This Side of Paradise: The Pageantry of Disillusion
by Sy Kahn


In his first novel, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920 when the author was twenty-three years old, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced the major themes of his total work. The novel reveals that Fitzgerald had an early grasp of his essential material although he had not yet learned to exploit it expertly. In some ways his first novel is the most instructive of his four completed novels: here he nakedly and naively exposed his themes before his increased sophistication shaped his insights into the more impressive configurations of The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night(1934). In Amory Blaine, hero of This Side of Paradise, we can see the child who is father to the later men. and in his dilemmas we find the compelling themes of Fitzgerald’s work.

All of Fitzgerald’s heroes, his “brothers” as he called them, from Amory Blaine to Dick Diver, were men concerned with fashioning a code or sustaining a belief, and, most important, all feel the restraints of the American Puritan heritage. Like Nick Carraway, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, they are men full of “interior rules” whose sources lie in the moral codes of American life previous to World War I. Despite the impact of the first World War on sexual mores and drinking, and the fact that, according to Amory, “four men have discovered Paris to one that discovered God,” he remains a conscience and guilt-ridden character. Fitzgerald said of himself that his was a New England conscience raised in Minnesota: Midwest-born, Minnesota-raised Amory is Fitzgerald’s fictional counterpart. “Now a confession will have to be made,” wrote Fitzgerald early in This Side of Paradise, “Amory had rather a Puritan conscience. Not that he yielded to it—later in life he nearly completely slew it—but at fifteen it made him consider himself a great deal worse than other boys…” The important word here is “nearly,” both for Amory and for Fitzgerald himself. There is no evidence in the novel that Amory triumphed over, much less slew, his Puritan conscience. Indeed, it is that very conscience that shapes his imagination and his vision of reality and prepares him for a series of disillusionments.

As its title suggests, This Side of Paradise is something of an allegory in which American Youth is caught between the forces of Good and Evil. Among Americans, and especially among the young, “morality” and “sex” are interchangeable terms. Frequently the judgment of “right” and “wrong” behavior rests almost exclusively on sexual behavior. Evil is identified with sex: there the devil wields his greatest powers. If Dante were a young American, Francesca and Paolo might sit at the right hand of Satan. On a number of occasions Amory finds himself caught between his Puritan distrust of sex and the body and the relaxed social and sexual rituals of his time. Like many of his readers, Amory idealized women but found it difficult to maintain his ennobled feelings when they were tested by flesh and blood, the frequent dilemma of the Puritan conscience and a theme much employed in American literature ever since Hawthorne explored it. Amory’s ambivalence is dramatized early in the novel when he goes to a party and finds himself alone with Myra and on the verge of his first kiss.

Sudden revulsion seized Amory, disgust, loathing for the whole incident. He desired frantically to be away, never to see Myra again, never to kiss anyone; he became conscious of his face and hers, of their clinging hands, and he wanted to creep out of his body and hide somewhere safe out of sight, up in the corner of his mind.

“Kiss me again.” Her voice came out of a great void.

“I don’t want to,” he heard himself saying. There was another pause.

“I don’t want to!” he repeated passionately.

Many critics have noted that This Side of Paradise seems odd to us now as a novel of “flaming youth,” and that its scenes of moral laxness and dissipation are today’s innocent conventions. It may never have been the revelation of youthful manners, however, that accounted for the book’s popularity; it may well have been Fitzgerald’s manipulation of the puritanical Amory Blaine that wrenched the conscience of his readers and dramatized their own youthful dilemmas in much the same way as Salinger’s Holden Caulfield speaks for the questing youth of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Amory’s early skirmishes with girls anticipate his later engagement with women and the full battle of the sexes. During his Princeton days he carries on a romantic and sentimental correspondence with Isabelle Borge. During a weekend at Isabelle’s home, however, Amory discovers that it is not the girl but his egoistic image of himself as conquering lover that has enchanted him, and the romance is punctured as easily as he bruises her neck with his shirt stud when he embraces her. Her simple and fleshly “ouch” punctuates the college romance, and the spat that follows makes Amory aware that “he had not an ounce of real affection for Isabelle.” This comic interlude further dramatizes the difference between woman as romantic illusion and woman as reality, but the theme is lightly touched here. Isabelle was never flesh or woman enough to impel the deeper dilemmas of Amory Blaine.

