Critics often express a feeling that there is something mysterious about Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, that there is something unsatisfying in the analyses we have had—a discomfort one does not feel with the more elaborately structured The Great Gatsby, or with the intriguing, unfinished The Last Tycoon. Searching the critical opinion on Tender Is The Night—this “magnificent failure” —one is likely to feel that something is missing; one seems to have, as Maxwell Geismar says, “the curious impression at times that the novel is really about something else altogether.”(Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincial, (Cambridge, Mass. 1947), p. 333.)
It seems strange that the relationship between the novel and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” which supplied Fitzgerald with both title and epigraph, should have received no more than passing attention from the critics. The epigraph reads:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
We know that Fitzgerald had a lifelong and deep response to Keats: “for awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.” The “Ode to a Nightingale” was especially important to him; he found it unbearably beautiful, confessed he read it always with tears in his eyes (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-up (New York, 1956), 298.)
It is true that the title Tender Is The Night was chosen late in the extended course of the book’s writing; but it seems clear that Fitzgerald was conscious of the “Ode” not merely in the last stages of composition. The title is appropriate, though no one Has said why. Yet, a moment’s reflection will show that there is a good deal of Keatsian suggestiveness in Tender Is The Night in both decor and atmosphere—the Provencal summers of sunburnt mirth, the nights perfumed and promising, the dark gardens of an illusory world. But I suggest that there are parallels more significant than those of color and mood. The correspondences I offer in this case, when taken individually, might seem no more than coincidental; but considered in their cumulative weight, they indicate a calculated pattern of allusion beneath the literal surface of the novel which deepens the psychoanalytic rationale and adds context to the cultural analysis the book offers. In addition, the “Ode” appears to provide us with a sort of thematic overlay which clarifies unsuspected symbolic structures, essential to the understanding of the book.
I will begin with an admission that weakens my case. Fitzgerald dropped a reference to the nightingale from his second and subsequent versions of the published novel. In the Scribner’s Magazine version he wrote of “roses and the nightingales” that had become an essential part of the beauty of that “proud gay land,” Provence.( F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Tender Is The Night, a Romance,” Scribner’s Magazine, XCV (January-June, 1934), 7.) Why that observation was dropped. I cannot say; but its appearance, however brief, suggests that like Keats, Fitzgerald associated the south of France with the romantic bird. There is a second and more interesting reference which remained. It too connects the bird and the south of France. To understand its significance, one must consider it in context.
The Riviera, Mediterranean France, came to be, as Maxwell Geismar has pointed out, that apogee of ease and grace, that “psychological Eden” in which Fitzgerald and his heroes took refuge. (Geismar. 290-291) None of his characters responds more fully to this environment than does Rosemary, coming as she does from the “salacious improvisations of the frontier.” At the party at the Villa Diana, no guest is more enchanted by the life that seems promised there; she feels a sense of homecoming, feels drawn as if by magnetic lights. The spell of the party is still on her as she lies awake in her room “suspended in the moonshine … cloaked by the erotic darkness.” She is disturbed by secret noises in the night: an “insistent bird” sings in the tree outside. She is not sure what bird it is. but the singing and the Divers seem to merge in her mind: “Beyond the inky sea and far up that high, black shadow of a hill lived the Divers. She thought of them both together, heard them still singing faintly a song like rising smoke, like a hymn, very remote in time and far away.”(F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tender Is The Night (New York. 1962), p.40. Quotations in the text are from this edition unless otherwise indicated.) But Rosemary is confused by it all: she cannot think as yet except through her mother’s mind. Abe North identifies the bird for her:
“What are you doing up?” he demanded.
“I just got up.” She started to laugh…
“Probably plagued by the nightingale,” Abe suggested and repeated, “probably plagued by the nightingale” (42).
The entire chapter, heavy with night imagery, seems to lead up to this identification. Rosemary has been brought up with the idea of work. Now she is on a summer’s holiday, an emotionally lush interval between two winters of reality; and what she discovers is a world remote. romantic, something southern, a mysterious dark lure of life to which she responds—symbolized by the night bird. It is unreal; a duel will be fought; “up north the true world thundered by.”
What I suggest is that the novel deals with characters who are plagued by the nightingale, those enamored of the romantic illusion. Nicole seems to be the nightingale.
