The Era of Jazz in Fitzgerald’s Novels

Introduction

‘This side of paradise’ was written at a time when the jazz age was just beginning; it was thrilling and full of fun. However, the end of this era was characterized by failed expectations. Fitzgerald captured both these extremes impeccably in his two literary pieces by illustrating how those times had changed.

The Jazz ages

The Jazz age encompasses the 1920s when the US economy was booming and its young generation spearheaded a cultural revolution. As the name implies, the era came to be associated with jazz music. Alongside the introduction of mainstream radio, many westerners were also enjoying a period of relative calm after the end of the First World War. They were able to access and enjoy music from unconventional backgrounds through the radio. Young people transferred certain elements of Jazz culture into their own lives. Most of them wanted to rebel against older generations. The Jazz age became synonymous with the emancipation of women who were now working and voting. For the first time, women could join men in bars, and drink and smoke with them without raising eyebrows. They created new fashion statements which were significantly different from the ankle-length skirts they wore before. The rest of the world respected the US because it was now recognized as a world power. Having been the decade of several technological innovations, ordinary people’s lives had been revolutionized. For instance, a number of households owned automobiles and could travel as much as they wanted. The stock market was doing very well; this translated into high consumer expenditures. The spending habit was further perpetuated by the introduction of mail-order businesses, which granted many Americans access to international retail stores such as Sears. The Jazz age was also a time when the country had passed alcohol prohibition laws, which outlawed public drinking. Nonetheless, drinkers worked around this by going to underground pubs. They were exposed to a new culture that consisted of music and uninhibited women. Everyone became obsessed with music, alcohol, flimsy romances, and dancing (Parrish, p. 53). These were all characteristics that occurred prior to the end of the era. By 1929, the country had undergone a dramatic change in fortunes as seen through the stock market crash. It was no longer plausible to indulge as before, so this marked the end of the Jazz age from a historical perspective.

Changing perceptions in ‘Babylon Revisited’ and ‘This Side of Paradise’

‘This Side of Paradise’ was a reflection of the hopes and successes of America. In this literary piece, the author appeared to be glamorizing wealth. It was something that gave an individual power but still came with a price. Most wealthy people had values that the author appears to detest. When talking about his time at Princeton University, the author criticized aristocratic structures prevalent in the institution. In fact, the entire book satirizes wealth and paints a vain picture of American upper classes; a daring move that reflected Jazz-age rebelliousness. At a certain point in the novel, Armory goes out with his friends in New York but when he comes back, he is surprised to find that a good friend of his was a casualty in a road accident. While one may assume that this twist is just a part of the plot, it is also possible to translate it in another way (Kuehl, p. 3). Fitzgerald wanted to illustrate that the fast and intense lives Ivy League university students lived took a toll on them. The lifestyle had its casualties, which was reflected through dire consequences such as death. The armory may have secretly admired that lifestyle but he knew that it would eventually lead to a disaster. On the flipside, ‘Babylon revisited’ was symptomatic of the disillusionment that had occurred at the end of the era. Marion – his sister-in-law- doesn’t feel comfortable giving Charlie custody over Honoria (Fitzgerald, p. 35). She remembers the past days and believes that the main character will always act that way. This is a classic depiction of a past that deeply haunts people who lived recklessly before. The author’s perception of hope has now been turned into disappointment. Even when things appear to be going his way; that is, when Marion was just about to hand over Honoria to him, things get worse because she changes her mind. Having seen Lorraine and Duncan, who are drunk, she feels that Charlie would just not be suitable for Honoria. The story is packed with other instances of failed expectations as was symptomatic of the end of the jazz era.

‘This Side of Paradise’ dwelt on an immature and self-indulgent group of people while ‘Babylon Revisited’ focused on an apologetic character. In the roaring twenties, it was common to act recklessly because most people who did this were young and unexposed. The youth largely participated in the Jazz culture, so consequences that arose out of such irresponsibility became a reality. As young people got older and entered the 1930s, they had to deal with the challenges of adulthood. In the short story, Charlie was now a father and a husband. He needed to step up to the plate or else risk losing everything. After realizing this, Charlie decided to stop drinking heavily. He also focused on his past life and apologized for his misdeeds. In this sense, it can be said that the main characters in the two books changed from being self-indulgent to be apologetic.

