From “May Day” (1920) to “Early Success” (1937), F. Scott Fitzgerald characteristically interweaves personal and historical perspectives within his fiction to present a singularly intense and immediate commentary on the era. For him history is never abstract—something that happens to people; it is live and compelling, springing from the hearts and minds of individuals. It is, as it were, the enactment of man’s personality, the outward show of his inner being. In “The Rich Boy” (1926) Fitzgerald states his position quite openly and explicitly: “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created—nothing.” Most evident in stories like “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “May Day,” and “Babylon Revisited,” Fitzgerald’s continuing preoccupation with personality and history culminates in Tender Is the Night, his most complex and comprehensive statement on his generation and, hence, the most ambitious of his works.
The early titles Fitzgerald gave his novel manuscript, “Our Type” and “The World’s Fair,” imply generally the breadth and depth of his concern. And when to his friend John Peale BishopFitzgerald characterized Tender Is the Night as something like a “philosophical, now called psychological novel,” he was clearly suggesting by that apposition of terms his intention to project a universalized historical drama through the personal drama of his limited personae. Among recent critics, Matthew J. Bruccoli has commented on Fitzgerald’s fascination with World War I records during the years he worked on the novel, and Robert Sklar argues persuasively that Fitzgerald’s reading of Shane Leslie and of Spengler’s Decline of the West in 1927 left a lasting impression on the work. Indeed a number of critics have made general observations on Fitzgerald’s fascination with history throughout the composition of the novel. What has been lacking heretofore in criticism of the novel, and what I attempt to provide in this paper, is an explication of Fitzgerald’s detailed conception of history as it relates specifically to his conception of character, theme, and structure.
At the outset I would like to disclaim wholly the all too prevalent view that in Fitzgerald’s works historicity functions merely as glossy topicality, serves merely as an enhancing background to “popular” fiction. Rather, Fitzgerald is a “critical,” a “philosophical,” and, if you will, a “moral” historical novelist, intent on comprehending and explaining in rational terms the motives and implications of human events, viewed simultaneously as personal experience and public phenomena. Indeed, Fitzgerald has little sympathy for those who conceive of history as a simple sequence of recorded events; for him history holds the most profound meaning. In a passage once intended for Tender Is the Night, he defined history as “a figured curtain hiding that terrible door into the past through which we all must go.” Thus conceived, history in fact conceals its truth from those who passively view the “figured curtain” of human events as some sort of fascinating, but uninterpreted hieroglyph. But for those who penetrate the hieroglyph and draw aside the curtain, history reveals the deepest, if the darkest, truths.
Fitzgerald’s historical concerns in Tender Is the Night are, indeed, both deep and dark. The ten-year period which the book illuminates is summarily and explicitly defined by him in “Echoes of the Jazz Age”: “The ten-year period that, as if reluctant to die outmoded in its bed, leaped to a spectacular death in October 1929, began about the time of the May Day riots in 1919.” And this metaphorical personification of historical events is persistent in Fitzgerald’s mind. He characterizes the 1919 riots themselves as springing from the universal feeling that “something had to be done with all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War”; he characterizes the “golden boom” of the 1920s as the release of that unexpended human energy in “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” This precise historical period, with “its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America,” is the informing essence rather than the topical background of Tender Is the Night. Throughout the novel Fitzgerald interprets history’s curtain and takes us through that door to our past—gently, with the artist’s “trick of the heart”— as he charts his generation’s strangely hopeful passage from World War I to the Great Depression.
To appreciate Fitzgerald’s consummate skill in fusing personality and history we must first recognize that when he centered the novel’s motivation and action in Nicole’s schizophrenia, he was thinking in metaphorical as well as in clinical terms. Explicitly, his notes on Nicole reveal his conception of her character in specific historical terms, for in trying to define her role in the novel, he concentrated not upon her psychiatric development per se, but upon the sequence of significant dates in her life. She is born in 1901; in 1914 her courting begins; in June 1917, the “catastrophe” occurs; and in February 1918, she takes up residence in the Clinic. Then,
To middle October bad period
After armistice good period
He returns in April or May 1919
She discharged June 1, 1919. Almost 18
Married September 1919. Aged 18
These particular dates cannot be viewed merely as an author’s memory log to aid in keeping the narrative straight. Their most salient feature is their uncanny correspondence with the most significant dates of the first two decades of the twentieth century. Even more explicitly, the significant dates in Nicole’s personal history correspond to those marking America’s involvement in the great event of the early century—World War I. Nicole is born precisely with the twentieth century (1901), and her sexuality, which proves so disturbing and rife with conflict, emerges in 1914, coincident with the beginnings of the war. Nicole is raped by her father in June 1917, the exact month in which American troops first landed in France, perhaps the first historical event discomfiting America’s traditional posture of splendid isolation from European affairs. Yet Nicole doesn’t seem to realize the full horror of her experience and doesn’t enter the Clinic until February 1918, just as America didn’t realize the implications of her commitment to the war until American soldiers made their delayed entry into the fighting on the Western Front on 31 January 1918.
