A strange thing is that in retrospect his Tender Is the Night gets better and better,” Ernest Hemingway wrote to Maxwell Perkins, the editor he shared with F. Scott Fitzgerald at Charles Scribner’s Sons. He quickly shared the same opinion with the author: “The more I think back to it the better book Tender Is the Night is.” Hemingway’s second thoughts were in sharp contrast to the censure he had given Fitzgerald a year earlier, in 1934, when the novel was published: “Not as good as you can do.” Hemingway’s appreciation of Tender Is the Night would wax over time; by 1950 he considered it “the best of his books.”
This reversal of judgment is emblematic of Fitzgerald’s literary status. When he died of a heart attack in 1940, at the age of 44, all nine of his books were as good as out of print. (He had been humiliated when he was unable to purchase copies in two Los Angeles bookstores.) In the Thirties, Fitzgerald has been thought of “as an age rather than a writer,” Budd Schulberg recalled, “and when the economic stroke of 1929 began to change the sheiks and flappers into unemployed boys or underage girls, we consciously, a little belligerently, turned our backs on Fitzgerald.” Before she met him, “though I had never read anything he wrote,” Sheilah Graham, the Hollywood gossip columnist who would become Fitzgerald’s lover, described women “I wanted to chide” as “old-fashioned F. Scott Fitzgerald types.” So identified with the Twenties was Fitzgerald that Time magazine’s obituary did not mention Tender Is the Night.
In comparison with his celebrated contemporaries, Fitzgerald thought himself the tortoise, not the hare: “My one hope is to be endorsed by the intellectually elite.” Such proved to be the case. Almost as rapidly as he had achieved his original reputation—in 1920 Fitzgerald awoke to find himself famous, following publication of his first novel, This Side of Paradise—his posthumous prestige established itself.
Five years after his death, his Princeton classmate (and avowed “intellectual conscience”) Edmund Wilson published The Crack-Up, which included encomia from luminaries like T. S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, and John Dos Passos. A further case for Fitzgerald’s literary importance was presented in the first biography, Arthur Mizener’s superb The Far Side of Paradise. In the same year, 1951, Alfred Kazin edited a collection of essays on The Great Gatsby, accelerating its ascent to canonization as The Great American Novel. As early as 1966 Philip Rahv was complaining that “it has been worked to death in the past fifteen years or so by both by Fitzgerald’s critics and biographers” and “should be left alone for at least several decades.” To no avail, of course: The Great Gatsby is established as a secondary-school staple, served as a sandwich between introduction and notes. Eight decades after its publication, it is Scribner’s best-selling book.
Fitzgerald is “one of those novelists,” Kazin writes, “whom it is possible, and even fascinating, to read over and over,” adding “it has often been remarked that Tender Is the Night grows better on each re-reading.” Fitzgerald thought so: he judged his novel “a book that only gives its full effect on second reading.”
The story is simple. Richard Diver, a 28-year-old psychiatrist of great promise, falls in love with an 18-year-old patient, Nicole Warren, who was rendered schizophrenic after being raped by her father. After they marry, Nicole’s family wealth induces Diver to abandon his work and create a life of sophisticated glamour on the Riviera. After 10 years, Diver begins suffering “a lesion of enthusiasm”; his preternatural charm erodes and with it his ability to create an urbane cocoon for Nicole. As he deteriorates, she improves. Fully recovered and disillusioned with her degenerating husband, Nicole takes a lover, with whom she resumes her stylish hedonism. An increasingly foundering Diver returns to the United States and obscurity.
As with any worthwhile fiction, it is not the plot that matters, but the treatment, how it is told. “A whole lot of people just skimmed through the book for the story,” Fitzgerald complained, “and it simply can’t be read that way.” Tender Is the Night is divided into three non-linear sections. The first, set in 1925, shows Diver at his apogee as an impresario of charm; the third chronicles his decline and his divorce from Nicole. The middle part relates Dick’s history, his romance with Nicole, and the erosion of his identity from psychiatrist to the husband of a wealthy wife, signified by the shift of hotel registration from “Dr. and Mrs. Diver” to “Mr. and Mrs. Diver.” This seemingly throwaway detail in the second section gains retroactive and grave import in the third part as the Divers’ marriage disintegrates.
