The most exciting artists successfully re-invent or experiment. In Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fourth novel, both are attempted. The author’s continuous theme of upper-class life is once again a constant, while a new approach is adopted. Working tirelessly through personal and literary hardship, Fitzgerald desperately attempted a proper follow up to Gatsby, despite (probably) knowing experiments usually fail.
Tender is the Night follows the highs and lows of married couple Dick and Nicole Diver. Opening on a lonely beach in the post-season Riviera, budding Hollywood actress Rosemary Hoyt makes friends with a group of Americans, the Divers and the Norths. Rosemary is happy becoming a dinner guest and accomplice to her new company, but can’t help but notice a strained stirring underlying the couples. This uncomfortable feeling becomes worse after a series of intimate (and immoral) events that occur within the friend group. Attracted to the uncomplicated innocence of Rosemary, Dick considers an affair, yet can’t help but remember his wife Nicole’s fragile state from her troubled past. Unmoved by her husband’s pseudo-sincerity, Nicole prefers to watch the world unravel rather than rescue it.
The atmosphere of Tender is the Night is the hangover after Gatsby. Published in 1934, five years after the start of the Depression, the glitz and glam of Jazz Age life which had boiled over in the previous novel, now (barely) survives on in little packs of people – instead of continental conscious. While not as dreary as Babylon Revisited, the tour of France in Fitzgerald’s fourth novel is blinded with bright morning light, plagued by a hastily setting sun, and fearful of the loneliness of night. There are peaks and valleys in Tender, but darkness is visible on the horizon:
“He read the message again. He sat down on the bed, breathing and staring; thinking first the old selfish child’s thought that comes with the death of a parent, how will it affect me now that this earliest and strongest of protections is gone?”
Fitzgerald embraces a triptych perspective to structure the story in Tender is the Night. Opening with the naive Rosemary, followed by a past-unto-present history through the eyes of an emotionally distraught Dick, and finally a view of the present and future via a ‘different’ Nicole (I hesitate to ruin the conclusion) than previously perceived. By the novel’s end, a chilling comfort is arrived at: the central characters – Nicole and Dick – have their lives unveiled, which forces the reader to judge previous and forthcoming actions:
“But that was for the daytime – toward evening with the inevitable diminution of nervous energy, her spirits flagged, and the arrows flew little in twilight. She was afraid of what was in Dick’s mind; again she felt that a plan underlay his current actions and she was afraid of his plans – they worked well and they had an ill-inclusive logic about them which Nicole was not able to command. She had somehow given over the thinking to him, and in his absences her every action seemed automatically governed by what he would like, so that now she felt inadequate to match her intentions against his. Yet think she must; she knew at last the number on the dreadful door of fantasy, the threshold to the escape; she knew that for her the greatest sin now and in the future was to delude herself. It had been a long lesson but she had learned it. Either you think – or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural taste, civilize and sterilize you.”
What allows Fitzgerald to remain a remembered and top tier American writer relies on preference. The books are entertaining, yes, but it is the author’s poetic comment that can woo or wilt readers. These universal observations throughout the novel come, this writer feels, at the most unexpectedly appropriate time: “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.”
Tender is the Night was a arduous task on Fitzgerald. Taking nearly ten years to complete, the author foundered both financially and romantically. Due to the poor sales of Gatsby, which according to the author’s ledger only profited him $2,000, writing seemingly endless short stories for the Saturday Evening Post was required. Not to mention, his wife Zelda was having none too easy of a time either:
Zelda suffered several breakdowns in both her physical and mental health, and sought treatment in and out of clinics from 1930 until her death…(Fitzgearld) described his own “crack-up” in an essay that he wrote in 1936, hopelessly in debt, unable to write, nearly estranged from his wife and daughter, and incapacitated by excessive drinking and poor physical health.”
Unfortunately for Fitzgerald Tender would fail financially and critically, leading friend and editor Malcolm Cowley posit, “The trouble is Fitzgerald never completely decided on what kind of novel he wanted to write.” Cowley would publish the novel with a chronological structure in 1951, believing it may bolster sales. Fitzgerald would not live to see the revision – or spike in contemporary fame – as after a long battle with alcoholism, the author would succumb to a second heart attack in 1940.
As mentioned in my review of Appointment in Samarra, Fitzgerald enjoys his acceptable pariah status amongst the American aristocracy. Experiencing the decline of the author through the not-so-subtle veil of Dick Diver, a quote from Oscar Wilde comes to mind: “Each man kills the thing he loves.” Whether it be a cautionary tale or injected bitter moments from an all too solemn life, Tender is the Night is an entertaining narrative experiment in Fitzgerald’s realm of melodrama.