Holy snark, Batman. The tone of This Side of Paradise often sounds like a parody of a young man who thinks he is super deep and has a lot to say. It's often dark and brooding, and super-sarcastic in its most negative moments.
Take a gander at this barbed stormcloud of a line:
Amory's two years at St. Regis', though in turn painful and triumphant, had as little real significance in his own life as the American "prep" school, crushed as it is under the heel of the universities, has to American life in general. (1.1.226)
Or in other words, Fitzgerald is saying both "So Amory went to a snobby prep school. Woopty-doo!" (that's your sarcasm, there) and "The prep school experience is meaningless. What is meaningful in this life, after all?"
This tone continues through the rest of the book, as Fitzgerald piles up more and more difficult life questions… without answering any of them.
It's pretty hilarious that Amory Blaine is "puzzled and depressed" (3.2.167) by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, because his own story is extremely similar to Joyce's. Yup, This Side of Paradise is a grade-A prime bildungsroman.
We chart Amory Blaine's growth from a selfish and narcissistic adolescent into a troubled (but potentially less narcissistic) young man. The novel observes him most closely through his college and post-college years, a time during which he—you got it—comes of age. He gets his adult on. He abandons childhood. He gets banged around a bit by life and emerges no longer a boy.
Fitzgerald takes the title of This Side of Paradise from a poem by Rupert Brooke. Brooke was a famous poet in the early 20th century whose poems about war (especially World War I) gained him a lot of fame around the world.
The phrase "this side of paradise" comes from Brooke's poem "Tiare Tahiti" and refers to the fact that heaven is waiting for us at the end of our lives… meaning that all of our time on earth is spent waiting to cross over into heaven. But the optimism of this phrase is totally undermined when you realize that Brooke's next line is "there's little comfort in the wise."
Or, in other words, Brooke is saying that there is hardly any comfort to be found in the idea of heaven, especially during times when the world looks so awful—like during World War I.
And he could not tell why the struggle was worthwhile, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed.
He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
"I know myself," he cried, "but that is all." (2.5.249-251)
By the end of This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine has no clue why (or if) life is worth living. But it looks like he's going to go on living anyway, out of sheer habit.
All he really knows for sure is who he is and what he thinks. But there's a pretty big world out there that he doesn't understand at all, and at this point, it seems as though Amory is destined to feel out-of-place wherever he is. Then again, maybe knowing himself is the first step he needs to take before expanding out and finding a home for himself… somewhere.
No matter where you are in this book, Fitzgerald tends to describe his settings in the same poetic language. The reason he does this is straightforward: his main character Amory only notices the world around him when he's thinking deeply about his life.
As we read at the end of the book, for instance,
Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light—and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. (2.5.245)
Pretty much all of Fitzgerald's descriptions of setting appear in this same deep, meditative tone, since they always come hand-in-hand with Amory having deep thoughts about love, life, and success… or the lack thereof.
The symbolic importance of the locations of Princeton and New York City haven't changed much since Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise. Princeton is a crazy-prestigious school—almost always ranked among the top three universities nationwide. If you want to be a mover and a shaker, going to Princeton is a good move (and shake) to make as a young student. Amory gets in to Princeton, but he finds that he can't finish—he just doesn't have the academic rigor to graduate.
New York City serves a similar purpose. New York is an infamously hard place to get ahead—Sinatra tells us that "if you can make it (there) you can make it anywhere" and Jay-Z knows that "out there in the naked city it's a pity half of y'all won't make it." It's basically the Princeton of cities: tough. And what happens to poor ol' Amory? The same thing that happens to him at Princeton. He gets in (you don't have to ace the SAT to get into New York City, after all)… but he can't make it in the naked city, and leaves with his tail between his legs. Womp womp.
Well this side of Paradise!...
There's little comfort in the wise
Experience is the name so many people give to their mistakes.
As we explained in the "What's Up With the Title?" analysis, the first of these epigraphs comes from a poem called "Tiare Tahiti" by Rupert Brooke. The line refers both to the pleasant idea of a Christian heaven… and the fact that Brooke finds little comfort in this idea, because life on earth just sucks sometimes.