Such allusion and prefiguration, inherent in the novel’s anachronic structure, is most apparent upon rereading. The book’s opening section, practically a self-contained novella (and the best-written segment of the book), essentially summarizes the forthcoming action and themes. For example: Abe North, Dick’s friend whose musical talent has dissolved in alcoholic dissipation, anticipates Dick’s fate; the McKiscos and the Abramses, the boorish onlookers to the Divers on the beach, are harbingers of the rich vulgarians the Divers discover five years later when they return to the Riviera in futile search for their paradise lost. A burlesque duel, complete with “archaic” pistols, not only foreshadows Dick’s Victorian code of values but also accentuates that it is obsolete.
Most important is Rosemary Hoyt, a 17-year-old actress on vacation with her mother. Her innocence and naïveté, in equal measures, suggests to Dick the uncontaminated freshness and vulnerability he once perceived in the schizophrenic Nicole at the same age, and arouses a similar romantic protectiveness. That is one reason he refuses her increasingly direct sexual advances, despite his own desire; the other is his need to preserve her aura of purity, itself an inverse echo of his wife’s violation by her father. Their roundelay of attraction and resistance repeats, we see in the second section, what happened between Dick and Nicole, when she, in effect, seduces him while his patient. (Nicole’s affair at the novel’s conclusion is an effort to retrieve the emotions she once felt toward her husband, a reiteration of Dick’s feelings for Rosemary.) And Nicole’s perception of Dick is anticipated by Rosemary’s: “his voice promised that he would take care of her, and that a little later he would open up new worlds for her, unroll an endless succession of possibilities.” The correspondence between the two women is concealed by Rosemary’s envy (“she looked at Nicole, matching herself against her”), but Fitzgerald indicates their similarity—both will exploit and discard Dick—when he writes that Rosemary’s turmoil is “hidden by a sheath as impermeable as Nicole’s.” Their familial guardians are also subliminally linked. Rosemary’s mother encourages her daughter’s sexual pursuit of Diver (“If you’re in love it ought to make you happy”); Nicole’s older sister, “Baby” Warren, purchases her a psychiatrist husband and a sanitarium (“if Nicole lived beside a clinic she would always feel quite safe about her”). Both, after all is said and done, are procurers.
A parallel aesthetic of allusiveness characterizes Fitzgerald’s subtly mesmerizing prose, which has never failed to win approbation. His style, however, is not easily described. “His words are never in love with themselves,” R. W. B. Lewis writes. “Fitzgerald’s style is not intended to call attention itself.” It lacks the obvious mannerisms of Hemingway’s or William Faulkner’s. (Which is why they have inspired legions of imitators and plagiarists, Fitzgerald none.) He had a gift for the startling, evocative metaphor: the “bright tan prayer rug of a beach”; “their eyes met and brushed like bird’s wings”; “It was a limpid black night, hung as in a basket from a single dull star”; and a personal favorite, a mirror is “the incorruptible quicksilver.”
As these examples suggest, Fitzgerald’s was a literary sensibility shaped by poetry. He once wrote his daughter, “I don’t think anyone can write succinct prose unless they have at least tried and failed to write a good iambic pentameter sonnet, and read Browning’s short dramatic poems.” As a child, he listened to his father reciting Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon, which instilled a reverence for the Romantics, above all John Keats, whose “Ode to a Nightingale” provided the title for Tender Is the Night. His ear was impeccable. “Words came to him rhythmically charged with feeling,” one of his biographers writes, speculating that Fitzgerald’s notoriously bad spelling—to choose a random example, he consistently got Hemingway’s name wrong—arose because he so responded to the sound of words and spelled them the way they sounded to him. “It is true that Scott Fitzgerald plays the language entirely by ear,” Wilson writes. “But his instrument, for all that, is no mean one.”
Yet, however lyrical, Fitzgerald’s mature prose is neither precious nor prettily “poetic,” never resorting to what Cyril Connolly derided as “the clever adjective and the classy noun.” Fitzgerald’s diction is direct; he advised a beginning novelist “never to use an unfamiliar word.” (For example, in revising The Great Gatsby, he changed “recognized” to “knew,” “emerged” to “moved out” and “altercations” to “fights.”) An exception to this rule: “need of rhythm.” The beat of Fitzgerald’s prose moves not to an obtrusive cadence but to a subtle, natural tempo, “so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it.” As Gertrude Stein put it, Fitzgerald wrote “naturally in sentences.”
