The Essential Theme

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Fitzgerald’s handling of dialogue in Tender is the Night has not so far received sufficient critical attention. In this article I intend to examine three quotations to demonstrate that it is, in fact, in the dialogue that the essential theme of the novel is most clearly revealed.

In the early part of the novel we witness the Divers’ relationship through the innocent eyes of Rosemary, who “knew the Divers loved each other because it had been her primary assumption.” The Divers have a party to which Dick invites Rosemary and her mother. There has been no indication before this point that Dick is interested in Rosemary, though she already loves him, and, to Rosemary, Nicole seems a cool self-possessed woman of the world. At the party Dick makes the following apparently empty remarks to Rosemary and her mother.

“What a beautiful garden,” Mrs. Speers exclaimed.

“Nicole’s garden,” said Dick. “She won’t let it alone. She nags it all the time, worries about its diseases. Any day now I expect to have her come down with Powdery Mildew or Fly Speck or Late Blight.”

He pointed his forefinger decisively at Rosemary, saying with a lightness seeming to conceal a paternal interest, “I’m going to save your reason—I’m going to give you a hat to wear on the beach.”

He turned them from the garden to the terrace, where he poured a cocktail. . .

Here, without any pursuit of the Freudian convolutions of the forefinger and the hat, Dick’s unconscious preoccupations lie clear under the light, flippant, almost meaningless remarks. He stresses Nicole’s ownership of the garden, revealing his own touchiness about the fact that they live on her money. His preoccupation with Nicole’s disease is equally apparent and combined with his interest in Rosemary (seeming to conceal a paternal interest) expresses almost a wish that Nicole might become totally sick. Then his sudden leap to “I’m going to save your reason” (just as he consciously set out,, at the beginning of his relationship with Nicole, to save hers) reveals, as does the reference to paternal affection, that he is already thinking of Rosemary as he did of Nicole at the beginning of the novel. For, as I shall point out in more detail later, an integral part of the theme is that Dick’s affair with Rosemary repeats for him every stage of his original feeling for Nicole.

The second quotation is taken from the final section of the book. Consciously, and this part of the novel is seen from Nicole’s viewpoint, Nicole still respects Dick. She still regards herself as dependent on him, just as he still consciously maintains that he loves her and consciously ignores the possibility of an affair between her and Tommy Barban. But their true unconscious relationship, unrealised by either of them at this juncture, is clearly revealed to the reader in the exchange that takes place between them the morning after Dick has made a fool of himself on Golding’s yacht. Nicole sits between Dick and Tommy, making a sketch of Tommy’s head.

“Hands never idle—distaff flying,” Dick said lightly. How could he talk so trivially with the blood still drained down from his cheeks so that the auburn lather of beard showed red as his eyes? She turned to Tommy saying:

“I can always do something. I used to have a nice active little Polynesian ape and juggle him around for hours till people began to make the most dismal rough jokes—”

She kept her eyes resolutely away from Dick. Presently he excused himself and went inside.

Here Dick’s suspicions are apparent to...

(This entire section contains 2469 words.)

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the reader in his opening remark, which ironically stresses their relationship as man and wife. But he speakslightly, unaware of his own motive for saying it. And Nicole does not understand the unconscious barb any more than he does. To her he is talking trivially. Her own hidden contempt for Dick is even more obvious (though significantly not to either her or Dick or, we assume, Tommy) in her reference to the Polynesian ape after she has just noticed the red growth of beard on Dick’s face and the redness of his eyes. Moreover what is further revealed by her remarks here—“I used to have a nice . . . ape and juggle him around”—is that at this point she is unconsciously viewing Dick as her sister has viewed him from the beginning; as bought with the Warren money, to serve the Warren purposes. She does not, as the action continues, persist in this view, but it brushes her mind, recorded only in the dialogue.

The third example occurs towards the end of the novel. At this point Nicole feels herself “so delicately balanced . . . between an old foothold that had always guaranteed her security, and the imminence of a leap from which she must alight changed in the very chemistry of blood and muscle, that she did not dare bring the matter into the true forefront of consciousness.” Dick feels himself to have “gone into a process of deterioration.” Rosemary, whom neither have seen for some time, comes to visit them at Antibes.

Just before the passage to be quoted here Rosemary has been surprised at Dick’s bitterness about Mary North. She had “thought of him as all-forgiving, all-comprehending.” Then the following scene takes place:

. . .She [Nicole] guessed that Dick . . . would grow charming . . . make Rosemary respond to him. Sure enough, in a moment . . . he had said:

“Mary’s all right— . . .But it’s hard to go on liking people who don’t like you.”

Rosemary, falling into line, swayed toward Dick and crooned:

“Oh, you’re so nice. I can’t imagine anybody not forgiving you anything, no matter what you did to them.”

Rosemary then goes on to ask what they have thought of her latest pictures. Nicole says nothing but Dick goes on:

“. . . Let’s suppose that Nicole says to you that Lanier is ill. What do you do in life? What does anyone do? They act— . . . the face shows sorrow, the voice shows shock, the words show sympathy. . . .”

“But in the theatre, no . . . all the best comediénnes have built up their reputations by burlesquing the correct emotional responses—fear and love and sympathy . . .”

“The danger to an actress is in responding. Again let’s suppose that somebody told you, ‘Your lover is dead.’ In life you’d probably go to pieces. But on the stage you’re trying to entertain—the audience can do the ‘responding’ for themselves. First the actress has lines to follow, then she has to get the audience’s attention back on herself. . . . So she must do something unexpected. If the audience thinks the character is hard she goes soft on them—if they think she’s soft she goes hard. You go all out of character—you understand?” . . .

“You do the unexpected thing until you’ve manouevred the audience back from the objective fact to yourself. Then you slide into character again.”

This is clearly no answer at all to Rosemary’s question about her pictures; yet everything Dick says is intensely relevant to his relationship with Rosemary, and with Nicole. That something of crucial importance has clearly been communicated to the two women, though not at the conscious level, is clear from their actions following the conversation. Rosemary turns to the Divers’ daughter, Topsy, and asks her “Would you like to be an actress when you grow up?” indicating that a part of herself has understood that Dick has been discussing his own relationship with her and that the relationship has been, at a certain level, that of father and daughter. Nicole, who has, we are told, consciously understood nothing immediately remarks, “in her grandfather’s voice,” “it’s absolutely out to put such ideas in the heads of other people’s children.” She then leaves; and in the scene immediately following she has “a sense of being cured and in a new way. Her ego blooming like a great rich.”

Dick begins by making an unconscious comment on Rosemary’s reaction to the appeal of his “It’s hard to go on liking people who don’t like you.” It is, as it were, dawning on him that she is burlesquing. She has “gone soft” to get the audience’s (Dick’s) attention “back on herself.” He is acknowledging the truth about her. She is an actress in life. She does not “respond.” Her audience does so. But this truth about Rosemary is a truth also about himself. In Paris Rosemary had “said her most sincere thing to him: ‘Oh we’re such actors—you and I.’” He had, he is suggesting, in his bitterness about Mary North, been doing the “unexpected thing,” to get Rosemary’s attention back on himself. He had done the unexpected in being bitter and unpleasant and is now “sliding into character again”: the character of the charming, protective, essentially paternal figure. The sense that this is only a role and not his true nature is, I think, the main significance of this passage for Dick himself. And his apparently off-hand examples, “Let’s suppose Nicole says to you that Lanier is ill,” “Suppose that somebody told you, ‘Your lover is dead’” indicate that at least a hint about the real truth of his own nature and of his relationship with Nicole is already afloat in his mind. This is a truth Nicole has begun to recognise a little earlier when in response to his wish to show his skill on the aquaplane “she indulged him as she might have indulged Lanier.”

The passage reveals a dim awareness, then, on Dick’s part, that no real relationship has ever existed between himself and Rosemary and that none can exist—because each of them is incapable of “responding.” Unconsciously he also senses that the role he has maintained with Nicole is now slipping from him, that he is the child, the dependent and that she is sliding back “into character again.” For Nicole the return to “character” is to be a return, as she tells Tommy Barban, to her “true self.”

If my interpretation of these three examples is valid, it is clear that Fitzgerald reveals in his dialogue both what his characters consciously know and communicate to each other, and what lies buried beneath the surface of their own and others’ conciousness where the truth about themselves and their relationships is to be found. And this buried knowledge is revealed only in the dialogue. Fitzgerald, as author, makes no explicit comment upon it and neither do any of the characters. “Here [in the world of the novel] there is no light” as the quotation from Keats on the title-page suggests there will not be.

