity: “‘I know myself,’ he cried, ‘but that is all.’” (The whole last passage is great.) Isn’t this the real thing that we all ought to know? => Great stuff. Discuss.
Let’s ditch analysis & jump into lighter stuff. Before reading the novel I mentioned my prediction that it would resemble Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed it does in several ways: a coming-of-age novel; Amory like Stephen needs to find himself, deal with his imagination; both write poetry; etc. The book is also directly mentioned in the text! Y’know. Intertextuality and stuff.
Also, as I began to know Amory I found him very much like Dorian Grey, and sure enough! – his friends mentioned it to him! In general, there were a lot of references to books dropped in this novel. Amory read Little Women twice. Twice! I circled it in the text because I loved it so much (*insert rant about how boys need to read this book).
Finally, the novel has autobiographical elements, and apparently Fitzgerald wrote it to win back Zelda after they had a big fight. Amory has a lot of love interests & supposedly the character of Rosalind is based on Zelda, although when I read the novel I was convinced Eleanor was the character for Zelda… IDK, guys.
This novel certainly isn’t Fitzgerald’s greatest, but it is interesting in its own right and perfectly captures the transience of youth & its ideas, as well as the changes involved in the creation of an individual.