The question of vocation in This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned
by James L. W. West III

The histories of composition for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first two novels, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922), resemble each other very little. This Side of Paradise was an inspired cut-and-paste job, a merging of bits and pieces of a failed novel (called “The Romantic Egotist”) with some short stories, a handful of poems, and a one-act play. Fitzgerald assembled the book during the summer of 1919 in a desperate attempt to prove himself as an author and as a prospective husband for Zelda Sayre, his golden girl. He produced the manuscript in a rush of improvisation, revised it quickly, submitted it to Charles Scribner’s Sons in the early fall of 1919, had it accepted, and saw it into print the following spring.

The Beautiful and Damned, by contrast, was a carefully planned piece of literary composition. After a false start that produced “May Day”(i92o), one of his finest stories, Fitzgerald settled down and wrote The Beautiful and Damned from start to finish. He sought advice about the novel from his friend Edmund Wilson and from Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribners, and he took their suggestions seriously, revising and polishing throughout. The narrative was serialized in Metropolitan Magazine beginning in September 1921, then published in book form in the spring of 1922. The Beautiful and Damned reads much more like a conventional novel than does This Side of Paradise. The narrative is coherent; the characters are consistent (as they are not in This Side of Paradise); and the themes are carefully articulated throughout. That does not make The Beautiful and Damned the better book: it lacks the verve and energy of This Side of Paradise, but it makes up for its deficiencies by providing readers with a blueprint for character types and moral questions that would preoccupy Fitzgerald for the rest of his writing career.

Stylistically This Side of Paradise seems daring; it mixes genres in a fashion that even today looks unconventional, shifting from fictional narrative to rhymed or free verse, then moving to drama dialogue and slipping toward the end into interior monologue. The writing itself is by turns glib and confessional, sophisticated and callow, arrestingly beautiful and disappointingly flat. Fitzgerald has been praised (and faulted) for fashioning such a mongrel of a book, but the manuscript of the novel reveals that he created its many surfaces largely by accident. He was determined somehow to incorporate into the manuscript all of the good writing, and some of the less good, that he had on hand from his apprentice years. He therefore stitched and spliced with abandon. The poems that pop up from time to time, for example, were nearly all left over from his undergraduate years at Princeton, and the sections in drama dialogue were taken from a play typescript that was sitting on his desk. Other sequences began life as short stories, then were thriftily recycled as novel chapters or subchapters. Thus what appears to be bold in This Side of Paradise—its mixture of genres and styles—is not really as daring as one might think.

The Beautiful and Damned also contains unconventional writing, but Fitzgerald seems here to have been looking back at his first novel and trying to imitate himself. He borrowed techniques which had been praised in This Side of Paradise but which, on their second outing, seem artificial and a little stale. The best example is “A Flash-Back in Paradise,” a section in Book One, chapter I, in which Gloria Gilbert, the heroine-to-be of the novel, is introduced as one of the speakers in an odd supernatural event which is rendered as a drama script. Gloria, we learn, is to be born on earth where she will be known as a “ragtime kid,” a “flapper,” a “jazz-baby,” and a “baby vamp” (B&D, 29). This section of drama dialogue, and others in the chapters that follow, seem to be obvious efforts by Fitzgerald to repeat himself and perhaps to give the book some kind of current appeal.

This Side of Paradise, published in March 1920, was well received by the press. There were some naysayers, but not many; most of the notices were upbeat and positive. “My, How that boy can write!” gushed one of the more enthusiastic reviewers (Bryer, Critical Reception, I). Sales moved quickly, passing the 40,000 mark by the end of 1920 and leveling off eventually at about 48,000. This was not a remarkably high figure for the times—indeed, Fitzgerald never published a true bestseller during his career—but it was a commendable tally for a first novel. Perhaps as a result, the publication of The Beautiful and Damned, in March 1922, was a much-anticipated literary event. Scribners was ready this time with a first printing of 20,000 copies (only 3,000 copies of This Side of Paradise had been in stock for its publication day), and the publisher mounted a strong advertising campaign. Reviews, though mostly favorable, were less enthusiastic than the notices for This Side of Paradise. One senses some disappointment, as if Fitzgerald had not delivered on his initial promise. Despite these notices, The Beautiful and Damned sold briskly, prompting a second impression of 20,000 and a third of 10,000 for a final figure of 50,000 copies—just a little higher than the mark set by This Side of Paradise.