The analogy between Nicole’s sickness and America’s participation in the war is extended and quite precise. Nicole suffers a “bad period” from February until October 1918: the Germans launched their last great offensive in March 1918, and American troops, who first appeared in the front lines 31 January 1918, fought intensely, impressively, but indecisively until October, when Germany began the general retreat which was to end with her surrender. The Armistice, of course, came in November, at which time Nicole inexplicably recovers from her illness and begins a “good period.” To be sure, the twentieth century is “Nicole’s Age,” Fitzgerald’s title for the note on her character; her experience and her suffering typify rather than merely illustrate the experience and suffering of an immature America in the opening decades of the twentieth century.
For Devereux Warren, in his role as Nicole’s father, virtue is but a mask to his true self-interest just as for France, Germany, England, and Russia alike the patriotic virtues of courage, honor, duty, and loyalty cloaked the naked truth of Realpolitik and imperialism. As Devereux Warren’s confession to Dr. Dohmler reveals, he was attempting to act out with Nicole the sentimental ideals of a self-satisfied social norm: “People used to say what a wonderful father and daughter we were—they used to wipe their eyes.” And he tries to rationalize his behavior as being motivated solely by loyalty to domestic ideals and, particularly, by “selfless” love for Nicole: “After her mother died when she was little she used to come into my bed every morning, sometimes she’d sleep in my bed. I was sorry for the little thing” (p. 170). But ultimately he cannot hide the possessiveness within him: “We used to say, ’Now let’s not pay any attention to anybody else this afternoon—let’s just have each other—for this morning you’re mine’ “ (p. 171). Nor can he prevent the violence generated by this aggressive self-interest: “We were just like lovers—and then all at once we were lovers—and ten minutes after it happened I could have shot myself—except I guess I’m such a Goddamned degenerate I didn’t have the nerve to do it” (p. 171). Devereux Warren’s rape of Nicole has the immediacy and shock of personal experience, to be sure, but at the same time it dramatizes and specifies the emotional reality behind the larger trauma of the war. Incestuous rape is an apt metaphor for the intra-familial, self-destructive conflict of World War I, a war in which two opposing nations were led by grandchildren of Queen Victoria, a war in which no nation was really victorious.
The effect of the rape upon Nicole is most clearly and directly expressed in her letters (1918-1919) to Captain Dick Diver, written while she is a patient at Dohmler’s Clinic and while Dick serves his military duty in a psychiatric unit at Bar-sur-Aube. And though these letters are of considerable psychiatric interest, their more comprehensive purpose lies in their identification of Nicole’s personal trauma with the broader cultural trauma of the war. Again Fitzgerald is explicit: he divides the letters “into two classes, of which the first class, up to about the time of the armistice, was of marked pathological turn, and of which the second class, running from thence up to the present [i.e. 1919], was entirely normal, and displayed a richly maturing nature” (pp. 159-60, my emphasis). From their inception then, these letters are not intended as expressions of a literal lunatic; rather, they are Ophelian utterances, burying sense within nonsense, essence within evanescence. They define not merely the pained and frightened soul of an eighteen-year-old girl in a Swiss asylum; they define all the pain and fright of a century only eighteen years old but already at the edge of despair.
Unlike the merely suggestive ravings of Ophelia, Nicole’s letters do yield a consistent theme: her pain and disorientation originate not so much with the rape itself as with her awareness that her father had bred her a victim to his lies. Her trust in him and in his self-proclaimed, selfless love had made her vulnerable to unexpected attack. Thus Nicole, like so many of the participants in the war, sees herself as having been betrayed by her own inherited ideals—“what I had been taught to associate with the role of gentlemen” (p. 160). She finds herself in “what appears to be a semi-insane-asylum, all because nobody saw fit to tell me the truth about anything. If I had only known what was going on like I know now I could have stood it I guess for I am pretty strong, but those who should have, did not see fit to enlighten me” (p. 162).
Appropriately enough, the letters begin with a reference not to madness, but to the military and the war: “I thought when I saw you in your uniform you were so handsome. Then I thought Je m’en fiche French too and German” (p. 160). And though Nicole knows Dick is a doctor, she continues throughout her correspondence to address him as “Mon Capitaine,” “Captain Diver,” “Dear Captain Diver,” and finally as “Dear Capitaine”—a polyglot salutation fitting to an American in France in 1918.
