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This Side of Paradise, OR, The Dark Side of the American Dream in the 20s

Examines the Jazz Age through Fitzgerald's eyes.

The 1920?s were a very peculiar time. It was called the Roaring Twenties. America experienced a time of great prosperity and new modern ideas. Everything was changing hectically. The role of women advanced, people idolized sports and silver screen stars while modern technology altered the landscape dramatically. Moreover, more than half of the nation?s population now lived in cities and towns. The rural areas were nearly deserted, as Americans grew more and more enchanted by the luring prospects of the American Metropolis. However, America remained fiercely conservative and religious. The Conservatives pushed Congress to pass the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the sale, production and transportation of alcohol.
Prohibition Laws did not restrain the younger generation as the Government hoped it would. ?Prohibition, although, intended to eliminate the saloon and the drunkard from American society, served to create thousands of illegal drinking places called ?speakeasies? and a new and increasingly profitable form of criminal activity, the transportation of liquor, known as ?bootlegging?. Prohibition, sometimes referred to as the ?noble experiment?, was repealed in 1933? (An outline of American History, pg 252). This ?Lost Generation?-a term invented by Gertrude Stein and used by Ernest Hemingway- had fought in World War 1 and no longer believed that Law and Government represented all justice and right. They were disillusioned, ?lost? and confused.
Post-war America invariably resembled a giant party full of drinking, jazz music and ?flappers? with bobbed hair who smoked and ventured out of their house un-chaperoned. It was an era of gangsters, bootleggers, flappers, expatriates and real-estate conmen. Moreover, the consumer era was established and gave rise to brand new spending opportunities for the majority of Americans in the 1920?s.Everybody wanted a piece of the All American Dream and ?at least superficially- everybody could claim it. The American Dream was originally about ? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?, as Thomas Jefferson states in his Declaration of Independence of 1776. The American Dream, that motivated thousands of immigrants to come to America, dictates that hard work, skill and effort are the sole tools via which a person-no matter how humble his origins are- can achieve success. During the 1920?s, though, the American Dream became a corrupted notion, lingering over the heads of the poor, the rich and the ?nouveaux riches?. The sudden rise of the stock market following World War 1 did not only lead to grand, national prosperity but also to a newly found materialism. People indulged to a distorted interpretation of what the American Dream was all about: a person from any social background could make a fortune, even through illegitimate means, and then lead a dreamy life similar to the carefree, fun-fair like extravaganza of the rich. Consequently, the flux of easy money and the relaxation of ethics corrupted the very essence of the American Dream.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was not only an irrefutable product of this fast-paced era of endless partying and drinking, but he was also a very sensitive ?seismograph? registering and artistically depicting every aspect of the ?Jazz Age?, in his novels and numerous short stories. Fitzgerald won instant acclaim as the literary representative of his generation-the Lost Generation. In his novels, the majority of which are instilled with autobiographical elements- he describes the confusion and despair caused by the hunt for material success.
?Fitzgerald was part of a small but influential movement of writers and intellectuals dubbed the ?Lost Generation?, who were shocked by the carnage of World War 1 and dissatisfied with what they perceived to be the materialism and spiritual emptiness of life in the United States.? (An Outline of American History, pg 253)
This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald?s first novel written when he was just 23 years old, was exactly that: a detailed portrayal of life in the 1920?s. Charles E. Shain comments on This Side of Paradise: ? One of the responsibilities it assumes, especially in its first half, is to make the hero, Amory Blaine, report like a cultural spy from inside his generation.? (Shain, pg 77) The literary merit of This Side of Paradise is not so great, but it was with this novel that Fitzgerald not only made his way to the hearts of American readers, but also won the heart of the ?golden girl?, Zelda whom he married just after publishing the novel.
Amory Blaine, the hero of This Side of Paradise, is a mixture of what Fitzgerald longed to be and what he actually was. Amory?s mother, Beatrice, was a wealthy, charming, sophisticated woman, with whom young Amory traveled the country until it was time for him to join the fictitious St. Regis prep School in New England. Fitzgerald?s own mother, Mollie Fitzgerald, was nowhere near the description fitting Beatrice Blaine. ?She looked rather like a peasant, her son used to say. Others thought her more witchlike in appearance. Betty Jackson recalls watching Mrs. Fitzgerald walk to daily Mass, frumpy and unsmiling, toting her invariable umbrella and followed by a lot of little glooms. You didn?t get a lift when she went by? (Donaldson, pg 3). So, it goes without saying that ? Amory?s mother was almost exactly the kind of mother Fitzgerald would have chosen for himself? (Donaldson, pg 7)
Apart from this glamorization of Amory, This Side of Paradise remains Fitzgerald?s most autobiographical book. It is a quest novel, since while reading it we follow Amory in his journey towards self-realization and by extension we take a glimpse in the confusion and turbulence of the Twenties.