Drawing less from the usual elements of prose fiction (characterization and, especially, plotting) in favor of the resources of poetry (rhythm, pattern and aural sensuousness), Fitzgerald’s is a style of suggestiveness rather than statement, a glaze not an impasto. His gossamer impressionism is perfectly fitted for Fitzgerald’s depiction of such evanescences as love and loss, tristesse and, in Tender Is the Night, charm. The novel’s masterly first section evokes this central quality of Dick Diver through the effect it has on Rosemary Hoyt and on the resentful Americans excluded from his privileged circle. (Fitzgerald employed a similar method of indirection to create the mysterious aura surrounding Jay Gatsby.) “The purpose of a work of fiction,” Fitzgerald believed, “is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.” Although Tender Is the Night overflows with melodramatic incident—incest, adultery, violent deaths, even a duel—what is most memorable is its atmospherics: the enchanting ambiance of the Divers’ festivities, the sordid aura of Dick’s protracted deterioration. “One need never have known Paris or the Twenties,” the cultural historian Otto Friedrich writes, “to feel the sense of the physical goodness of life, and the sense of nostalgia at the loss of that life.”
This is the quality Joseph Conrad called “magic suggestiveness,” and Conrad, with Keats, was Fitzgerald’s foremost literary influence. (“It is difficult to imagine John Keats writing the fictions of Joseph Conrad,” Harold Bloom marvels. “In some sense that was Scott Fitzgerald’s accomplishment.”) The Marlow-like observer/narrator in The Great Gatsby and the non-linear narration of Tender Is the Night and the uncompleted The Last Tycoon are the most obvious instances of what Fitzgerald called Conrad’s “healthy influence on the technique of the novel.” Even more important, perhaps, was his adoption of Conrad’s celebrated artistic credo: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” His concern for “the shape and ring of sentences,” his belief that “all art . . . appeals primarily to the senses,” his demand for a “complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance,” impelled Fitzgerald’s effort to use language to reflect his themes, as Lewis says, “to illuminate the action or character or thought.” And Conrad’s declaration that “the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom” echoes Keats’s conviction that what forms “a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature” is his ability “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It was Conrad, the scholar Robert Sklar suggests, who showed how Keats’s doctrine of negative capability could be the stuff of fiction.
Euphoric at the success of his newly mastered aesthetic in The Great Gatsby (“I think that at last I’ve done something really my own”), Fitzgerald intended its successor to continue his advance, to be “something really NEW in form, idea, structure—the model for the age that Joyce and Stein are looking for, that Conrad didn’t find.” But Tender Is the Night had a long, frustrating gestation. The Great Gatsby was written in 10 months; Tender Is the Night required nine years and 17 drafts—and Fitzgerald remained unsatisfied, revising and rearranging the published book in hope for a new edition.
He intended to continue a theme from The Great Gatsby, the tension between a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” and its disillusion, this time not with a tawdry simulacrum in the suburbs of New York but with its authentic realization in the south of France. He was inspired by a wealthy American couple he had met upon arriving in Paris in 1924. Gerald and Sara Murphy had fled the constraints of familial privilege three years before, and quickly had become participants in the extraordinary cultural ferment that made Paris, in Gertrude Stein’s pronouncement, “where the 20th century was.” Their residences were a “sort of nexus with everything that was going on,” said Archibald MacLeish, where he and other American writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dos Passos mingled with Picasso, Stravinsky, and Cocteau.
“Person after person—English, French, American, everybody—met them and came away saying that these people really are masters in the art of living,” MacLeish recalled, a skill that culminated in their masterwork. Discovering from Gerald’s Yale classmate Cole Porter that the Riviera was deserted in the then-unfashionable summer months, the Murphys built a villa near a tiny beach on the Cap d’Antibes and converted the area into Shangri-La. Their dinners for eight to 10—guests ranged from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker to Rudolph Valentino, the French entertainer Mistinguett, and the former premier of Italy—featured delectable food (usually Provençal, accented by an American dish like poached eggs on creamed corn), with vegetables and fruits from the Murphys’ garden. The garden itself was a fragrant mix of date palms, Arabian maples, lemon trees, mimosa, and heliotrope. After dinner, listening to a serenade of nightingales, the guests basked in the vistas of the Mediterranean and the Massif de l’Esterel. “A party at the Murphys’ had its own rhythm, and there was never a jarring note,” the cultural critic Gilbert Seldes recalled. “Both of them had a passion for entertaining and for other people.”