Such pointed, cumulative details virtually demand that we read Nicole’s letters as a personal paradigm for the larger madness of the Western world. Indeed, in mid-1918 Nicole’s words to Diver might well have served as the A. E. F.’s motto: “I am lonesome all the time far away from friends and family across the Atlantic I roam all over the place in a half daze” (p. 163). And the fluctuations in Nicole’s health during her last weeks at the clinic correspond to the vicissitudes of the last stages of the war. Shortly before getting better Nicole relapses into the uncertainty and frustration of one who has been cut off from her cultural roots:
I think one thing today and another tomorrow. That is really all that’s the matter with me, except a crazy defiance and a lack of proportion. I would gladly welcome any alienist you might suggest. Here they lie in their bath tubs and sing Play in Your Own Backyard as if I had my backyard to play in or any hope… which I can find by looking either backward or forward. (p. 163)
(In the summer of 1918 the Germans again drove to the Marne in a frantic last effort to break through to Paris, and the A. E. F. found itself at Chateau Thierry and the Meuse-Argonne, far removed from the safe “backyards” of nineteenth-century American idealism.) After this uncertainty there is a month with no word from Nicole, and then “suddenly the change”—that is, to the “entirely normal, richly maturing nature.” Her “acute and down-hill” schizophrenia comes to a clinically improbable, but metaphorically poignant end; Nicole “recovers” as the war ends:
—I am slowly coming back to life…
—Today the flowers and the clouds…
—The war is over and I scarcely knew there was a war…(p. 164)
Neither the war’s end nor Nicole’s “recovery” can be intended as a complete resolution of conflict. Rather, each represents a subtle remission of continuing trauma and disorientation, and a bewildered longing for a security that once existed, or at least had been thought to exist. For inherent in Nicole’s situation is the question that haunted the Western world after 1918: if the old ideals of order, love, propriety and property, honor, and social responsibility were irrevocably lost in the war, and the “true” nature of society was revealed to be irrational chaos springing from man’s aggressive self-interest and amoral will to survive, could the war’s survivors find or invent any principles to govern individual and social behavior?
Fitzgerald’s fictional portrayal of this paradoxical desire within denial is characteristically original, and, it seems to me, psychologically as well as artistically convincing. True to the metaphor of schizophrenia in the novel, Nicole and the war generation she represents can neither assent to the nineteenth-century values which had deceitfully concealed their own hollowness nor accommodate the destructive chaos that had been born out of that hollowness. But such a suspension of belief can lead only to a complete paralysis of being, and Nicole and her generation find themselves forced into a pragmatic choice of the lesser evil. In terms of the novel’s psychiatric metaphor, Nicole can “transfer” to Dr. Dick Diver her remembered affection for her father and the ideals he represented prior to the catastrophe; in terms of the novel’s historical analogue, the survivors of the war find themselves reverting to an uneasy faith in nineteenth-century idealism simply because in 1919 there is no other faith possible.
As the character embodying these contradictory nineteenth-century ideals in a world which at best can grant them only conditional assent and ultimately must abandon them altogether, Dick Diver is, understandably, resistant to easy explanation. He has been termed a “spoiled priest” who “lost his idealism and was finally corrupted by his flock,” who at the end of the novel is “both ruined and spent, an emotional bankrupt… lacking the energy to be a charlatan.” He has been seen as pandering his vitality to rich expatriates, only to fall victim “to the comfort that corrupts the will and destroys ambition.” He is viewed as a poor boy “struggling to make good” by playing “the priestly role of father-confessor to a crowd of rich, spoiled Americans.” Or he is an “American Everyman” journeying through “a multitude of temptations—and succumbing to all of them: Money, Liquor, Anarchy, Self-Betrayal, Sex.” For Robert Sklar, Diver is the “genteel romantic hero” of nineteenth-century America, who serves “as a smoke screen to cover up the truth Nicole so tragically discovered, to divert energies and desires into harmless pursuits through the power of his romantic imagination.” Even those critics who argue that Dick’s admirable qualities of goodness and integrity persist to the end of the novel suggest that this virtue is wastefully expended by his dedication to the leisure classes.
Whether defining Dick as a ruined idealist or a fraudulent psychiatrist, all the interpretations of his character, and consequently of the whole novel, rest on the assumption that Nicole typifies and represents the American leisure class exclusively, that she is, in brief, merely rich and merely neurotic. But insofar as Nicole represents young, naive America in the twentieth century, disillusioned in her ideals and shattered by the unforeseen violence of World War I, Dick’s efforts to bring her back to wholeness must be interpreted in a very different light. Dick in this context does become a truly believable culture “hero” like Grant, embodying his society’s highest aspirations in spite of his own human shortcomings: “It was themselves he gave back to them, blurred by the compromises of how many years” (p. 69). And his ultimate failure to “cure” Nicole in this larger context is nothing less than the tragic failure of American idealism in the twentieth century. As in The Great Gatsby, “May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” and so many of his stories from the Twenties, Fitzgerald in Tender Is the Night depicts an America whose ideals, noble in themselves, are becoming untenable, whose idealists, by the very virtue of their ideals, are being corrupted, or crushed and cast out by a new culture progressively giving itself over to material, amoral pleasure.