Further this interpretation of the dialogue suggests that Dick Diver’s tragedy is internal and not caused by the corrupting influence of Nicole’s wealth. This is assuredly a contributing factor, since it affords Dick, as no other condition could, the opportunity to use to the full what is in fact his only talent (despite his own and others’ misapprehensions about his brilliance); that is, his charm and great social ability. It is his final realization of the fact that this is all he in fact has, that destroys him. For in realising this, he realises also that despite his varied relationships, his apparent adult control of them, and his ability to arouse “a fascinating and uncritical love in others for himself,” he is unable to love. He is capable not of responding, or of acting, but only of burlesquing.

Nicole’s return to “her original self” results from a similar realisation of the hidden truth about herself. She understands that her dependence on Dick has been in fact her disease: a false on a false reality.

The true nature of their relationship with each other is forced upon them both by Dick’s parallel relationship with Rosemary. The discussion of the 1st example on pages 2 and 3 above suggests that with both women, Dick plays the role of father. And it is clear that both Nicole and Rosemary attribute this role to him. Nicole, who was Rosemary’s age when she first met Dick, leans on him for support as she might on an ‘ideal’ father until her return to health, when she abandons “her dry suckling at his lean chest.” Her view of him as father is so complete that in her mad spells she sees him as the ‘evil’ father who seduced her.

And that this is Rosemary’s view of him is made equally clear. He is to her “the beautiful cold image she had created,” the idealized image of her dead father. Dick’s refusal to take Rosemary when she offers herself in Paris confirms this image in her mind. When later Dick does make physical demands the result is to destroy whatever potential she may have had for real love. Her experience with him, in other words, parallels subtly and psychologically the brutal physical disillusion of Nicole as a child with her actual father.

The relationships are complicated by the fact that Dick, like the two women, has assumed that the thin layer of his “attentive seriousness” has concealed a deep fund of adult love and power. Whereas in fact, as the discussion of the third example indicates, he has been an actor burlesquing “the correct emotional responses.” Incapable of loving, he has been beneath his role, a child seeking parental love—as he is in his final conversation with Mary North when “His eyes, for a moment clear as a child’s, asked her sympathy.” His “lesion of vitality,” then, is rooted, as are Nicole’s and Rosemary’s, in a past family relationship; and the ‘adult’ relationships of all three are conditioned by this.

If this interpretation is accepted, it is clear Tender is the Night is not a fumbling attempt to reproduce again what Alfred Kazin describes as Fitzgerald’s only theme, “the fitful glaring world of Jay Gatsby’s dream and of Jay Gatsby’s failure.” The novel has its weaknesses, but these result, at least partly, from Fitzgerald’s attempt to express a new theme. He is here concerned, as not before, with the hidden roots of adult relationships; and with the waste that results from the characters’ misunderstanding of themselves and of each other. Throughout the novel this misunderstanding is the result of their mistaking persona for true self, even though in their communication with each other the preoccupations, motives, and desires of that true self are constantly revealed to the attentive reader.

Source: William F. Hall, “Dialogue and Theme in Tender Is the Night,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 76, No. 7, November 1961, pp. 616–22.

The Structure

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One of the criticisms leveled at Tender Is the Night shortly following its publication concerned its structure. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s use of flashback in Book Two, many critics felt, resulted in an unwieldy book. Writing in the St. Paul Dispatch, James Gray called the novel “big, sprawling, [and] badly coordinated” and went on to criticize the book for its “technical fault of poor organization.” The issue of its organization plagued Fitzgerald so much in the years following the book’s publication that he began to wonder if he should not have presented the story chronologically. A decade after Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley used the author’s personal notes to justify the publication a new version of Tender Is the Night, which he subtitled “The Author’s Final Version.” In Cowley’s revision, which was not well received by critics, the tragic story of Dick Diver is told chronologically; Cowley eliminated the book’s flashback sequence by placing much of Books Two and Three at the start of the novel, before Book One.

However, the three-part structure with the flashback sequence in Book Two is one of the novel’s great strengths. Fitzgerald’s decision to organize the book in this way allows the reader to experience the demise of Dick Diver, just as young and naïve Rosemary Hoyt experiences it. From what Fitzgerald reveals in Book One, who would not want to be, or be with, Dick Diver? He is rich, handsome, and the envy of his large circle of friends. Although there are hints of pending trouble in his life, his world is a wondrous one. However, as the unwondrous truths about his and Nicole’s past emerge in Book Two, the stage is being set for his precipitous fall and ultimate disappearance in Book Three. The three-part structure of Tender Is the Night effectively mirrors the way Rosemary Hoyt views Dick Diver over time and helps to deepen the reader’s understanding of his tragic story.

In the Introduction to Reader’s Companion to Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli chronicles the genesis of what would eventually become “The Author’s Final Version” of Tender Is the Night. Shortly after the book’s publication, when it became apparent that it would not be the commercial success Fitzgerald hoped it would be, Fitzgerald questioned the novel’s structure in letters to friends and in his own journals and notes. In 1938, he wrote his editor, Maxwell Perkins, asking him to consider republishing the novel with the middle section placed at the beginning. In the letter, Fitzgerald cited a “dozen reviewers” who had noticed the “mistake” of the book’s structure.

Perkins declined Fitzgerald’s suggestion, but Fitzgerald did not let the idea die. At the time of his death in 1940, he had in his possession an unbound copy of Tender Is the Night in which he had written, “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” Essentially, Fitzgerald’s new version opens with Nicole Diver’s case history, as told in Book Two, followed by necessary changes that would keep the rest of the story intact.

Tender Is the Night was the last novel Fitzgerald would see published in his lifetime. By the time the book was published, a combination of alcoholism and unmanageable debts had overwhelmed him. Not only was he desperate for income, he had also clearly lost much of his analytic abilities. Fitzgerald’s hope that a new version of the book would breathe new commercial life into it blinded him to the aesthetic issues that such a revision would affect. As Matthew J. Bruccoli writes in the Introduction to his Reader’s Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to Cowley years after Fitzgerald’s death, wrote “I know you [revised the book] for Scott and it was what he wanted. . . . But I think if he had been completely sane I could have argued him out of it.”

Far from being a “mistake,” the structure of Tender Is the Night works well to deliver the evolution of Rosemary’s views of Dick, and without that structure, much of what Hemingway called the “magic” of the book would have been lost completely. “It is just like takeing [sic] the wings off a butterfly and arrangeing [sic] them so he can fly straight as a bee flies and loseing [sic] all the dust that makes the colors that makes the butterfly magical in the process,” Hemingway wrote in his letter to Cowley.

Tender Is the Night opens from the point of view of the virginal Rosemary Hoyt, the star of the recent Hollywood movie Daddy’s Girl. Vacationing in France with her mother, Rosemary is immediately attracted to Dick Diver and his wife, Nicole.

“He looked at her and for a moment she lived in the bright blue worlds of his eyes, eagerly and confidently,” Fitzgerald writes in the closing paragraph of the book’s second chapter as Dick and Rosemary are standing together on the beach.

A bit later, Fitzgerald describes the moment Rosemary meets Nicole for the first time:

She was about twenty-four, Rosemary guessed—her face could have been described in terms of conventional prettiness, but the effect was that it had been made first on the heroic scale with strong structure and marking, as if the features and vividness of brow and coloring, everything we associate with temperament and character had been molded with a Rodinesque intention, and then chiseled away in the direction of prettiness to a point where a single slip would have irreparably diminished its force and quality.

Rosemary is clearly smitten by the couple, especially Dick. “I love him, Mother,” she cries from her mother’s lap. “I’m desperately in love with him—I never knew I could feel that way about anybody. And he’s married and I like her too—it’s just hopeless. Oh, I love him so.”

In Book One, the reader is made to view Dick and his world essentially as Rosemary views them. More than simply being smitten sexually, Rosemary is also taken in by the whole of Dick Diver and his world: the lavish dinner parties and expeditions to Paris, Nicole’s spending sprees, their circle of friends, and their obvious wealth. And just as a smitten young woman (or man) would not necessarily observe details that would contradict such an idealization, so too the reader may notice only in retrospect the foreshadowing of trouble that Fitzgerald sprinkles throughout Book One: the bathroom scene at the villa, the duel between Tommy Barban and Albert McKisco, and Abe North’s drinking.

