Mar 31, 2011

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night is the story of the rise and fall of a promising psychiatrist by the name of Dick Diver, as well as the story of the dissolution of his marriage to Nicole Warren, who was formerly one of his patients. Though published in 1933, Tender is the Night is mostly set in Jazz Age Europe, namely in Switzerland and France. The novel opens with a section told from the perspective of Rosemary Hoyt, an eighteen-year-old movie star who meets Dick and Nicole one summer in the French Riviera. Rosemary quickly falls in love with Dick, and also feels drawn to the beautiful Nicole and the glamorous life the couple seem to embody. However, as the novel progresses it becomes apparent to Rosemary and to the reader that the Diver’s relationship is far more complex and less enviable than it first appeared.

It took me about a hundred pages to properly get into Tender is the Night, mostly because I had a bit of trouble figuring out who and what the story was really going to be about at first. The fact that the first chunk of the novel is from Rosemary’s perspective threw me off, which apparently is not an unusual reaction. In fact, Fitzgerald considered largely revising the structure of the novel, avoiding the flashback at the beginning of part two and making Rosemary’s section come later in the book, but he never got around to implementing these changes before his death. Personally I can see the pluses of both structures, but I would have to spoil the ending of part one for you to properly explain why.

There was a lot I liked about Tender is the Night: Fitzgerald’s always gorgeous prose, the evocation of Europe in the 1920’s, the fact that it deals with the personal and social wounds inflicted by WWI. The social world of this novel is close to the world of the final section of Virginia Wolf’s To The Lighthouse, only with a considerable different focus. It’s a sort of limbo world, stuck between what we think of as modernity and the values of the Victorians and the Edwardians, and I’m always drawn to novels that explore it. However, there were a number of reasons why I didn’t connect with Tender is the Night nearly as much as with The Great Gatsby.

First of all, the novel deals extensively with mental illness, and I couldn’t help but keep having flashbacks of “The Yellow Wallpaper” and sensing a sort of ghost story lingering behind the one we were being told. I’m not entirely comfortable with the way the concept of madness is presented here (and yes, I am aware of when it was written, but then again, Gilman’s work predates it). On the one hand, I wouldn’t dream of denying that someone who ceases to be able to function needs help; but on the other hand, there’s the fact that often a breakdown is not a sign you’re somehow damaged, but actually the only appropriate and reasonable response to what is happening to you – and any form of help you receive has to acknowledge that.

Now we reach the point in which I move into murky waters, which is to say, recur to autobiographical approaches despite having repeatedly proclaimed that I’m very wary of viewing literature through this angle. And I am, generally speaking, but sometimes I do feel their lure. All I can say for myself is that I never claimed to be a hundred percent consistent. Tender is the Night draws heavily from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s personal experience, namely his marriage to Zelda Fitzgerald and her mental breakdown and institutionalisation. The heavy psychoanalytical focus of the novel was inspired by extensive conversations he had with Zelda’s doctors when she was being treated.

If we think of Nicole as somewhat inspired by Zelda, that other side of the story I kept wondering about as I read Tender is the Night actually does exist. In 1932, she published Save Me the Waltz, which is based on many of the same experiences as her husband’s novel, and provides a contrasting view of her breakdown and the dissolution of their marriage. Needless to say, I’m now dying to get my hands on it and see how the two compare. Fitzgerald was not pleased that his wife had written a novel so heavily inspired by their personal life, even though (or perhaps exactly because) he was to go on to do the same.

The reason why the story as told in Tender is the Night felt incomplete to me is because I couldn’t really grasp what Nicole had done to Dick, exactly, other than be unhappy (which to me can’t really count as something you inflict on a partner). As any great piece of literature, the novel is open enough that you can read it in multiple ways – it’s not just one thing, and it doesn’t point in a single direction. But one of these possible readings is the story of a potentially brilliant man ruined by an unstable, even parasitical woman, whose recovery comes at the cost of his submission. I’m less than thrilled with this angle of the story, not only because of the sexual politics but also because of how I conceive of relationships in general. How much blame can an intimate partner you commit yourself to voluntarily really shoulder? (Bex at An Armchair By The Sea, however, read Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Nicole’s recovery far more generously than I did.)

But I was saying, the novel is of course far more complex than just this: there’s also the class/financial angle, which plays a considerable role in Dick’s ultimate fate. Nicole is a heiress, so Dick’s marriage to her gives him access to a large fortune and a luxurious lifestyle. As in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explores the corrupting power of these in great detail. I thought it was interesting that Dick’s financial reliance on his wife (the money he invests on his mental hospital comes from her) put him in the same position of futility and dependence that countless women were expected to be in without complaint throughout history. Yet in his case, its effects are devastating.