Dick’s nineteenth-century ideals and sensibilities survive well into the twentieth century simply because they are not exposed directly to the shock of World War I. Young and inexperienced in 1917, Dick is buoyed up by “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” (p. 154). And though Switzerland is “washed on one side by the waves of thunder around Gorizia and on another by the cataracts along the Somme and the Aisne” (p. 151), Dick remains safe in his insular innocence: “the war didn’t touch him at all” (p. 151). Even when Dick returns to Zurich in 1919, supposedly having ’ ’been to war’’ for two years, he reaffirms his innocence by telling Franz, “I didn’t see any of the war” (p. 157).
Thus, Fitzgerald characterizes in Dick’s “innocence” the residual force of nineteenth-century idealism which survived the war. (As well as the punitive Versailles Treaty, the war’s end did give birth to the idealized League of Nations.) Such innocence and such idealism of course are impossible illusions to those who have felt and seen the “Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles” Wilfred Owen describes in his poem “Mental Cases.” “These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished,” says Owen; theirs is the world in which Nicole, agonizingly, amazingly, lives. But in Dick, Fitzgerald creates the psychiatrist-healer of such torment.
When Dick returns in 1919 to Zurich, to Nicole, and to his “intricate destiny,” his hubristic determination “to be a good psychologist—maybe to be the greatest one that ever lived” (p. 174) defines the greatness of his vision and at the same time foreshadows the inevitability of his failure. For Dick demands too much of his “psychiatry.” Unlike Dr. Dohmler and Franz Gregorovious, whose clinical method offers only a sanitized “refuge for the broken, the incomplete, the menacing, of this world” (p. 159), Dick through his psychiatry attempts to regenerate the survivors of nightmare and recreate a world of purpose and order in which meaning, not mere existence, is possible. Thus, Dohmler and Franz ultimately can only treat Nicole. Dick marries her.
Dick’s commitment to Nicole, therefore, is whole and personal—metaphorically rather than narrowly therapeutic. With his nineteenth-century ideals of courage, honor, courtesy, loyalty, and love, Dick attempts to lead Nicole out of Switzerland’s unreal sanity, first to the half-safe, half-controlled, half-real world of the Villa Diana, then back through the remembered horrors of Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval to the naked reality of Paris, Rome, and Naples, reality fraught with endless danger, endless possibility.
Nowhere else in his fiction does Fitzgerald depict so clearly or so forcefully the antinomies of mind and character that for him define the modern man, paradoxically driven by the “sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to “succeed”—and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.” Further, in Dick’s tortured efforts to rekindle light and purpose in Nicole’s world Fitzgerald dramatizes what he defines elsewhere as the mark of a “first-rate intelligence”: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”; Dick is “able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” And if Dick’s nineteenth-century will to believe that life can be made coherent and rational appears as historical fiction to the twentieth century, Fitzgerald dramatizes it as a noble, a tragic, perhaps even a necessary and “supreme” fiction.
From beginning to end, Dick and Nicole’s marriage is a contest, compressing within itself all the uncertainties and paradoxes of the 1920s. Although the sobriquet “Dicole” suggests the inseparability of Dick and Nicole “in the first days of love,” it soon becomes clear that their union is one of uneasy confluence and embattled wills. To prevail over Nicole’s madness, Dick must perpetually attract, woo, and win her to his idealizing vision. She, to be sure, is momentarily charmed by the correspondence between Dick’s promise of love and peace and her own recollections of childhood’s innocent dreams: “When I get well I want to be a fine person like you, Dick” (p. 211). But she is also persistently seduced by the power of the Warren family and its money: “They were an American ducal family without a title—the very name written in a hotel register, signed to an introduction, used in a difficult situation, caused a psychological metamorphosis in people” (p. 208). And under the influence of this amoral vision, which sees power as antecedent to value, Nicole (like her sister, Baby) can only view Dick’s idealism, no matter how qualified, as an inversion of reality: “You used to say a man knows things and when he stops knowing things he’s like anybody else, and the thing is to get power before he stops knowing things. If you want to turn things topsy-turvy, all right, but must your Nicole follow you walking on her hands, darling?” (p. 212).
Furthermore, Dick’s relationship to Nicole is essentially flawed by the contradictions inherent in his attempt to be both husband and doctor to her. In both roles, of course, Dick is trying to reaffirm the ideal of selfless love which Devereux Warren had virtually destroyed, marriage serving as an apt metaphor for the elevation of self-interest (sexual desire) into a social ideal (the family). But Dick knows, and we know, that the desires of a husband and the responsibilities of a physician are scarcely more compatible than the desires of a lover and the responsibilities of a father. And Dick is aware, further, that his commitment to curing Nicole prevents him to a considerable degree from living with her. In fact, the ideal of selfless love which Dick prescribes for Nicole’s cure is in the very act of prescription self-defeating, for he can win Nicole over to himself only at the cost of her independent selfhood. And, as we shall of course see, if he allows her complete self-determination, he loses her absolutely.