The two novels can be said to stand in sequence: the first marks the end of Fitzgerald’s literary apprenticeship while the second signals his beginnings as a professional. This Side of Paradise is crowded with characters and themes; it is a Bildungsroman that asks more questions than it answers and leaves its hero poised on the edge of adulthood. The Beautiful and Damned, by contrast, has a more limited cast of characters and is focused on a shorter list of themes. It traces its protagonist from young adulthood to a kind of early senility, brought on by too strong an attachment to money and too great a fondness for alcohol.

The settings for the two novels are worth remarking on. This Side of Paradise is set largely in the Midwest and at Princeton—locales that Fitzgerald knew well from his childhood and college years. The pace is meandering and relatively slow, providing time and leisure for the hero to find himself. The Beautiful and Damned, on the other hand, is set almost entirely in New York City and its environs; much of the action, in fact, occurs on the grid of central Manhattan, up and down Fifth Avenue, then as now the center of American acquisitiveness. New York, of course, is also the cultural capital of the nation, with its great museums and libraries and concert halls, but none of this seems to interest the protagonists, Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert. For them, the allurements are hotels, bars, cabarets, movie theaters, and retail stores.

A major theme that stands out in both This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned has to do with the matter of vocation. What does one do with one’s life? What can give meaning and purpose to one’s hours and days? This question was much on Fitzgerald’s mind while he was writing This Side of Paradise, and he continued to ruminate about it in The Beautiful and Damned. The comments about vocation that he makes in the first novel are carried forward into the second, providing a link between the two and a central theme that illuminates many other questions in the two books.

“Vocation” comes from the Latin vocatio, a word which carries the literal meaning of “calling.” This is not the same thing as work, a more specific word with overtones of the mundane and financial. For Fitzgerald, the idea of vocation was crucial: one had literally to be called or summoned to meaningful efforts in life. Fitzgerald recognized, however, that the pressures in American culture were designed to channel one relentlessly away from one’s natural calling and into the pursuit of money and status. His characters therefore face a dilemma: is there a worthwhile role for them to play in society? Can they discover and pursue it?

Fitzgerald applied the question of vocation largely to his male characters, but he saw that women too needed meaningful roles in life. One of his best insights in both This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned was that women of the upper classes really had only one socially approved activity, at least during their young years, and that was the procurement of an acceptable husband. Isabelle Borge, the pretty charmer in Book One of This Side of Paradise, is fully aware of this: she knows that the game of flirtation that she and Amory are playing will “presumably be her principal study for years to come”—that is, until she marries and settles into the privileged life of a society woman (TSOP, 68). One senses that this role will suit Isabelle, but other young women in This Side of Paradise do not find it as attractive. Rosalind Connage is frankly bored with the whole business (to her mother’s great frustration), and Eleanor Savage is angry and bitter about what is required of her. Gloria Gilbert, the most important female in The Beautiful and Damned, is openly in search of a husband. Like many of Edith Wharton’s young women (Undine Spragg from The Custom of the Country comes to mind) Gloria lives in a fashionable New York hotel where she is on display, a beautiful item of merchandise available to a socially qualified man. Her business, and that of her sister debutantes, is to be alluring to suitors. “The average debutante spent every hour of her day thinking and talking about what the great world had mapped out for her to do during the next hour,” Fitzgerald tells us (B&D, 35). And most of what was mapped out had as its purpose the acquisition of a suitable mate.

Gloria achieves her goal early in The Beautiful and Damned when she captures Anthony, whom she presumes to be in line to inherit old Adam Patch’s millions. After their marriage, her only activity seems to be selfindulgence; her deterioration, caused by idleness and alcohol, is one of the least pleasant aspects of the novel. After marriage she prods Anthony, hoping that he will choose some career or goal that will give structure to both of their lives. (Her only professional possibility is to get into the movies, a long shot that she chooses not to play.) And yet one cannot condemn Gloria, or the young women in This Side of Paradise, too severely. The influences on them of money and class are simply too strong, and they have no alternative models among older women of their social stratum to follow.

