Critical Overview

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When it was first published in 1934, reviewers and readers picked up Tender Is the Night with some trepidation. It had been nearly a decade since his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, had been published, and there were rumors in literary circles that Fitzgerald was done for as a writer. Although the book did not sell nearly as well as his earlier books, reviewers were generally favorable in their response to Fitzgerald’s new book. (Tender Is the Night sold about fifteen thousand copies in 1934, according to Matthew J. Bruccoli, writing in his introduction to Reader’s Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, compared to the forty-one thousand copies This Side of Paradise sold in its first year of publication and the fifty thousand copies The Beautiful and the Damned sold in its first year.) Over the years, critics and scholars have come to regard Tender Is the Night not only as one of Fitzgerald’s major works but one of American literature’s most important novels of the twentieth century.

According to Bruccoli, of the twenty-four reviews published in “influential American periodicals, nine were favorable, six were unfavorable, and nine were mixed.”

Writing in the New York Times, John Chamberlain called the rumors of Fitzgerald’s demise “gossip,” and he went on to write that from a technical viewpoint, although Tender Is the Night is not as perfect as The Great Gatsby, it is “an exciting and psychologically apt study in the disintegration of a marriage.” In contrast, Horace Gregory, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, described the book as being “not all that it should have been. There is an air of dangerous fatality about it, as though the author were sharing the failure of his protagonist.” Gregory, however, concluded his review by acknowledging that several isolated scenes in the book had “extraordinary power” and would “not be soon forgotten.”

In a review titled “Fitzgerald’s Novel a Masterpiece,” Cameron Rogers, referring to the long period of time it had been since The Great Gatsby was published, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that “Tender Is the Night is so well worth [the wait] that Fitzgerald’s silence . . . seems natural and explicable” and that “there is so much beauty, so much compassion and so much understanding [in the book] that it seems as though it could only have sprung from a mind left wisely fallow.”

In a criticism of the book that continues to this day, Mary M. Colum, in her Forum and Century review, pointed to the weakness of Fitzgerald’s characterizations, especially Nicole’s. Colum calls passages describing Nicole “more like a case history from a textbook than a novelist’s study of a real character.” And in Fitzgerald’s hometown paper, the St. Paul Dispatch, James Gray called the novel “a big, sprawling, undisciplined, badly coordinated book” and went on to call it “immature.”

One of the issues that Fitzgerald faced was that in the nine years since he had last published, the cultural make-up of the United States had changed dramatically. In a short piece published in the New York Times a few days after his review of Tender Is the Night appeared, John Chamberlain encapsulated one of the effects this time lag had on the reception of the book. After reading the early reviews of the book, Chamberlain concluded that none of them were “alike; no two had the same tone.” He noted that some critics thought “Fitzgerald was writing about his usual jazz age boys and girls; others that he had a ‘timeless’ problem on his hands.”

Chamberlain’s observations of the book’s critical responses...

(This entire section contains 825 words.)

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underscored the challenges Fitzgerald had withTender Is the Night. In the nine years since he had published The Great Gatsby, the American psyche and reading public had changed radically. Although Tender Is the Night was not the same type of book as was The Great Gatsby, it was not sufficiently different or enough reflective of society’s changes to appease many of his critics or readers. The so-called “Jazz Age,” a time noted for its extravagance and material excesses, and the period in which Fitzgerald’s reputation had flowered, had been replaced by the severe austerity of the depression. As a result, the literary tastes of the society had changed radically; many reviewers and readers had little patience for books reminding them of the frivolous past, and the age of social realism had begun to emerge across all art forms. Tender Is the Night’s characterizations of the rich and idle seemed anachronistic to many readers and reviewers, and for many the book was not the type of literature the difficult times were calling for. As a result, the book’s reception was not uniform in either its praise or its criticism; it would take years for critics to gain the distance necessary to understand the book’s complexities and its relationship to Fitzgerald’s other works.

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