Consider the scene in which.Nicole sings to Dick. As she waits for Dick at the sanatorium, singing surrounds Nicole, summer songs of ardent skies and wild shade. The night, the woods, gardens, flowers are associated with Nicole throughout the novel. Here, the unknown seems to yield her up. “as if this were the exact moment when she was coming from a wood into the clear moonlight” (135). Dick responds to that illusion, wishes that she had no other background, “no address save the night from which she had come.” She leads him to a secret copse. In this melodious plot she has hidden a phonograph. She plays for him “thin tunes, holding lost times and future hopes in liaison.” Through song the two of them are transported out of the copse into another world. The journey is chronicled in ironic song titles. Finally Nicole herself sings to Dick. She supposes he has heard all these songs before. “’Honestly, you don’t understand—I haven’t heard a thing.’ Nor known, nor smelt, nor tasted, he might have added” (136). Now here was this girl bringing him the essence of a continent, “making him a profound promise of herself for so little… Minute by minute the sweetness drained down into her out of the willow trees, out of the dark world” (136). But there is danger in the promise of this “waif of disaster,” in the song of this “young bird with wings crushed.”
The brief transport from the world which the “Ode” details, the emotional adventure of climax and decline is suggested in this and in a number of other scenes in Tender Is The Night. Indeed, the pattern describes the very rhythm of the novel. The party at the Villa Diana, as Malcolm Cowley suggests, appears to be the high point in the story. The scene marks a change of mood; thereafter, the light romantic atmosphere is dispelled.(Malcolm Cowley, “Introduction,” Tender Is The Night (New York, 1956), xvii.) We see there the Divers at their point of greatest charm—a “vision of ease and grace,” commanding all the delicacies of existence. It is a high point for another reason. It is in this scene that the principals of the story make an escape from the prosaic and temporal world. In the rarefied atmosphere of the party a moment is caught in which a delicate triumph over time is achieved.
The party is given out-of-doors in the garden, Nicole’s garden. To Rosemary the setting seems to be the center of the world: “On such a stage some memorable thing was sure to happen” (29). The guests arrive under a spell, bringing with them the excitement of the night. Dick now seems to serve Nicole as prop man, arranging the set, dressing the trees with lamps. The guests are seated at Nicole’s table:
There were fireflies riding on the dark air and a dog baying on some low and far-away ledge of the cliff. The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights. And, as if a curious hushed laugh from Mrs. McKisco were a signal that such a detachment from the world had been attained, the two Divers began suddenly to warm and plow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind. Just for a moment they seemed to speak to everyone at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces turned up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree. Then abruptly the table broke up—the moment when the guests had been daringly lifted above conviviality into the rarer atmosphere of sentiment, was over before it could be irreverently breathed, before they had half realized it was there.
But the diffused magic of the hot sweet South had withdrawn into them—the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below—the magic left these things and melted into the two Divers and became part of them (34-35).
When we consider the care with which Fitzgerald dresses this scene, we sense an emphasis beyond what the mere events of the party would demand. This garden, the fireflies riding on the dark air, the summer evening, the wine-colored lanterns hung in the trees—the Romantic decor is there, and the Keatsian atmosphere: “the diffused magic of the hot sweet South… the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below…” There is no need to insist that these images have their antecedents in the “Ode”—in its “murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves,” or its “warm south,” its “tender night,” its “charmed magic casements opening on perilous seas”; for the clearest parallel to the poem lies in the brief achievement of the precious atmosphere, achieved through the familiar Romantic formula of escape at the moment of emotional pitch—here ironically, a moment of social ecstasy, but suggesting inevitably the dynamics of the sexual event. The imagery itself reiterates the pattern: the fragile loveliness of Nicole’s garden increases “until, as if the scherzo of color could reach no further intensity, it broke off suddenly in mid-air, and moist steps went down to a level five feet below” (26).