Amory Blaine and Anthony Patch are the same in one respect: both are waiting for money to settle upon them. Both have incomes from family property; neither has to take a job or enter a profession straight out of college. Amory is from a wealthy family, and in the early parts of This Side of Paradise he can reasonably expect to possess the Blaine fortune some day. But his mother (another woman without vocation) mismanages the family finances, squanders much money in idle pleasures and travel, and leaves half of what remains to the Catholic Church. By the end of the novel Amory is deprived of his inheritance, stripped of the protection that money can bring. One senses, in This Side of Paradise, that this will be a good thing. (At least it is an effective plot device.) Amory gradually loses his financial prospects in the same way that he sheds his youthful illusions and beliefs, and by the final scene he has only himself to rely on. Of course Amory is not without resources; he possesses intangibles of talent, ambition, and imagination. Surely he will take these and make something of himself, if only he can find a place in American society that has a use for him.

For Amory this is a significant problem. “How’ll I fit in?” he asks his friend Tom D’Invilliers. “What am I for? To propagate the race?” (TSOP, 200). In college Amory had ambition, though it was unfocused; after the war and the failure of his romance with Rosalind, he feels deflated. “What a pleasure it used to be to dream I might be a really great dictator or writer or religious or political leader,” he tells Tom. Now all such desires have vanished, leaving Amory adrift. “The world is so overgrown that it can’t lift its own fingers,” he muses, “and I was planning to be such an important finger…” (TSOP, 198).

Anthony, also drifting, is a paler and less attractive version of Amory. He has lived for so long with the assumption that he will one day be rich that he has failed to develop any purpose for himself—other than a vague desire to write. The question of what he is to do, what his vocation is to be, comes up repeatedly in The Beautiful and Damned. One sees it as early as the first page of the narrative, where Fitzgerald tells us of Anthony, “He considered that he would one day accomplish some quiet subtle thing that the elect would deem worthy and, passing on, would join the dimmer stars in a nebulous, indeterminate heaven half-way between death and immortality” (B&D, 3). The ironic and faintly mocking tone of the sentence, though, alerts us to the fact that Fitzgerald has little confidence in Anthony’s ability to identify that “quiet subtle thing” that he can and will do.

The question of Anthony’s future vocation becomes a leitmotif in The Beautiful and Damned, a question that is periodically taken up, considered, and put down unresolved. “Now that you’re here you ought to do something,” his grandfather tells him, “accomplish something” (B&D, 15). But Anthony vacillates and can offer only murmured comments about his intention to write a book on the Middle Ages. This bothers Anthony, to be sure: “If I am essentially weak,” he thinks, “I need work to do, work to do” (55). But no plan materializes, and he spends his time in idleness and drinking, “making careers out of cocktails” as Fitzgerald puts it (56). Even Gloria gets in on the questioning. “What do you do with yourself?” she asks him in one of their early scenes, and he can only answer: “I do nothing” (65). After their marriage he continues the pretense of working on his book, but she sees through his subterfuges. “Work!” she scoffs. “Oh, you sad bird! You bluffer! Work—that means a great arranging of the desk and the lights, a great sharpening of pencils” (212)—but little else.

Fitzgerald, with his prep-school and Princeton background, must have known many men of this type—men who were waiting for inheritances. They had attended the proper schools, had found mates and married, and had settled back into the protection of family money, waiting for it to descend upon them. Fitzgerald must have been able to observe carefully the ways in which prospective wealth influenced character and sense of purpose in these men. Some of the most memorable characters in his early stories, in fact, are of this type: Philip Dean, the rich boy early in “May Day” (1920) who refuses to lend money to Gordon Sterrett; Knowleton Whitney, the prospective heir in “Myra Meets His Family” (1920); and Percy Washington, the scion of the family in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (1922).” In all of those characters, the anticipation of money has produced a curious enervation and an insensitivity to the needs and desires of others. These characters please only themselves, wait for their money, and drift.

In both novels, the American educational system bears much of the blame for the predicaments of these protagonists. Neither Princeton (for Amory) nor Harvard (for Anthony) teaches its students usable skills—or, more important for them, a sense of social duty and purpose. Fitzgerald seems to believe that colleges such as these two, which cater to the elite of American society, need to instill a version of noblesse oblige in their charges. Graduates need some notion of how inherited wealth might be deployed to make society better, or at least to free the possessor to develop artistically or intellectually. But neither Princeton nor Harvard provides these ideals: the students seem bored and insular, caught up in campus activities and social games, largely oblivious to the world beyond the boundaries of academe.

