Many critics have complained, with justice, that a great flaw in This Side of Paradise (aside from its loose, rambling structure) is the fact that the author seems uncertain as to his own attitude. He mocks the romantic delusions or emotional melodrama of his “little rich boy,” Amory Blaine, while too often he shares, or seems to share, in the delusions themselves.
There is, in short, a kind of “smart” pseudo-sophistication imbedded within the narrative itself-a series of “clever comments” inserted for the sake of the cleverness rather than for any aesthetic purpose. And one result of this aesthetic self-indulgence is that the reader may find it difficult to take either Amory or his adventures with any degree of seriousness at all. Indeed, one feels as though the author himself were doing what Amory does during the course of the narrative: he merely holds the posture of writing about what actually is a very slight matter.
The need for some sort of imposing or melodramatic gesture is, of course, one of the chief qualities of Amory Blaine as an adolescent. That neither Amory nor his creator-F. Scott Fitzgerald-ever grew out of this need, is a fact that readers of Fitzgerald’s works have recognized as central to the direction of his life and career. For Amory, at any rate, and for his mother Beatrice Blaine as well, the posture of reality all too often replaces reality itself, while gesture stands as a substitute for emotional commitment.
A woman of inherited wealth, Beatrice Blaine is a lovely, charming, superficial, childlike woman who maintains the posture of romance, a mere surface superimposed upon an essentially frigid or infantile refusal to commit herself to anything at all. She is, of course, the prototype for what has come to be known as the “Fitzgerald Woman” – an “enchanting” but essentially parasitic femme fatale whom Fitzgerald the author used so often for his books, and whom (in the person of Zelda) Fitzgerald the man finally married.
Beatrice’s attitude toward the Church, for example, is typical of her attitude toward all emotional commitments. “She had once been a Catholic,” we are told, “but discovering that the Priests were infinitely more attentive when she was in the process of either losing or regaining faith in the Mother Church, she maintained an enchantingly wavering attitude. . . . Next to doctors, priests were her favorite sport.” The effect, of course, is that of a woman for whom all action is a matter of calculated performance.
Her very marriage to the weak and “ineffectual” (though rather literary and “romantic”) Stephen Blaine, Amory’s father, was a similar “sport”: having married the all but invisible Mr. Blaine, Beatrice is subsequently rather astonished at actually becoming pregnant, and makes of Amory himself a perpetual toy of whatever fashionable manner she currently approves. That Amory, indeed, falls into a posture of play-acting whenever he is with Beatrice, is itself an indication of her “charm” – and her lack of substance.
The first chapter of This Side of Paradise is a very important one because it includes many themes which Fitzgerald repeats and amplifies throughout the rest of the novel. Amory, for example, from the very beginning of the book-especially during his early adolescence in Minneapolis and his four years at St. Regis’ Academy in Connecticut-is precocious, “romantic,” and literally stuffed with gestures that come both from his own rather exotic reading, and from the rootless globe-trotting of his mother. The very title of the chapter (“Amory, Son of Beatrice”) is both a parody of Epic genealogy, and clear indication that Amory is a “momma’s boy” in a very profound sense of the term.
Amory himself, with his long-lashed and unusual green eyes, with his calculated “charm,” and his immense, though vague conviction of his own “superiority,” from the very beginning relates to all aspects of reality through a veil of deliberate posturing. Anything too “real,” indeed, alarms rather than interests him: while playing a romantic scene with Myra St. Clair, for example, he is enchanted with the young girl until he actually kisses her. And then occurs an abrupt change from “romantic” mood (“their lips brushed like wild flowers in the wind,” writes Fitzgerald) to one of actual repugnance: Amory, having touched the actual flesh of the girl, feels merely a “sudden revulsion . . . disgust, loathing of the entire incident.”
It is not the actual “kiss” which Amory desires (just as, later in his life, it is not sex itself which he wants), but rather it is the idea of being able to kiss the girl that intrigues him. He is, in short, perpetually fascinated with some imagined and usually baroque shadow of Grand Romance. And this Romance-whether of love, or “success,” or “social justice,” or “art” or “intellectual pursuits,” or “religion” – simply collapses at any touch of sordid reality.
Amory Blaine, kissing Myra in the first chapter of This Side of Paradise, or desperately regurgitating slogans of political radicalism in the last chapter of the book, conveys the same sense of lack of substance: if, as the critic Edmund Wilson suggests, Amory’s “revolt” at the end of the novel is a rebellion directed at nothing and one that goes nowhere, it is also true that his emotions are generally in the same condition.
For Amory Blaine, in short, any sort of actual consummation is necessarily sordid, somehow unsatisfying, always incomplete, and for this reason his career becomes a series of gestures which are aimed at appearance rather than at achievement. The achievement, indeed, is itself the deadliest “failure” of all: so long as Amory can suffer the pangs of “Great Love” without actually getting the girl, so long as he is prevented from actually achieving reality (prevented, preferably, by some sort of conditions which are themselves melodramatic-lack of money, perhaps, or Noble Sacrifice of some sort, or a “fine” reservation of conscience, or the invasion of previously Sacred Traditions by barbarian hordes with alien names), he can take a certain amount of pleasure from failure itself.
Failure emerges as a basic theme of This Side of Paradise – and of Fitzgerald’s work as a whole. Inevitably, such failure marks the career of a “superior” person who, unable to cope with the demands of that reality which his own actions have created, falls back upon some Thwarted Dream of Beauty (either of moral value or Grand Passion) and so redeems the failure itself. The advantage, of course, is that failure permits the protagonist to maintain his “superiority” unchallenged by the demands of achievement. The burdens of reality, after all, are multiplied rather than lightened by the consummation of one’s desire.
