A Gesture of Indefinite Revolt,
by James E. Miller, Jr.

Fitzgerald once referred to an early version of This Side of Paradise as a “picaresque ramble” or a “prose, modernistic Childe Harolde,” [Fitzgerald, “Letters to Friends,” The Crack-Up, p. 252.] terms which well describe the episodic nature of his novel. There is no continuous line of action but rather a series of episodes related one to the other by Amory Blaine, the central character. The story is the biography of Amory Blaine during the formative years of his life. The episodes are related in that they constitute collectively the education of the hero, but there is no single plot-line to unify the novel. Such a loose structure lends itself well to documentation: an abundance of detailed incidents may be included so long as they revolve around the hero. As the reviewer for the Publisher’s Weekly said—“It isn’t a story in the regular sense: there’s no beginning, except the beginning of Amory Blaine, born healthy, wealthy and extraordinarily good-looking, and by way of being spoiled by a restless mother whom he quaintly calls by her first name, Beatrice. There’s no middle to the story, except the eager fumbling at life of this same handsome boy, proud, clean-minded, born to conquer yet fumbling, at college and in love with Isabelle, then Clara, then Rosalind, then Eleanor. No end to the story except the closing picture of this same boy in his early twenties, a bit less confident about life, with no God in his heart … his ideas still in riot.” [R.S.S., “Ernest Poole and Tarkington at their best,” Publisher’s Weekly XCVII (April 17, 1920), 1289.] With no central action, the book can have no beginning, middle. or end in the conventional sense.

Henry James’s great demand for the novel was a center of interest or a motivating idea. Taking his cue from James, Percy Lubbock asserted that a novel “cannot begin to take shape” until it has “a subject, one and whole and irreducible … for its support.” The question the critic must pose is “what the novel in his hand is about. What was the novelist’s intention, in a phrase?” If the novel’s “subject” cannot be stated in a phrase, if it is not “expressible in ten words that reveal its unity,” then the critic can proceed no further. “The form of the book depends on it, and until it is known there is nothing to be said of the form.” [Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction, p. 41.] It was with a note of contempt that Wells had said of James, The thing his novel is about is always there.“[Wells, Boon, p. 109.] This relevance, thought Wells, deprived the novel of “life.”

What, we may well ask, is This Side of Paradise about? Edmund Wilson asserted that, as a consequence of its deriving so much from Sinister Street, “Amory Blaine … had a very poor chance for coherence … he was… an uncertain quantity in a phantasmagoria of incident which had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force.” Wilson concluded, “In short, This Side of Paradise is really not about anything; intellectually it amounts to little more than a gesture—a gesture of indefinite revolt.” [Wilson, “The Literary Spotlight: F. Scott Fitzgerald,” The Bookman LV (March 1922), pp. 21-22.] By definition the saturation novel is not about any one thing: it is about “life” and must, therefore, include those irrelevancies which prevent life itself from coming to a focus and being about something.

But, as James said, even the slice of life must have been cut; it cannot exist in an amorphous state. Even the saturation novel has technique of some kind, though the author may not have been conscious of its use. Contrary to Lubbock, therefore, one can talk about the form or technique of a novel whose subject is not reducible to a brief statement. The question is whether or not one can reduce the subject or theme of This Side of Paradise to some general terms on which to base a discussion of technique. Referring to a previous version of his novel (when it was entitled The Romantic Egotist), Fitzgerald once remarked, “I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation.” [Fitzgerald, “Letters to Friends,” The Crack-Up, p. 252.] It would seem safe to assume that much of the same intention of method and theme implicit in this remark carried over into the published work. To this “story of the youth of our generation” might be added Wilson’s phrase, “a gesture of indefinite revolt.” If we acknowledge that This Side of Paradise is about the obscurely motivated and vaguely directed rebellion of the youth of Fitzgerald’s generation, we may not have discovered a precise and lucid “pointed intention,” but we do have a basis for analysis and evaluation.

Granting This Side of Paradise its method of saturation we can still critically examine its technique. Indeed, most critics have agreed that the crucial failure in the book was the failure of Fitzgerald to see his material objectively—that is, a failure in point of view. Fitzgerald has adopted no machinery as an integral part of his story whose function it is to evaluate the characters and the incidents. The story is told from the point of view of the hero, Amory Blaine, and the reader is left with Blaine’s judgment unless Fitzgerald, by implication or by direct intervention, indicates otherwise. The general impression left with the reader, after he has finished the book, is as Paul Rosenfeld put it, that Fitzgerald “does not sustainedly perceive his girls and men for what they are, and tends to invest them with precisely the glamour with which they in pathetic assurance rather childishly invest themselves.” [Paul Rosenfeld, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” The Crack-Up, p. 319.]