It seems unlikely that the material of the “Ode” was so immediate in Fitzgerald’s mind that it would come to add to the novel a dimension of allusion of which he was unaware. We are willing to concede unlimited conscious subtlety to his contemporaries in the novel; but Fitzgerald, despite the evidence of his deliberate workmanship, is too often pictured by critics as a somewhat fatuous too! of the muse, whose mind was inferior to his talent. The intricacies of Tender Is The Night would suggest otherwise. Not only is the pattern of the momentary climax a repeated one in the novel; there occurs, too, the recall to reality that marks the ending of the “Ode.” In the novel it is not the sound of a bell that signals the descent from bliss—or the word “forlorn” striking like a bell, tolling the poet back to his sole self: it is another sound heard three times in the book: when Dick falls in love with Nicole, when Abe leaves on the train from Paris, and when Tommy becomes Nicole’s lover. Each time a shot is heard, a loud report that breaks the illusion signifies the end of happiness and the escape from self.
After Nicole leaves the sanatorium, Dick tries to avoid her: but she fills his dreams. Their chance meeting in the Alps ends in Dick’s complete surrender of self: “he was thankful to have an existence at all, if only as a reflection in her wet eyes” (155). As in all her love situations. Nicole is triumphant, self-controlled, cool: “I’ve got him, he’s mine” (155). The scene remains tender; it is raining, the appropriate weather for love in Filzgerald’s novels. But, “suddenly there was a booming from the wine slopes across the lake: cannons were shooting at hail-bearing clouds in order to break them. The lights of the promenade went off, went on again. Then the storm came swiftly … with it came a dark, frightening sky ami savage filaments of lightning and world splitting thunder, while ragged, destroying clouds fled along past the hotel. Mountains and lakes disappeared—the hotel crouched amid tumult, chaos and darkness” (155-56).
This is not the storm of passion. Dick has come suddenly to his senses: “For Doctor Diver to many a mental patient? How did it happen? Where did it begin?” The moment of passion and illusion is over. He laughs derisively. “Big chance—oh, yes. My God!—they decided to buy a doctor? Well, they better stick to whoever they’ve got in Chicago” (156). Rut Dick has committed himself to Nicole. His clear sight comes too late, and when the storm is over her beauty enters his room “rustling ghostlike through the curtains.”
A loud shot sounds the ominous recall another time, in the Paris railway station. Here is departure and farewell; a gunshot cracks the air. Abe, on the train, waves good-bye, unaware of what has happened. The shots do not mark the end of his happiness, for he has long been in misery, though they do forebode his violent death. It is the brief summer happiness of Dick—won in a desperate bargain with the gods—that is ending. It marks the end of a summer mirth for the Divers’ group, the beginning of misfortune. for Dick. Dick and his friends move out of the station into the street as if nothing had happened. “However, everything had happened—Abe’s departure and Mary’s impending departure for Salzburg this afternoon had ended the time in Paris. Or perhaps the shots, the concussions that had finished God knew what dark matter, had terminated it. The shots had entered into all their lives…” (85).
The third of these recalls to reality occurs just after Tommy possesses Nicole. The entire account from the arrival of Tommy at the Villa Diana to the departure from the hotel presents a curious parallel to the ending of the “Ode.” Tommy comes to Nicole like a worshiper before a mystery. His happiness intensifies: “And, my God, I have never been so happy as I am this minute” (294). But the time of joy is brief: the point of greatest happiness is a moment outside of self, a taste of oblivion. The ecstasy passes; disappointment and foreboding follow: “The nameless fear which precedes all emotions, joyous or sorrowful, inevitable as a hum of thunder precedes a storm.” After the act. things begin to look tawdry to Tommy. He is edgy and apprehensive. Outside there are disturbing noises: “There’s that noise again. My God, has there been a murder?” The final recall is heard. As they leave the room “a sound split the air outside: Cr-ACK-Boom-M-m-m! It was the battleship sounding a recall. Now, down below their window, it was pandemonium indeed…” (296-97). There is a rush to depart. Cries and tears are heard as the women shout farewells to the departing launch. The last ludicrous moments of the scene, the girls shouting their tearful good-byes from the balcony of Tommy’s room, waving their underwear like flags, appear to be Fitzgerald’s ironic counterpart to the adieu of the final stanza of the poem. The fading anthem of the “Ode” becomes the American National Anthem: “Oh, say can you see the tender color of remembered flesh?—while at the stern of the battleship arose in rivalry the Star-Spangled Banner” (297).