Amory Blaine (the protagonist of this novel) also finds little comfort in the idea of spiritual salvation. He finds it impossible not to dwell on the evils of the world, and he becomes a cynic over time. De-pressing.
The second epigraph comes from Oscar Wilde, and it suggests that life in many cases is just a long series of mistakes that we keep on making. Some people learn from these mistakes and some don't… which means that life experience can either be good or worthless depending on how much we learn from our goofs.
Unfortunately, Amory Blaine has no clue what he's supposed to learn from his life and his mistakes. He lacks all sense of direction, and in many cases, he doesn't even know whether or not he's made a mistake. Double epigraph, double dose of depressing.
The writing in This Side of Paradise isn't all that hard to read, but it can be tough to pay attention when the book goes into long descriptions of Amory Blaine's thoughts and feelings. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this book by combining a bunch of short stories, poems, and plays he'd already written, so the thing can be plotless and jumbled at times.
But for all that, This Side of Paradise is totally readable if you can keep your mind from wandering. Also, bear in mind that this jumbled style is both the byproduct of Fitzgerald throwing together a manuscript on the quick, and also indicative of the topsy-turvy, scrambled view of the modern world that prevailed after WWI.
F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of twenty-three for two reasons: to become famous, and to win back his ex-girlfriend Zelda. But you don't even need to know that to see that Fitzgerald is trying to impress us with every line he writes in this book.
Just check out this bad boy:
The advent of prohibition with the "thirty-first" put a sudden stop to 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 for the past three weeks nor regret that their repetition was impossible. (2.2.2164)
Yikes. That is some overwrought prose right there.
But Fitzgerald isn't some hack with a dictionary: he's both bringing out the big literary stylization to get attention and because this pompous, overblown style totally encapsulates the mindset of pretentious young Amory Blaine. Fitzgerald may be a showoff, but he's a genius showoff.
When Amory is going to high school, he quickly realizes that there's a certain type of social being who (in his mind) needs to be categorized. So he and his buddy stay up one night listing all the characteristics of a type of person known as a "slicker." The first thing Amory decides about this person is that:
The slicker was good-looking or clean-looking; he had brains, social brains, that is, and he used all means on the broad path of honesty to get ahead, be popular, admired, and never in trouble. (1.1.275)
In other words, the slicker is a goody-two-shoes, someone who always does as he's told and uses every advantage he can to rise up the social ladder. Amory hopes that he'll never be this type of person—although, truth be told, there are lots of times he feels envious toward the slicker's worldly success and prestige.
Amory's attitude toward slickers is indicative of his attitude toward, well, everything. He wants life to be easy: he wants to be popular, admired, and never in trouble. But he doesn't want to have to work to attain the attributes that make life easy, the slicker-ish qualities of "us(ing) all means on the broad path of honesty to get ahead." Quite the conundrum.
Time and again, Amory's attraction/repulsion toward what we'll term "slickerism" (say that five times fast) gets him in a sticky situation. For example, he wants to get the girl (Rosalind) but hasn't worked up the necessary social attributes—like money, status, and prestige—necessary to keep her. C'mon, this dude went to Princeton. If he wanted to tick the boxes on the path to conventional success, he totally could have. But nope: he just wants to get the reward without achieving the success.
Amory's not just a pill, though: he's a philosophizing pill. Slickerism is gross, to be sure. And especially after the carnage of WWI, slickerism seems insane-o. Why would you exert so much effort into being good and "clean looking" when all life seemed to lob at young men in the 1910s was gory violence and quashed dreams? Surely after fighting in the Great War, these dudes were owed a little happiness?
Monsignor Darcy gives Amory a very important lesson when he teaches him the difference between personalities and personages. According to Darcy,
"A personality is what you thought you were, what this Kerry and Sloane you tell me of evidently are. Personality is a physical matter almost entirely; it lowers the people it acts on." (1.3.171)
In other words, your personality is the superficial part of you. It's the part the other people see when they first meet you. It's your appearance and the things you say. For Darcy, your personality is not what matters in life. It's the spirit behind the personality that matters, which brings us to his concept of the personage.
