As one who would rather have written The Great Gatsby than any other American novel published in the Twenties, we approached F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night with anticipation and trepidation. The Great Gatsby was so perfect in its feeling and its symbolism, such a magnificent evocation of the spirit of a whole decade, so great an improvement over Mr. Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (which might have been, as Jerome Hill once called it, “an American Madame Bovary,” were it not for its diffuse quality), that one could hardly see Mr. Fitzgerald striking the same high level twice in succession. As the years went by, recurrent surges of gossip had it that Mr. Fitzgerald was unable to bring his unfinished post-“Gatsby” novel to any satisfactory conclusion. He had been a child of boom America; had the lean years after 1929 sapped his artistic vitality by stealing from him his field of reference?
After having read Tender Is the Night, we now know that the gossip was—just gossip. Mr. Fitzgerald has not forgotten his craftsmanship, his marvelous sense of what might be called social climate, his sheer writing ability. Judged purely as prose, Tender Is the Night is a continually pleasurable performance. From atechnical point of view, it is not as perfect a novel as The Great Gatsby, but once the reader has gotten past the single barrier to complete appreciation of the book, it proves to be an exciting and psychologically apt study in the disintegration of a marriage.
Seemingly, Mr. Fitzgerald begins well. He introduces us to a fledgling film actress, Rosemary Hoyt, a girl with the dew still on her, who is taken up by Richard and Nicole Diver during a summer stay at the Riviera. For some eighty pages or more we constantly expect Rosemary to develop, to become more and more important in the story. And then, suddenly, we realize that this innocent and as yet entirely plastic girl is introduced merely as a catalytic agent. When Dick Diver, who is a psychiatrist without a practice, falls in love with Rosemary, his marriage to Nicole commences to founder. But Rosemary, having started a chain of developments, is dismissed almost completely from the novel, and the reader pauses, at page 100, in rueful bewilderment.
In the critical terminology of Kenneth Burke, Mr. Fitzgerald has violated a “categorical expectancy.” He has caused the arrows of attention to point toward Rosemary. Then, like a broken field runner reversing his field, he shifts suddenly, and those who have been chasing him fall figuratively on their noses as Mr. Fitzgerald is off on a new tack.
At this point one could almost guarantee that Tender Is the Night is going to be a failure. But, as a matter of fact, the novel does not really begin until Rosemary is more or less out of the way. What follows is a study of a love affair and a marriage between doctor and mental patient that is as successful a bit of writing as it must have been difficult to create in dramatic terms. Mr. Fitzgerald set himself an incredibly confused problem, but he draws the lines clearly as he works the problem out in terms of two human beings.
Tender Is the Night is not, as might be thought, a story of postwar degeneracy. The story has nothing much to do with the famous “lost generation,” although many playboy Americans figure on the periphery as Mr. Fitzgerald’s drama moves through Europe, from the Riviera to Paris, and thence to Switzerland and Rome. Nicole Warren could have been psychologically violated by the attack by her father in any decade. She might not have found psychiatrists to take her case before Jung commenced practicing and before Freud commenced writing, but that is not germane to the “lost generation.” Dick Diver himself is a brilliant young man; Nicole saves herself by transferring her outraged affection for her father to the young psychiatrist with his “cat’s face” and his air of being a good, solid bulwark for distress.
What follows is dimly prefigured in the first hundred pages of the book, when Rosemary is seemingly the star attraction. We know that some horror lurks behind the facade of happiness that Dick and Nicole present to the world. But it is not until Mr. Fitzgerald suddenly cuts back to Nicole’s years at the Swiss neurological hospital that we know much about the circumstances. And, given the circumstances, it is a foregone conclusion that Nicole will remain in love with Dr. Diver only so long as she needs him. The fact that she is in love with him is predicated on sickness; when she ultimately comes to feel that she can stand by herself, her love for him collapses. Mr. Fitzgerald, in nervous scenes of great skill, traces the forces leading to this collapse. And Dr. Diver is ruined in the process. We see him, at the end, pursuing a meaningless career as a general practitioner in upper New York State, where he had lived as a boy. Any love he may have had for Rosemary, the precipitant of the solution, has been smothered by events. And when he ceased to be Nicole’s physician, he ceased also to be her lover. He has been mentally corrupted, too, by living for many years on Nicole’s money, and by absence from active work as a psychiatrist taking many and all cases.
Beyond the story, there is Mr. Fitzgerald’s ability to catch the “essence of a continent,” the flavor of a period, the fragrance of a night and a snatch of old song, in a phrase. A comparison of Tender Is the Night as it ran in Scribner’s Magazine and as it appears in book form gives a measure of the author’s artistic conscience. He has made many deft excisions, many sound reallocations of conversation. If, with Rosemary, he presents nothing much beyond an unformed girl, that must lie within the conception of his novel. Rosemary was evidently intended to be meaningless in herself, an unknown quantity projecting itself into a situation that merely required leverage, any leverage, to start its development toward a predictable end. The story is the story of the Divers, husband and wife, how they came together, and how they parted. As such it is a skillfully done dramatic sequence. By the time the end is reached, the false start is forgotten.
The critical reception of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night might serve as the basis for one of those cartoons on “Why Men Go Mad.” No two reviews were alike; no two had the same tone. Some seemed to think that Mr. Fitzgerald was writing about his usual jazz age boys and girls; others that he had a “timeless” problem on his hands. And some seemed to think that Doctor Diver’s collapse was insufficiently documented.
With this we can’t agree. It seemed to us that Mr. Fitzgerald proceeded accurately, step by step, with just enough documentation to keep the drama from being misty, but without destroying the suggestiveness that added to the horror lurking behind the surface. Consider Doctor Diver’s predicament in being married to a woman with a “split personality” deriving from a brutal misadventure in adolescence. He had married Nicole against his better judgment, partially because she brought him memories of home after years spent abroad. He was drawn into accepting her money, for reasons that living up to a certain income and “cushioning” existence were bound up with the cure. His husband-physician relationship to Nicole, involving constant companionship, cut him off from his practice, and he thought wistfully at times of how the German psychiatrists were getting ahead of him.
With all these factors preparing the ground, it would merely take the sight of an uncomplicated girl (Rosemary) to jar him into active unrest. And when Nicole, subconsciously jealous of Rosemary, comes to a new phase of her disease, and attempts to throw the car off the road when Dick is driving with her and the two children, it is enough to give anyone the jitters. Weakness indeed! The wonder to us is that Dick didn’t collapse long before Mr. Fitzgerald causes him to break down. And when he does collapse his youth is gone, it is too late to catch up with the Germans who have been studying new cases for years. This seems to us to be a sufficient exercise in cause-and-effect. Compared to the motivation in Faulkner, it is logic personified.
Published in The New York Times newspaper (1934).