Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Comic Tragedy

Tender Is the NightTender Is the Night 
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“They were still in the happier stage of love. They were full of brave illusions about each other, tremendous illusions, so that the communion of self with self seemed to be on a plane where no other human relations mattered. They both seemed to have arrived there with an extraordinary innocence as though a series of pure accidents had driven them together, so many accidents that at last they were forced to conclude that they were for each other. They had arrived with clean hands, or so it seemed, after no traffic with the merely curious and clandestine.”  ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night 

The novel opens with a beautiful young women, Rosemary Hoyt, surrounded by a group of acquaintances on the French Riviera. Though very beautiful, filled with superficially attractive people, this opening seemed to me to be drawn out and slow as Rosemary soon meets the Divers, Nicole and Dick, who will become the central interest of the story for much of the rest of the novel. After this somewhat meandering start I was not really impressed with the story until the beginning of Book Two when the novel flashes back to 1917 and the arrival of twenty-six year old Doctor Richard Diver in Zurich. Thus begins the story of the psychiatrist and his wife, Nicole, and eventually Rosemary, a special friend among others. To the extent that the novel has any core story to hold it together it is here in Book Two and in the Third and final section of the novel. Nicole and Dick come to life as real characters, but the other characters in the novel do not share their strength of character. The identities of too many of the people who wander in and out of the story seem in flux, hard to pin down and harder to remember. Baby Warren, Nicole's sister, is a good example of one character for whom this was true.

Undoubtedly the novel's greatest asset is Fitzgerald's prose style which can be dazzling with colors and detail descriptions like that of the Riviera that opens the book. The plot begins with Rosemary's infatuation over Dick. 
"For a moment now she was beside Dick Diver on the path. Alongside his hard, neat brightness everything faded into the surety that he knew everything."(p 31) 
That Diver was married, sometimes happily, was not an obstacle to her erotic bliss. It is only later in the story that the complexities of Nicole and Dick come to the foreground and ultimately his personal destructiveness combines with her insecurities to determine the direction of their relationship. The deterioration of their relationship can be seen in the influence that her money (Nicole was immensely wealthy) had on Dick's life and feelings. 
"Living rather ascetically . . . he maintained a qualified financial independence. After a certain point, though, it was difficult--again and again it was necessary to decide together as to the uses to which Nicole's money should be put. Naturally Nicole, wanting to own him, wanting him to stand still forever, encouraged any slackness on his part, and in multiplying ways he was constantly inundated by a trickling of goods and money. . . It was not so much fun. His work became confused with Nicole's problems; in addition, her income had increased so fast of late that it seemed to belittle his work."(p 170) 
And on and on, Dick's guilt and rationalizations gradually contributed to a wall that divided them and grew larger as Dick drank more and spent more time with Rosemary.

Fitzgerald spent several years working on the novel. That plus its ultimate serialization in Scribner's Magazine may be part of what seems a sort of disconnectedness. There are also his own personal difficulties with drunkenness, his wife Zelda's insanity, the breakdown of his marriage, and his own personal anger at the burden of these situations. All of this is mirrored in the fictional account of Dick and Nicole, with Dick somewhat unsuccessfully becoming his wife's psychiatrist. Ultimately the novel becomes a comic tragedy in the modern sense. Its brilliant moments make it interesting reading that is only slightly marred by flaws of character and identity.

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Brian Joseph said...

I loved this book. I probably loved it beyond its actual worth. I found the disintegration of Dick and his relationship particularly poignant. I am not one hundred percent sure, but the characters and what happened to them worked particularly well for me.

As you point out, the prose was superb.

James said...

While I did not "love" this book I did not dislike it either. I believe my assessment of Tender is the Night may be somewhat critical since I read it in the shadow of The Great Gatsby which I have read and reread.
Gatsby is a novel that, while I do not love it, I admire tremendously. In my opinion Tender is the Night pales in comparison.