It is a commonplace to say that Dick and Nicole Diver begin as portraits of Gerald and Sara Murphy but transmute into Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (This was the substance of Hemingway’s original critique.) Although something similar had happened with Jay Gatsby—“I never at any one time saw him clear myself,” Fitzgerald wrote his Princeton classmate John Peale Bishop, “for he started as one man I knew and then changed into myself”—the transformation of Dick resulted from Fitzgerald’s radical reconsideration of his novel. The book he published in 1934 was not the book he had planned in 1925; it reflected and refracted the subsequent upheavals in Fitzgerald’s life. The Great Gatsby is a novel of ennobling exhilaration, of the uplifting power that comes from belief in “those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false so long as they partake of their magical glory”; Tender Is the Night depicts the devastation of disenchantment.
“Who is a poet?” Thomas Mann asks. “He whose life is symbolic.” The decade that he labeled “the Jazz Age” not only provided Fitzgerald with the material for his fiction, but he and his wife, Zelda, became, as Seldes wrote, “an established part of the national folklore.” The flapper, whom Fitzgerald’s early short stories celebrated as the paragon of Twenties womanhood, was known to be modeled on Zelda; she herself repeatedly extolled the stereotype in magazine articles and newspaper stories (“I’m raising my girl to be a flapper”). Their much-publicized escapades (riding on the tops of taxis, diving into Union Square fountain, whirling for a half-hour in the revolving doors of the Commodore Hotel) made them the era’s poster children—literally: a full-page photograph of the couple appeared on the cover of Hearst’s International in May 1923 and was reprinted in newspapers and magazines across the country.
“The Twenties passed,” Fitzgerald reminisced, “with my own twenties a little ahead of them”—ominously for someone who believed that youth ended at the age of 30. He perceived the portents of decay in the changes to the Murphy’s idyllic Cap d’Antibes. Where once it had been a backwater with a single movie theater that operated but once a week and with telephone service that shut down after 7 p.m., by the end of the decade two American bars were thriving, an apartment house was under construction, and instead of a small group of the social and artistic elite, there were “Americans spewed up by the boom,” Fitzgerald fumed. “By 1929 at the most gorgeous paradise for swimmers on the Mediterranean no one swam any more, save for a short hang-over dip at noon.” The disenchantment the Fitzgeralds felt on their last trip to Europe is replicated in the despair of the Divers, making a last-ditch effort to rescue their marriage by returning to the Riviera and discovering its decadence. (“So much fun—so long ago,” Rosemary Hoyt says.) A more poignant indication of the passing of the old order were the deaths of Fitzgerald’s father, and Zelda’s, in 1931. His mournful ruminations would be copied, almost word for word, as Dick’s requiem for his father.
The parallels between the marriage and the decade can seem uncannily overdetermined. At the beginning of the postwar boom, Fitzgerald made his spectacular debut with This Side of Paradise and won Zelda’s hand; both the era and the marriage suffered shipwreck a decade later. Fitzgerald summarized the ironic synchronicity: “The Crash—Zelda and America.” The stock market collapsed on October 29, 1929; six months later (and three weeks after her 10th wedding anniversary) Zelda suffered a mental breakdown that ultimately would result in her long-term hospitalization for schizophrenia.
Zelda’s madness, and its repercussions, was decisive in the composition of Tender Is the Night. Fitzgerald drew on several real-life particulars, such as Zelda’s hospitals to describe the Swiss sanitarium where Nicole is confined and the one that her sister finances for the couple. Nicole’s attempt to wreck her car while driving her family replicates one of Zelda’s several suicidal gestures. And the brilliant montage sequence that chronicles Nicole’s growing passion for Dick is composed, almost word for word, from Zelda’s letters from the sanitarium.