Not long before the conclusion of his college romance a more instructive incident occurs in Amory’s life which announces a theme that Fitzgerald will combine with the themes of sex and evil to complicate the vision of his hero. Returning to Princeton by car, Amory and his friends discover that another carload of students has overturned and killed Dick Humbird. one of the promising men of Princeton. The sudden shock of Humbird’s death unnerves and penetrates Amory deeper than he can know. Here is the first victim of many scenes of violence and death in Fitzgerald’s novels, bizarre and surrealistic scenes which he depicted with unusual skill and which always carry a heavy burden of meaning. Humbird’s death is announced by a spectral “old crone” whose cracked, hollow voice and flapping kimono complete the image of a night-riding harpy. Oracularly she points to the corpse lying tinder a roadside arc-light, face down in a widening circle of blood. The night wind stirs a broken fender “to a plaintive tinny sound.” In this novel, set in the years during and immediately after World War I. Fitzgerald calls the roll of Amory’s dead classmates, beginning with Humbird. just as he continued to count the dead of his generation all his life. The event marks a transition in Amory: it breaks his illusion that youth is permanent and indestructible.

Some weeks after Humbird’s death, Amory and his college friend Fred Sloan escort two chorus girls during an evening in New York. The events of this evening lay open for us the tortured heart and mind of the youngest of Fitzgerald’s “brothers.” Now Amory must face the full reality of women as sexual creatures, neither glamorized nor sentimentalized. The two couples go to a cafe where Amory is aware of being watched by a middle-aged, faintly smiling man in a brown sack suit. Then, Amory and the others go to upper Manhattan where the girls have an apartment among the “tall, white-stone buildings, dotted with dark windows” that stretch endlessly, “flooded with bright moonlight that gave them a calcium pallor.” From the moment that the mysterious, pale-faced man had scrutinized Amory. the party develops a sensual and evil atmosphere. The white buildings and the moonlight recall the arc-light which spotlighted Humbird’s death and anticipate the spectral appearance of the ominous man in the apartment. While Amory sat on the sofa with Axia, “There was a minute while temptation crept over him like a warm wind, and his imagination turned to fire….” At that instant he is astonished to discover the man who had been in the cafe: “There the man sat, half leaned against a pile of pillows in the corner of the divan. His face was cast in the same yellow wax as in the cafe, neither the dull, pasty color of a dead man—rather a sort of virile pallor—nor unhealthy….”

This image of the devil is the symbol of shock, born of the impact of sensuality upon Puritan morality, conscience, and Catholic sense of sin. The most shocking detail about the man is his feet, which are encased in moccasins, “pointed, though, like the shoes they wore in the fourteenth century, and with the little ends curling up.” It is “unutterably terrible” that the toes seem to fill them to the end. First Amory is transfixed by this vision of evil: then he bolts. Fitzgerald continues to build Amory’s terror by carefully patterning the images of pale light throughout the successive scenes, images that connect these events with Humbird’s death scene. Down the long streets of New York shines the moonlight, palely reflected from the white buildings. He is horrified to realize that he is not fleeing the strange footsteps but following them, setting, as it were, his own foot on the path to hell:

… he turned off the street and darted into an alley, narrow and dark and smelling of old rottenness. He twisted down a long, sinuous blackness, where the moonlight was shut away except for the tiny glints and patches… then suddenly sank punting into a corner by a fence, exhausted.

Thus Amory escapes, in fact, his sexual encounter with Axia, haunted as he is by a man whose face is a pallid mask reminiscent of Humbird and of the devil himself. But his flight down moon-drenched streets leads him to an alley whose sexual symbolism makes him psychologically experience what he has physically avoided.

No Goodman Brown ever emerged from his bewitched forest more haunted and guilt-ridden than young Amory from the stone jungle of twentieth-century New York. On the streets of the city he seems caught up in an interior morality play that obliterates his surroundings. As he walks, praying for someone “stupid” and “good” to save him, he hears something clang “like a low gong struck at a distance,” and again, by this device, we are reminded of the torn fender of Humbird’s death car banging in the wind. Then before Amory’s eyes: “a face flushed over the two feet, a face pale and distorted with a sort of infinite evil that twisted it like a flame in the wind; but he knew, for the half instant that the gong twanged and hummed, that it was the face of Dick Humbird [Fitzgerald’s italics].” By means of the device of light and sound imagery. Fitzgerald associates the devil with the face of the dead classmate and creates a vision in which the major themes of sex, evil, and death meet to shape the face and figure of the devil.

