Review: Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night
Tender is the Night
F. Scott Fitzgerald
New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1962

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — March 25, 2000 10:30 a.m.

The success of earlier novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald comes from a relatively simple formula: tell a tragic story of perfection, of heaven on earth entrusted to the care of mere mortals, eventually and almost inevitably lost to the very humanity that had enabled them to enjoy it in the first place. Fitzgerald's strength lies in the telling. Many a storyteller could weave a plot full of turns and twists, and not a few of those could convey the setting in accurate colors. Fitzgerald, his painting full of intricate richness, stands alone in being able to convince his readers that they would gladly abandon any direction or purpose to the artwork if called upon to do so, if only they could gaze a while longer at the various hypnotic strokes.

In Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald expands his formula to a third dimension: besides structure and beauty, he adds complexity to the plot. The story of Dick and Nicole Diver displays a maturing technique of creating different viewpoints and subtle allusions. Character development in the minor characters is more pronounced than usual, and as the book opens with Rosemary meeting the Divers the reader expects that (and indeed would be satisfied if) the work was nothing more than "A Day in the Life of Rosemary."

While Fitzgerald's colors are perhaps somewhat muted compared to works such as The Great Gatsby, his artistry does not disappoint. Almost arbitrary analogies take a life of their own; the following extract describes a mere conversation subject as being heavy, to the point where it could "fall of its own weight," immediately turning to conjure up pictures of handshaking that conveys feelings of indifference with which the reader immediately understands:

When the subject of Mr. Denby fell of its own weight, he essayed other equally irrelative themes, but each time the very deference of Dick's attention seemed to paralyze him, and after a moment's stark pause the conversation that he had interrupted would go on without him. He tried breaking into other dialogues, but it was like continually shaking hands with a glove from which the hand had been withdrawn—so finally, with a resigned air of being among children, he devoted his attention entirely to the champagne (33).

Other imagery is even more surrealistic, but somehow, through Fitzgerald's finesse, easily accepted and more natural than reality, conveying his intended mood perfectly:

Later in the garden she was happy; she did not want anything to happen, but only for the situation to remain in suspension as the two men tossed her from one mind to another; she had not existed for a long time, even as a ball (276).

Fitzgerald therefore continues to profit from the similarities in previous ventures of past novels. The Great Gatsby, for example, has an excellent description of a host escorting a guest: "Before I could reply that he was my neighbor dinner was announced; wedging his tense arm imperatively under mine Tom Buchanan compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square" (16). Tender is the Night also captures just such a mood, "as Golding's cyclonic arms blew them aft without touching them..." (268). Fitzgerald seems to have included experiences from many of his previous writings, even his short stories; the "stunts on the swinging rings" (282), for example, brings to mind the acrobatics of his early work, "Head and Shoulders."

Fitzgerald's alcoholic experiences in real life have allowed him to create amazingly accurate descriptions of inebriation in almost all of his novels, and this work, which includes a picture of Dick on the dance floor, doesn't interrupt the pattern:

Clay walked off into space. Dick finished his bottle and then danced with the English girl again, conquering his unwilling body with bold revolutions and stern determined marches down the floor. The most remarkable thing suddenly happened. He was dancing with the girl, the music stopped—and she had disappeared (223).

Any of these elements are enough to make Tender is the Night another cherished work from the Fitzgerald portfolio, but it's the added intricacies of the plot which shows Fitzgerald's maturity that benefits from an increasing openness towards experimentation. Rosemary's role in opening the story is certainly a departure from the norm, since it's later evident that she plays a minor role in relation to the Divers. Making the reader expect that the story is all about Rosemary is quite effective in allowing the reader to jarringly realize, somewhere toward the end of the work, that Rosemary plays practically no role at all in the downfall of Dick Diver.

The mental instabilities of Nicole also provide texture to the plot, encouraging the reader to anticipate how spiraling relapses might provide the shifting sand that will bring down the house that Dick built. Again, it's made evident that even the supposedly sane and stable can wreak as much havoc upon themselves as any craziness that might exist externally. Fitzgerald lets the reader conclude the core of the problem: it wasn't the sly Rosemary, it wasn't the fragmented Nicole, and it wasn't even the reckless Abe North. Dick's downfall was ultimately of his own making.

The intricacies of the plot bring added texture to Fitzgerald's timeless techniques. Nicole's mental problems, according to the story, derive from a sexual encounter with her father at a young age. Dick's attraction to the young Rosemary alludes to this fact, and only in the middle of the story brings out the significance of Rosemary's first hit film, "Daddy's Girl."

In a never-ending quest to somehow link Arudhati Roy with Fitzgerald, the appearance of Nicole's sister, Baby (the aunt of Dick and Nicole's children) might even have been the basis of the Aunt Baby character (137) in Roy's The God of Small Things.

The novel is by no means perfect; towards the end Fitzgerald seems to have neglected plot, leaving the novel to be upheld by only story structure and language beauty. This soils but does not ruin an excellent novel. Without the strides Fitzgerald took in embellishing his plot more than was typical with his previous novels, the story would have been just a strong as they — a success nonetheless. Even though its ending leaves a feeling of incompleteness, Fitzgerald's first foray into including intricacies above those of his previous plots makes this Fitzgerald novel even better than expected.