Although Zelda’s illness pulled Fitzgerald’s inchoate ideas about his novel into final focus, he was unable to work on it steadily. Five times between 1930 and 1932, Zelda was discharged from mental hospitals in the hope that home life would restore her mental equilibrium. Such hopes were in vain. As Zelda wrote in her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, she and Scott “passed each other in the musty corridors hastily and ate distantly facing each other with the air of enemies awaiting some gesture of hostility”; at times she locked herself in a bedroom and remained silent for days, with Fitzgerald slipping notes under her door. Only after her admission to the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins was Fitzgerald able to return to his novel.
Zelda’s hospitalization precipitated a crisis in Fitzgerald’s continuously precarious finances. For all the publicity he garnered, his novels never were big sellers—This Side of Paradise, with all its notoriety, sold about 33,000 copies in six moths; Main Street, over the same period, sold 180,000 copies—and each of his novels sold worse than its predecessor. (Fitzgerald’s royalties in 1932 and 1933 totaled $50. His last royalty check, in August 1940, was for $13.13, for the sale of 40 copies.) A fiction writer made money, Fitzgerald advised the young Hemingway, by cultivating the high-paying mass-market magazines. In his two-decade professional career, he wrote 178 short stories (and about two dozen nonfiction pieces), most sold to commercial magazines. In particular, his stories for The Saturday Evening Post became a fixture, like Norman Rockwell’s covers. The magazine published 66 of them between 1920 and 1937, earning him approximately three million in today’s dollars. (In his lifetime, sales of short stories amounted to well more than half of his total earnings from all sources, including royalties and Hollywood scriptwriting.)
Yet he was always broke. Fitzgerald spent virtually all of his life scrambling to pay off his debts. His absurdly profligate style of living began with his courtship of Zelda, who had broken their engagement over doubts about his ability as a provider. After Scribner’s accepted This Side of Paradise, he sold 18 stories in two years; he wooed Zelda with telegrams announcing sales. Yet, “after being married for three months,” he recalled, “I found to my horror that I didn’t have a dollar in the world.” After earning the equivalent in today’s dollars of nearly $235,000, he was almost $25,000 in debt. (The average salary in 1920 was about $42,600 in today’s dollars.) His cycle of borrowing from his publisher and agent (even from Perkins, to whom he signed one letter “Inevitable Beggar”) began. His wastrel habits, like leaving a tip greater than the sum of the bill in restaurants, continued. “Scott shed all he earned, without concern for the future,” Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co., recalled, adding that he and Zelda “always left money on a plate in the hall of the house where they lived, so that people coming with bills or those to be tipped could simply help themselves.” In 1924, he wrote a lighthearted article about how he and Zelda spent the equivalent of half a million in today’s dollars, at a time when the average income was about $31,000. To pay for Zelda’s care (about $100,000 in today’s dollars), Fitzgerald did what he always had done: write short stories for The Post. Between 1929 and 1931, he produced one every six or seven weeks. But it was work he had come to loathe. “Trash doesn’t come as easily as it used to,” he complained to Perkins as early as 1926, “and I’ve grown to hate the poor old debauched form itself.” And he resented not being able to devote himself to writing Tender Is the Night. “The novel was a dream farther and farther away,” he told the hospitalized Zelda. “I was paying for it with work, that I passionately hated and found more and more difficult to do.” And it was a pace he could not maintain. In 1931 his earnings reached their all-time high at the equivalent of about $575,000; the next year they dropped to the equivalent of almost $270,000.
Overwork, worry, physical and emotional exhaustion—however much these contributed (and it was a lot) to Fitzgerald’s decline in productivity, the biggest reason was alcohol. In 1922, he declared that liquor was “deadening to work.” (“I have never written a line of any kind while I was under the glow of so much as a single cocktail.”) By 1928 he was drinking in order to work. In 1934, when Tender Is the Night was published, he was suffering from delirium tremens and required the services of a trained nurse. Even though he later regretted the deleterious effect his alcoholism had on the novel (he said he wrote the third section “entirely on stimulant”), Fitzgerald declared, “Without drink I do not know whether I could have survived this time,” the time of insomnia and night sweats, of two- and three-day stints in a hospital to dry out—the long months of “a real dark night of the soul,” when “it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” In contrast to The Great Gatsby, written with unbroken concentration, Tender Is the Night was produced in sporadic spurts, with Fitzgerald seldom able to devote more than a few days at a time to it. This travail accounts for much of the novel’s aesthetic deficiency, like the inconsistent characterization of Dick Diver, the haphazard construction as the book progresses, and intermittent blemishes of lazy writing—especially, sporadic authorial intrusions (“To resume Rosemary’s point of view”). Yet, as Friedrich comments, “Tender Is the Night emerged from upheavals that would have silenced a lesser writer.”
