This Side of Paradise | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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This Side of Paradise | Context


The Jazz Age

One of the reasons that This Side of Paradise met with success and acclaim was that few other authors of the era were chronicling life during the so-called Jazz Age (1920–29) as honestly and intensely as F. Scott Fitzgerald. He coined the term himself to give a name to the freewheeling, hedonistic tendencies of the era as well as his own lifestyle during which the improvisational style of jazz music became increasingly popular.

After World War I (1914–18), which produced unprecedented destruction, casualties, and deaths, an era of young women and men joined Fitzgerald in celebrating the liberating feeling that jazz encapsulated. People wanted freedom and pleasure, which took the forms of drinking, dancing, and more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality. America experienced a period of wealth and prosperity that added to this sense of liberation.

At the same time, the feeling of freedom that characterized the Jazz Age also competed with the temperance movement, based on moderating or even outlawing alcohol consumption often due to the belief that it would badly influence society. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which stipulated that alcohol could not be produced, transported, or sold, established the Prohibition. It went into effect in 1920, but alcohol continued to be manufactured illegally, and speakeasies, or bars or clubs that sold alcohol on the sly, sprang up across the country until the amendment was repealed in 1933. Alcohol became a kind of forbidden fruit and, thus, even more appealing to the hard-partying Jazz-Age youth.

The era came to a drastic halt with the onset of the Great Depression after the stock market crashed in 1929—a moment that Fitzgerald himself eulogized in an essay called "Echoes of the Jazz Age."

World War I and the Lost Generation

World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918. Germany and Austro-Hungary fought against Russia, France, the United States, and Britain. The war was distinguished by its size and brutality. Weapons had become more technologically advanced, and therefore more deadly, and included the use of tanks, rapid-fire guns, and chemical weapons, which caused millions of casualties and deaths. Many soldiers returned home with permanent disabilities, including shell shock, an early form of posttraumatic stress disorder. It became increasingly difficult to balance notions of patriotism against these new forms of destruction that soldiers were witnessing around them. For the first time, the returning soldiers felt a sense of hopelessness and resignation about what they had witnessed.

This feeling seemed to lead directly to the embrace of the rambunctious and hedonistic, or pleasure-seeking, Jazz Age, when drinking, dancing, and flirting became all the rage. Young people felt uprooted from the traditional morals of the past, and restless and uncertain about the future as they tried to reassess their place in a postwar world. Many historians and scholars have labeled This Side of Paradise as a portrayal of the disillusioned post–World War I generation, and its protagonist, Amory Blaine, as a perfect example of this postwar sense of dissatisfied aimlessness. Amory Blaine experiences the war, but he also suffers the great loss of college friend Kerry Holiday, and searches for his place or identity in the world in the wake of this loss. American poet Gertrude Stein coined the phrase "lost generation" in the 1920s to describe men such as Amory in a letter to American fiction writer Ernest Hemingway, who went on to use the term in an epigraph for his novel The Sun Also Rises. Fitzgerald himself alludes to the lost generation in the novel when describing the new students at Princeton as "a new generation ... grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, and all faiths in man shaken."

Women's Emancipation

In This Side of Paradise, two female characters have a great influence on Amory—Rosalind and Eleanor. Both characters lament their fate as women—which is to marry—and they rebel against the notion that this is supposed to be their only goal in life. Fitzgerald was likely influenced by the suffragettes of his time—women who campaigned for the right to vote.

Women had become more emancipated in other ways, too, as they sought out greater personal freedom. Previously women had worn restrictive corsets and floor-length skirts, and had put their long hair up in elaborate, heavy hairstyles. They were expected to be sexually modest and to avoid drinking alcohol or smoking. Their primary social role was to marry, have children, and remain at home.

However, the absence of men in World War I had caused many women to be left on their own to run their households and even find jobs. When the war ended in 1918, many women wanted to continue to do these things and be the equals of men in other respects. Women succeeded in gaining the right to vote when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1920, the same year that This Side of Paradise was published.

The Jazz Age of the 1920s was a more sexually open time, and the "flapper," a flirtatious, lively woman, unafraid to challenge social conventions, became its mascot. The flapper shortened her skirts, cut her hair into a chin-length bob, smoke and drank freely, and danced the night away. She flirted and kissed men as she liked, often opting not to marry right away. The Jazz Age made it acceptable and alluring for a woman to speak her mind and embrace her own sexuality—something that was seen as entirely radical at the time.

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