From 1919 to 1925, “from Woolloomooloo Bay to Biskra,” Nicole reveals her “schizophrenic” inability to live with reality or to escape from it, to trust in ideals or to disbelieve them. Her interior monologue which recounts the period reveals an essential confusion of identity, polarized significantly (in terms of subsequent events) between Dick and Tommy Barban: “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” (p. 212). And her desire to flee to an inner sanctum of unknowing innocence— “Life is fun with Dick” (p. 210); “We’ll live near a warm beach where we can be brown and young together” (p. 211)—is opposed with equal force by a desire to grasp her experience, however horrible—“I am tired of knowing nothing and being reminded of it all the time” (p. 211). It is at this point of perfect but unstable balance between contrary and warring values that Dick and Nicole move to the Riviera. It is at a critical point of no return for western civilization that the novel begins—truly in medias res. It is June 1925; the crucial decade of the 1920s is half past, half future.
The novel begins on the beach lying below Gausse’s Hotel des Etrangers, the beach which Dick has “made out of a pebble pile” and which now appears as a “tan prayer rug” set down before “the distant image of Cannes, the pink and cream of old fortifications” (p. 3). As he suggests in a later reflection, Dick sees himself in 1925 as “the last hope of a decaying clan” (p. 391), and gathering together the detritus of souls cast up on his beach, he tries to make them whole—by giving them a party, “furnishing the background, the experience, the patience” against which the others will be able “to enjoy again the spells of pastoral tranquillity recollected from childhood.”
By 1925, however, Dick’s view of Nicole and the generation for which she is the synecdoche has undergone a “qualitative change"; his assured confidence of 1919 has been replaced by a more mature, but also a more ambivalent vision—less sure in its definition. Including old generation and new, sun-browned and moon pale, experienced, naive, and those drones “preserved by an impervious-ness to experience and a good digestion into another generation” (p. 8), Dick’s party is seen to be a “desperate bargain with the gods” (p. 27), one of his “performances” to insure that each day be “spaced like the day of the older civilizations to yield the utmost from the materials at hand, and to give all the transitions their full value” (p. 26). As such, the party is a monument to Dick’s nineteenth-century ideals of rational order and purpose. But his ideals include a commitment to truth as well, and since he cannot deny the existence of violence and chaos, Dick wishes his party to be “really bad,” to include “a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passed out in the cabinet de toilette” (p. 35). Dick’s “bad party,” as its rubric suggests, is a reflection of his ambivalence, for through it he is not trying to eliminate chaos so much as he is trying to give it manageable form; he is trying to subdue man’s worse nature by a simple, direct appeal to his better self.
The party begins very well indeed. The markedly heterogeneous group of Abe and Mary North, Tommy Barban, the McKiscos, Campion, Dumphry and Abrams, Rosemary Hoyt, and the Divers had been at table but half an hour when “a perceptible change had set in—person by person had given up something, a preoccupation, an anxiety, a suspicion, and now they were only their best selves and the Diver’s guests” (p. 42, my emphasis). For the moment, at least, Dick makes the world “safe” for this lost generation, gives the party a seeming wholeness and security which the real world lacks. In the most memorable image of the party, “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” (p. 44).
Dick creates this moment of touching beauty by an impressive act of individual will, “his arms full of the slack he had taken up from others, deeply merged in his own party” (p. 43). In this tableau vivant comparable to any in Faulkner, Hemingway, or James Joyce, Fitzgerald creates a mystical moment in which Dick arrests all motion, suspends all distinctions, and elevates his guests to a plane removed from the confines of space and time. Yet “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”: Dick’s nineteenth-century will to believe cannot be “transferred” permanently to these children of the twentieth century, and the party ends badly. Nicole breaks down; Violet McKisco panics; and there is an absurd duel on the golf course in which no one is injured, and Rosemary Hoyt can only laugh— hysterically.
For Dick the two most important people at the party are Nicole and Rosemary, for together they embody the complex object of his passionate idealism. Enough has been said about Nicole seen as the synecdoche of the war generation; by analogy, Rosemary compresses within her character all the salient features of the postwar generation. In one sense she is a mid-decade reincarnation of Nicole, a “Daddy’s Girl” anachronistically possessing a prewar innocence: “Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood—she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her” (p. 4). But the “raw whiteness” of her body identifies her with the McKiscos, Campions, et al, whose imperviousness to experience she shares; in the entire novel she does not comprehend, properly speaking, any one or any thing. And if from the mid-decade perspective of 1925 Nicole has become the dark past within whom Dick tries to rekindle light, Rosemary (now eighteen, notably the same age as Nicole when Dick first met her) stands as the pale future seeking her color and definition in the uncertain origins which only Dick can explain.