Edmund Wilson commenting on Fitzgerald?s depiction of the Turbulent 20?s says: ?It may be that we cannot demand too high a degree of moral balance from young men, however brilliant, who write books in the year 1921: we must remember that they have had to grow up in, that they have had to derive their chief stimulus from the wars, the society and the commerce of the Age of Confusion itself.?(Wilson, pg 85). Amory Blaine and his creator, Fitzgerald were both products of this Age of Confusion. Amory, though, is not only a beautified version of Fitzgerald; he also stands for the All American young man, feeling disillusioned and alienated in his own country, in the aftermath of World War 1.
So, Amory Blaine lives in the chaotic world of the 20?s. Like much of Fitzgerald?s younger generation he is unhappy, because his generation has destroyed the concepts which order society without being in the position to re-construct satisfactory new boundaries.
Before World War 1, Amory attends Princeton. He is handsome, rich and quite intelligent but lazy. At first he tries to be a success and win acclaim on campus but after a while he prefers to read and discuss with his peers rather than attend classes. Princeton and the Princetonian (the University?s newspaper) are his sole preoccupations. He wants to win success via those. Isabelle, one of the first vampire-girls in Amory?s life, tells him during a fight: ?Oh, you and your Princeton! You?d think that was the world, the way you talk!?(Fitzgerald, pg 90). Amory feels offended by Isabelle?s attack, as he held Princeton and success very high and considered them two interconnected things. Like Amory, Fitzgerald too ?courted Princeton?s approval, ardently and unsuccessfully? (Donaldson, pg 18)
Nonetheless, towards the end of the novel, when ?the fundamental Amory? is more disillusioned and lost than ever, he scorns his previous infatuation with Princeton and emphasizes the futility of striving for Academic approval in an Institution that stubbornly refuses to evolve. He thinks to himself: ?What little boys they had been, fighting for blue ribbons? (Fitzgerald, pg 250). He has previously met the rich father of a classmate of his that died in the war and he said to him, arguing against the corruption of capitalism on young men: ?He shouldn?t be artificially bolstered up with money, sent to theses horrible tutoring schools, dragged through college?? (Fitzgerald, pg 245). He now understands that the conventionalized success created by attending an Ivy League University and the lure of money are the traps the American Dream has in store for his lost generation. However, before coming to terms with this sad assumption he had a long way before him and to this realization he certainly was ?helped? by the Femmes Fatales of his life.
Amory was the Romantic Egotist. His view of women was very much alike that of the Petrarchan sonnets; the ideal woman was the fair lady of ?exquisite? beauty, the unattainable virgin. Consequently, Amory, this chivalric hero, felt profoundly disillusioned as soon as the occasional girl of his dreams indulged to his courtship and longed to consummate their idealized love. So, Amory obviously lived in the wrong era: it was not the 17th century but the 1920?s and girls were intoxicated by the scent of their own freedom to live and love.
Rosalind, the golden girl, the Vampire girl was Amory?s Belle Dame Sans Merci: she made him realize that reality was hard on penniless, young, romantic egotists. Rosalind was the debutante, living in a pink, secure universe of courtship, beautiful dresses, dances and cheap romance.
Alec: ?Does Rosalind behave herself??
Cecelia: ?Not particularly well. Oh, she?s average-smokes sometimes, drinks punch, frequently kissed-Oh, yes- common knowledge- one of the effects of the war, you know? (Fitzgerald, pg 155)
Rosalind was the ?It? girl: rich, capricious, beautiful, a veritable heartbreaker. Cecelia, her younger sister who hasn?t yet come out to society, describes her sister as such; ?Honestly, Alec, she treats men terribly. She abuses them and cuts them and breaks dates with them and yawns in their faces-and they come back for more [?] She?s a- she?s a sort of a vampire, I think? (Fitzgerald, pg 155)
Cecelia may talk disapprovingly of her sister?s ways, but she?s destined to become a ?Rosalind? herself because that was just the inescapable fate of spoilt girls of her time. So, when Alec leaves and Cecelia is left alone in Rosalind?s room she ??.dances around the room to a tune from downstairs, her arms outstretched to an imaginary partner, the cigarette waving in her hand? (Fitzgerald, pg 164)
Rosalind is simply what Cecelia will breed to be: ??the stereotypic femme fatale-beautiful, elusive, dramatic and daring?(Tsimpouki, pg 74). So, how could Amory resist her? For it was not only her ?exquisite? beauty that lured him, but also her voice ?full of money?, as Jay Gatsby- another romantic egotist of Fitzgerald?s- said about another golden girl. Rosalind too, had a deep, sophisticated yet innocent voice, a siren-like, irresistible voice.