The title of the novel and the epigraph Fitzgerald offers illuminate the significance of “night” and “darkness” in the story. An enquiry reveals a complicated and careful symbolic structure in Tender Is The Night involving a contrast between the night and—the day, darkness and light. The title of the novel declares that the night is tender. There is in it an implicit corollary about the day.
Early in the story, the sun is established as something harsh and painful, even maddening. The sun troubles the Divers and their group. They seek shelter from it under their umbrellas which “filter” its rays. At the beach the sea yields up its colors to the “brutal sunshine.” Rosemary retreats from the “hot light” on the sand. Dick promises her a hat to protect her from the sun and to “save her reason.” In the scene in which Nicole lapses into madness at the Agiri Fair, “a high sun with a face traced on it beat fierce on the straw hats of the children.” The day scenes are those of pain and fear: “the April sun shone pink upon the saintly face of Augustine, the cook, and blue on the butcher’s knife she waved in her drunken hand” (265).
On the other hand, darkness and the night are addressed in fond, in honorific terms: “the lovely night,” the “soft rolling night.” the “soft-pawed night.” the “erotic darkness.” Fitzgerald’s description of Amiens reveals something of the character and virtue of the night: “In the daytime one is deflated by such towns … and the very weather seems to have a quality of the past, faded weather like that of old photographs. But alter dark all that is most satisfactory in French life swims back into the picture—the sprightly tarts, the men arguing with a hundred Voilas in the cafes, the couples drifting, head to head, toward the satisfactory inexpensiveness of nowhere” (59). Part of the meaning is here, but the symbolism of the night is not merely opposite in meaning to that of the day: it is more complicated and more intricately woven into the story. The night is the time of enchantment, masking the ugliness of reality that the day exposes. The night, as in the “Ode.” is the time of beauty and the time of illusion. Dick and his friends prefer the night: “All of them began to laugh spontaneously because they knew it was still last night while the people in the streets had the delusion that it was bright hot morning” (79). But the night is not entirely superior to the day. The desirable night is the all allowing darkness. It is a dimness preferred, perhaps, by those ineffective in dealing with the practical day-lit reality. If the day is harsh. it has vigor: the night is the time of ease and also weakness. Some hint of these sinister implications may be detected in the scene in which Baby Warren makes her frustrated effort to aid Dick after he has been beaten and thrown into the Roman jail. She cannot function in the real world: “She began to race against the day; sometimes on the broad avenues she gained but whenever the thing that was pushing up paused for a moment, gusts of wind blew here and there impatiently and the slow creep of light began once more” (227). She cringes at the unstable balance between night and day. The strange creature she encounters in the embassy, wrapped and bandaged for sleep, “vivid but dead,” appears an unwholesome figure of the night, incongruous with the day.
It would appear that Fitzgerald has divided his world into two parts—the night and the day. The day is reality, hard, harsh, and vigorous: the night is illusion, tender, joyful, but devitalizing.
The most significant illusion that the night fosters is the illusion of happiness. To the Romantic, happiness consists in preserving the high moment of joy. He has a dread of endings. Tender Is The Night is a book of endings: “Things are over down here,” says Dick. “I want it to die violently instead of fading out sentimentally” (37-38). Paradoxically, the Romantic dream is that the moment of joy can be embalmed forever in the final night; death then appears to be a welcome extenuation of the night, ending all endings. Both the poem and the novel deal with these lovely illusions; but what they teach is that the fancy cannot cheat so well that disillusionment is the coefficient of time.
There is a difference in tone between the two works which is due to the fact that Keats emphasizes the swelling dimension of the ecstatic experience while Fitzgerald deals more with its deflation. Where Keats conveys a sense of disappointment, fond regret, Fitzgerald expresses a Romantic’s anti-Romantic argument; for in tracing the grim disenchantment Fitzgerald underscores the sense of deception, trickery, the sense of victimage in the martyring of the dreamer. The “immortal bird” of the “Ode” becomes the “perverse phoenix” Nicole; the deceiving elf becomes the “crooked” Nicole, one of a long line of deceivers, pretending to have a mystery: “I’ve gone back to my true self,” she tells Tommy; “… I’m a crook by heritage” (292). We suspect complicity in her father’s sin; he tells the doctor, “She used to sing to me” (129).