For the rest of this momentous weekend Amory reverberates to his encounter with temptation and evil. The painted faces of Broadway make him ill, and he rails at Sloan that New York is “ghastly” and “filthy” while Sloan wonders what would have happened if Amory had “gone through with our little parly.” He abandons Sloan for a purgative “head massage” in a barber shop, but “the smell of the powders and tonics brought back Axia’s sidelong, suggestive smile, and he left hurriedly.” On the train for Princeton a “painted woman” brings on a new wave of nausea and he changes cars, until finally, back at Princeton, on a wild and windy night, he joins his friend Tom. As the young men settle down to try to study, and the “wet branches moved and clawed with their fingernails on the window pane,” both of them are suddenly electrified by a sense of the presence of evil. Tom thinks he sees the flash of a face at the window. “Something was looking at you.” he tells Amory, and Amory, unnerved, replies, “I’ve had one hell of an experience. I think I’ve seen the devil or—something like him.”

If the white buildings of New York, blanched by the moon, are the symbols of evil, the gothic spires of Princeton are the architecture of sanity and safety. Early in the novel Fitzgerald establishes this contrast when he tells us that through the shell of Amory’s undergraduate consciousness “had broken a deep and reverent devotion to the gray walls and Gothic peaks and all they symbolized as warehouses of dead ages.” Consequently, when Amory returns to the college after his encounter with “the devil” in New York, “he nearly cried aloud with joy when the towers of Princeton loomed up beside him and the yellow squares of light filtered through the blue rain.” Here there is no phallic thrust of dark-windowed, pale buildings, but rather the steady lights, green spaces, and chaste spires of sanctuary. For Amory Blaine. transplanted from Minnesota to Princeton, the University is his stronghold, the monastic fortress for his Catholic-Puritan conscience This Side of Paradise.

During the last years of his college life. Amory’s encounter with sensuality provides a “sombre background… that filled his nights with a dreary terror and made him unable to pray.” An indifferent Catholic, he is, nevertheless, almost as much disturbed by the “ghost of a code,” this “gaudy, ritualistic, paradoxical Catholicism,” as he is by the specters born of his puritanical conscience. In America, Leslie Fiedler has pointed out, “The sensibility of the Catholic… becomes like everything else puritan.” Amory illustrates the point early in the novel when he derides the easy kiss, the hip flask, the petting interlude in parked cars even though he tries to play the role of the alert and conforming adolescent of his time. Following his encounter with death and the devil, in the interlude before his graduation and participation in the war, Amory does find in Clara Page, a distant cousin, a woman he can idealize. Monsignor Thayer Darcy, family friend and confidant, urges Amory to seek her out in Philadelphia. He discovers in Clara a woman in whom sex has been translated into intelligence and vitality. She is blonde and saintly, husbandless but with babies to Care for; in short, she is the Madonna figure that permits the man haunted by puritanical notions of sexual evil to release his ardor in pure and exalted feeling. Clara is Beatrice to his incipient Dante. Images of light accumulate about her blonde head, haloed and hallowed as she is by young Amory’s romantic idealism. “She was immemorial,” we are told immediately about her, and too good for any man. Gradually he falls in love with her. or. more rightly, with his own ideal of what women should be, creatures of light, as her name suggests, intelligence and charm, but essentially untouchable. He is entranced with her at church when “she knelt and bent her golden hair into the stained-glass light.” Spontaneously and to their mutual embarrassment he calls “St. Cecelia” and confesses that “if I lost faith in you I’d lose faith in God.” She reveals to him that she has never been in love, which, of course, brightens the halo about her: “she seemed suddenly a daughter of light alone.” Clara remains unsullied and sanctified. Amory realizes she could have been a “devil” if God had bent her soul a little the other way. As Fitzgerald’s novels reveal. Madonnas with “bent souls” are the inevitable partners for Fitzgerald’s tormented brethren, his “spoiled priests.”