Within this metaphorical context, Nicole’s relapse and Rosemary’s hysteria at the end of the party define Dick’s failure to provide new hope for the war generation and understanding for the generations that follow. Structurally and thematically this initial failure of the party prefigures Dick’s repeated failures; throughout the novel violence does erupt, irrationally yet persistently, out of good feelings and the best of intentions—in the train station, in the hotel, in the police station and clinic, in kitchen and bathroom. And Dick more and more clearly becomes the man who can explain, but not explain away, the world’s ugliness.
Immediately after the Riviera party with its absurd duel, Dick takes Nicole, Rosemary, and Abe and Mary North to Paris, the image and substance of modern, postwar life-in-death, as we shall see. But to define this world most precisely, Fitzgerald takes us back, with Dick, Abe, and Rosemary, to the world of Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval, the world of 1916 and the Battle of the Somme. And here at the locus classicus of the war’s mindless futility, as we listen to Dick’s poignant interpretation of the century’s greatest trauma, we recognize just how profound, yet how helpless, he truly is.
Dick’s interpretation of the war is intensely symbolic rather than military or narrowly political; it is philosophical rather than nationalistic. Indeed, looking out upon Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval, Dick is stricken by the likeness of the opponents, the similarity of their motivations, the identity of their fates. Throughout his resume he refuses to distinguish between French, English, and German, seeing them all simply as mutual participants in the battle. To fight at the Somme on whatever side, he says,
“You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancee, and little cafes in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.” (p. 75)
Ultimately, the Somme is “the last love battle” in Dick’s historical view; in it the virtues of “religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties,” wedded to the unrestrained imaginative force of “Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine” (p. 75), paradoxically gave birth to grotesque horror. In short, Dick’s interpretation of the Somme conflict stands as a definition of the European tragedy which America willingly, if mistakenly, accepted for her own. And this battle, standing as archetype to the war’s horrifying consumption of life and sanity, makes Dick’s sense of complete loss rhetorically and emotionally true: “All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love” (p. 75, my emphasis).
This sense of universal loss is so powerfully evoked that we never question the historical propriety ofthe “red-haired girl from Tennessee whom they had met on the train this morning, come from Knoxville to lay a memorial on her brother’s grave” (pp. 76-77). Though America did not fight at the Somme, for Fitzgerald it is no less than a certainty that amid the “infinitesimal sections of Wurtemburgers, Prussian Guards, Chasseurs Alpins, Manchester mill hands and old Etonians,” pursuing their “eternal dissolution under the warm rain” (p. 78), there lies an American who cannot be found.
Thus, western idealism carried the seeds of its own destruction. But for Fitzgerald the war didn’t happen “over there” or “back then”; his concern in the novel is not with those who died at the Somme but with those who lived beyond that moral point of no return. And Dick’s interpretation of the war is immediately and equally valid as a diagnosis of Nicole’s traumatic experience, in which “love,” “tremendous sureties,” and “years of plenty” also gave way to eruptive violence. Thus, in the disheartened and cynical Abe, once a composer now just a drinker, we see all the creative energy irrevocably destroyed in the war, and in the feckless Rosemary we find all the pointless energy of the generation born too late for disillusionment, whose members in their self-concentration can conceive of no loss greater than a personal desire unfulfilled.
For Abe, who “had seen battle service” (p. 74), Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval hold no dreamy, philosophical reminiscences; he responds to complex, ineluctable reality with simplistic, self-destroying pessimism: “There are lots of people dead since and we’ll all be dead soon” (p. 74). Even more disappointing is the response of Rosemary, for whom Dick recreates history in order to make a bridge between their ages. She is carried momentarily by the intensity of Dick’s concern—if he had said “they were now being shelled she would have believed him that afternoon” (p. 74). But “I don’t know” is her persistent refrain, and she doesn’t. She doesn’t know whether Dick’s lovely safe world blew itself up in 1916, 1919, or any other time. For her the battle is not a trauma, but a “thrilling dream” arousing not anguish, but warm, uninformed sentimentality: “altogether it had been a watery day, but she felt that she had learned something, though exactly what it was she did not know” (p. 77).
Within this context of Abe’s conscious withdrawal and Rosemary’s blissful ignorance, Dick’s ambivalence is delicately yet firmly defined. Dick has seen too much of Abe’s world to succumb to Rosemary’s naive sentimentalities (“Later she remembered all the hours of the afternoon as happy” [p. 77]). But born with the end of the 19th century (1891 according to Fitzgerald’s notes), Dick is the last surviving devotee of that era’s ideals. And he must live by his faith, however futile it might prove, for he has no other: “The silver cord is cut and the golden bowl is broken and all that, but an old romantic like me can’t do anything about it” (p. 76). The proper image of Dick is that of Icarus flying to the sun though he knows the wings made by his father are fatally waxen. Or, he is the “old romantic” of Shakespeare’s sonnet, in whom “thou see’st the glowing of such fire,/That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,/As the deathbed whereon it must expire, / Consumed with that which it was nourished by.” To be sure, Dick cannot splice the silver cord nor mend the golden bowl of the world’s fact. But tragically determined to nurse his own vision to the last, he can render the meaning of history into a “whole affair” in the alembic of his ordering mind, thus creating from horror “a faint resemblance to one of his own parties” (p. 78). He can charm Rosemary, and he can support Abe. He can even sustain—for the moment—Nicole, abstracted and restless, moving closer and closer to reality’s true heart of darkness.
