Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. So, I hated The Great Gatsby. Well, I shouldn’t say that, because I’ve never finished the book. I’ve tried to read it many, many times, but I’ve never made it more than halfway through. Everyone just feels distinctly hateable in that book. I’ve been scared to read anything else by Fitzgerald because of my distaste for Gatsby, though Jason says this is the one he thinks I would like.

    1. Amanda » I re-read The Great Gatsby. I’m more in the middle on it. It is very succicnt…tight…and so I get WHY it’s a text often chosen for high school. The symbolism is so obvious. But the plot… I have mixed feelings, I’m working on my thoughts right now. I think it is wonderful in some respects but it’s definitely not a favorite for me either.

  2. Intriguing story is usually the most important thing to me, but I loved The Great Gatsby, and that story wasn’t exactly nonstop action either. I’ve never read anything else by Fitzgerald, so far. I’m a bit nervous to! There are so many American authors I don’t like, and it makes me feel a bit better not to hate Fitzgerald the way I do, like, Hemingway and Faulkner and those guys. I fear to mess that up. :p

    1. Jenny » aw, you hate Hemingway? Did you try Old Man and the Sea? I also liked For Whom the Bell Tolls but I despised The Sun Also Rises and wasn’t crazy about his stories…I have mixed thoughts on The Great Gatsby. I think I studied it for too long in high school!!

  3. I’m all for gorgeous prose and to me that makes whatever the story behind it readable. (Although there are rare occasions when gorgeous prose wasn’t enough, but rarely, because good writing makes things interesting, even if it was just a piece of wood they are talking about.)

    Like you, I had mixed feelings towards Tender is the Night, though I seem to have liked it a bit more than you did. I was completely bowled over by the beauty of The Great Gatsby and was expecting something of the sort here. Was a bit disappointed because it wasn’t as perfect as Gatsby, but then I really liked the sadness that reverberated here. And I still think his writing lovely, as you did, which was almost enough, but then what really made this work for me was the underlying pathos underneath the levelheadedness. Plus knowing this was reflective of his life with Zelda made it an even richer experience. I’m afraid to explore his other works, though, because I’ve heard they’re not as good. Would you try any of his others?

    1. claire » I have two other Fitzgerald books on my shelf. I’ll read them at some point…not right now though. I just reread The Great Gatsby and had mixed feelings.

  4. I read Tender is the Night mainly because I liked the title, and I liked reading Gatsby in highschool. However, I think I was still a little young to have really appreciated the prose in Tender is the Night. I recall WANTING to like it, but feeling much as you did…that the characters just didn’t seem very meaningful to me. I should probably give it another try though.

    1. neal » TENDER IS THE NIGHT is definitely not one for a high schooler, I’d say. It’s much more mature in it’s underlying emotion than GATBSY. Maybe I’ll reread it some day and see what I think a decade or so in the future.

  5. I intend to read Tender is the Night after loving The Great Gatsby so much. However, I must admit I was left wondering what was Gatsby about after I read some articles and criticism and started to think about everything (and let’s be honest, revisited some sections).

    1. Elena » Yeah, I just reread GATSBY too and I think there is much more in than I may have thought…and yet, so much of the novel has transparent symbolism…I don’t know, I’m conflicted about it. Definitely much to ponder after reading it.

      1. I read it when I was 20 and then when I was 23 (this summer) and the book seemed deeper and somehow more relevant. Let’s see when I revisit it when I’m 30!

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