After Amory graduates he goes to France to fight, but Fitzgerald telescopes the years 1917 and 1918 by the device of quoting several letters. He misses the opportunity here of deepening the history of Amory’s disillusion because he could not construct incidents for Amory from a world he himself did not know. Indeed Fitzgerald served in the army, but he was never sent abroad. The metaphor of war was not natural to him, not a part of his vision or disillusioning experience, as it was for his contemporary. Ernest Hemingway. Consequently, when next we truly confront Amory, it is in post-war New York, and with no sense that he is a veteran, and the clear notion that he is still a virgin. It is in the battle of the sexes rather than in the trenches that Amory receives his sudden and lasting wounds.

In his engagement to Rosalind Connage, the post-war debutante-flapper, Amory suffers painful disillusionment. The trauma of her eventual rejection of him is the first expression of a situation that haunts Fitzgerald’s total work with nightmarish regularity. It is probable that the source of Fitzgerald’s obsessive concern with losing the girl one loves was in his fear of losing his fiancee Zelda Sayre because he had neither the position nor money to support her. In Amory Blaine’s loss of Rosalind, for these very reasons he plays out a drama that might have been his own. In his work there are many variations on the nightmare: Gatsby and Daisy, Diver and Nicole, to state the most obvious examples. The wealthy Rosalind breaks her engagement with Amory because his meager .. job in an advertising agency cannot hope to support her in any style. “You’d hate me in a narrow atmosphere. I’d make you hate me,” she tells him. It is the recognition of this hard, economic fact that eventually turns Amory toward socialism at the end of the novel. “I’m sick of a system,” he says then, “where the richest man gets the most beautiful girl if he wants her….” Fitzgerald never underestimated the fact that love and economics are intertwined in human affairs, and that when the forces of love and wealth are pitted against each other, wealth often strips love of its sentimentalities and illusions. There is not a single hero in his novels who is not. one way or another, undone by the power and strategies of wealth. Amory is the first of Fitzgerald’s innocent Adams disemboweled by savage Eves.

In the despair of his disillusion he discovers that New York, which once gave him a vision of the devil, now offers him a variety of dissipations: drunkenness, half-remembered encounters in night clubs, and finally a severe beating. In Fitzgerald’s novels his heroes take beatings at those points when they are emotionally bankrupt. These manifest the psychic wounding that has taken place and symbolize as well the desire for punishment for having lost one’s moral grip. One remembers Anthony Patch of The Beautiful and Damned beaten up on a New York street, and Dick Diver mauled by taxi drivers after his sexual capitulation to Rosemary in Rome, both men at the nadir of their disillusionment and at their lowest emotional ebb. As for Jay Gatsby, he is shot to death and thus saved at the last moment from complete disillusionment about Daisy, as if only death could keep a Fitzgerald man from the inevitable knowledge of the failed female.

Having painfully learned that attractiveness and intelligence are not adequate substitutes for wealth, Amory retreats to Washington to visit Thayer Darcy, but missing connections, he decides to recuperate with an ancient uncle in Maryland. In the fields of Ramilly County he meets nineteen-year-old Eleanor Savage, whom he finds one stormy night perched atop a haystack reciting Verlaine while rain pours and lightning cracks. Her last name, the lightning flashes, as when Tom saw the devil looking at Amory, and Amory’s opening address to her inform us that the young man is about to encounter evil again. “Who the devil is there in Ramilly County… who would deliver Verlaine in an extemporaneous tune to a soaking haystack?” he asks. When she inquires who he is, he replies “I’m Don Juan,” and the new romance commences. The wild landscape of Maryland, “the half-sensual, half-neurotic quality of this autumn with Eleanor,” insure that Amory is about to pass another season in hell. To Maryland both bring small histories of youthful disillusionment. If Amory has seen Rosalind unmask the face of love to reveal the tight-lipped face of wealth, Eleanor has discovered that the romantic mask hides the leering face of sex. For three weeks they take various poses with each other, until one moonlit night when they seemed “dim phantasmal shapes, expressing eternal beauty in curious elfin moods.” they symbolically turn out of the moonlight into the “trellised darkness of a vine-hung pagoda,” and he catches her in his arms. In a euphemistic passage, Fitzgerald suggests that Amory has at last been sexually initiated, but the “novel of flaming youth” is not so graphic or direct as to make this certain: “’you are mine—you know you’re mine!’ he cried wildly… the moonlight twisted in through the vines and listened… the fireflies hung upon their whispers as if to win his glance from the glory of their eyes.”