When the action returns to Paris from the Somme battlefield, we see just what the modern world can be, and is, without Dick’s controlling moral energy. The pattern of this new world is set by the Parisian house “hewn from the frame of Cardinal de Retz’s palace in the Rue Monsieur” (p. 94). Explicitly the house is said to “enclose the future,” and its inmates are perfect types of the species, postwar man: “They were very quiet and lethargic at certain hours and then they exploded into sudden quarrels and breakdowns and seductions” (p. 95). Indeed, throughout the remainder of the novel aimless violence will continue to explode out of just such dazed preoccupation and lethargy.
It is thoroughly appropriate that Abe, not Dick, dominates the Parisian scene. Possessed merely of a “survivant will, once a will to live, now become a will to die” (p. 108), Abe has “given up about everything” and is tired—even of friends—to the point of death. Hence, his departure from Paris clearly signals the end of life, not a new start: for him, “it was such a long way to go back in order to get anywhere” (p. 106).
Fitzgerald is emphatic. Just as the train whistles and moves, just as Abe waves and Dick responds, “the sound of two revolver shots cracked the narrow air of the platform” (p. 109). And these shots fired by Maria Wallis, “the young woman with the helmet-like hair” (p. 109), effectively mark the turning point in the novel’s thematic development. As “echoes of violence,” the shots serve as a remembrance of things past, of the war and the original “concussions that had finished God knew what dark matter” (p. 112)—as one observer notes, there is “assez de sang pour se croire a la guerre’’ (p. 112). But the shots also foreshadow the events of 1928, the year in which Dick must say good-by to Abe for the last time, must say good-by to his father forever, must say good-by, finally, to all his fathers. Most subtly and perhaps most significantly, the shots and their aftermath foreshadow the only world that will remain to Dick after 1928—the world of Rosemary, Baby, and Nicole, a world in which Dick learns painfully what it means to live long after he has been shot “through his identification card.”
As the last remnant of an older America in a changed world, Dick does not cope well with modern, senseless violence—even in 1925. He sees no causes, no goals, no meaning at all in Maria Wallis’s action, and for the first time in the novel he can think of nothing to do or say. Nicole, of course, is already more acclimatized to a valueless world, and, as Milton Stern points out, she for the first time “takes over and firmly prevents Dick from acting as savior, party-director, doctor.” From this point on, in fact, Nicole will always adjust more readily than Dick to the world. Yet Fitzgerald makes clear that with the waning of Dick’s energy and vision, something of value is being lost. At the end of the Wallis affair both Nicole and Rosemary (“who was accustomed to having shell fragments of such events shriek past her head”) want Dick “to make a moral comment on the matter and not leave it to them.” And when he is unable to “resolve things into the pattern of the holiday,” they are aware of the missing element: “so the women, missing something, lapsed into a vague unhappiness” (pp. 111-12). In that simple understatement whereby the complex inheritance of Dick’s moral force becomes merely “something” missing, Fitzgerald captures the paradox of that force seen as essential, yet forever lost.
The scene in the Gare St. Lazare points ahead to a world in which expressive force must and will operate devoid of any moral purpose; the nineteenth-century American ideal of power and moral purpose indissolubly joined has been shattered. Dick himself is clearly aware of the “turning point in his life” (p. 119). He knows that his survival and dignity can come “only with an overthrowing of his past, of the effort of the last six years,” knows that after 1914-1918 neither Nicole nor America can ever be truly innocent again. It is perhaps worth noting here, even as a supposition, that had Dick been able to accept a world without innocence he might have been able to come to terms with Nicole’s and his own imperfections; beyond supposition, it is Dick’s essential tragedy that his ideals allow for no re-vision. Like his predecessor, Jay Gatsby, Dick is, trapped by the irresistible beauty of his own remembered dreams. From the memorable scene in Voisins to the end of the novel, whatever “repose” Dick has serves wholly as self-insulation from a world inimical to his dreams; whatever happiness he has must take the dubious form of fading memories. Thus Dick fondly recalls himself “on his father’s knee, riding with Moseby [sic] while the old loyalties and devotions fought on around him” (p. 131); yet by this whole-hearted loyalty to “the maturity of an older America,” Dick must share the fate of its gold star mothers—“who had come to mourn for their dead, for something they could not repair” (pp. 130-131).