This brings me to the final reasons why I felt a bit of a disconnect from the novel: on the one hand I can see how it’s moving, and yet on the other hand much of its emotional power relies on a close adherence to strict concepts of achievement and failure I find hard to get behind Nevertheless, I’m glad I read Tender is the Night. The writing and the insight into the 1920’s were more than enough to make it worth it. Many thanks to the wonderful Classics Circuit for the incentive to finally pick it up.

Lost Generation Classics Circuit tour

Interesting bits:
“See that little stream--we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it--a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”
“Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco—“
“That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn't. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”
“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty-five.”
“No, he didn’t--he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle--there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”
“You want to hand over this battle to D. H. Lawrence,” said Abe.
“All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love,” Dick mourned persistently.
“Isn’t that true, Rosemary?”

They were still in the happier stage of love. They were full of brave illusions about each other, tremendous illusions, so that the communion of self with self seemed to be on a plane where no other human relations mattered. They both seemed to have arrived there with 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.

Here I am in what appears to be a semi-insane-asylum, all because nobody saw fit to tell me the truth about anything. If I had only known what was going on like I know now I could have stood it I guess for I am pretty strong, but those who should have, did not see fit to enlighten me. And now, when I know and have paid such a price for knowing, they sit there with their dogs lives and say I should believe what I did believe. Especially one does but I know now. I am lonesome all the time far away from friends and family across the Atlantic I roam all over the place in a half daze. If you could get me a position as interpreter (I know French and German like a native, fair Italian and a little Spanish) or in the Red Cross Ambulance or as a trained nurse, though I would have to train you would prove a great blessing.
They read it too: Mad Bibliophile, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Park Benches & Bookends, Melody & Words, An Armchair by the Sea, Leeswammes , Giraffe Days



  1. Great review, Ana! Glad you liked the book. I didn't, I only read half and then left it. I think it's partially the book and partially my mood at the time.

    Here's my review, if you're interested:

  2. Last year I read the love letters of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda and there was a lot mentioned about the similarity of some of there work, but it was believed that Zelda was more of the writer than F.Scott.
    The mental illness was heavily featured too and Zelda was a little off kilt from a young age.
    I love the way F.Scott Fitsgerald brings the 1920's to life. When I think of the 1920's I always think of him and The Great Gatsby.

    Great post Ana.

  3. I think had I read this book on my own I would have had a completely different perspective on the book and probably wouldn't have liked it as much as I did. Like you I also struggled to get into the story but once I was in I could hardly put it down.

    You mention that you couldn't grasp what Nicole had done to Dick other than be unhappy and I have to disagree a little that this doesn't really count as something you can inflict on a partner. I have seen and experienced first hand what damages and effects depression and even mental illness can have on a relationship--whether it is something that is inflicted with or without awareness it is a very real thing. Not very tangible, I agree, but still real and devestating.

  4. Judith: Thanks for your link! I think in the end I had mixed feelings about it, but I'm glad to have read it. Sorry it didn't work for you.

    Vivienne: I remember when you reviewed that book! I need to get my hands on it, as it sounds like something I'd love. Plus I bet it would make me see this book under a new light.

    Trish: Oh, I absolutely agree it has an effect, and yes, it can be devastating. But I don't think it's something you can reasonably blame or resent someone for, as if they'd set out to do you harm, you know? It's an unfortunate and very painful situation for everyone involved, but I don't think anyone is really to blame. I sensed some entitlement in how the situation was portrayed, and it was most of all that that made me feel disconnected from the story.

  5. I read and loved Gatsby, and have heard of this book only by name. I think the fact that it deals so heavily with mental illness is something that compels me to read it, despite the fact that it is dealt with in such confounding ways. I also now am interested in Zelda's book as well. I am going to have to keep in mind that you didn't love this one unreservedly, and factor that into my reading. Thanks for sharing this great review with me, Ana.

  6. I have to say I agree with Trish. If you look at a relationship in contractual terms, you are in effect signing up for one thing but getting another, something for which you probably never would have contracted for. Nevertheless, now there are all sorts of social sanctions and personal inhibitions against abandoning the contract, and your own life goes down the tubes just as surely as if you yourself had the problem. And the fact that you *cannot* blame the inflictee actually only makes it worse, I think, because then you have all the guilt for your resentment piled up on top of the resentment itself.

