Tender Is the Night

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The popular understanding of this book is that it's loosely autobiographical. Most of us know of Fitzgerald's own trouble with the mental illness of his wife, Zelda. In Tender Is the Night, Dick Diver struggles with the mental illness of his wife, Nicole. In fact the blurb on the back of my vintage paperback reads, "It tells the story of Dick Diver, a young psychiatrist whose career was thwarted and his genius numbed through marriage to the exquisite and wealthy Nicole Warren."

All these years I may have had misplaced sympathy for F. Scott Fitzgerald, because—taking the story at face value—I'm sorry, but Dick Diver brings most of this trouble ON HIMSELF and takes no responsibility for it. Get this: He's a PSYCHIATRIST, and he MARRIES a mental patient. What did you THINK was going to happen?? Take some responsibility for that choice! (And to those of you who would counter with: It wasn't Nicole's lack of mental wellness that ruined Dick's life, it was her wealth. I would again counter with: Well, whose fault is THAT??) Tender Is the Night is additionally a chronicle of Diver's irresistibility to women...AND his subsequent passivity in that role. (Really?? You're not an actor upon the world; you're just a total victim to whom things happen?) By contemporary standards, we would say that it's all about him; I'm not sure the story really plays to a modern audience for these annoying reasons.

Here's my second beef with the story. Mental illness aside, Tender Is the Night is a non-banally told tale of something very banal: the seven year itch. Nicole doesn't appear bona fide crazy until two thirds of the way through the book. By that time, Dick & Nicole have been married for more than a handful of years, have kids, and have already both experienced attractions to other people. There need not be anything as remarkable as a nervous breakdown to bring about this couple's demise. They were well on their way the same way everybody else gets there. Dick's most prominent outside attraction (although he has many, displays zero good judgment, & is portrayed acting at least to some extent on all of them) comes BEFORE Nicole goes crazy. Or as Nicole says pointedly to him, "It's always a delusion when I see what you don't want me to see."

But back to the part about this book being non-banally written... A neat trick happens in the last fifty pages in which—regardless of WHOM you might blame for ruining Dick's life—you can't tell who the crazy person is anymore! Is it Nicole, or is it Dick?? Readers might find their allegiances switching, and suddenly one finds oneself afraid of what HE might do next!? There is some justice in that perhaps. An emotionally unstable person might only learn to trust standing on her own if the person she's leaned on all along can no longer be counted on. The ending is pretty good too. Fitzgerald is essentially a romantic with a legendary ear for words and the ability to keenly descry social interactions, which perhaps are reasons why his writing appeals to many. As for Classic Bitch, Fitzgerald's writing has never been my cup of tea, but I admit I'm largely alone in this opinion.

I got all hung up on the theme of mental health in this review to the neglect of other strong currents in the book like money, class, & alcoholism. Fun references: The title of the novel comes from one of Fitzgerald's favorite Keats odes. One book on the list references another when the protagonist of Tender Is the Night gets all Jamesian with the following line of dialogue: "[T]he golden bowl is broken." (An additional coincidence is that another Henry James book is next on the list.) Finally there's a Star-Spangled Banner reference! And Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is of course the namesake of a certain other famous Francis Scott Key.