Following this ambiguous encounter, on this last night of Amory’s vacation in Maryland, they take their horses for a “farewell trot by the cold moonlight.” Angry at the world which forces her to subordinate her intelligence to less clever men in order to attract them, angry at a world that will not sustain romantic illusions, angry at moons that turn cold and clear, she rails, “Oh, just one person in fifty has any glimmer of what sex is. I’m hipped on Freud and all that, but it’s rotten that every bit of real love in the world is ninety-nine percent passion and one little soupcon of jealousy.” Amory is quick to agree that sex is “a rather unpleasant overpowering force that’s part of the machinery under everything. It’s like an actor that lets you see his mechanics!”

Now Amory comes fully to grips with the idea that torments him and abuses his idealism, and in the following passage speaks for his postwar generation poised on the edge of the decade that is to reveal many changes in American attitudes:

You see everyone’s got to have some cloak to throw around it. The mediocre intellects, Plato’s second class, use the remnants of romantic chivalry diluted with Victorian sentiment—and we who consider ourselves the intellectuals cover it by pretending that it’s another side of us. has nothing to do with our shining brains; we pretend that the fact that we realize it is really absolving us from being a prey to it. But the truth is that sex is right in the middle of our purest abstractions, so close that it obscures vision.

Whatever images of romantic love they had attempted to create together lie shattered about them: the touch of flesh explodes their illusions. Relentlessly Amory advances his argument: there is no protection against sex, neither intellect nor conversation; nor the Catholic church, counters Eleanor, which shakes him:

Thousands of scowling priests keeping the degenerate Italians and illiterate Irish repentant with gabble-gabble about the sixth and ninth commandments. It’s just all cloaks, sentiment and spiritual rouge and panaceas. I tell you there is no God, not even a definite abstract goodness; so it’s all got to be worked out for the individual by the individual here in the high white foreheads like mine, and you’re too much the prig to admit it.

To Amory this is blasphemy, an evil he cannot reconcile with some hard, inner core of values, perhaps his Irish-American puritanism. Eleanor, in a paroxysm of outrage at her discovery of the endless masquerades of sex. turns her horse toward a dark cliff in a suicide attempt. At the last moment she throws herself off the horse while it goes whinnying over the edge. Neither of these babes in the wood is old enough to sustain feeling for the other without romantic illusion, though they are able, some years later, to exchange melancholy poems. In retrospect he realizes that under that high-riding “evil moon” they could “see the devil in each other.” and the old puritanical notion that beauty is often the mask for evil fixes itself in his soul.

There remain several more crucial incidents in the novel to complete the pageantry of Amory Blaine’s disillusion. Alone in Atlantic City he meets Alec Connage. Rosalind’s brother, accompanied by two women, and Amory becomes involved in Alec’s sexual intrigue. They catch him up in a distressed moment when he is recalling the gaiety of Princeton escapades, innocent and boisterous, on these same boardwalks and beaches, and now, a few years later, so many of his classmates are already dead. His youth seems vanished and he vaguely longs for death: his listlessness and disillusion are deepened by the thought that women can only hold men by appealing to the worst in them, the “thesis of most of his bad nights.”

Agreeing to occupy a hotel room connecting with Alec’s, to substitute for a friend of Alec’s who needed to leave, Amory goes to the room, mourning the lost Rosalind, and falls asleep while an ominous moon sears the sky. He is awakened by a house detective pounding on Alec’s door and the frightened voices of Alec and Jill, a “gaudy, vermillion-lipped blonde,” coming from the connecting bathroom. In a terrified moment Alec explains that he cannot lie that Jill is his wife since the house detective knows her, and that he will be liable under the Mann Act; meanwhile the miserable Jill retreats to Amory’s bed. At this point Fitzgerald again lifts this scene by the device of surrealistic detail to a level that clearly exposes the themes of the novel:

Amory realized there were other things in the room besides people… over and around the figure crouched in the bed, there hung an aura, gossamer as a moonbeam, tainted as a stale, weak wine, yet a horror, diffusively brooding already over the three of them… and over by the window among the stirring curtains stood something else, featureless and indistinguishable, yet strangely familiar.