Fitzgerald was, of course, young and immature when he wrote his novel, and, in writing about himself, was frequently unable to see his material objectively. The critical problem, however, is to discover what, in the book, betrays Fitzgerald’s moral position. Some of the most revealing passages as to the author’s attitude appear in the stage directions of the scenes done in play form, in which the author, because of his choice of method, is forced to speak in his own person. Fitzgerald does not confine himself to mere description; he seizes the opportunity for little chats with and asides to the reader. He betrays something of his whole position and attitude in the opening stage directions for the Amory-Rosalind meeting scene. In setting the scene, he first describes Rosalind’s excessively pink and luxurious bedroom and enumerates the items laid out for Rosalind’s debut. He then says confidentially to the reader: “One would enjoy seeing the bill called forth by the finery displayed and one is possessed by a desire to see the princess for whose benefit— Look! There’s some one! Disappointment!” (179) It turns out to be only the maid. Fitzgerald obviously expects the reader to be as awed as he by the expensive scene which he has painted. He seems to expect the material wealth displayed to suffice for the reader to invest the characters, not even introduced yet, with intense interest and glamour. He does indeed seem blinded by the glitter of his own costly creation.

When Rosalind does enter, Fitzgerald asserts on her behalf: “In the true sense she is not spoiled. Her fresh enthusiasm, her will to grow and learn, her endless faith in the inexhaustibility of romance, her courage and fundamental honesty—these things are not spoiled.” (183) One might question Fitzgerald’s emphasis of her romantic rather than realistic nature when, in fact, she turns down Amory, whom she presumably loves, because he has no money, and exclaims, “I can’t be shut away from the trees and flowers, cooped up in a little flat, waiting for you.” Her “endless faith” in romance turns out to be a horror of household duties and an egocentric craving for luxury: “I don’t want to think about pots and kitchens and brooms. I want to worry whether my legs will get slick and brown when I swim in the summer.” (209-10) Fitzgerald is so entranced by the beauty and riches he has portrayed that he seems unable to comprehend Rosalind’s fundamental selfishness And superficiality. The portrayal of Rosalind is, technically, a failure in haracterization. For Fitzgerald attributes qualities to her which are mutually exclusive. His assertion that Rosalind is not spoiled is in conflict with the way he portrays her as acting. Fitzgerald closes the meeting scene: “And deep under the aching sadness that will pass in time, Rosalind feels that she has lost something, she knows not what, she knows not why.” (211) The tone is all wrong, for it assumes a depth for Rosalind which, by this time, the reader knows she is incapable of achieving; these closing pretentious if somewhat lyrical phrases seem to be an attempt to surround her with a poetry which she does not deserve.

Because Rosalind rejects him, Amory goes on a drunken spree, and during one of his brief moments of sobriety, bewails his great loss:

“My own girl—my own— Oh—”

He clinched his teeth so that the tears streamed in a flood from his eyes.

“Oh … my baby girl, all I had, all I wanted! … Oh, my girl, come back, come back! I need you … need you … We’re so pitiful … just misery we brought each other … She’ll be shut away from me … I can’t see her; I can’t be her friend. It’s got to be that way—it’s got to be—”

And then again:

“We’ve been so happy, so very happy …” (216)

Perhaps Amory is so affected by his broken love affair that he could talk in this sophomoric fashion. The effect of this speech on the reader, contrary to what Fitzgerald seems to expect, is one of embarrassment— embarrassment for the novelist. And when he says that there had been “so much dramatic tragedy” for Amory, one is convinced that Fitzgerald has attempted and expected an effect which he does not get. What the reader has seen is certainly not tragedy and not very good drama.

Again, in preparing the scene for the meeting of Eleanor and Amory, Fitzgerald’s diction and imagery suggest an attempt at dramatic profundity which does not succeed:

But Eleanor—did Amory dream her? Afterward their ghosts played, yet both of them hoped from their souls never to meet. Was it the infinite sadness of her eyes that drew him or the mirror of himself that he found in the gorgeous clarity of her mind? She will have no other adventure like Amory, and if she reads this she will say:

“And Amory will have no other adventure like me.” (238)

The tone created by Fitzgerald’s language is struggling for a far more serious effect than is actually achieved in the scene. And when Eleanor and Amory take their final parting, Fitzgerald writes:

Their poses were strewn about the pale dawn like broken glass. The stars were long gone and there were left only the little sighing gusts of wind and the silences between … but naked souls are poor things ever, and soon he turned homeward and let new lights come in with the sun. (258)

The dramatic details and images, like those of the beginning of this scene, betray the romantic haze through which Fitzgerald conceived his characters and their struggles.