At the end of Book One, the Divers’ world begins to unravel in Rosemary’s eyes. North gets extremely drunk in Paris, and through a series of convoluted events, a black man, Jules Peterson, is discovered on Rosemary’s bed shot dead. As if this is not enough, Nicole responds to these events by going into a state of hysterics in her hotel bathroom. “Rosemary, back in the salon, heard the bathroom door bang, and stood trembling: now she knew what Violet McKisco had seen in the bathroom at Villa Diana,” Fitzgerald writes, suggesting that at least some of the brilliant sheen that had blinded Rosemary has now been dulled.

The main criticism of the flashback structure of Book Two was that it made for a confusing plot structure. Although it is true that placing the flashback sequence of Book Two at the beginning of the novel would have made for a clearer plot chronologically, the effect would have been both to take away from the naïve and idyllic worldview created in Book One, or the “magic,” as Hemingway called it, and it would also have taken away from the effect the gradual realization of what the bathroom scenes in Book One signified. With a straightforward narrative, the mysteries of those scenes would have been eliminated entirely.

Book Two covers approximately an elevenyear period, from 1917, when Dick, an up-andcoming twenty-six-year-old psychiatrist, is studying at a Zurich clinic, to about 1928 when he consummates his relationship with Rosemary in Italy and proceeds to get arrested and beaten by Italian police after a night of excessive drinking.

It is true that there are some issues of plot structure in the way that Fitzgerald has managed Book Two. Rather than simply bringing the events back to where they were left off in Book One, there is some overlap and possibly some resulting confusion in the narration. More important, though, there is the “problem” of Rosemary Hoyt. After devoting an entire section of the novel to presenting the narration through her eyes, she disappears entirely through most of Book Two, and when she eventually does reappear, she is no longer the young, idealistic virgin Dick once knew.

Fitzgerald was on the receiving end of criticism on both of these accounts when Tender Is the Night was first published. But again, Fitzgerald’s choice to present Book Two in flashback form, and to remove Rosemary from most of this section, makes perfect sense in light of Rosemary’s newfound concerns at the end of Book One. With the drinking and the murder and the hysterics she has just been made privy to, Rosemary must be wondering whom she has gotten involved with. By using Book Two to provide the history behind those events, Fitzgerald effectively gives Rosemary, and the reader, the answer.

And Rosemary’s “response” to that answer? She disappears from the Divers’ circle, makes new movies, and, it is quite apparent, has affairs with other men. In short, she continues the process of growing up, but away from Dick. And when Dick returns from America and visits her in Rome, it is clear that she is no longer smitten by his worldliness and charm. She goes through the motions of consummating their relationship, just as Dick does, but the spark is no longer there for either of them.

More particularly for Rosemary, by the time the Divers’ history has been recounted in Book Two, she has learned that the appearances of Book One were somewhat illusory and that the violence and hysterics that came to light were as much a part of Dick’s life as were the attributes that she fell for in the first place. The effect of this realization, however, can only be made manifest with the structure that Fitzgerald has chosen. If Nicole’s case history had preceded Rosemary’s introduction to the Divers, neither she, nor the reader, would have been nearly as smitten. The glamour of their lifestyle would clearly have been tarnished, and the effects of any new insights into the Divers, if there were any new insights at all, would be minimal.

To conclude Rosemary’s relationship with Dick, Fitzgerald brings her back to the Divers’ villa briefly in Book Three. After Dick’s embarrassing flop with the water ski trick, Rosemary joins Dick and his family on the beach and engages in a telling moment of dialogue that essentially mirrors the structure of the book:

‘The first drink I ever had was with you,’ Rosemary said, and with a spurt of enthusiasm she added, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to see you and know you’re all right. I was worried—’ Her sentence broke as she changed direction ‘that maybe you wouldn’t be.’

‘Did you hear I’d gone into a process of deterioration?’

‘Oh, no. I simply—just heard you’d changed. And I’m glad to see with my own eyes it isn’t true.’

‘It is true,’ Dick answered, sitting down with them. ‘The change came a long way back—but at first it didn’t show. The manner remains intact for some time after the morale cracks.’

Just as Rosemary has gone from having her “first drink” with Dick in Book One through the knowledge of his past in Book Two, so has the reader. And so has the reader watched as Dick pathetically tries to remain “intact” in Book Three, despite the “crack” that events from years ago have caused. Without the structure that Fitzgerald provided Tender Is the Night, the reader would have learned the facts of Dick’s demise as given forth in the novel’s plot but would not have had the experience of coming to terms with that demise. Having the ability to tell a great story and being able to tell a great story while also finding the right structure for that story is what separates merely good writers from great ones. Tender Is the Night shows why F. Scott Fitzgerald is considered one of the twentieth-century’s great writers.

Source: Mark White, Critical Essay on Tender Is the Night, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.

The Pursuit of Happiness

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“France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter.” In this passage from “The Swimmers,” a 1929 story later distilled into his Notebooks, Fitzgerald evokes the anguished intense patriotism he finds in American faces from Abraham Lincoln’s to those of the “country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered” (CU 197). For Fitzgerald that American “quality of the idea” finds most worthy expression in the impulse to offer the best of yourself on behalf of someone or something greater than yourself. Directed toward the world, a “willingness of the heart” intensifies the individual’s feelings and experience. In Tender Is the Night (TITN) as in Gatsby, the dream of love and accomplishment is distorted by the values of property and possession. Like Gatsby, Dick Diver has large ambitions: “. . . to be a good psychologist—maybe to be the greatest one that ever lived.” Dick’s colleague, the stolid Swiss, Franz Gregorovius, stops short hearing his friend’s pronouncement, as did the aspiring American man of letters, Edmund Wilson, when the undergraduate Fitzgerald declared: “I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don’t you?” Like Fitzgerald, Diver mingles love with ambition, though passively, almost as an afterthought: “He wanted to be loved too, if he could fit it in.”

Reminiscent of Gatsby, Diver’s dream resides initially in a masculine world in which one man’s ambition and achievement are measured against another’s. But, as with Gatsby, experience changes the values implicit in Diver’s equation. Stirred by professional curiosity, he meets Nicole Warren. Because of her youth and beauty, the patient becomes in Diver’s eyes primarily a woman, though a woman imagined as “a scarcely saved waif of disaster bringing him the essence of a continent.” To the inexperienced Diver—“only hot-cheeked girls in hot secret rooms”—Nicole is a figure for the romantic possibility of an America that, like the “fresh green breast of the new world” whose “vanished trees . . . had made way for Gatsby’s house” (TGG 137) is, though violated and compromised, suggestive of innocence, vitality, and possibility, and above all, still worthy of love.

So Dick Diver gambles his “pursuit of happiness” on marriage to Nicole. But his desire to be loved—“I want to be extravagantly admired again,” Fitzgerald said as he was writing Tender—seduces him away from his scholarly writing as a psychiatrist. Once diverted from his work, he does not find happiness as curator of the leisure-class expatriate American world he and Nicole create on the Riviera, or as psychiatrist in charge of the clinic bought with Warren money, or as Nicole’s husband, or, finally, “wolf-like under his sheep’s clothing” a pursuer of women more in mind than in actuality. For Diver, like Gatsby, the pursuit of happiness becomes personally hollow in love, and professionally so in his work. Again, perhaps like Gatsby, only more so, Diver is more responsible than he knows for the dissolution of his dream of love and work.

For her part, Nicole, like Daisy, only more poignantly, veers between two selves. Cured, she embraces her heritage as her robber baron grandfather Warren’s daughter; her white crook’s eyes signify a proprietary attitude toward the world. More vividly and knowingly than before, she becomes the goddess of monopoly and dynasty described early in the novel. “For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California.” Nicole, “as the whole system swayed and thundered onward,” is, in Europe, remote product and beneficiary of her family’s multinational corporate interests. Like Daisy, Nicole “has too much money”; like Gatsby, Dick Diver “can’t beat that.”

Yet in Tender is the Night, the matter is not so simple. Marrying Nicole, Dick takes on a task demanding a heroic and perhaps a too stringent discipline and self-denial. After the most violent and threatening of Nicole’s schizophrenic episodes, he realizes that “somehow [he] and Nicole had become one and equal, not opposite and complementary; she was Dick too, the drought in the marrow of his bones.” Her personality reinforces rather than compensates for what is missing in him. Even more fatal for Diver’s balance between husband and psychiatrist, “he could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them.” Underneath the historical overtones of the American dream gone terribly, incestuously, wrong, Fitzgerald explores the strained and, finally, chilling intimacy of a marriage turned inward against the autonomy and independence of each person. With slow excruciating inevitability, Diver’s “willingness of the heart,” so catalytic to his imagination, charm, and discipline, deserts him.