In a true aristocracy, Fitzgerald suggests, men such as Amory and Anthony would be groomed for leadership, as would their counterparts in other families. But in American society, these young heirs are trained only to accumulate further. We do not see in either This Side of Paradise or The Beautiful and Damned a group of older men who serve as examples for what might be done with money and influence. Amory’s father is weak and inept, dominated by his exotic wife; Anthony’s father is equally colorless and ineffectual. Only old Adam Patch shows energy and drive, but in typical American fashion he has channeled his power into do-goodish causes and has made himself into a crank. Bloeckman, the other strong male in The Beautiful and Damned, has directed his considerable talents toward the movies, and toward remaking himself from an upwardly mobile Jew into an assimilated entrepreneur. One can commend him (certainly he is a better focused man than Anthony), but Bloeckman lacks social refinement and is too obviously interested in money, appearances, and women to be wholly admirable.

Both Amory and Anthony have one vocation open to them: writing. Both are skilled with words, and both have some successes in college with the pen, but neither has the discipline or focus to move forward from there. In The Beautiful and Damned we do have the example of Richard Caramel, Anthony’s friend who makes a mark in literature, but after a promising start he is corrupted by the lure of magazine money, and at the end of the novel he has lost the sense of literary purpose that he had as a young man. Part of the trouble for Amory and Anthony, and for Richard as well, is that authorship in America is not and has never been truly a profession. It requires no degrees or certifications; it has no apprentice system (as medicine and law do, for example); it provides no strata of ranks and titles; and its emoluments are slim and sporadic. Authors drift into and out of the craft of writing, performing it rather as one might do cottage labor. True professions provide their members with protection from the harsher aspects of capitalism; writing, by contrast, leaves its practitioners vulnerable to every evil of the system. Amory sees writing as something he might someday do, if he decides that he has something worthwhile to say, but one has trouble believing at the end of This Side of Paradise that Amory will write anything of consequence very soon. For Anthony it is slightly different: writing is that thing which he claims to be doing, whenever anyone asks him what direction he means to take in life. Writing is therefore a useful concept for Anthony, a word he can employ when questioned about his future vocation, but it is little else.

Perhaps the major problem for both young men is their sense of the ultimate futility of effort. In This Side of Paradise this feeling is lightly and cynically expressed, but it is there all the same—in Amory’s frustration with religion, with education, and with romance. Amory fails at all that he attempts and concludes, in the end, that no system or arrangement of beliefs will give order and purpose to his life. In The Beautiful and Damned the themes of futility and absurdity are more strongly stated, probably because Fitzgerald was much under the sway of such thinkers as H. L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, and Joseph Conrad during the period in which he wrote the book. Gloria is allowed to state the moral: “There’s only one lesson to be learned from life,” she says. “What’s that?” asks Anthony’s friend Maury Noble. “That there’s no lesson to be learned from life,” she answers (B&D, 255).

Lack of vocation and purpose for Amory and Anthony opens the door to a common problem among both writers and the wealthy: alcoholism. With Amory this is not yet a significant issue; we see him drinking in many scenes but drunk in only one. This is the protracted bender in “Experiments in Convalescence,” the second chapter in Book Two of the novel, when he uses alcohol (in rather a stagy way) to dull the pain of his rejection by Rosalind. All the same, one can say that alcohol permeates This Side of Paradise; it is always there as a lubricant and support. One finishes the novel wondering whether Amory will avoid its snares.

The Beautiful and Damned, for its part, is an astute study of the effects of alcohol on personality and character. Idle and without vocation, Anthony slips into a rhythm of drinking that blunts his will and clouds his judgment. Both he and Gloria come to rely on drink for stimulation and distraction; like many alcoholics they learn to arrange their days and weeks around the consumption of spirits. “Liquor had become a practical necessity to their amusement,” we learn (B&D, 278), and the consequences of this dependency are grave. Fitzgerald is especially good at charting the progress of their imbibing—from merely social drinking to frequent weekend binges to a final cycle of drunkenness and inanition. The ceremonies of preparation, procurement, consumption, and inebriation are charted with great exactitude.