Monsignor Darcy continues,
"Now a personage, on the other hand, gathers. He is never thought of apart from what he's done. He's a bar on which a thousand things have been hung—glittering things sometimes, as ours are, but he uses those things with a cold mentality back of them." (1.3.171)
In other words, personality is what you say and how you appear; personage is what you do and what you stand for. For Darcy, a personage is way more important because it gets to the core of whether a person is good or bad.
Unfortunately, Amory Blaine spends an awful lot of this book worrying about his personality when he should be worried about becoming a better personage. But Amory's final lines—"I know myself, but that is all"—suggest that he's coming around to the whole "personage" side of the human equation.
After all, This Side of Paradise is very much a coming-of-age story, and what is growing up if not abandoning the idea of yourself (and how you want to appear to others) in favor of embracing the fact of yourself (and what you want to do)? Yeah, Shmoopers, we went there. We just got deep.
Toward the end of the novel, Amory Blaine becomes more and more of a socialist. His most radical belief is that people would still be willing to work hard… even if there were no such thing as money.
In his mind, human competitiveness doesn't really care about prizes; it just cares about triumphing over other people. As Amory says at one point,
"That competitive instinct only wants a badge. If the size of their house is the badge they'll sweat their heads off for that. If it's only a blue ribbon, I damn near believe they'll work just as hard. They have in other ages." (2.5.171)
In other words, human beings will always want something to show that they're better than others. It doesn't need to be money. It can be a nice car, a big house, or a little blue ribbon for all people care—as long as the whole world knows how great they are. Hmm. It sounds like uber-competitive (and penniless) Amory might be projecting a little bit.
We know from the get-go that the narrator of this story is third-person because s/he doesn't have any direct involvement in the plot of the book itself.
Instead, this narrator remains at a distance and starts the book by telling us,
Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worthwhile. (1.1.1)
But make no mistake. This narrator might be third-person omniscient, but this is very much Amory's story. We can tell that there are limitations to the narrator's omniscience because, as the novel plays out, we aren't given access to anyone's thoughts except Amory's. But, hey, that's pretty appropriate—Amory doesn't care about anyone's thoughts but Amory's, either.
Amory Blaine is a cocky young man from a wealthy family. But beneath that arrogant exterior lies a heart of gold (maybe not 24-carat, but still), and it doesn't take him long to realize that he can't be fulfilled by a superficial life. Once he gets to Princeton for university, he meets all kinds of new people and starts asking deep questions about the meaning of life. The downside of this "call" into deeper thinking, though, is that it makes Amory anxious and depressed. It turns out that he has no clue what the meaning of life is or what it would take to make his particular life worthwhile. So he sets out on a journey—or let's call it more of a wandering—to figure out the point of it all.
Amory tries all sorts of things to give his life meaning. He tries writing poetry, dating girls, and even fighting in World War I. But none of it brings him any closer to finding a higher calling in life. If anything, it all leaves him thinking there's not much point at all. As time goes on, he flunks a major class at Princeton, which guarantees that he'll never be a social powerhouse at the university. On top of that, his friend Burne becomes a political radical, which only reminds Amory of how little motivation or guts he has.
Amory finally seems to find a purpose when he starts dating Rosalind Connage. The two even get engaged, but Rosalind eventually dumps Amory because he can't offer her a good enough life. Or in other words, he's not enough of a big-shot moneybags. Amory tries to talk her out of the decision, but it's no use. She kicks him to the curb and Amory drowns his sorrows in alcohol for the next year or so.
With Rosalind out of his life, Amory enters a self-destructive spiral of alcoholism. The only thing that slows down his disintegration is the criminalization of alcohol during Prohibition. But Amory still finds all kinds of ways to waste away. He does one nice thing: when he takes the rap for a friend who has hired a prostitute. But in the end, the only reason Amory does this is because he figures his life isn't worth protecting anymore. On top of all that, his mentor Monsignor Darcy dies. As far as final ordeals go, these are looking pretty freaking grim.