It is always more difficult to maintain a happy marriage than to marry one’s Golden Girl; it is more difficult to offer creative leadership than to acquired a status of political importance; it is more difficult to become a poet than to have a Poetic Soul; it is more difficult to live with the healthy woman one has created from a beautiful neurotic, than to make the “cure” itself.
There is, in short, a certain fascination with what might be called the comforts of failure (or inability to cope with success) common to books like Tender is the Night, The Great Gatsby, and This Side of Paradise; in each case, Fitzgerald gives us a protagonist for whom consummation itself becomes destructive – an individual who in some way cannot commit himself totally to the reality of his own desires.
Amory Blaine, certainly, in his career up until the time he enters Princeton (Chapter I of This Side of Paradise carries us through Amory’s 18th year), never seems quite “at home” even-or especially-when he does succeed in achieving a particular desire. Dreaming of “romance,” he despises the flesh when it is finally offered to him. Obsessed with social success, and “showing off” either in the classroom or on the football field in order to achieve it, he seems almost determined to ruin the success itself, and acts in such a way as to alienate precisely those whom he has been trying so desperately to impress. Possessed of a fine intellect, he concentrates this intellect “on matters of popularity, a university social system, as represented by Biltmore teas and Hot Springs golf links.”
The paradox of Amory Blaine, indeed, is the paradox of Fitzgerald himself. There is a group of opposing powers which, struggling in the same individual, produces a high pitch of frenzied activity leading, finally, to self-neutralization, or self-immolation, and so producing nothing at all: a kind of ineffectuality created not by lack of power, but rather by the multi-directional proliferation of power in terms of romance and perpetual “desire.”
Amory senses this fatal “propensity toward failure” in himself. Speaking to a companion during his last year at St. Regis’, he attempts to differentiate between the “philosophers” and the “slickers” of the campus world-which is, of course, a microcosm of the American world itself. The “slickers” are those individuals whose brilliance is concentrated solely on social (and therefore material) “success”: they are the perpetual “in” people, the skilled “Big Men on Campus” who instinctively “know who to know,” who concentrate their powers and make their emotions, their talents, their resources into effective and well-sharpened instruments of their will.
The “philosophers,” on the other hand, are those who pursue their own course independently of the rewards – and the demands – of “Society” itself. And it is significant to note that Amory remarks that there is, in his own personality, much of both the “slicker” and the “philosopher.”
Amory Blaine, indeed, who even as a youth “wondered how people could fail to notice that he was a boy marked for glory,” was too much of a “slicker” to commit himself to his intellectual pursuits and aesthetic sensitivities; and too much of a “philosopher” to become a wholly successful “slicker.” And this tension, so basic to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s own life, is the central tension of Amory Blaine.
Even at Princeton, Amory’s schizophrenic ambitions tend to dilute and weaken whatever intellectual power he possesses. He loves and is awed by all things Princetonian-especially the traditions, the self-assurance, the air of “good breeding” that seem as much a part of campus environment as are the lecture halls and athletic fields. But the Princeton “atmosphere” rests on a foundation of intense social competition; Amory, indeed, discovers all too rapidly a pecking-order of prestige and power. It is, Fitzgerald tells us, a “breathless social system, that worship, seldom named, never really admitted, of the bogey ‘Big Man.'”
Amory, of course, is fascinated with all the jockeying for “position.” In a world composed of the “ins” and the “outs,” he determines to achieve status at all costs, and to this end will use every talent at his disposal-whether it be a talent for “correct” dress, a talent for football, or a talent for writing. Each of these things, in short-the important along with the trivial-becomes little more than a method of achieving “success.” For Amory Blaine, however, “success” is defined simply by the standards of the most powerful of those already established; lacking the kind of identity and will which enable young men like Burne Holiday to set the pattern for others, or to ignore all patterns in pursuit of goals shaped by personal rather than “social” goals, Amory simply drifts into “success” and, with an equal lack of conviction, drifts into failure as well.
Even his relationships with women are defined by characteristic posturing. Isabelle Borge, for example, with whom he carries on a largely verbal “affair” and to whom he sends long and “rapturous” letters, is simply an image or dream-audience reflecting Amory’s own narcissistic performances; their “love” is absurd because it is not real and cannot become real on the terms which Amory himself sets for it. The power of sex, indeed, offends him while it attracts; obsessed with guilt produced by his own emotions, Amory must either turn the emotions into Romantic Love derived from adolescent vapourings, or “worship” their object (as he worships Clara Page) until reality in some way becomes purer than its own existence.
It is Clara Page, who-refusing to be turned into an object by Amory’s emotional unreality-defines what is, perhaps, his essential weakness, and the weakness of the Fitzgerald Hero as a type. “You lack judgment,” says Clara, “the judgment to decide at once when you know your imagination will play you false, given half a chance.” For Clara perceives that Amory Blaine does not simply oppose reality with his own Idealism, but rather confuses one with the other, so that reality is virtually reshaped according to a dream-image that will be “spoiled” by any sort of real consummation. The result, inevitably, is a continual disaffection with reality, together with an equally persistent dissatisfaction with the Ideal.
Unwilling or unable to sacrifice “real” success by committing himself fully to an ideal, and unwilling to sacrifice his Ideals or Dream-roles by committing himself totally to the real world, Amory fluctuates between both, and finally can identify neither. And so he is left without emotional or intellectual direction-until the war provides at least a temporary solution by eliminating the need for any commitment whatever.