Critical Evaluation

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In his literary work, F. Scott Fitzgerald is a retrospective oracle. He describes an age of individuals who came on the scene and burned themselves out even before they were able to conceptualize themselves. His first published novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), is autobiographical and describes the early Jazz Age, with its vague values of money, beauty, and a distorted sense of social propriety. His masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, came in 1925, and Tender Is the Night fictionalizes the personal and social disintegration that followed the success that The Great Gatsby had brought Fitzgerald.

In addition to describing the glamour, excitement, and frenetic pursuit of the good life between the two world wars, Tender Is the Night contains a masterful attempt at thematic telescoping. Beyond his potential as a fictional character, Dick Diver serves a double function in the novel: He is, on the largest scale, a mid-twentieth century American equivalent of the tragic hero, and he also represents the complex disintegration of the American individual during a precarious point in history.

In many ways, Diver’s fall follows Aristotle’s formula for classical tragedy: He is an isolated hero upon whom an entire community of individuals depends to give necessary form to their lives, yet he has a tragic flaw, a lack of perspective and introspection. (He is once told by a classmate, “That’s going to be your trouble—judgment about yourself.”) He represents the individual in his role as a psychiatrist, a person who is expected to understand human motivation. Ever since the precipitating element, Nicole’s case, “drifted into his hands,” he has been at the mercy of fate, and his fall is monumental, from an elevated position in life into failure and anonymity. Most significant, Diver has a perception of his own tragic importance. He realizes that he is losing his grip on situations, and even though he recognizes some of the possible consequences of his actions, he is not equipped psychologically to combat them.

Dick Diver, however, is not a strictly tragic figure; at most, he is the sort of tragic hero that America would allow in the 1920’s, but it is in this capacity that Diver serves to describe the disintegration of the American character. Dick is not simply symbolic of an American; his character is individualized to represent what an American with his exemplary vulnerabilities could become in certain circumstances. Diver and his companions create their own mystique to avoid the realities of a world thrown into, and extracting itself from, war. Their frenetic rites and the aura in which the compatriots hide ultimately form the confusion that grows larger than Diver, unleashing itself and swallowing him.

Diver and the American character at this time are incomplete; each is detrimentally eclectic and depends for support on props such as music, money, and material possessions. Incompleteness nourishes Diver’s paternalistic assimilation of portions of the personalities that surround him and depend on him. His need to be needed, however, causes him to assimilate more weaknesses than strengths, and the organic process is abortive. The American character is presented as being a limited, possessive one. There is a sense of something existing beyond Diver’s intellectual and emotional reach that could have proved to be his salvation. Fitzgerald emphasizes the eclectic and incomplete nature of the American during this era by interweaving elements of the romantic, the realistic, and the didactic when describing the actions and motivations of his characters. The result presents a severely realistic emotional conflict that sporadically explodes several characters, including Diver, into psychological chaos.

Diver also functions as the pivotal character of the plot itself....

(This entire section contains 893 words.)

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Fitzgerald relays Diver’s decline quite convincingly and succeeds in providing the reader subliminally with the correct formula for observing Diver’s actions and their consequences. In the first three chapters of the novel, the reader is taught, through Nicole’s exemplary case, to appreciate the importance of psychological analysis, to isolate the “precipitating factor” in a character’s development, and then to consider that factor’s influence on subsequent actions. The reader thus becomes equipped to transfer these premises to observations of Diver. Throughout the duration of the novel, Diver is driven by a need to be needed, which leads him increasingly into circumstances that involve him directly and cause him almost voluntarily to allow his energy to be sapped.

Tender Is the Night is a psychological novel that is more successful than most novels of its type, partly because of Fitzgerald’s handling of time. Time serves horizontal, linear, and vertical purposes in the novel. In linear time, the reader has an advantage that Diver does not have. (This was not so in earlier drafts of the novel.) The reader knows that Diver grows older, that Rosemary matures and finds other interests, and that Nicole eventually recovers from her illness, but these are circumstances of which Diver is ignorant. Time also functions vertically, making the notion of thematic telescoping possible. Diver is not cognizant of the passing of time until his plunge is in its advanced stages. As Diver gradually acknowledges time and the vast gap between his “heroic period” and his encroaching anonymity, his thematic function passes from that of the purely tragic figure to that of the national character and, finally, to that of the flawed individual Dick Diver, who learns to accept his situation.

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Tender Is the Night