Young people were looking for some kind of outlet after participation in the First World War. Fitzgerald’s first piece was a response to that need as it was strong and bold. Amory Blaine- the novel’s main character- is a self-obsessed individual. The author even calls him a romantic egotist. He is good-looking and knows it; this causes him to appear arrogant. Armory is excessive in the sense that he consumes alcohol in large amounts, and is too carried away with women. Such values mirrored that era. Fitzgerald himself described it as “an age of miracles… of art…of excess”. His other characters also echoed these sentiments. For instance, Beatrice Blaine was interested in teaching her son elitist values. She revered wealth and wanted to live largely. Isabelle Borge and Rosalind Connage are Armory’s first and second loves respectively. Both of them came from wealthy families and refused to accept anything less than the best for themselves. In a certain autobiography, Zelda asserted that she did not want to concern herself with pots and pans; she wanted to worry about her legs when she went swimming. Those values could only be borne out of an extreme era. All the excessiveness in ‘This Side of Paradise’ quickly turns into cynicism in Babylon revisited. It now became virtuous to refrain from drinking or partying. In the first part of the narrative Charlie and the bartender engage in a conversation that goes like this:

“I’m going slow these days. Alix congratulated him: “You were going pretty strong a couple of years ago.

“I’ll stick to it all right,” Charlie assured him. “I’ve stuck to it for over a year and a half now.” (Fitzgerald, p. 14)

Charlie knows that his gay days are now behind him, but realizes that he will always be haunted by them. This change in perception between the novel written at the beginning of the Jazz Age and the one written at the end of it has also been borne out of the disappointments in that past era. The good old days became bad when he realized that he had mistakes that could not be erased. For instance, Charlie’s marriage has failed to owe to that lifestyle. He no longer lived with his only child – Honoria – because of that overindulgent past. Since he was paying for those mistakes, then his feelings towards that era were quite negative. The same thing can also be said about his society in general. All economists know that before a bust, there must be a boom. When markets are overconfident about the economy, most of them tend to ignore the rules and this leads to their demise. People were quite wasteful during the Jazz Age and the bust was a consequence of that carefree nature. Just like the author, they were also paying for their errors. In conclusion, Fitzgerald changed his perception of this era because of those negative consequences that came out of it.

Causes of the change

Economic changes led to the change in perceptions in these two pieces. At first, people had more money than they could have imagined. Even when one was broke, one could count on one’s acquaintances to come through. Such sentiments had rubbed off on the author who wanted to capture them in the book. No one could foresee another looming threat, so it was safe to focus on prosperity. The high prevalence of money also eroded traditional values. Traditionalism paved the way for individualism and modernism. Fitzgerald quickly embraced those values and reflected them in his first novel ‘This Side Of Paradise’. He focused on the lifestyles of American youth. This was immensely popular because society was also youth-centric, but like a fast-falling object, all those fun and games hit the ground with a thud. The change came after the stock market crash. Money became very difficult to come by and most people started thinking about it nostalgically. Many regretted their wasted youth and the opportunities they had to secure their future. It is these very notions that can be found in ‘Babylon revisited’. When the boom became a bust, Fitzgerald began to identify the flaws of the past era (Prigozy, p. 101).

How Fitzgerald’s lifestyle affected the work

Both literary pieces were semi-autobiographical. Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were celebrity couples; the media was particularly obsessed with their lives during the twenties because they vividly expressed Jazz-age values. Tabloids described them as wild but deeply in love (Sufrin, p. 54). They sometimes contradicted these views with reports on their affairs. However, they also pointed out that Fitzgerald was a hardworking man. Indeed, ‘Babylon Revisited’ was a depiction of how the author lived in a prosperous and economically stable era but failed to think about his future. In his real life, the writer also had a wife and daughter. Because Fitzgerald was presumed to be irresponsible by his wife’s sister Rosalind and her husband Newman; they felt that it would be best for them to adopt the child. The same sentiments are echoed by Charlie’s sister-in-law and her husband Lincoln. Fitzgerald also struggles a lot in his marriage and eventually fails when his wife succumbs to mental illness. Contemporaries blamed the couples’ fast and fearless lifestyle for that problem. Rarely did they have time to develop themselves, because they would spend their money as soon as they got it. It was the author’s lifestyle that took a toll on his wife. All these components are mentioned in ‘Babylon Revisited’. His lifestyle caused all the negative events to come together thus leading to the narrative. ‘This Side of Paradise’ was also a depiction of the author’s past life. In 1913, Fitzgerald joined Princeton University just like the main character in the novel. His entrance into this institution provided him with a unique platform to analyze young people’s lifestyles in that part of society. Doing so required an investigative frame of mind, and this is why the book was acclaimed for capturing those elements so vividly. He later develops feelings for a socialite called Ginevra King who rejects him because she believes he is not wealthy. In the novel, Armory falls for Rosalind who tells him that he is not rich enough too. In 1916, the author is placed on academic probation and eventually leaves for the army. The same thing happens to the book’s main character, who comes back from the war having accomplished little. Without those experiences in his love life, university and family, Fitzgerald would not have any background against which to assess life in the Jazz Age. Therefore, his lifestyle was heavily influential in this narrative.