She went up to him and, putting her arm around his shoulder and touching their heads together, said:

“Don’t be sad.”

He looked at her coldly.

“Don’t touch me!” he said.

Diver has come so far from his former love for Nicole, “a wild submergence of soul, a dipping of all colors into an obscuring dye,” that he now recoils from her touch. The Divers are no longer man and woman to each other. In truth, the conditions and pathology sustaining the marriage are played out. Nicole is rid of her incestuous dependence on Dick, and Dick seeks to recover the independence he sacrificed as Nicole’s husband, doctor, and, above all, protector.

Discipline, spirit, and imagination attenuated if not broken, Diver returns to America a stranger. With Nicole now acting as Fitzgerald’s chronicler, the last news of Diver tells of the “big stack of papers on his desk that are known to be an important treatise on some medical subject, almost in process of completion.” So much for his craft; as for the dream of love, he becomes “entangled with a girl who worked in a grocery store.” Homeless in spirit, Diver drifts from one lovely, lonely Finger Lakes town to another, and whatever dreams he has, he dreams in oblivion without his former promise and intensity of feeling and action.

Fitzgerald created his deepest, most realized novel out of his own predicament. His dissipation and need to write short stories for the Saturday Evening Post to sustain his and Zelda’s standard of living seduced him away from his craft and to some extent his dream of love. Still, Fitzgerald bled out Tender Is the Night at La Paix—“La Paix (My God!)”—in Rodgers Forge outside Baltimore. He brought his “big stack of papers” to completion. But when reviews were mixed and sales modest, also perhaps because, exhausted, he had no new novel taking shape in his mind, only the early medieval tale of Phillippe or The Count of Darkness, with its curiously anachronistic tilt toward Ernest Hemingway’s modern code of courage, Fitzgerald sank deeper into drink and depression. Finally, as Scott Donaldson observes, Asheville, Tyron, and other North Carolina towns became suspiciously like the small towns of Diver’s self-imposed exile at the end of Tender Is the Night.

Source: John F. Callahan, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Evolving American Dream: The Pursuit of Happiness in Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 374–86.

A Tragic Action

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We do not think of Scott Fitzgerald as a tragic novelist, but Fitzgerald’s novels are informed by what he once called “the wise and tragic sense of life.” In his notes and correspondence Fitzgerald refers to The Beautiful and Damned, Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon as formal tragedies (successful or otherwise). “Show me a hero,” he once wrote, “and I will write you a tragedy.” Using Tender Is the Night as my example, I would like to illustrate the difference it makes to approach Fitzgerald’s novels as tragic actions . . .

I have chosen Tender Is the Night because it best represents Fitzgerald’s practice as a tragedian.

Tragic theory often fails to square with tragic practice, but A. C. Bradley’s later reflections on tragedy seem to me quite useful. Bradley believed that we are tragically moved by conflicts involving whatever we value highly and that any conflict involving spiritual waste is tragic. These remarks should remind us that tragedies from Oedipus to The Heart of the Matter have been shaped by rather basic principles. In any case, I think that Tender Is the Night is tragic precisely to the extent that it dramatizes the spiritual waste of people we value highly. Fitzgerald did not think that tragedy should be confined to the stage, but he did suppose that a truly spiritual suffering was necessary if his characters were to be valued properly. In this as in so many other ways, Tender is the work of a traditional tragedian, one who can be compared to Shakespeare himself. Indeed, Wayne Booth published an essay in the early 1950s in which he noticed several points of resemblance between Macbeth and Fitzgerald’s novel. Booth’s aim was to emphasize an aspect of Shakespearean dramaturgy, but the comparison can also be used to clarify the tragic structure of Tender Is the Night.

The most striking parallel between Tender and Macbeth is that each virtually begins with what Aristotle called “the tragic act.” Unlike Othello, which builds toward one of the most devastating tragic acts ever conceived, Macbeth is a work in which the protagonist’s fatal mistake is quickly accomplished. The resulting structure emphasizes the long process of reaction to this deed, including, of course, Macbeth’s internal response. Booth suggests that the plot is therefore one of “degeneration,” in which Shakespeare traces the tragic consequences (for Scotland, but especially for Macbeth) of the protagonist’s initial, irredeemable action. In its revised version, Tender Is the Night is structured in much the same way. Like Shakespeare, Fitzgerald begins by introducing his hero as a man of great charm and ability, a man whose worth is rather more a matter of potential than Macbeth’s but who is nonetheless an enviable model for his time. Then, again like Shakespeare, Fitzgerald has his hero commit himself to a course of action which cannot possibly succeed. At the end of Book I (“Case History”), when Dick looks at Nicole and supposes that “her problem was one they had together for good now,” the attentive reader must find the moment as ominous in its own way as Macbeth’s horrifying participation in the murder of Duncan.

There are obvious differences, of course. Whereas Macbeth indulges an unworthy ambition and commits a terrible act of violence, Dick acts from love and “commits” an act of faith in marrying Nicole. Indeed, it might be argued that Dick does not so much resemble Macbeth, with his conspicuous tragic “flaw,” as he recalls Aristotle’s ideal tragic protagonist, “a man who is neither a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.” Nonetheless, Dick’s “mistake” resembles Macbeth’s in that each man consciously chooses his fate despite his basic soundness of character and his awareness that the chosen course is at best perilous. Macbeth’s early soliloquies reveal that he knows the assassination of Duncan is both morally wrong and certain to end in his own destruction, for such an act cannot “trammel up the consequence.” This clear-sighted perception of what he is about sets Macbeth apart from such tragic figures as Oedipus, Othello, and Lear. And Dick Diver is no less aware that his marriage to Nicole is likely to fail. He knows that Nicole’s illness is probably permanent, for “the percentage of cures, even so-called social cures, is very low at [her] age.” He knows that Doctor Dohmler is right to insist that it is absurd for a psychologist to marry his patient; indeed, he even says that Dohmler and Franz Gregorovius are right to counsel against such a marriage. Like Macbeth, however, Dick proceeds to ignore what he “knows,” his perception that “the logic of his life tended away from the girl.” No less than Macbeth,Tender Is the Night explores the tragic mystery of why a gifted man destroys himself while fully conscious of the dangers involved.

Though originally written as a flashback rather than as the opening section, Book I includes crucial details which initiate the tragic action. Dick Diver is introduced as a psychologist of great promise who is preparing to write his first book after training at Yale, Oxford, and Johns Hopkins. Yet he is burdened with certain misconceptions—“the illusions of eternal strength and health, and of the essential goodness of people . . . the illusions of a nation, the lies of generations of frontier mothers who had to croon falsely that there were no wolves outside the cabin door.” He is capable of saying to Franz, his friend and colleague, that his one real goal is to become the greatest psychologist who ever lived. A man with such confidence in his own ability may choose to believe that other psychiatrists should avoid marrying their patients, but he is different. Such a man may persuade himself that he can act on his “wish” that Nicole had no “background.” Indeed, such a man may take the extraordinary step Dick takes at the end of Book I. Fitzgerald assures us that we are in the presence here of an Aristotelian “mistake,” for Dick’s optimistic assumptions are clearly labeled as illusions. Book I as a whole presents a man whose basic goodness is not in question but whose innocence leads him to act in a manner no less doubtful than that of the morally flawed Macbeth.

Book II (“Rosemary’s Angle”) is set six years later, on the soon-to-be-fashionable French Riviera, which the Divers have literally helped to create. This section of the novel, the original opening, is probably the least satisfactory in the revised version. As others have remarked, Rosemary’s point of view on the Divers seems rather arbitrary, even coy, once we already know the nature of Nicole’s problem. Moreover, Fitzgerald’s use of Rosemary as the point of view character for over one hundred pages (most of Books II and III) requires him to elaborate on her affairs in ways which finally seem extraneous, as when we get a chapter recounting her first meeting with Earl Brady, a film director, or when her experience of the McKisco-Tommy Barban duel is treated in relatively fulsome detail. Rosemary is made to seem a more important character than she in fact turns out to be (a flaw in the original version as well).