There are other victims of the Romantic deception—the inmates of the sanatorium where Dick labors without accomplishment. “I am here as a symbol of something” (185), the American woman artist tells Dick. She and the others are there because “life is too tough a game” for them. Unlike the thick-ankled peasants who can take the punishment of the world on every inch of flesh and spirit, these are the fine-spun people suffering private illusions, their “compasses depolarised.” They are “sunk in eternal darkness,” people of the night, spirits sensitive and weak, now caught in Nicole’s garden. For it is Nicole who has designed the means of holding these inmates fast. With floral concealment and deceptive ornament she has created those camouflaged strong points in which they are kept. Outwardly these houses are attractive, even cheerful, screened by little copses; but “even the flowers lay in iron fingers.” Perhaps the “Ode” suggested the names: the “Beeches” and the “Eglantine.”
These inmates are, many of them, the “victims of drug and drink.” There is in Tender Is The Night what might be called a potion motif, involving liquor, drugs, and poison. As in the “Ode” these are associated with the illusory adventure. Dr. Diver is as much an addict as his patients. In the early parts of the novel, wine is associated with the delicacy of living the Divers maintain and With the sensual qualities of their lives. The enjoyable swim in the ocean is like the pleasure of “chilled white wine.” The wine-colored lamps at the Villa Diana give a lively flush to Nicoie’s face. Nicole is gay-spirited after the “rosy wine at lunch.” There is a faint spray of champagne on Rosemary’s breath when Dick kisses her for the first time. But wine quickly loses its pleasant character. As Dick’s esteemed control begins to slip and he acts for the first lime without his customary “repose,” he stares at the shelf of bottles, “the humbler poisons of France—bottles of Otard, Rhum St. James, Marie Brizzard…” Dick’s Roman debauch recalls Abe’s disastrous drunks. At home Dick drinks brandy from a three-foot bottle He comes to regard liquor as food, descending to the level of the rich ruins he treats. Late in the novel we see that the sinister qualities of these draughts, potions, beakersful are associated with Nicole: in falling in love with her, in marrying her. Dick “had chosen the sweet poison and drunk it.” Again Nicole is characterized as the attractive evil, the sinister allurement.
The draught of vintage from the deep delved earth, the dull opiate, the hemlock of Keats’s poem may not be the direct sources of Fitzgerald’s images: yet the associations of drug, drink, and poison with the Romantic appetencies are interesting and suggest that Keats and Fitzgerald were dealing with a similar psychological syndrome—the urge to “fade away, dissolve and quite forget…”
This urge, as Albert Guerard, Jr.. points out. in his essay, “Prometheus and the Aeolian Lyre,” is really the urge toward loss of self, the impulse toward self-immolation, to the drowning of consciousness—one of the hallmarks of the Romantic temperament—which accepts the myth of a vital correspondence between man and nature, a correspondence demanding the submersion of our rational, coherent selves. In the “Ode to a Nightingale,” Mr. Guerard argues, Keats has written a poem about the actual submersion of consciousness, dramatizing the process itself, and presenting in the poem a symbolic evasion of the actual world:
In one sense this ode is a dramatized contrasting of actuality and the world of the imagination, but the desire to attain this fretless imaginative world becomes at last a desire for reason’s utter dissolution: a longing not for art but for free reverie of any kind… This sole self from which Keats escapes at the beginning of the poem, and to which he returns at its close, is not merely the conscious intellect aware of life’s weariness, fever, and fret, but truly the sole self: the self locked in drowsy numbness, the self conscious of its isolation… (Albert Guerard, Jr., “Prometheus and the Aeolian Lyre,” Yale Review, XXXIII (March, 1944), 495.)
Mr. Guerard’s analysis may be modified, perhaps, to this degree: the “Ode” seems not so much a product of the Romantic myth of a prevailing correspondence between man and nature as it is an acknowledgment that the correspondence does not prevail. This thesis is reiterated in Tender Is The Night. What the nightingale symbolizes and promises in the “Ode,” Nicole symbolizes and promises too. The ecstatic union with the bird is a taste of oblivion in loss of self.