Fitzgerald’s inability to remain detached and uninvolved interfered, naturally, with the development of the theme of This Side of Paradise. In order that the revolt of his generation be made comprehensible and convincing, it was imperative that Fitzgerald present his youth objectively. The precise nature of the revolt undertaken by the youth never clearly emerges. There is, presumably, a “questioning aloud the institutions” (131) of all phases of American life, including educational, religious, political, and moral. But the questioning remains submerged. only half articulated, lost in a multitude of cross purposes.

Much of the “revolt” seems on the periphery rather than at the center of the novel. There is Burne Holiday’s objection to the social system represented by the clubs at Princeton. But this “did not seem such a vital subject as it had in the two years before” (134) to Amory. There is Amory’s periodic religious questioning. In a letter to Tom D’lnvilliers after the war he says, “I confess that the war instead of making me orthodox, which is the correct reaction, has made me a passionate agnostic… This crisis-inspired religion is rather valueless and fleeting at best.” (176) And at the end of the book, the reader is told that “there was no God in his [Amory’s] heart.” (304) Even in the long monologue in which Amory presents the case for socialism to the Capitalist and his Sycophant (Mr. Ferrenby and Garvin are more symbols than characters), it is all on the spur of the moment and the theories which Amory expresses are mixed up in his mind with “the richest man [getting] the most beautiful girl if he wants her.” (299)

But the aspect of the revolt best remembered is the “questioning of moral codes.” (66) Fitzgerald wrote of his generation: “None of the Victorian mothers—and most of the mothers were Victorians—had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed.” (64) The “revolt” seldom goes much beyond the kiss. When Amory goes on his trip with the Princeton musical comedy, he sees “girls doing thing that even in his memory would have been impossible.” (65) And what are these acts that seem so shocking? “Eating three-o’clock, after-dance suppers in impossible cafes, talking of every side of life with an air half of earnestness, half of mockery, yet with a furtive excitement that Amory considered stood for a real moral let-down.” (65)

Yet, in Amory’s own case, there seems to be an ambivalent attitude developed toward sex. There is in him an extreme daring (for the year 1920), but also a recurring aversion. As his first love affair just reaches a climax in a 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 any one.” (15) Amory is given “a puzzled, furtive interest in everything concerning sex” (20) but his repugnance of sex seems to be a fixed and uncontrollable part of his reaction. When he and Fred Sloane are spending what was meant to be a wild evening out with a couple of girls, Amory thinks he sees a pale man watching him. Up in the girls’ apartment, just as “temptation [is creeping] over him like a warm wind,” (122) he sees the vision again, whereupon he abruptly leaves and runs into an alley, where “before his eyes a face flashed … a face pale and distorted with a sort of infinite evil that twisted it like flame in the wind; but he knew, for the half instant that the gong tanged and hummed, that it was the face of Dick Humbird.” (126) Dick Humbird was Amory’s friend at Princeton who had been killed in an automobile accident; Amory had been riding in another car and had seen the wreck and Dick’s body shortly after the accident. In this ambiguous fashion Amory connects sex not only with evil but also with death. The terrifying evil which surrounds sex for Amory is extended to encompass beauty also: “Eleanor was, say, the last time that evil crept close to Amory under the mask of beauty.” (238) Yet Eleanor is treated as a pure, poetic influence on Amory. And when Amory, near the end of the book, attempts to assess the meaning of his experience, he discovers that sex and beauty have become inextricably mixed with evil: “The problem of evil had solidified for Amory into the problem of sex… Inseparably linked with evil was beauty… Amory knew that every time he had reached toward it longingly it had leered out at him with the grotesque face of evil.” (302) Although this development in Amory of a puritan-like sensibility does not let him serve well as a symbol of revolt, the novel perhaps gains in value from the increased complexity and subtlety in the presentation of his character.

At one point in his story, Amory cries out, “My whole generation is 7 restless.” (299) The novel is more a representation of that restlessness / than it is a coherent assertion of revolt. Perhaps that is why Edmund Wilson characterized the novel as a “gesture of indefinite revolt.” Just what constitutes the revolt is not readily apparent; what is being revolted against does not clearly emerge. But it is because of the vague rebelliousness or “restlessness” in it that This Side of Paradise retains importance in literary history. It stands at the beginning of a decade famed for its literature of revolt. It is the first of the post-war novels by the then new generation of authors, the generation which had “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” (304) As Alfred Kazin has said, This Side of Paradise “announced the lost generation.” [Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1942), p. 316.] In spite of the apparently blurred and mixed purposes in the novel, the sexual, social, and literary restlessness of the younger generation came through clear enough to capture the imagination of a decade.

“A Gesture of Indefinite Revolt.” From The Fictional Technique of Scott Fitzgerald (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1957). Copyright (c) 1957 by James E. Miller, Jr. Re-printed by permission of the author and Martinus Nijhoff.

JAMES E. MILLER, JR. is a professor at the University of Nebraska and the author of The Fictional Technique of Scott Fitzgerald, from which the essay in this book is taken.

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