Everything considered, however, this section of the book is still more effective in its revised position. It may make better sense to use Rosemary’s perspective when there is a real mystery concerning the Divers, but the tragic significance of what she sees but fails to understand is much more affecting in the later edition. In the revised Tender, as Fitzgerald employs Rosemary to render the alluring dimensions of Dick Diver’s “world,” we are made acutely aware of what constitutes that “lack of innocence” which is said to underlie “the expensive simplicity of the Divers.” Throughout Book II, in fact, our reactions must be distinctly ambivalent. We are made to feel, with Rosemary, the immense charm of Dick’s circle, as opposed to the vulgarity of the McKiscos, Mrs. Abrams, Dumphry, and Campion; and we are genuinely impressed by the beauty of the Divers’ home, Villa Diana, which seems to Rosemary “the centre of the world.” Book I behind us, however, we must also recognize what is not present in Dick’s “world.” Dick may have taught Nicole that “work is everything,” but there seems to be no place for real work in the golden routine that we observe at the beach and Villa Diana. Because we know about Dick’s promise as a psychiatrist, as well as his ambition to be the greatest of psychologists, the Divers’ “absolute immobility” is ominous, even forbidding. Indeed, we must wonder if Dick Diver’s shimmering “world” does not camouflage his own problems as well as his wife’s mental condition.

The purpose of Book II is to create just this double effect. The elegance of life at Villa Diana confirms our initial sense of Dick’s superior powers, his status as a kind of “superman” (Fitzgerald’s description of his hero). Yet we are also made to feel that Dick’s powers have been misdirected, so much so that they are on the verge of decline. Dick’s lovely “world” is extremely fragile, as we see in the disastrous aftermath to his party in Book II. Dick is not directly involved in the duel between McKisco and Tommy Barban, but his inability to control such events is very much to the point. Although Book II offers an exquisite portrait of Dick’s intelligence and taste, what it reveals most poignantly is the inadequacy of these resources. This is clearly suggested by Nicole’s continuing illness, as we no doubt realize well before the stunning conclusion to Book III. It is most apparent, however, in the direction of Dick’s life, the dubious road he has taken during the six years of marriage between Books I and II. Problems of narrative point of view aside, the achievement of Book II is to depict in vivid, suggestive images of social life the tragic vulnerability of Dick’s beautiful but artificial “world.”

Book III (“Casualties”) continues the action of Book II, as the Divers and their entourage leave the Riviera to spend a week in Paris. Here Fitzgerald firmly establishes that sense of a fatalistic progression so crucial to his tragic conception. The events of Book III repeatedly confirm the ominous hints of Book II, until we are forced to see that the “casualties” referred to are the novel’s principal characters, not the war victims Dick commemorates at the beginning of Book III. This section ends with a chilling revelation about Nicole’s condition, but prior to that the solidity of Dick’s “world” is exposed as an unsustaining fiction. The Divers and Rosemary have come to Paris to see Abe North off for New York, where Abe is planning to write music again. As everyone has noted, Abe is a foil for Dick, most obviously in his plan to rejuvenate his career and become once again what Franz would call a “serious” man. The complete collapse of this plan within the brief span of Book III is quite foreboding insofar as Abe and Dick are truly comparable. Abe’s failure suggests the truth in Dick’s piercing remark to Rosemary: “‘Don’t you know you can’t do anything about people?’” It is ironic that Dick should say this—Dick, whose life has been devoted to the idea that everything can be done for people. Yet the events of Book III confirm Dick’s pessimism. Abe’s drunken antics are surrounded by the fatal shooting at the Gare Saint- Lazare, the unpleasant episode involving the three cobra women, the contretemps climaxed by Jules Peterson’s death, and finally Nicole’s hysteria. As disaster follows disaster, we are made to see that Dick’s ability to create “graceful theatricals . . . out of life’s daily ordinariness” is virtually anachronistic in the Paris of 1925.

By the close of Book III the novel’s tragic pattern is unmistakable. In Book I Fitzgerald introduces a gifted hero who comes to make what is surely a terrible mistake in marrying Nicole. In Book II he presents the attractive but fragile results of Dick’s attempt to make the best of his decision, suggesting all the while that this effort has misdirected Dick’s energies and produced a social facade which can only temporarily protect Nicole. In Book III he confirms our worst expectations. This confirmation is all the more tragic because it occurs despite Dick’s apparent mastery of the situation. Throughout Books II and III Dick is at his best, maneuvering various social engagements to their proper close and effectively minimizing the consequences of such messes as the Peterson murder. Yet his rewards are Nicole’s hysterical relapse and the grim prospect of trying to put their world together again, the work of six years having disappeared in one week. If we need further proof that Dick is headed toward his own collapse, we have his reaction to Rosemary, in which “for a moment his usual grace, the tensile strength of his balance, was absent.” It comes to seem inevitable that Dick’s resistance will be less and less effective, that he will have fewer and fewer resources with which to combat his insoluble problem.

In Book IV (“Escape”) Fitzgerald begins to trace Dick’s agonizing downward arc, which will continue to the end of the novel. Here Fitzgerald faced a problem quite comparable to Shakespeare’s in Macbeth. Plots of degeneration are inherently painful, requiring as they do the extended depiction of the hero’s decline. While it is necessary that we share in his suffering, it is also important that we not be subjected to pointless repetition or allowed to reject this suffering as nothing more than deserved. Shakespeare handles this problem in a number of ways, notably by the use of soliloquies in which Macbeth contemplates with horror the series of self-destructive actions he has initiated with the murder of Duncan. These soliloquies offer relief from an otherwise dismal sequence of events, as Macbeth’s sensitive reactions to his own crimes complicate and enrich the long process of disintegration which occupies most of Shakespeare’s play. Conversely, Fitzgerald chooses not to reveal Dick’s meditations upon his own condition, a decision I shall discuss shortly. Instead, he immerses us in the events which mark his hero’s decline. Between Book III and the more crucial episodes of Book IV, four years pass in which Dick begins to drink more heavily, to experience uncontrollable fits of bad temper, and to feel strongly drawn to all attractive women except his wife. Then, in 1929, Dick undergoes his own great depression. Nicole suffers a relapse even more terrifying than the one in Paris; Abe North is beaten to death in a speakeasy; Dick’s father dies; and Dick finds himself traveling to Rome to seek out Rosemary after not seeing her for four years. Dick’s Roman experience is ghastly, as he engages Rosemary in an affair which means nothing to either of them, then stumbles into a drunken fight with local taxi drivers and police which leads to imprisonment and the ultimate humiliation of having to depend upon Nicole’s rich and arrogant sister, Baby. After Rome, as most of Fitzgerald’s critics have noticed, there is no turning back. Dick has “escaped” from his role as physician to a wealthy schizophrenic and the leisured class she represents. Unfortunately, he has abandoned his moral and professional standards as well.

Because Dick’s flight to Rome is so obviously “the moral equivalent of leaping from a cliff,” the novel’s tragic drift from this point has been widely remarked. Fitzgerald’s treatment has been questioned, however, especially on the crucial point of why Dick should decline so drastically. The views of Kent and Gretchen Kreuter represent a widespread, thoroughly human desire to understand this appalling sequence: “One wants to know why Diver meets his doom, why he has succumbed to the kinds of demands that his friends place upon him, and, above all, how this has happened to a man who knows himself as a man in Diver’s profession must.” I think there are two answers to these questions, though neither will satisfy a desire for unambiguous solutions. The answer emphasized by the revised text is that Dick meets his doom because he chooses to marry Nicole. The marriage is inevitably tragic because Dick is in a damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t situation. Either he will manage to cure Nicole, in which case she will cease to depend upon his services and move on to a new life; or he will fail to effect a radical change in her condition, in which case he will remain tied to the unrelenting problems of keeping up that fragile “world” we observe in Book II. This is a game Dick cannot possibly win. His eventual unhappiness is no less certain than Macbeth’s moral disintegration.

