This Side of Paradise is the first novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is this book that made him an instant literary sensation. Maybe he is now more famous for his masterpiece The Great Gatsby (check out my post about The Great Gatsby). But This Side of Paradise too has withstood the test of time and stands as an evidence of Fitzgerald’s genius.
This novel is about a young man named Amory Blaine. He grows up feeling he has been made to excel. He just doesn’t know what he is supposed to excel at. He studies at Princeton, dreams big but remains idle, enjoys life to the fullest, enters and falls out of a chain of romances, explorers deep philosophies with his college mates, indulges in wild drinking spree and represents the Jazz Age and the Roaring 20s to the fullest. Then the World War 1 happens. He enlists and passes through it safely. But the war robs him of his money and makes Amory realize that “It’s essentially cleaner to be corrupt and rich than it is to be innocent and poor.”
Loss of money and love pushes him on a downward spiral and through this, the author raises a magnificent representation of The Lost Generation – the youth of America post World War. Like the many young people of this age, the hero too feels lost and stumbles around in search of a purpose and the meaning of his life.
“fathom deep in sleep I lie
With old desires, restrained before,
To clamor lifeward with a cry,
As dark flies out the greying door;
And so in quest of creeds to share
I seek assertive day again . . .
But old monotony is there:
Endless avenues of rain.
Oh, might I rise again! Might I
Throw off the heat of that old wine,
See the new morning mass the sky
With fairy towers, line on line;
Find each mirage in the high air
A symbol, not a dream again . . .
But old monotony is there:
Endless avenues of rain.”
This Side of Paradise is a very different book than most other novels. Fitzgerald first named it the Romantic Egotist. And it is, indeed, the book about the romantic egotism of the young. It weaves through many different themes and uses different writing styles. It has many poems, and a portion of it is even written as a play script.
22% of the book passes before you meet the first love interest of the hero. She soon vanishes from the scene. Then 58% of the book passes away before you meet Rosalind. Amory never stops loving her, but she chooses money over him. On one hand, this brief love story is just a tale of young and foolish boy and girl, both with their head in the clouds, both feeling justified to look down at the mortal millions with the scorn of those who know they are above all. On the other hand, from their head up in the clouds, these foolish Amory and Rosalind catch glimpses of the larger realities and sprinkle down their essence for our enlightenment.
Amory and Rosalind have a love-hate relationship while they are together. Much like the relationship of the book’s author and his wife Zelda. This makes the book semi-autobiographical at times.
I think, a reader of today might have the same kind of love-hate relationship with the book. On one hand, for most of the time, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. For a major part of it, you feel like just walking through the corridors of college campus, catching glimpses of youth of that time (and all times, in a way). On the other hand, it has this scintillating prose, words and phrases with marks of genius all over them that are a pure delight for a book lover.
The Philosophy of This Side of Paradise:
Tough it talks of the Lost Generation, much of what it says still holds true. Like the following excerpt:
A long portion of the book strolls through the Princeton college campus and lifestyle. That portion must have gripped the youth of that time, sometimes rising them to debate, sometimes pushing them to thought, sometimes letting them relax with a chuckle. I think that’s what led to the instant success of the book. It talked to the youth.
The book moves from the enthusiastic beliefs of the young to their loss of faith in everything. It talks about the restlessness of youth that feels his talent going waste because there’s no value of it in the world running after money. It talks about how money robs people of individuality and makes them mere tools. It talks about confusion of a young mind trying to hold on to a belief, trying to stand for something, but ending up finding everything meaningless and himself without the zeal or determination required for any grand achievement. It talks of young people wanting to change things and ending up realizing that they themselves are no different. And if they are different, there is no place for them in the world and they sooner or later will have to adapt to the world’s ways.
Not a light book to read:
I feel I barely understood the book. Yet, it was quite an experience nevertheless. Reading This Side of Paradise felt like sitting on an armchair near a window of an upper story room, looking down at the crowd parading by, with their diverse appearances and sound, mixing your thoughts with those sights and sounds till you can scarcely tell them apart..
If you find that a long winded sentence, that’s how sentences in the book are. Fitzgerald is not an easy writer. His words often left me feeling as if they mean a lot more than my limited intelligence and knowledge is able to comprehend. This Side of Paradise has lot of references to classical writers and popular writers of the time and examination of their philosophies too.
If you are seeking an entertaining fiction, this book is not for you. It is a book that is so full of thought that for those who love it, it will reveal a new meaning in every repeated reading. It is less a novel and more like a discourse about its time. It is a journey of a young man struggling through dreams, changing philosophies and disillusionment. It ends in an insight and a half formed resolution, but not at a destination. Even when the book ends, you feel that the destination of the hero is still far away, and doubtful.