    All that being said, I would have no doubt I would hate Dick, especially as it sounds like there were gender and ego issues going on with him all mixed into the equation.

  7. Zibilee: It was only counfonding to my personally, really - it seems there's much disagreement, which is of course not a bad thing at all! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this :)

    Jill: I guess we agree to disagree :P I do see what you and Trish are saying, but those contractual terms are not how I conceive of relationships myself - though I'll be the first to admit my personal approach is not exctly mainstream :P You're right about the ego and gender issues, though!

  8. So many people seem not to be able to connect with this one, but those same people have come to me and said "If you're going to read anything by Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night is the one that I think will work for you best." People that know me and my tastes well all tell me this is the one I will connect with. Considering I've tried to read Gatsby twice and both times never got more than halfway through, I think maybe they're right. I sat down and read part of this one a couple weeks back while waiting for a buy-offer at Half Price Books, and it started off wonderful, far better than Gatsby, so I'm really looking forward to getting back to it.

  9. Interesting, Ana - I read Dick much less sympathetically than you seem to have done (or Nicole more so, maybe). I basically thought he was an utter ass, and not just that but that he was being PRESENTED as an utter ass, and that his petty dalliances with Rosemary were presented as endangering Nicole unnecessarily. I read his downfall as brought on entirely by himself and his circumstances - for example, when I read this in college my prof pointed out that neither Dick nor Nicole really get the chance to have a normal adolescence (her because of her illness, him because of being the "golden boy"), and they're both a bit fragile & lacking in life skills as a result. For Dick, this eventually means a slide into alcoholism & pathos, while Nicole eventually recovers, but I read them as both "causing" their own outcomes, more than they caused each others'. If that makes sense.

    That said, I too failed to connect with this novel but I think it was primarily due to the time in my life; my grandfather was dying and my cousin had just been diagnosed with cancer, and I felt grumpy about reading about these poor little rich folks on the French Riviera. :-P

  10. With the structure of the book and the disconnect you felt with the characters, I suspect this isn't the book for me.

  11. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorites, and I tend to like books that explore mental illness, so I'd like to give this one a try.

  12. I love two-sides-to-the-same-story book pairings like this! So much fun!

  13. I've been wanting to read more Fitzgerald forever, but I feel like nothing else he wrote could possibly live up to The Great Gatsby. Also, I want to not read Tender Is the Night until I know a little more about Scott and Zelda as people from real life. I shall read a biography of them! Some day! THEN Tender Is the Night. I like mental illness books as you may know. :p

  14. What a wonderful review! You really hit the nail on the head with your analysis; you really portrayed the central issues of the novel, both in terms of plot and authorial perspective. I just ordered "Save Me the Waltz," and I can't wait to get started on it!

  15. Like many others, the only Fitzgerald I've read is Gatsy which I loved, for both the story and the writing style. I've been meaning to read this and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button for ages.... Really should get down to it.

  16. I read both this and Gatsby in high school and loved them. Also read Evelyn Waugh and thought he was great too. Haven't even thought about reading either of them since. Wonder how I would feel about them now.

  17. I loved The Great Gatsby but, like you, I had trouble getting into this one. I liked it well enough - his writing is wonderful and hard not to enjoy - but the topic seemed glossed over, over looked, something I couldn't really put a finger on. That and it was also sad. And it was a sadness that stuck with me for a few days.

  18. not sure I'll ever read this one, but it's fascinating to know there is another side to the story in the form of his wife's book. I'd be interested to know how the two compared.

  19. I'll have to remember to have Zelda's book handy when i do read this one because it sounds like everyone who reads this wants to compare the two!

    I'm very intrigued. Looking forward to revisiting Fitz soon!

  20. Great review Ana! I read this last year and had mixed feelings about it - I was impressed by it but still didn't like it. It's such a complex read though.

    Here's my review.

  21. I don't think it was Nicole who destroyed Dick but the marriage itself. He was positioned as her doctor and his payment was her shared wealth. Plus there is an element of falsity in his happiness and charm that he obviously got tired of keeping up.

    I am obsessed with this book for the reason that somehow you always feel like they are real people (obviously they are close to being Fitzgerald and Zelda themselves) and you analyse the characters as if they were real people. Like in real life, everything doesn't tie together perfectly.

    There is a long gap in the middle of the novel. Whereas in the first part, you feel Dick and Nicole's passion still alive, in the second, it's clear something has died probably triggered by her breakdown after the murder.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.