But why does Dick take on such an impossible task? Here the parallel with Macbeth is quite interesting. Norman Rabkin has recently suggested that Macbeth’s announced motive for murdering Duncan—his “vaulting ambition” (I, vii, 27)—is simply inadequate. It is an explanation which does not explain; something else, a more mysterious force, appears to be at work. Similarly, Dick’s love for Nicole is an important but insufficient motive for his decision. In addition to this wholly sympathetic emotion, we have what Fitzgerald called “the inner conflicts of the idealist.” Dick is certainly an idealist, believing as he does in the illusions of eternal strength and health—especially his own—and the essential goodness of people. With such faith in his unlimited resources and the good will of others, he naturally underestimates the price he will be asked to pay for treating Nicole. But I think Fitzgerald meant to suggest something more ominous when he referred to the idealist’s conflicts. The idealist’s desire to assist others is real enough, but there is also the wish to impose his own strength, health, and goodness upon others, to make the world over in his own image. A man of superior powers is constantly tempted to ignore common sense because his ego tells him that what is impossible for others is quite possible for him. When he decides to marry Nicole, Dick indulges just this fatal sense of omnipotence.

Dick’s own explanation for his collapse is that it is a mystery: “He had lost himself—he could not tell the hour when, or the day or the week, the month or the year. Once he had cut through things, solving the most complicated equations as the simplest problems of his simplest patients. Between the time he found Nicole flowering under a stone on the Zürichsee and the moment of his meeting with Rosemary the spear had been blunted.” There is much to be said for this second “answer” to the question of why Dick collapses. Other solutions do suggest themselves. We might argue that Dick has placed too much faith in the healing powers of social forms and the personal charm required to maintain them. We might condemn his excessive desire to please others, at whatever cost to his professional goals. We might say that Dick has entertained contradictory images of himself, as social impresario and social scientist, thus ironically recalling Fitzgerald’s famous definition of what marks a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The point would then be that Dick’s ability to balance these “opposed ideas” has eroded over the years. But how do these “explanations” significantly clarify the mystery to which Dick points? The ultimate question is why a first-rate intelligence should cease to function. Like the Kreuters, we want to answer such questions. We want to know why Dick meets his doom, why he has succumbed to the demands of others, why his resources are finally insufficient. But just as Shakespeare cannot tell us what cause in nature makes hard hearts, so Fitzgerald cannot say why we lack the capacity to do and be all things. What he can do is show us the inevitable fate of anyone who tries.

I suggested earlier that Fitzgerald revised his text to avoid the impression that Dick collapses precipitously. In point of fact, of course, Dick’s collapse emerges in Books IV and V after a gestation period of no fewer than ten years. At the end, however, in Book V (“The Way Home”), Dick’s condition is obviously terminal and its progress precipitous indeed. The novel’s overall structure may remind us of Macbeth, but the contrast between the Dick Diver of Book II and the Doctor Diver of Book V is distinctly reminiscent of Othello. Just as Othello’s elegant speech gives way to virtual inarticulateness, so Dick’s wonderful manners are replaced by what Nicole calls “uncharacteristic bursts of temper”: “he would suddenly unroll a long scroll of contempt for some person, race, class, way of life, way of thinking.” Even the reader who has followed Dick through the painful stages of his decline may be surprised by the picture of him drunk, “belching now and then contentedly into the soft warm darkness.” On the whole, however, such images are the stuff of Fitzgerald’s uncompromising portrayal of Dick’s fate. The real problems with Book V as tragic finale lie elsewhere.

I have already mentioned the first problem: Fitzgerald’s decision to withdraw from Dick’s thoughts during the final period of decline. This technique does emphasize the shocking external contrast between Dick’s early elegance and later shabbiness, as well as lend an aura of objectivity to the portrait. But there are real losses as well. It is one thing to be forced to speculate about Jay Gatsby’s inner life, but Dick’s has been presented throughout as a source of his superiority. Moreover, we are forced to guess at matters of the first importance in our final estimate of Dick. The following is a representative but presumptuous account of Dick’s character at the end: “Dick Diver is a man who because of his deep love for Nicole Warren makes a deliberate choice with full realization of the dilemma which it will eventually force upon him. And when the dilemma must be resolved, he chooses what is best for Nicole even though it brings heartbreak to him.” The assumption here is that Dick chooses to divorce himself from Nicole. In other discussions this idea sometimes takes the form that Dick encourages Nicole’s affair with Tommy Barban, thus hastening her withdrawal from his now unnecessary protection. In the text, however, we are only told that “from the episode of the camphorrub, Dick had anticipated everything.” I take this to mean that Dick has expected Nicole to leave him for Tommy. If Dick has orchestrated the affair, we are not told how or why. Indeed, we are never even told what Dick thinks about the affair. Does he suppose that Nicole is now cured? Does he think she will be better off with Tommy? I fear that we have no reasonable way to answer these basic questions, let alone endorse the attractive but sentimental idea that Dick has heroically plotted the destruction of his own marriage in order to “free” Nicole from her doctor/husband—himself. I think we must question Fitzgerald’s judgment in turning from Dick’s point of view to Nicole in Book V.

Relating much of Book V from Nicole’s perspective does allow us to witness what she is like after years of marriage, however, Regrettably, what Nicole is like—what she has always been—is rather less desirable than Othello’s “pearl.” As Fitzgerald’s narrator remarks, “Nicole had been designed for change, for flight, with money as fins and wings.” Echoes of Daisy Buchanan and her “low, thrilling” voice which even Gatsby recognizes to be “full of money”? Nicole’s vanity has been apparent from the first; now, as she prepares to leave Dick, she is described as “a happy child,” someone who has “fought [Dick] with her money and her faith that her sister disliked him and was behind her now . . . [with] her unscrupulousness against his moralities.” The problem here is suggested by Bradley’s formulation of why tragic works are tragic. If we are tragically moved by conflicts involving what we value, it follows that “the value must be sufficient—a moderate value will not serve.” Othello’s tragedy is immensely heightened because of the great value we attach to Desdemona, the pearl he so basely throws away. Lear’s grief is so affecting because we have been made to share his final opinion of Cordelia. Nicole, on the other hand, never quite seems worth the exhaustion of Dick’s resources. And in Book V, where we confront her point of view directly, she is presented as very much Tommy Barban’s lover, essentially unworthy of Dick as he was. We are still affected by the loss of Dick’s integrity, but the “loss” of Nicole is a mixed affair which compromises the effect of the conclusion.

I should not like to end on this note, however, for Fitzgerald’s conclusion transcends the problems just noted. In fact, the novel’s final pages are among its most brilliant, evoking as they do that “dignified and responsible” aspect to Dick which Fitzgerald wanted to capture. Whether these pages convey “the melodrama of unrealized life,” as Maria DiBattista has argued, or conclude the genuine tragedy of an “homme epuisé,” as Fitzgerald claimed, every reader must of course decide. Dick’s composure in the final scene with Tommy and Nicole was no doubt in Fitzgerald’s mind when he referred to Dick’s dignified and responsible aspect, and Dick’s competence in extricating Mary North and Lady Caroline Sibley-Biers from their disgraceful imprisonment is a touching reminder of his unquestioned gifts. These closing scenes remind us of what has been lost in the long course of Dick’s attempt to realize the impossible. Here and in the final beach scene, Dick demonstrates precisely that “dignity under suffering” which Fitzgerald thought characteristic of the tragic hero. Dick has failed because of an initial, irrevocable mistake which derived from his own character, but also because the world of the 1920s was one in which talents such as his were misused or even abused. His story therefore does justice to Fitzgerald’s belief that tragedy may derive from a combination of human error and circumstances. In any case, this story is one in which the tragic effect is achieved throughout the work, not at the end alone. Fitzgerald’s final indications of Dick’s fate derive their authority from his comprehensive portrait of great potential come to bitter failure—an unrealized life of more than moderate value, representing spiritual waste of very high order.

My analysis of Tender Is the Night was not intended as a complete reading. Indeed, my remarks have the weight of a sketch if compared to such readings as Milton Stern’s. Instead, I have tried to illustrate the value of approaching Fitzgerald’s novels from a certain point of view. To examine Tender Is the Night as a tragedy allows us to gauge the structural logic of Fitzgerald’s revisions, to judge more accurately the advantages and disadvantages of employing Rosemary’s point of view, to appreciate what I have called the double effect of Book II, to see how the first three books are informed by a foreboding pattern which emerges most clearly with the violent events in Paris, and to identify what is wrong with such crucial features as the withdrawal from Dick’s point of view and the characterization of Nicole. It is a commonplace that Tender Is the Night is both deeply flawed and one of Fitzgerald’s two most powerful works. To study the book as a formal tragedy is to see how both claims are true.