However ardently Fitzgerald embraced the modernism of Conrad, his sensibility had not departed from the Romanticism of Keats. Like the poet, Fitzgerald worshipped “the holiness of the Heart’s affections,” for him a faith embodied in Zelda and terminally abraded by her madness. It was as a couple that they had personified the Jazz Age; even today “Scott and Zelda” is uttered as if a single, hyphenated vocable. (In Tender Is the Night, Dick and Nicole sign themselves as “Dicole” in “the first days of love.”) “Of all the things they possessed in common,” he wrote in his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, which detailed the early years of his marriage, “the greatest of all was their almost uncanny pull at each other’s hearts.” Although observers as dissimilar as Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Rebecca West had immediately recognized Zelda as disturbed, for years Fitzgerald obstinately refused to accept the fact of her schizophrenia. Dick Diver voiced his feelings: “Nicole and I have to go on together. In a way that’s more important than just wanting to go on.”
However, unlike Jay Gatsby, the “vitality of his illusion” could not sustain him. Zelda’s therapy brought to the surface the several stresses that had been corroding the marriage since the mid-Twenties. Scott felt, correctly, that Zelda did not support his dedication to art above commerce after The Great Gatsby. (“I always felt a story in the Post was tops,” Zelda told a scholar after his death. “But Scott couldn’t stand to write them.”) Few people have been less suited for the thankless role of writer’s spouse than Zelda; bereft of inner resources and repelled by Scott’s “insane indulgence in drink” (as he called it in an exceptionally rare moment of insight), she found herself terrified by a loss of identity. Ring Lardner summed it up: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.”
Although Fitzgerald knew that he bore some responsibility for Zelda’s breakdown—his greatest short story, “Babylon Revisited,” is an implicit plea for absolution—he resented that so much of his career had been diverted from writing novels to making money from writing commercial fiction. (His insomniac torment, he wrote, was a “shrill monody” of “Horror and waste—Waste and horror—what I might have been and done that is lost, spent, gone, dissipated, unrecapturable.”) Eventually he perceived his continued relation with Zelda as a matter of survival: he wrote to her psychiatrist, “I told her I was trading my health for her sanity, and I was through.”
Dick Diver is never believable as a psychiatrist; Fitzgerald was not knowledgeable enough to make the characterization credible. What Diver is, in fact, is a writer manqué. His first book, A Psychology for Psychiatrists, makes his reputation at a young age, but instead of continuing his scholarly work, his luxurious life on Nicole’s money reduces him to writing pop psychology for a lay audience. (The auto-biographical parallel is reinforced by Dick’s declaration that he intends “to be a good psychologist—maybe the greatest one that ever lived,” echoing Fitzgerald’s guileless remark to Wilson: “I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don’t you?”) Fitzgerald’s protectiveness toward Zelda—“She was always my child (it was not reciprocal as it often is in marriages),” he wrote to Sara Murphy. “I was her great reality, often the only liaison agent who could make the world tangible to her”—is literalized in the Divers’ marriage, which is, in effect, a continuation of psychotherapy by other means. Also literalized is the Freudian notion of transference. The vitality of the marriage is vampiristic: Nicole’s emotional health is gained at the expense of Dick’s. “I can’t do anything for you any more,” he finally tells her. “I’m trying to save myself.” At the conclusion, Nicole is thriving while Dick vainly cries, “I expect some nourishment from people now.”
With the weight of so many autobiographical subtexts, Tender Is the Night is “personal and transparent—too personal,” as Kazin remarks. After the book’s publication, Fitzgerald told Perkins he regretted that he had lived “in the individual part of the book rather than in the book as a whole.” As a result, in some respects, the novel coheres only in the light of Fitzgerald’s life, as in Dick Diver’s rapid, unexplained (indeed, inexplicable) degeneration, an analog to Zelda’s breakdown as well as to the stock market crash. More to the point is the Divers’ marriage, a wildly unethical act supposedly justified by passion. “Dick Diver’s need to marry Nicole is not convincing,” Kazin writes, “but since it is explained by Fitzgerald’s need to marry Zelda, we accept the one as we accept the other.”