Self-absorption is yet another problem shared by the characters in This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. Amory is his own chief subject; he never grows weary of self-observation and is consequently hindered by his vanity and pride. At the end of the novel he seems to be moving away from self-study toward a more socially responsible behavior, but we never see him achieve it in the narrative. Anthony and Gloria are selfabsorbed in a different way; with no purpose other than to wait for Adam Patch’s money, they become preoccupied with each other. Gloria is Anthony’s principal study, just as Anthony is hers. They feed on each other—physically and emotionally—but the relationship has no way to replenish itself. By the end of the narrative each character has drained and exhausted the other, and they have slipped into silly quarreling and empty discussions of emotion. No circle of friends or family sustains them: “No one cares about us but ourselves, Anthony,” observes Gloria to her bored husband (B&D, 227).

If This Side of Paradise is a better novel (or at least a more satisfying one) than The Beautiful and Damned, it might be because Amory is unsuccessful at love. He fails to win Rosalind, whom he adores, losing her to a wealthy rival named Dawson Rider. This gives an edge to his romantic disappointment that the reader can feel, a sorrow that carries through to the last line of the book—and even beyond. Amory loses his dream girl and must now make his way into adulthood without her. He can only keep her memory alive and her image pure in his imagination. In The Beautiful and Damned, by contrast, Anthony wins the object of his desires. According to his plans (always vague), life should go perfectly from there: love should endure, and money should arrive. But neither of these things comes to pass, and Anthony must watch as Gloria loses her youth and appeal, and as their marriage disintegrates. Perhaps Anthony, who like Amory is a romantic, would have been happier if he had not captured the woman of his dreams.

These various concerns—the importance of vocation, the danger of idleness, the allurement of alcohol, and the enervating effect of money—continued to draw Fitzgerald’s attention in the years to come, in the stories and novels that we think of today as his best. Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1925) are rendered morally corrupt by wealth and lack of vocation: Tom (“the polo player” to Jay Gatsby) reads racist literature and pursues vulgar women; Daisy seems capable only of light, bantering conversation. Anson Hunter in “The Rich Boy” (1926) is emotionally deadened by his money and status, unable to commit himself to another human being or to surrender his sense of social superiority. Charlie Wales in “Babylon Revisited” (1931) loses his vocation and consequently turns to alcohol: “You know I never did drink heavily until I gave up business and came over here with nothing to do,” he tells Lincoln Peters, his brother-in-law (Stories, 393-4). And Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night (1934) embody nearly all of these themes. Dick has strayed from the medical profession, which gave order and purpose to his life, and now drifts about with Nicole, increasingly dependent on her money. This leaves him vulnerable to alcohol, which he comes to rely on for stimulation and comfort.

This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned can be read as preliminary statements in the Fitzgerald canon, early novels in which the author introduces his major themes and his most memorable character types. But these two novels are also considerable achievements in themselves, searching examinations of the importance of vocation in American life, where ease and riches have always been the material of our dreams. Without a calling, Fitzgerald tells us, we risk deterioration and ruin. Alcohol and idle pleasure cannot sustain us, nor can wealth. We must have purpose and vocation to give direction and consequence to what we do.


Quotations in this chapter are from the 1922 edition of The Beautiful and Damned and the 1995 edition of This Side of Paradise. For details see Bibliography.


AA Afternoon of An Author

ATSYM All the Sad Young Men

B&D The Beautiful and Damned

B&J The Basil and Josephine Stories

F&P Flappers and Philosophers

GG The Great Gatsby

LT The Last Tycoon

LOTLT Love of the Last Tycoon

PH The Pat Hobby Stories

TJA Tales of the Jazz Age

TITN Tender is the Night

TSOP This Side of Paradise

Apprentice Fiction The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Kuehl)

As Ever, Scott Fitz As Ever, Scott Fitz: Letters Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Literary Agent, Harold Ober 1919-1940 (ed. Bruccoli and McCabe Atkinson)

Bits Bits of Paradise

Correspondence The Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli and Duggan)

Crack-Up The Crack-Up (ed. Wilson)

Dear Scott/Dear Max Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence (ed. Kuehl and Bryer)

Ledger F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger (ed. Bruccoli)

Letters The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Turnbull)

Life in Letters  F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (ed. Bruccoli)

Notebooks The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli)

Price The Price Was High: The Last Uncollected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli)

Short Stories The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection (ed. Bruccoli)

Stories The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald


James L. W. West III is Distinguished Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book is William Styron, A Life (1998). He is general editor of the Cambridge Edition of the Writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald; two recent volumes are This Side of Paradise (1986) and Trimalchio (2000).

Published in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Ruth Prigozy (Cambridge University Press 2002).