This approach also helps correct the understandable but misleading tendency to insist upon the cultural “significance” of a book such as Tender. In reaction against earlier readers who stressed Fitzgerald’s ignorance and “popular” elements, recent critics have transformed the novelist into a kind of philosophical historian. Thus Alan Trachtenberg: “Fitzgerald’s entire fiction is an extended meditation on America, its history and its notorious dreams.” Thus Edwin S. Fussell: “Ultimately, Fitzgerald’s literary stature derives from his ability to apply the sensibilities implied by the phrase ‘romantic wonder’ to American civilization, and to gain from the conjunction a moral critique of that civilization.” Richard Foster tells us that the “true” subject of Tender Is the Night is “a ‘mythic’ interpretation of history,” and even Milton Stern argues that “a philosophy of history” is projected in Tender. For these critics and many others, Fitzgerald’s acquaintance with Spengler and Marx is a steppingstone to the idea that he is a “serious” writer whose seriousness takes the form of historical meditations. The danger in this approach is that it is extremely abstract. It implies that the value of Fitzgerald’s works lies in their historical insights, their “truth.” No one who appreciates Fitzgerald would want to deny that his books are filled with observations, intuitions, and even ideas of a greater profundity than earlier critics were willing to grant. Yet I think the revisionists have obscured the fact that Fitzgerald’s principal gift was for a certain kind of storytelling—tragic storytelling, I have argued—in which his ability to dramatize the fates of particular characters is what appeals to us. This is to suggest, of course, that Fitzgerald was a tragedian rather than a cultural historian.

Finally, I believe that to read Fitzgerald in this fashion permits us to make fairly fine discriminations among his novels. In the case of Tender, for instance, I would emphasize the book’s deep affinities with traditional tragic models. Such critics as R. J. Kaufmann have argued that “significant” suffering— that is, tragic suffering—must be rooted in the conscious choices of the protagonist. Robert Heilman has extended this mode of thought into a more elaborate definition: “tragedy should be used only to describe the situation in which the divided human being faces basic conflicts, perhaps rationally insoluble, of obligations and passions; makes choices, for good or for evil; errs knowingly or involuntarily; accepts consequences; comes into a new, larger awareness; suffers or dies, yet with a larger wisdom.” We might argue about whether Dick achieves a new, larger awareness. Otherwise, I think it is clear that Fitzgerald’s novel is faithful to Kaufmann’s and Heilman’s rather traditional prescriptions. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Fitzgerald adopted conventional assumptions when he conceived the tragedy of Dick Diver. If we were to look closely at the tragic strategies of The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby, we would find rather different assumptions at work and would therefore be in a good position to define what is uniquely tragic about these earlier novels. If we were then to address The Last Tycoon, we would find Fitzgerald returning to many of the basic assumptions which underlie Tender Is the Night. Ultimately, we would be able to trace more precisely than before the fluctuations in Fitzgerald’s career as a novelist—if I am right, his career as a tragic novelist.

Source: Robert Merrill, “Tender Is the Night as a Tragic Action,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1983, pp. 597–615.

Major Artistic Devices

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Francis Scott Fitzgerald has come a long way from the limbo into which some of his obituaries tried to thrust him in 1941; his return has been marked and encouraged by several important editions of his stories, novels, and articles, an outstanding biography, and a gradually increasing supply of critical articles. Fortunately, although the interest in his writing still stems largely from the excitement of the 1920’s and the glamour and pathos of the author’s life, his critics have become increasingly willing to view him—as they must, if his reputation is not to decline again—as an artist and craftsman.

The purpose of this article is to examine one of the major artistic devices used in Tender Is the Night. It will show that the novel contains a large number of “incest-motifs,” which, properly understood, take on symbolic value and contribute to the thematic unity of the novel. The term “incest-motifs” may seem ill-chosen at first, since most of these passages allude, not to consanguineous lovers, but to a mature man’s love for an immature girl. I have used the term chiefly because the first of these passages concerns Devereux Warren’s incestuous relation with his fifteen-year-old daughter Nicole, so that whenever Fitzgerald later associates a mature man with an immature girl, the reader’s reaction is strongly conditioned by this earlier event. Devereux’s act is the most obvious, and the only literal, example of incest in the novel. It is of basic importance to the plot, since it causes Nicole’s schizophrenia and thus necessitates her treatment in Dr. Dohmler’s clinic, where she meets Dick Diver. Nicole’s love for Dick is in part a “transference” caused by her mental disorder; the character of their marriage is dictated largely by the requirements of her condition.

In spite of the importance of Devereux’ act, the use of incest as motif is more evident in the fact that Dick, Nicole’s husband and psychiatrist, falls in love with a young actress whose most famous film is entitled Daddy’s Girl. As this coincidence suggests, Fitzgerald deliberately gives an incestuous overtone to the relationship between Dick Diver and Rosemary Hoyt. Like Rosemary’s father, Dick is of Irish descent and has been an American army doctor, a captain. At his dinner-party on the Riviera, he speaks to Rosemary “with a lightness seeming to conceal a paternal interest.” He calls her “a lovely child” just before kissing her for the first time, and in the Paris hotel he says, again with a “paternal attitude,” “When you smile . . . I always think I’ll see a gap where you’ve lost some baby teeth.” Dick is thirty-four, twice Rosemary’s age, and to emphasize this, Fitzgerald continually stresses Rosemary’s immaturity. When she first appears in 1925, her cheeks suggest “the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening”; “her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood—she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.” She and her mother are like “prizewinning school-children.” Even Nicole pointedly refers to Rosemary as a child.

By the time of Abe North’s departure, Dick admittedly loves Rosemary; now, “he wanted to . . . remove the whole affair from the nursery footing upon which Rosemary persistently established it”; but he realizes that Rosemary “had her hand on the lever more authoritatively than he.” Helpless as is, he remains conscious—even over-conscious—of the incongruity of the situation; he tells Rosemary, “When a child can disturb a middle-aged gent—things get difficult.” Finally he tells Nicole that Rosemary is “an infant . . . there’s a persistent aroma of the nursery.”

After Rosemary leaves the Riviera, Dick begins to exaggerate the immaturity of other women as well. He is uneasy when Nicole suggests that he dance with a teen-age girl at St. Moritz, and protests, “I don’t like ickle durls. They smell of castile soap and peppermint. When I dance with them, I feel as if I’m pushing a baby carriage.” He looks at a pretty woman, and thinks, “Strange children should smile at each other and say, ‘Let’s play.’” Gradually an obscure sense of guilt appears. When Nicole accuses him, falsely and irrationally, of seducing a patient’s daughter—“a child,” she says, “not more than fifteen”—he feels guilty. When he is being taken to court after the taxidriver fight, a crowd boos him, mistaking him for a man who has raped and slain a five-year-old child; later that day Dick cries, “I want to make a speech. . . . I want to explain to these people how I raped a five-year-old girl. Maybe I did—”

As his decline continues, Dick’s attitude toward his own children, Topsy and Lanier, begins to change. In Rome, he decides that Rosemary “was young and magnetic, but so was Topsy.” When Nicole realizes that his aquaplaning at the Riviera is inspired by Rosemary’s “exciting youth,” she remembers that “she had seen him draw the same inspiration from the new bodies of his children . . .” Earlier, Dick has exclaimed, “What do I care whether Topsy ‘adores’ me or not? I’m not bringing her up to be my wife,” apparently assuming that the love of a child does not differ essentially from the love of an adult; he jokes with Lanier about “a new law in France that you can divorce a child.” Finally, late in the novel Nicole notices his “almost unnatural interest in the children.”

The presence of these incest-motifs may be explained in several ways. First, they may have been suggested, if only slightly and indirectly, by Fitzgerald’s own ambivalent attitudes toward his mother and his daughter. He vacillated between being ashamed of his mother and devoted to her, one of the early titles for Tender Is the Night was The Boy Who Killed His Mother. According to his biographer, with his daughter Scottie, Fitzgerald was alternately “the severe father, the difficult alcoholic, and the man who loved his child intensely.” But opposing this explanation is the fact that incest is not mentioned in his other works, and only “Babylon Revisited” and “The Baby Party” concern the love of father for daughter.