Fitzgerald himself once commented in ?The Adjuster?: ?It is one of the many flaws in the scheme of human relationships that selfishness in women has an irresistible appeal to many men.?(Donaldson, pg 67). So, for Amory-as well as for Fitzgerald himself- the game of love was only the peak of the iceberg: it was a hunt for success. ?If he could win the heart of the girl especially the golden girl over whom hung an aura of money, beauty and social position- surely that meant that he had arrived, that he belonged? (Donaldson, pg 43)
The romance between Amory and Rosalind is not destined to last, as ?Rosalind rejects Amory for his inability to support her expensive tastes? (Tsimpouki, pg 74). Rosalind?s family would never accept a marriage beneath their daughter. Mrs. Connage, Rosalind?s mother says to her daughter who has-momentarily- decided to marry Amory: ? You?ve already wasted over two months on a theoretical genius who hasn?t got a penny to his name, but go ahead, waste your life on him. I won?t interfere? (Fitzgerald, pg 173). Of course, this isn?t the typical story of the love struck rich girl who is forced to reject her poor lover by her cruel parents. Rosalind herself recognizes the impossibility of such a marriage. She has been taught-both by her social position and by the times she lives in- that in order to remain the golden girl, admired by everybody she should always aim high, in other words she should fetishize success. So, Rosalind breaks up with Amory. ?Marrying you would be a failure and I never fail..? (Fitzgerald, pg 176), she tells him. Breaking up with him, though, is not enough for this young vampire of a girl; after all she belongs to this class of people that go on smashing other people?s lives on a whim, since the 20?s were not only turbulent but also whimsical for those who could afford it.
Rosalind, loyal to the ways popular among her class, and in her ?desperation to maintain her dominance of Amory, engages in a symbolic vampirism which reduces him to a ?rather grotesque condition?: days of worry and nervousness, sleepless nights, untouched meals, restlessness culminating in an intense feeling that he is emotionally worn out.? (Tsimpouki, pg 75). Amory goes on a three week drinking spree, ?the advent of the Prohibition with the thirsty-first put on a sudden stop of the submerging of Amory?s sorrows, and when he awoke one morning to find that the old bar-to-bar days were over, he had neither remorse nor regret that their repetition was impossible? (Fitzgerald, pg 188)
Amory?s quest for self-knowledge begins to be realized. Amory had realized, even before Rosalind that ?this was the last spring under the old regime? (Fitzgerald, pg 143), but it is only now that reality washes over him in such a cruel way. During the war, Monsignor Darcy in a letter to Amory half warned him, half guessed that the aftermath of World War 1would find Amory a different person and American people fundamentally changed. ? This is the end of one thing: for better or for worse you will never again be quite the Amory Blaine that I knew, never again will we meet as we have met, because your generation is growing hard, much harder than mine ever grew, nourished as they were on the stuff of the nineties.? (Fitzgerald. Pg 145).
Amory realizes that he has changed not because he rejects vehemently the dominant American value system, but because he is rejected by this very system and feels that he doesn?t belong anywhere. If he were rich, he would be more than willing to be corrupted by the sweet promises of the American Dream, of course, now that he stands in the opposite side of Paradise he feels bitter and rejected. He now realizes that, in fact, he hates poverty and even goes on to preach socialism, obviously hoping to land himself on top if a revolution was to take place.
A turmoil is going on inside Amory?s head; it?s the same turmoil that confuses his whole generation. He decides to walk to Princeton and is picked up by the wealthy father of a friend who was killed in the war. He expounds his socialist principles to the Big Man. He admits he is restless and that the only solution he believes in is socialism. ?This is the first time in my life I?ve argued socialism. It?s the only panacea I know. I?m restless. My whole generation is restless. I?m sick of a system where the richest man gets the most beautiful girl if he wants her, where the artist without an income has to sell his talents to a button manufacturer.? (Fitzgerald, pg 249). And he goes on to say that: ? Even if deep in my heart I thought we were all blind atoms in a world as limited as the world of the pendulum, I and my sort would struggle against tradition; try at least to displace old cants with new ones [?] One thing I know: if living isn?t a seeking for the Grail, it may be a damned amusing game.? (Fitzgerald, pg 250). That?s exactly what Amory?s generation thought: since life is not a romantic quest, then let it, at least, be fun, with no restrictions. After all, his is ? ?a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken? (Fitzgerald, pg 253)
So, it was not only the golden girl-Rosalind- who betrayed Amory?s ideals, it was also the golden promise land-America- that betrayed Amory?s conception of the American Dream. ?Fitzgerald?s fiction is ultimately a story of a glittering ?whore? (America) who betrays the expectations of the prototypical romantic Columbus of imagination and destroys his Adamic, redemptive identity? (Tsimpouki, pg 72)
Consequently, what Fitzgerald does is that he objectifies Amory?s quest, by associating Amory?s personal dilemma with that of a whole generation. So, a novel that at first runs parallel with the literary conventions of the Bildungsroman, in the end succeeds in becoming a cult novel to members of the generation, which was coming of age at the beginning of the twenties.
By the end of the novel, it is clear that Amory Blaine?s romantic qualities, those deriving by his quest for the ?Holy Grail? in life are seriously tampered by an existential conclusion: ?He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky: ?I know my self?, he cried, ?but that is all?. (Fitzgerald, pg 254)
The description of the vast sky, over young Amory?s head is a fine example of Fitzgerald?s aestheticism that flows throughout his work. ?The sky is once more depicted as ?crystalline? and ?radiant? and full of promises in the end of the novel when Amory with outstretched arms welcomes eagerly the new and rich experiences that await him.? (Tsimpouki, pg 102)
Eventually, having discarded convention, love and money Amory comes to see his selfishness, he turns his eyes inwards to examine his self and comes to terms with what he is and what his generation came to be-?but that is all?. This final line consummates the quest of Fitzgerald?s book and of Amory?s entire era.

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