Caught between these two evil presences in his room, he swiftly decides to take responsibility for Jill, to take the blame off Alec, and at that instant the specters near the bed and window vanish. In that listening, suspended moment evil forms the spectral shapes of sex and death. For shortly after this incident, in a short scene at the police station, Amory learns that Monsignor Darcy has died, and he knows that it was his ghost that stirred the curtains of the hotel bedroom.

Later, back in New York, in a dreary, rainy autumn, Amory continues to mourn the lost Rosalind. She has disillusioned him about love, and her brother has completed the emotional carnage by the tawdry escapade in Atlantic City. Once again he is sensitized to “the fetid sensuousness of stale powder on women” as he walks the streets and recoils from the poor of New York whose poverty seems more vile than it is when sex drives the penniless men and women together: “it was an atmosphere wherein birth and marriage and death were loathsome, secret things.” The fact that he is jobless and that his mother has made bad investments, destroying his private income, makes him all the more fearful and scornful of the poor as one might shun the worst image of oneself. Better to be corrupt and rich than innocent and poor, he thinks: it is essentially cleaner. In the convent of his mind he reviews the names of his dead loves as a monk might tell the beads of his rosary: Isabelle. Clara. Rosalind, Eleanor.

Amory’s romantic imagination and persistent idealism, rooted in his Irish-Catholic, Puritan-Midwestern-American background save him from complete despair. If on the one hand his puritanical sensibilities operate to prepare him for outrage, frustration, and disillusionment, especially in his encounters with women, on the other hand they provide him with a certain armor against amour. The ambiguity is, perhaps, suggested by his name. Fitzgerald implies as well that Amory’s romanticism and idealism are mystical legacies passed on to him by the death of Monsignor Darcy. Amory’s sacrifice of reputation for Alec, and his realization that Alec will eventually hate him for it bring him “the full realization of his disillusion, but of Monsignor’s funeral was born the romantic elf that was to enter the labyrinth with him.” In the later novels, particularly The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, the romantic idealism of his heroes, elves in the labyrinth, at once insures their inevitable defeat in a world where the labyrinth is more torturous and dangerous, and the emotional and monetary stakes higher. Fitzgerald recognized that real minotaurs make short work of chivalrous and charming elves.

After various shocking disillusionments have knocked Amory’s idealism off-balance, he reacts for a time by imagining himself deteriorating in the sweet acid of sensual abandon, a sort of evil heaven where disillusioned Puritans go:

Port Said, Shanghai, parts of Turkestan, Constantinople, the South Seas—all lands of sad, haunting music and many odors, where lust could he a mode and expression of life, where the shades of night skies and sunsets would seem to reflect only moods of passion: the color of lips and poppies.

He would like to “let himself go to the devil.” and “to sink safely and sensuously out of sight.” But these thoughts also give rise to a sense of panic and guilt as he wonders if merely thinking such thoughts does not create an evil aura around him that may infect the innocent. He fears he has lost the ability to “scent evil.” to ferret out instinctively “the deeper evils in pride and sensuality.” The Puritan need to identify and judge evil sobers and steadies him and dispels the colorful specters of sensuality.

The pageantry of his disillusion took shape in a world-old procession of Prophets. Athenians. Martyrs, Saints. Scientists. Don Juans, Jesuits, Puritans, Hausts, Poets, Pacifists; like costumed alumni at a college reunion they streamed before him as their dreams, personalities, and creeds had in turn thrown colored lights on his soul.

Women had not proved adequate to his imagination; philosophers and political leaders canceled out each other’s thoughts: few were the men who were not emotional or intellectual or spiritual cripples. Yet he feels that he has “escaped from a small enclosure into a great labyrinth.” and that he will undertake its mysteries, starting all inquiries with himself, chastened by self-reproach, loneliness, and disillusion.