In any case, the incest-motifs may be fully accounted for by Tender Is the Night itself. Most of them grow logically out of Dick’s relationship to Nicole. When Nicole first begins writing to Dick, she still pathologically mistrusts all men; her first letter to him speaks of his “attitude base and criminal and not even faintly what I had been taught to associate with the roˆle of gentleman.” Gradually Dick begins to take the place once occupied by her father, as a center of trust and security. As a psychiatrist, Dick realizes the value of this situation; he also realizes that Nicole must eventually build up her own world. After her psychotic attack at the Agiri fair, for example, he says, “You can help yourself most,” and refuses to accept the father-role into which she tries to force him. But this sort of refusal costs him a difficult and not always successful effort of will. First, loving Nicole, “he could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them.” Second, he is by nature a “spoiled priest,” the father for all of his friends; he creates the moral universe in which they live. His nature and his love oppose his profession. It is therefore plausible, once his character begins to crumble, that he compensates for his long self-denial by falling in love with a girl literally young enough to be his daughter; that after the crowd has booed him for raping a five-year-old girl, he makes a mock-confession; and that when Nicole accuses him of seducing a patient’s fifteen-year-old daughter, “He had a sense of guilt, as in one of those nightmares where we are accused of a crime which we recognize as something undeniably experienced, but which upon waking we realize we have not committed.”

Ironically, although Dick’s fascination with immaturity gives him an opportunity to be both lover and father, it also reveals his own fundamental immaturity. Like Nicole, who responds to Tommy Barban because she sees her own hardness and unscrupulousness reflected in his character, and like Rosemary, who responds to Dick at first because of his “self-control and . . . self-discipline, her own virtues,” Dick is attracted to Rosemary’s immaturity partly because of a corresponding quality within himself. Behind his facade of self-discipline, this central immaturity appears in the obsessive phrase, “Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?” Rosemary calls him “Youngster,” “the youngest person in the world,” and while he waits for Rosemary outside her studio, he circles the block “with the fatuousness of one of Tarkington’s adolescents.” When Abe North talks to Nicole in the railroad station, Fitszgerald says, “Often a man can play the helpless child in front of a woman, but he can almost never bring it off when he feels most like a helpless child” similarly, when Dick talks to Mary Minghetti just before leaving the Riviera, “his eyes, for the moment clear as a child’s, asked her sympathy . . .”

The significance of the incest-motifs is not limited to Dick’s personal disaster. After all, they do not all issue from him. It is not of Dick’s doing that a patient accuses him of seducing her fifteen-yearold daughter or that a crowd boos him for raping a five-year-old girl. And except for Devereux Warren’s act, the most conspicuous incest-motif in the novel is the motion picture for which Rosemary is famous, Daddy’s Girl. Everyone, we are told, has seen it; and lest we miss the point of the title, we are given Dick’s reaction to the final scene of the picture, “a lovely shot of Rosemary and her parent united at the last in a father complex so apparent that Dick winced for all psychologists at the vicious sentimentality.” As the universal popularity of Daddy’s Girl suggests, the incest-motifs symbolize a world-wide situation. In 1934, C. Hartley Grattan wrote of the relation between Nicole and her father, “Fitzgerald has tried to use this situation, this extreme (according to our tabus) example of decadence, to symbolize the rottenness of the society of which Nicole is a part.” But the meaning of the repeated motif is both broader and more precise than this.

During the 1920’s, the relationship between the prewar and postwar generations was curiously reversed. In Mark Sullivan’s words,

The Twenties, reversing age-old custom, Biblical precept and familiar adage, was a period in which, in many respects, youth was the model, age the imitator. On the dance-floor, in the beauty parlor, on the golf course; in clothes, manners, and many points of view, elders strove earnestly to look and act like their children, in many cases their grand children.

And Frederick Lewis Allen notes that “the women of this decade worshipped not merely youth, but unripened youth. . . .” That Fitzgerald agreed with this interpretation of the period is evident from a late essay in which he described the Jazz Age as “a children’s party taken over by the elders. . . .By 1923 [the] elders, tired of watching the carnival with ill-concealed envy, had discovered that young liquor will take the place of young blood, and with a whoop the orgy began.”

Here, on a world-scale, is Dick Diver’s fascination with immaturity; and since the younger generation is the child of the elder, here is a situation to which the incest-motifs are relevant. Dick Diver’s generation is older than Rosemary’s, and he is the product of an older generation still, his minister-father’s, with its stress upon “‘good instincts,’ honor, courtesy, and courage.” Rosemary is the product of Hollywood, with its emphasis upon the future, and we are told that in Daddy’s Girl she embodies “all the immaturity of the race.” In embracing Rosemary, therefore, Dick Diver is a symbol of America and Europe turning from a disciplined and dedicated life to a life of selfindulgence, dissipation, and moral anarchy—a symbol of the parent generation infatuated with is own offspring. Dick’s collapse, appropriately, occurs in 1929.

Even aside from Dick’s relationship with Rosemary, there are many hints that he is gradually shifting allegiance from the past culture of his father to an unworthy future. In the beginning, he exhibits dignity and self-discipline, unfailing courtesy, and a firm (if unexpressed) moral code; before the novel is over, he has been beaten in a brawl with taxi-drivers, has insulted his friend Mary Minghetti, and, at the very end, has been forced to leave Lockport, New York, because he “became entangled with a girl who worked in a grocery store.” To clarify this change, Fitzgerald underlines it in several passages. The most memorable example is Dick’s remark at his father’s grave, “Goodbye my father—good-bye, all my fathers”; later, as he enters the steamship to return to Europe, he is described as hurrying from the past into the future. But this is only his formal farewell to something he has long since left behind. Most of the allusions to the shift occur four years earlier, during the episode in which Dick falls in love with Rosemary. At the battlefield near Amiens, he tells Rosemary that the “whole-souled sentimental equipment” of the past generations was all spent in World War I. Next day, he takes her to the Cardinal de Metz’s palace: the threshold of the palace connects the past without (the stone facade) to the future within (blue steel and mirrors), and crossing that threshold is an experience “perverted as a breakfast of oatmeal and hashish.” Just after leaving the palace, Dick admits for the first time that he loves Rosemary. Next day, his attempt to visit Rosemary at her studio is explicitly labelled “an overthrowing of his past.” And on the following day, in the hotel dining room, although Dick sees in the gold-star mothers “all the maturity of an older America,” and remembers his father and his “old loyalties and devotions,” he turns back to Rosemary and Nicole, the “whole new world in which he believed.” It is worth noticing that at both the beginning and end of this episode, Fitzgerald emphasizes Rosemary’s significance by placing her beside the memory of World War I.

One reason for the broad applicability of the incest-motif is its inherent complexity: it simultaneously represents a situation and expresses Fitzgerald’s judgment of it. First, it suggests how appealing youth can be (whether as person or as quality) to the adult in whom the long-opposed edges of impulse and self-restraint have begun to dull. He longs not only for youth’s vitality but for its innocence, which apparently confers moral freedom. In the first flush of love, Dick and Rosemary seem to share

an extraordinary innocence, as though a series of pure accidents had driven them together, so many accidents that at last they were forced to conclude that they were for each other. They had arrived with clean hands, or so it seemed, after no traffic with the merely curious and clandestine.

Similarly, most of the rebels of the Twenties sought not merely to discard the Victorian morality but to do so without any aftermath of guilt—to recapture the amorality of youth. But the incestmotif also suggests decadence and the violation of a universal taboo—particularly since in Tender Is the Night it appears first as the cause of Nicole’s insanity—and thus indicates that the unconscious innocence of youth is forever lost to the adult, and that in searching for it he may find disaster: “that madness akin to the love of an aging man for a young girl.”

The purpose of this study has been to give a glimpse of Fitzgerald’s artistry by examining one of the major patterns in Tender Is the Night. The incest-motifs, as we have seen, help to unify the novel on several levels, as well as to show how those levels are interrelated. First, these motifs function literally as one result of Dick’s relationship to Nicole; they are symptoms of his psychological disintegration. Second, they both exemplify and symbolize Dick’s loss of allegiance to the moral code of his father. Finally, by including such details as Daddy’s Girl as well as Dick’s experience, they symbolize a social situation existing throughout Europe and America during the Twenties. Fitzgerald’s ability to employ this sort of device shows clearly that he not only felt his experience intensely, but understood it as an artist, so that he could reproduce its central patterns within the forms and symbols of his work. His experience transcends the historical Fitzgerald who felt it and the historical Twenties in which it occurred, and emerges as art.

Source: Robert Stanton, “Daddy’s Girl”: Symbol and Theme in “Tender Is the Night,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, Summer 1958, pp. 136–42.


Critical Overview