Tender is the Night | Notes and Ideas
Tender is the Night, just like its characters, is elusive, charming, and complex. F. Scott Fitzgerald is of course best known for The Great Gatsby, considered the Great American Novel, but contained within Tender is the Night is a glamorous and sprawling story. It was an excellent first read for 2022.
More than a simple romance, which I have no doubt Fitzgerald could have written superbly, what makes Tender is the Night stand out is the complexity of its plot and characters. We approach the ‘pleasant shore of the French Riviera’ through Rosemary Hoyt, who enters a glamorous world exemplified by Richard “Dick” Diver and his wife Nicole following great success in Hollywood. The Divers certainly make an impression:
“At that moment the drivers represented externally the exact furthermost evolution of a class so that most people seemed awkward beside them.”
Rosemary is young, she arrives on the Côte d’Azur on the eve of her eighteenth birthday and embodies idealism. As the novel unrolls, we quickly understand that Rosemary’s initial view of the Divers did not always match reality, something we first sense after Violet McKisco’s ‘discovery’ in the bathroom following an idyllic dinner at the Diver’s Villa Diana.
Gatsby was published in 1925, the epitome of the Jazz Age. When Tender is the Night was published almost ten years on in 1934, everything had changed. America was suffering from the worst economic depression in its history, and the party had ended. Tender is the Night is in part a critique of the idealism of the 20s and a warning that such opulent growth and the waste that accompanied it was unsustainable. On the surface, the slow decline of Dick and Nicole’s marriage in contrast with the innocent and almost naïve view that Rosemary has of the Divers acts as a big metaphor for it all.
Though upon closer inspection, whilst it may seem that Rosemary is idealistic, she does has a perception of the reality of the situation. In the scene where Rosemary and Dick are alone and they make out for the first time, Rosemary exclaims that ‘Oh — we’re such actors you and I.’ Both she and the audience know she’s an actress, but she was able to see that Dick too is acting. Depending on how early she’d understood this, the only one fooled by hopeless idealism was the reader.
In The Great Gatsby, one of the most central themes is the corrosive impact of pursuing wealth above all else. In Tender is the Night, it is that, in the words of Robert Frost, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay.’
Death is scattered throughout the novel, as is the somewhat surprising theme of war, both of which work to further the idea of ephemerality. In Chapter VI of Book I, Tommy Barban expresses that he ‘must go to war.’ He doesn’t particularly care what war, and when asked by Rosemary why he says he feels the Divers make him want to go to war despite him ‘lov[ing] the Divers,’ he expresses that he does love the Divers, especially Nicole, but they make him want to go to war nonetheless. The superimposition of love and war hints at an unease on Tommy’s part, the way in which some people deny themselves happiness by pursuing reckless behaviour.
Violence and murder is dispersed throughout and is often unexpected. The duel between McKisco and Barban ends with shots being fired (though no-one is killed), and at the railway station in Chapter XIX Maria Wallis, a friend of Nicole’s, murders someone without warning. The murders and deaths are only ever afforded a few lines or paragraphs but demonstrate the frail foundations on which the illusion of safety rests upon.
Another important theme is that of mental illness and healing. Dick himself is a Rhodes scholar and psychotherapist. Freud, whose work was becoming increasingly well known in the early 20th century, features several times throughout the novel. It is important to note that these themes were directly relevant to Fitzgerald himself whose wife was at the time of writing suffering from mental illness. Fitzgerald himself then suffered from alcoholism. The book is a direct exploration of the process and attitudes towards mental illness. Linked very closely with this is a critique of the ability of wealthy people to commit crimes and get away with them. The very reason why Nicole is admitted to the sanatorium where she meets Doctor Diver is that she suffers from incest-related trauma. There is an immense contrast between the glimmering coast of the French Riviera and the brutal reality of Nicole’s past. Fitzgerald outlines that whilst the rich may get away with their actions it is not without consequence, as America and the world learnt during the Great Depression.
What makes Tender is the Night so distinctive is that whilst Fitzgerald creates what is truly an incredible story, with language to match, it is a work extremely rich with themes and literary references, which the reader is free to engage with as much or as little as desired. Though it is not overdone. Unlike later works of the Century like Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, where I felt got the point but didn’t feel the story to be particularly engaging, Tender is the Night remains first and foremost a good story whilst at the same time touching upon many themes. It’s a piece of literature where each subsequent reading reveals so much more that you didn’t notice the first time.
The Great Gatsby will always remain a classic, but for me the beautiful scenery of the Côte d’Azur and Switzerland made me feel nostalgic for a time I never experienced. The longer length of Tender is the Night and narrative techniques such as the flashback in Book II made Dick, Nicole, Rosemary and all the other characters really came to life. For me, Tender is the Night is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best novel.