However, as Kazin continues, “To recall the model is to see how life verges on the imagination.” Tender Is the Night may be Fitzgerald’s self-defense, but it also exists as an autonomous work of art. Rosemary and Nicole are variations of the typical Fitzgerald woman—cold-minded, materialistic, and calculating, less the Romantic la belle dame sans merci than what Leslie Fielder calls “the Fair Goddess as bitch”—but not only are they well-rounded characters (indeed, Rosemary may be the most fully developed female character Fitzgerald ever wrote) but also sympathetic. Indeed, by the conclusion, Nicole has displaced Dick as the center of interest; one cheers her decision to take a lover and leave Dick. “You’re a coward! You’ve made a failure of your life, and you want to blame it on me”: the echoes of Zelda to Scott are secondary to the validity of Nicole’s accusation.
“Our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as a sign of virtue of intellect,” Lionel Trilling wrote, with remarkable prescience, in 1945; Fitzgerald “really had but little impulse to blame.” Citing one of his notebook entries, “Forbearance, good word,” Trilling continues, “When it came to blame, he preferred, it seems, to blame himself. He even did not much want to blame the world.”
The key irony of the novel is Dick’s misinterpretation of Baby Warren’s intention to “buy a doctor” as a husband for the schizophrenic Nicole and that she has chosen him. “He was wrong,” Fitzgerald tells us. “She only wanted to use him as a convenience.” To Baby Warren, Dick never “could be made into her idea of an aristocrat,” her requirement for a brother-in-law. “But her request had the effect that Dick assumed she desired . . . he had made his choice, chosen Ophelia, chosen the sweet poison and drunk it. Wanting above all to be brave and kind, he had wanted, even more than that, to be loved. So it had been. So it would forever be.”
Trilling calls Fitzgerald “perhaps the last notable writer to affirm the Romantic fantasy . . . of life committed to, or thrown away for, some ideal of self.” The death his father, his moral touchstone (“again and again he referred judgments to what his father would probably have thought or done”) reminds Dick of the lapse in his values, how “he had been swallowed up like a gigolo, and . . . locked up in the Warren safety-deposit vaults.” His long decline comprises a series of public humiliations—habitual drunkenness leading to his discharge from his post at the sanitarium, a beating and imprisonment in Rome, displays of outrageous rudeness that cause him to be shunned on the Riviera—that seem a self-punishment, his as well as (vicariously) Fitzgerald’s. “One hears a personal insistence in the degeneration of Dick Diver,” John Berryman comments, “which seems external, morbid.” His serial dissolution eerily anticipates Fitzgerald’s own behavior after the commercial failure of Tender Is the Night. “Dante meant to show how, had he fallen like Paolo, he would have wound up like Ugolino,” Lewis writes. “There is this kind of projection in Tender Is the Night.”
Fitzgerald’s breakdown inspired his three “Crack-Up” articles, published in 1936. In them, as in Tender Is the Night, he avoids any analysis of causes, even a chronicle of events leading to the collapse. “I suddenly realized that I had prematurely cracked,” is all he says of himself. “The silver cord is cut and the golden cord is broken and all that, but an old romantic like me can’t do anything about it,” Dick Diver states. Fitzgerald’s fictions routinely omit the build-up, the events contained in the second act of a three-act play. (This, by the way, is the meaning of his most quoted aperçu, “There are no second acts in American lives”—not the mind-numbingly stupid notion that the country of the second chance rejects redemption.) Where Fitzgerald excelled was in evoking atmosphere. “It is from the failures of life, and not its successes that we learn most,” he declared. “I talk with the authority of failure.” In Tender Is the Night, as in “The Crack-Up,” the ambiance of despair is almost palpable. The novel exerts “a kind of magnetic effect on the reader’s emotions,” as Friedrich says. “The final shock, the realization that Diver’s ruin is really happening and cannot be stopped, achieves its overwhelming force not by exact detail but by the very vagueness.” The meaning and, indeed, the wisdom of Tender Is the Night can only be gained, if, like the blinded Gloucester in King Lear, we learn to see feelingly.