F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing in Tender is the Night (published 1934) is impressive. He writes complex sentences with incredible fluidity and rich vocabulary. This seems to give each sentence, each paragraph, and therefore each page a sense of life. Reading Fitzgerald is an exercise in appreciating the complexities and the beauties of the English language. Since I listened to part of the book on audio, I found that as I slowed down my reading, I better appreciated his writing.
However, to be completely honest (because this blog is a record of my honest impressions of what I’m reading), I finished reading Tender is the Night and thought, “Well, what was the point of that?” Even after discussing the book for more than an hour with my book group, I feel no closer to understanding. Although the writing is delicious and satisfying, the characters he creates are nearly unbearable. The story is billed as his most autobiographical, and it is a deeply psychological novel, with occasional action to drive the characters’ inner development.
Tender is the Night is the story of one man’s downfall from greatness into self-absorption, as he loses the drive and the ability to succeed. My problem was that I never felt like Dick Diver was the fantastic man others believed him to be. I felt that he fell from a rather short distance: he just didn’t realize how mediocre he was from the beginning. My book group all seemed to disagree, however. Whether or not Dick was a fallen hero, though, Dick’s story failed to move me to empathy. I wonder what I missed that may have allowed me to really delve in to this classic.
Fitzgerald creates an image of a perfect man by first portraying Dick Diver from the point of view of Rosemary Hoyt’s “innocence” as to his history. The first third of the novel traces the 18-year-old movie star’s new infatuation with the man who appears at ease in the social setting around him. As the novel progresses, however, we begin to learn the truth about both Dick and his mentally disturbed wife, Nicole.
My first frustration with Dick was his psychological practices. Although he was the consulting doctor for young Nicole, a victim of incest, he became attracted to her once he met her and determined to marry her to “cure her.” One individual in my book group suggested that my disgust with that colored my perception of Dick for the rest of the novel, and I suspect that is true. I just can’t see him as a serious psychologist after that, I suppose, even though the times were different in 1925, when this novel took place.
Tender is the Night is a very European novel. The setting on the beach of the French Riviera in the 1920s was distinct. It was an integral part of the novel, as was Dick’s sanitarium in Switzerland and the various other scenes in Paris. (Although I can’t remember specifics at this point, I have the impression that those scenes were the “partying” scenes.) These places were the exotic and (ironically) innocent destinations for wealthy Americans to swarm to. Appropriately, then, Dick Diver’s fall seems to be one of realizing that he was living a fake life in Europe. Although his “end” (and the end of the novel) came quickly, I found the end appropriate: he finds himself back in America, living in a rural no-name town and barely eking out a living, ignoring his past life.
Nicole’s transformation is also one of realizing herself, although in her case, she realizes she doesn’t like the life they’d been living of wealthy amusement.
Her ego began blooming like a great rich rose as she scrambled back along the labyrinths in which she had wandered for years. She hated the beach, resented the places where she had played planet to Dick’s sun.
“Why, I’m almost complete,” she thought. “I’m practically standing alone, without him.” (Part 3, chapter 7)
Was she now complete because, as some in my book group suggested, she had taken everything out of Dick? He was spent and she was now well because he had given everything to her care? Possibly, but I didn’t see it that way. I read it this way: now, finally, she has grown up and overcome the trauma. When she married Dick, she was transferring her dependence on her incestuous father into dependence on Dick, the ever dutiful psychologist-husband. As she grew older, she healed from her trauma, and it took even longer to separate from Dick’s influence. The distraction of Rosemary helped Dick get sidetracked from her, and she was able to find herself.
Even reading what I am trying to say does not make a ton of sense. This novel is full of unreliable narrators: although it’s in third person, we learn of events from different characters’ perspectives. Who knows if we’re getting the entire story, even by the end.
It is clear that is is a semi-autobiographical novel. Like Dick and Nicole, the Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald separated late in life. Scott didn’t see his wife for at least a year and a half before he died. Given their socialite status in the 1920s, that’s incredible. Much like the beloved Dick and Nicole of Rosemary’s perspective (part one of the novel), Scott and Zelda seemed the couple of the decade. If I knew more about Scott Fitzgerald, I might have more to say about the intriguing parallels.
Although I didn’t feel much connection with Tender is the Night as I read, I was reminded of the time I spent studying The Great Gatsby in high school. I am now revisiting that classic!
What do you think of Tender is the Night? Which wins out for you: gorgeous prose or intriguing story? For this book, I enjoyed the writing, but the story made me not so satisfied by the end.