In This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald gives us Amory Blaine, who, from boyhood through his early 20s, is on a quest for his identity, his philosophy, and his sense of place in a world never quite his own, a world in which he moves with barely concealed ego-fueled disgust and contempt. Fitzgerald’s breakthrough novel, written in 1920 when the author was 23, manages to be both a thinly veiled autobiography and a sincere attempt by Fitzgerald to get into the head of the young, privileged personages of his time. This Side of Paradise follows the arc of Amory’s life from a shakily moneyed Midwestern childhood through a tortuous tenancy at St. Regis prep school, on to the almost mystical grounds of Princeton, finally arriving in the real world of labor and responsibility. Along the way Amory must come to terms with that great irritant in his life: women.
Neither as a boy nor as a young man does Amory come fully to grips with his bipolar reactions to the schoolgirls, starry-eyed debutants, and emotionally off-the-wall women who cross his path so many times throughout the story. Hopeful love turns hopeless, exciting relationships become dull, proximate hearts eventually wander away and fade. It seems that for every emotional or intellectual perigee in Amory’s life, there is a soul-punishing apogee waiting in the next minute. Amory’s sole companion through much of his journey is Monsignor Darcy, a former pagan from Asheville (as described by Fitzgerald) who, suffering from unfulfilled love for Amory’s mother, Beatrice, turned to the Catholic Church with a vengeance.
Through richly descriptive narrative, achingly plaintive poetry, and even a theatrically formatted interlude or two, Fitzgerald chronicles the stutter-step journey of a handsome, educated, yet stubbornly socially and emotionally naïve young man blessed with a creative brain but remarkably, frustratingly deficient in human understanding. Amory Blaine strives to comprehend his place in a nation roiling in economic, political, and moral turmoil, a postwar America on the cusp of what? Greatness or peril? In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald leads his protagonist inexorably to those two choices, choices that are as much gateways for Amory as they proved to be for Fitzgerald himself. At the story’s end, Amory’s hand is pressing on a handle…. Which gate will open?