Dick manifests the symptoms that Mr. Guerard indicates. There is the obsessive awareness of isolation that characterizes Dick even in his student days. He feels separated from his “fathers.” He has the feeling that he is different from the rest, the isolation of the scientist and the artist—“good material for those who do most of the world’s work“; but it is a loneliness he cannot endure. He wanted to be good, to be kind; he wanted to be brave and wist; but, as we learn toward the end. „he had wanted, even more than that, to be loved“ (302). He gives a strange answer to Franz’s criticism of his scholarship: ’’I am alone today… But I may not be alone to-morrow” (138). One by one he burns his books to keep warm. In marrying Nicole he abandons his work in “effortless immobility.” The critics have frequently noted the self-sacrificial aspect of Dick’s behavior; but too frequently that self-sacrifice has been taken as the very theme of the novel because Dick gives himself so completely in serving others that he is left with nothing in the end. Rather, this self-sacrifice should be understood as one of the paradoxical impulses which constitute the desire to submerge the self. Self-immolation seems to contradict the longing for freedom from burdens and cares, yet both urges are aspects of the desire to abandon individuality. Abe, like Dick, has a strong desire for loss of self, and forgetfulness. Abe wants oblivion and seeks it in drink; he longs for death. Tommy too has inclinations toward the moribund, following death and violence all over the world. Baby Warren “relished the foretaste of death, prefigured by the catastrophes of friends” (172). Dick looks fondly at death in his decline. At the railing of Golding’s yacht he comes close to suicide and to taking Nicole with him. The isolation Dick feels as a young man is never relieved. The entire age is alien to him. Dick mourns on the battlefields of World War 1: “All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love” (37). Coming home to bury his father, he feels the final tie has been broken; there is no identity with his own land; he feels only a kinship with the dead: “Good-by, my father-good-by, all my fathers” (205).
Finally, what does the correspondence between the novel and the “Ode” reveal about the social and cultural analysis Fitzgerald offers in Tender Is The Night’? The distinction between the night and the day that Fitzgerald establishes symbolically has its significance in the “class struggle” he presents; the social antagonisms seem to be aspects of the antipathy which arises between the Romantic and the anti-Romantic disposition.
Fitzgerald, as we have seen, divides things into opposing pairs in Tender Is The Night. When Rosemary arrives at the Riviera beach she finds two groups. The McKisco party is made up of McKisco, the arriviste who has not yet arrived, his silly ambitious wife, two effeminates, and the shabby-eyed Mrs. Abrams. They are pale, gauche people, unattractive beside the Divers’ group. The Divers are rich, cultured, talented, leisured. We get a fuller understanding of what these groups may represent in the scene in which Dick and Rosemary visit the house on the Rue Monsieur. It is a place of incongruities and contrasts. Clearly there is a clash between the past and the present, suggesting, it seems, the evolving future of the Western world:
It was a house hewn from the frame of Cardinal de Retz’s palace in the Rue Monsieur, but once inside the door there was nothing of the past, nor of any present that Rosemary knew. The outer shell, the masonry, seemed rather to enclose the future so that it was an electric-like shock, a definite nervous experience, perverted as a breakfast of oatmeal and hashish, to cross that threshold…“(71).
The people within are an odd mixture. They fit awkwardly into the environment. They lack the command over life that earlier ages managed to exert. Rosemary has a detached “false and exalted feeling” of being on a movie set. No one knew what the room meant because it was evolving into something else. It is important to recognize who these people in the room are:
These were of two sorts. There were the Americans and English who had been dissipating all spring and summer, so that now everything they did had a purely nervous inspiration. They were very quiet and lethargic at certain hours and then they exploded into sudden quarrels and breakdowns and seductions. The other class, who might be called the exploiters, was formed by the sponges, who were sober, serious people by comparison, with a purpose in life and no time for fooling. These kept their balance best in that environment, and what tone there was, beyond the apartment’s novel organization of light values, came from them (72).
The room apparently holds the society of the West. We find in it the McKisco group, the sponges, the hard practical people; and there are the Divers’ type, the dissipated old “quality” class, the run-down Romantics who are doomed. The sober and serious exploiters set the tone for the future, and in it they will succeed. Rosemary stands between the two groups, Her youth and success separate her from the Divers” crowd, but she inclines toward them by temperament and training. She is a product of her mother’s rearing, tutored in the values of the old society. “I’m a romantic too.” Rosemary tells Dick. Yet, she is coldly practical, “economically… a boy not a girl.” The first day on the beach Rosemary docs not know which group is hers. She is attracted by the Divers’ party; but, “between the dark people and the light. Rosemary found room and spread out her peignoir on the sand” (5-6).