‘This Side of Paradise’ was written at a time when Fitzgerald’s love life was in ruins. He needed to win back his love Zelda by demonstrating to her that he was economically stable. His girlfriend had left him just before the publication of the novel because she felt that he could not support her lifestyle (Sufrin, p. 21). He hints at this in ‘This Side of Paradise’ when Rosalind refuses to marry Armory because he has no money. The two never reconciled, yet the opposite thing happened in his real life. When the success of the novel was imminent, Fitzgerald’s love – Zelda – agreed to the idea of marriage. Conversely, ‘Babylon Revisited’ was also written at a time when the author’s family life was on the verge of ruins. His wife was struggling with various mental illnesses and was in and out of hospital all the time. He was afraid of losing his daughter’s custody to his sister-in-law. Having struggled with excessive drinking for a long time, Fitzgerald decided to create a character that had the same challenges in the short story as he did. Here was a man who had wasted his youth and was now reflecting upon it retrospectively. The narrative was an outlet for him to do so as it contained all these autobiographical elements.

The two literary pieces as reflections of both ends of the Jazz Age

In the jazz age, money was plentiful; consequently, one had to demonstrate that one possessed it in order to live well. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ Armory tries to court one of the elitist ladies in the book but she immediately refuses the offer (Fitzgerald, p. 24). This rejection was symptomatic of the elitist values prevalent at that time. High-class girls just could not marry poor boys and there were no two ways about it. In ‘Babylon Revisited’ money was too scarce to be used as a bargaining chip in relationships. Having undergone the economic depression, it was difficult to set such high standards as everyone was affected by the shortage. ‘This Side of Paradise’ glorified money while ‘Babylon Revisited’ despised it.

Fitzgerald talks about the war in ‘This Side of Paradise’ but he merely brushes over it. That section of the novel in which he talks about the war is even called “the interlude” to illustrate that events described thereafter are not as important. The author gives no mention of his participation, accomplishments, or disappointments in the war. Readers only come to learn about it later on in the novel when he reveals that he was a bayonet instructor. He may have done this deliberately in order to focus his audience’s attention on the romantic or materialistic components of the book. This writer was deeply aware of such Jazz-age values and therefore felt that he could skip such a description. At the end of that era, no one really wanted to hear about success and prosperity anymore; therefore, it was permissible to dwell on failures in this later version.

‘This Side of Paradise’ is more optimistic and future-looking. The young Armory longs to fit in with his peers and therefore tries numerous things to win them over. He also does the same in his love life. After his second love leaves him for the same reason as the first, he tries to win her over by getting a job but he never really succeeds in charming her. Despite all these obstacles, the novel still ends with a certain level of optimism. Armory laments “I know myself, but that is all” (Fitzgerald, p. 305). This impending element of the story is intended to make audiences hopeful about what is to come after such a life. The novel ‘This Side of Paradise’ was critically acclaimed because it perfectly represented the hopes and successes of Americans during the Jazz era. Fitzgerald did this through the ending of the novel and other sections that focus on Armory’s life. Conversely, ‘Babylon Revisited’ represented those failed expectations of the end of the Jazz era. In the narrative, Charlie does not even live in the US, which is his real home, he is now in Prague. His family does not support or embrace him anymore. When he visits Lincoln and Marion, they are less than welcoming to him. Besides, he feels more comfortable at the Ritz than at home. He talks about his crazy days and gossips about his neighbors who had succumbed to hard economic times. The hotels and restaurants are empty and nothing seems to be that exciting anymore. Charlie’s life is now a pale shadow of its former self. The same thing has happened to many other people at the end of the Jazz era. Their excesses caused them to be delineated from their families and led to the economic problems that they were now facing. Through the main character, Fitzgerald was able to capture the challenges that came at the end of a vibrant decade.

Conclusion

The jazz age was a set of contradictions for the people concerned. At one point it was seen as thrilling and promising and these elements have been avidly captured by Fitzgerald in ‘This Side Of Paradise’. However, the tides changed and the Jazz generation had to deal with its misdeeds at the end of the era. It was a bleak and uncertain future created by the recklessness of the past decade. Fitzgerald looks retrospectively at that time using the narrative ‘Babylon Revisited’.

Works Cited

  1. Fitzgerald, Scott. This side of paradise. NY” Scribner, 1920. Print
  2. Fitzgerald, Scott. “Babylon revisited.” Saturday Evening Post, 1931.
  3. Kuehl, John. Scott Fitzgerald: a study of short fiction. NA: GK Hall, 1991. Print
  4. Parrish, Michael. Anxious decades: America in prosperity and depression – 1920-1941. NY: Norton, 1992. Print.
  5. Prigozy, Ruth. The Cambridge companion to Scott Fitzgerald. Cambridge: CUP, 2002. Print.
  6. Sufrin, Mark. Scott Fitzgerald. NY: Antheneum, 1994. Print