Ah, here we go. This is the part of the "Quest" narrative where the character overcomes his/her difficulties and reaches some new, happier state of being. But hold up a second… because that isn't what happens to Amory.
Yes, he gets into a car with an old rich dude and spews out his opinions about socialism and making the world better. But when he steps back out of the car, Amory doesn't have a better sense of where he's going. All he really knows is himself, and this will have to be enough for the time being. We don't know how things will work out for him because, quite frankly, neither does the author.
Meet Amory Blaine, a spoiled rich kid from Minnesota whose mom thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. The problem is that as Amory grows up, he must learn how to hide his sense of superiority if he's going to fit in (no one wants a friend who's a Veruca Salt clone, right?).
And this hiding takes a whole lot of effort. Eventually, he realizes how much his mother has limited his perspective and decides to enroll in a prep school in Connecticut. That way, he'll have a chance to develop his own personality away from his doting mommy.
Prep school and university give Amory a lot of freedom. But with this freedom comes the anxiety of wondering what he should do with his freedom. It's not long into university that Amory's grades start to suffer and he gets depressed about how he's going to make his life meaningful.
He can't fully get behind religion, and he's not motivated enough to put in the work it takes to be a huge financial or political success. Eventually, he turns to love as a path to fulfillment, but ends up getting his heart broken by a girl named Rosalind. She won't marry him because—yup—he hasn't worked hard enough to make himself rich. It's all a vicious cycle, really.
After months of binge drinking, Amory finds himself locked inside a hotel room where his friend Alec is about to be busted for hiring a prostitute. In an act of heroism, Amory takes the blame and gets his name published in the paper as a no-good john. Luckily, his mother and mentor have already died, so there's no one left for him to disappoint. But this climax is really an anticlimax, since it doesn't really change the aimless course that Amory is already on.
In the novel's final scene, Amory gets into a random rich dude's car to catch a lift to Princeton. He soon gets into a heated argument about socialism and the need for America's upper classes to come crashing down. The rich dude agrees with much of what he says, but not all of it.
Before getting dropped off, Amory realizes that the rich man's son was someone he (Amory) knew from Princeton. The son has since died in the war, so Amory and the man end up bonding over the boy's memory. The rich man ends the discussion by wishing Amory (but not his political views) good luck.
Once outside the rich man's car, Amory looks at the world around him and wonders what he'll do with his life. Years of wandering and wondering haven't led him to any satisfying conclusions. The only thing he really knows is himself, but it seems like this isn't good enough for him. He still needs something outside himself to give him meaning, but he can't figure out what it is.
Yup—if you're looking for an ending that's tied up neatly with a pretty bow, look elsewhere. No easy messages in This Side of Paradise.
Amory Blaine grows up in Minnesota, where his snobby mother raises him to think that he's better than every other person in the world. But Amory isn't in school long before he realizes he'll have to hide his sense of superiority if he wants to fit in and make buddies.
It takes a lot of effort, but he somehow manages to get through his early school years without becoming a total outcast. He eventually goes away to school and becomes his own person (sort of) after his mother dies. But now he has to deal with the problem of deciding what he's going to do with his life. Because let's face it; freedom can be freaking terrifying.
Amory doesn't do so well at school. But he's always been naturally intelligent enough to just coast through life, so he doesn't try any harder than usual and he ends up flunking a crucial class. He wants to be successful in life, but has no interest in working hard to achieve it; so he just keeps coasting and thinking about what to do with himself… until World War I answers the question for him. He's going off to fight, and that's that.
Luckily, Amory manages to make it out of World War I alive, although many of his friends die in the conflict. Back at home, he's more aimless than ever. He falls deeply in love with a girl named Rosalind and plans to marry her. But she dumps him because he's not a big enough success.
Amory is crushed by the news and becomes an alcoholic to cope with his pain. His alcoholism eventually gets a bit better, but he never really finds an answer to the question of what he should do with his life. And yeah, that's pretty much how the book ends: with Amory still wondering.