In this mixed mood of regeneration and disillusion, Amory sets off, like a pilgrim in a more apparent allegory, to walk to Princeton. On a cool, gray day, “that least fleshly of all weathers; a day of dreams and far hopes and clear visions,” his sense of the real begins to clarify. “The problem of evil had solidified for Amory into the problem of sex,” which comes as no surprise if we have followed his history, and his thought leads him to link evil with beauty. Each time he has reached out for beauty, “it had leered out at him with the grotesque face of evil. Beauty of great art, beauty of all joy, most of all the beauty of women.” To his mind beauty has too many associations with license and indulgence and weakness, and weak things are never good. Before he reaches Prince-ton, he stops at twilight in an old graveyard, a scene symbolically appropriate to a purging of the past and to these phoenix-like moments of transition. If certain illusions are to be buried there, certain revelations have given him new strength. The graves do not convince him that life is Vain: “Somehow he could find nothing hopeless in having lived.”

After midnight Amory arrives at Princeton and once again finds in the towers and spires and late-burning lights the fit symbols of his hopes. No ominous white buildings here, no evil moon. The novitiates must learn to bear the shock of exploding illusions, must grow up to find “all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” He feels sorry for them but not for himself; he is safe and free now, to “accept what was acceptable, roam, grow, rebel.” Thus at the end of the novel, in a gesture more richly ambiguous of both acceptance and crucifixion than perhaps Fitzgerald could know at twenty-three, Amory “stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky” and announces, “I know myself…but that is all.”

Fitzgerald’s first novel reveals a number of observations that were to become persistent themes in his later work. The young Amory wants above all else to have popularity and power. Later he discovers that it is not admiration he wants, or even love, “but to be necessary to people, to be indispensable,” and to give them “a sense of security.” These “immense desires” are also manifest in Gatsby and even more dramatically revealed in Dick Diver. Furthermore, Fitzgerald’s description of Rosalind announces a catalog of ideas thematically developed in his subsequent work. “Her fresh enthusiasm, her will to grow and learn, her endless faith in the inexhaustibility of romance, her courage and her fundamental honesty—these things were not spoiled.” Spoiled, however, they are doomed to be, and it is in the loss of these qualities in his characters that we sense the pathos of their defeat. Fitzgerald called evil the forces that brought about these failures. When Monsignor Darcy writes of Amory that he has “that half-miraculous sixth sense” by which he detects evil, “the half-realized fear of God” in his heart, the lines reveal the author as tellingly as they do Amory Blaine. Taken as a whole, Fitzgerald’s fiction testifies to his talent for identifying the corruption and moral failure masked by the surface glitter and carnival antics of the 1920’s. His concern with evil, as he understood it. is everywhere apparent in his work, and his desire to reveal it prompted him to write in This Side of Paradise: “Every author ought to write every book as if he were going to be beheaded the day he finished it.”

Under the edict of this urgent credo. Fitzgerald created he-rocs who were clearly projections of himself, and these “brothers” must confront the disillusionments that instruct them and sometimes break and kill them. They are brothers in another sense, too, in that they are related to each other by thematic blood lines. His heroes are variously undone by an idealism bravely asserted but doomed. Amory, it is true, unlike his elder “brothers,” survives his disillusioning experiences by virtue of his resilient youth and his sense of flexing and stretching a new. marvellous self, but one cannot help imagining, especially in the light of the novels that followed, that his judgments concerning sex and beauty will doom him, will drive him into a corner, much as Dick Diver fades away into Upper New York after his fall in Italy and France. The final image of Amory, opening his arms to receive the limitless universe, becomes, from another angle of vision, the dead Gatsby floating in his pool, or a broken Dick Diver making an ironic sign of the cross over the beach on the Riviera. Yet Amory Blaine, Jay Gatsby, and Dick Diver are meant to win our sympathy because they cling to a romantic, Platonic image of themselves in spite of their disillusioning pilgrimages. There is no doubt that Fitzgerald intended these heroes to be nobler and more humane in their defeat than the people and forces that undo them. The elder heroes hang crucified upon the crosses of their idealism, defeated yet elevated above the men and women who have nailed them there. They have walked a terrain where certain events disarm and disillusion them, but Fitzgerald’s craft insures that his heroes remain the brightest points in the landscape.


Reprinted from The Midwest Quarterly. VII (January 1966). 177-194, by permission of the publisher.

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