The people of (he McKisco type are not the victims of Nicole; they are immune to the Romantic illusion. The “tough minded and perennially suspicious” cannot he charmed. McKisco is the only one at the party at the Villa Diana who remains unassimilated. unaffected by the emotional excursion. In the house on the Rue Monsieur there are others who are likewise immune. The “cobra women” discuss the Divers:
“Oh, they give a good show,” said one of them in a deep rich voice. “Practically the best show in Paris—I’d be the last one to deny that. But after all—” She sighed. “Those phrases he uses over and over—’Oldest inhabitant gnawed by rodents.’ You laugh once.”
“I prefer people whose lives have more corrugated surfaces,” said the second, “and I don’t like her.”
“I’ve never really been able to get very excited about them, or their entourage either. Why. for example, the entirely liquid Mr. North?” (72-73).
The incapacity for illusion gives these people an advantage in the world. McKisco, for whom the sensual world does not exist, ends successful and honored: his novels are pastiches of the work of the best people of his time. “He was no fool about his capacities—he realized that he possessed more vitality than many men of superior talent, and he was resolved to enjoy the success he had earned” (205). McKisco’s duel with Tommy symbolizes the clash between the two groups and underscores the anachronism of the soldier and hero. Tommy is a product of the older civilization, educated in forgotten values. Ironically it is McKisco who is “satisfied” in the duel. He builds a new self-respect from his inglorious performance. Tommy, Abe, and Dick are Romantic remnants, the children of another century, fettered by its illusions—“the illusions of eternal strength and health, and of the essential goodness of people; illusions of a nation, the lies of generations of frontier mothers who had to croon falsely, that there were no wolves outside the cabin door” (117).
They are the salt of the earth—charming, gifted people, overmatched in the struggle against the cold, shrewd frauds who are inheriting the earth. Tender Is The Night deals with the passing of the old order, with the passing of an attitude toward life, or rather with the last remnants of that life, “the oldest inhabitants gnawed by rodents.” The specific content of the illusions which fetter them is less important than how Fitzgerald deals with the attraction to the irrational dream which marks the romantic temperament, a dream which may promise the world, the sustained ecstasy of love, or the satisfactions of oblivion—symbolized by the beautiful, mad woman, Nicole. She is the dream without real referent. She has no existence outside the mind of the dreamer: “When I talk I say to myself that I am probably Dick. Already I have even been my son, remembering how wise and slow he is. Sometimes I am Doctor Dohmler and one time I may even be an aspect of you, Tommy Barban. Tommy is in love with me …” (162).
In the end it is Dr. Diver who is “cured” when he releases her from his mind; he returns to the terrible emptiness of the “sole self.” Late in the novel Nicole sings to him again in her “harsh sweet contralto.” But this time Dick will not listen: “I don’t like that one” (290).
The dream and the dreamer are. of course, Fitzgerald’s subject matter in fiction: and in treating them he invariably delivers up the dreamer as victim of his own Romantic infatuations. And yet for all his insight, his self-lacerating satire, Fitzgerald leaves the dream and the dreamer somehow inviolable at the end. Gatsby, that most extravagant Romantic, leaking sawdust at every pore, is still intact at the end and dies with his dream intact. “No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams …” that defeated him.
The best of the Romantic writers are not vulnerable to their own myths. The “Ode to the Nightingale” declares exquisitely the abandonment of faith in the imagination. It is not until Tender Is The Night that Fitzgerald abandons that last comfort of the Romantic, the notion that the botching, the disappointment of the imagination’s most cherished ambitions may be blamed on the unworthy environment of the dreamer. Tender Is The Night is a harder, harsher book than Gatsby; and it tells us that the super-dream is an internal corruption, a damaging, self-begotten beauty. Dick’s final return to his sole self in upstate New York—“almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another”—is an utterly unsentimental fade-out; the hero is gone from the stage before we can cover him with our fond sympathy, before we can murmur, “Alas.”
Reprinted from Explorations of Literature, ed. Rima Drell Reck, copyright Louisiana State University Press, 1966, by permission of the publisher.