Dick’s love affair with modernity, his infatuation with Rosemary, can be but a momentary fling. Naturally enough, he loves Rosemary’s newness: “’You’re the only girl I’ve seen for a long time that actually did look like something blooming’” (p. 27) he tells her at the Cote d’Azur. But he can only wince at the “vicious sentimentality” of her parodic innocence in the role of Daddy’s Girl. And though on the one hand he wishes to “remove the whole affair from the nursery footing upon which Rosemary persistently established it” (p. 111), he also realizes that the affair is founded on precisely those “brave illusions” of the “nursery”—“tremendous illusions… that the communion of self with self seemed to be on a plane where no other human relations mattered” (p. 98). In love with Rosemary’s promise, Dick tells her so, but he tells her in the same breath: “Nicole and I have got to go on together. In a way that’s more important than just wanting to go on” (pp. 98-99). For ultimately Dick is committed to continuity of purpose and action in his own life and in the lives of others, even though he knows that continuity, philosophically and historically, is not possible.
Committed to the unyielding past and attracted to the implacable future, Dick at the end of Book I is the living persona of anxiety, fully occupied in controlling himself—his chin dominating “the lines of pain around his mouth, forcing them up into his forehead and the corner of his eyes, like fear that cannot be shown in public” (p. 137). As a moral idealist in 1925, Dick is a charming, admirable, but archaic remnant of an older civilization, struggling to maintain himself in a thoroughly alien world.
This mid-decade America introduced by the war-echoing shots in the Gare St. Lazare is defined conclusively in the events at the Hotel Roi George which end Book I. Abe, avatar of all that is lost, desperate, and failing, reappears, bringing with him the incredible figure of Jules Peterson, Afro-Scandinavian inventor of shoe-polish. In this comedy of errors, Fitzgerald avoids the ludicrous only by translating it into the grotesque; bad burlesque and mock melodrama become bloody murder. And Nicole relapses again. But her demands of 1925 are no longer susceptible to Dick’s assurances of 1919. Dick has been weakened by the expenditure of his own moral energy and must appeal to Nicole’s strength: “Control yourself I” he repeats three times as Book I closes on 1925.
Of course Nicole cannot control herself completely—yet. In Fitzgerald’s concept of historical dialectic, the old nineteenth-century idealism, which in 1925 was strangling itself with uncertainties and inherent weaknesses, had yet another four years before its course was to be fully run. And in Dick’s career and life from 1925 to 1929 Fitzgerald depicts the final, tragic act of this idealism, fighting an heroic but futile rearguard action against modernity. The shallowness of Rosemary’s vanity, the hardness of Tommy’s self-gratification, and the all-consuming selfishness of Nicole’s lust for things and for power ultimately triumph over Dick’s vision of what ought to be, for his moral idealism no longer answers the needs of an age intent merely on survival. Yet, in spite of its inherent flaws and its ultimate failure, it is Dick’s vision which haunts our memory of the novel as surely as the remembered ideals of our “naive” fathers haunt us, as surely as the nightingale’s song haunted Keats:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
History to Fitzgerald is, indeed, a highly “figured curtain,” no more simple than the complex, ambivalent persons who create it.
In the perverse way of such matters, as Dick’s vital moral energy lessens, he finds himself harder and harder pressed to “keep up a perfect front” for Nicole, “now and to-morrow, next week and next year” (p. 217). In the interest of emotional economy, the morning after Nicole’s breakdown in Paris, Dick takes her back to the more restricted, hence safer, reality of the Riviera. But even at the time he realizes the return to the Cote d’Azur is a “going away rather than a going toward” (p. 218), a retrenchment rather than a liberation. The beach which Dick built as an oasis of sanity amid a Sahara of madness is now besieged by Bartholomew Tailor, Mrs. Abrams, and the rest of “Ciro’s Menagerie.” A heterogeneous mob, “members of orchestras, restaurateurs, horticultural enthusiasts, shipbuilders… and members of the Syndicat d’Initiative” (pp. 223-224), has replaced Dick’s select and carefully chosen coterie at Gausse’s Hotel and the summer Casino at Juan les Pins. Significantly, it is Nicole who adapts best to this shapeless activity; by the end of the year she becomes “well-knit again.” In a kind of perverse transference of physical energy, the “lines of pain” forming around Dick’s mouth allow Nicole to live “without tension, without the tight mouth, the unmotivated smile, the unfathomable remark” (p. 224).
As Nicole expands her activities, Dick’s sphere of influence narrows, leaving him in command only of “his work house and the ground on which it stood” (p. 222). And even within the work house, “the bars of gilded metal that he used as paperweights along the sheaves of notes” (p. 217) remind him that Nicole’s “income had increased so fast of late that it seemed to belittle his work.” “Inundated by a trickling of goods and money,” Dick slowly drowns in Nicole’s desire “to own him, wanting him to stand still forever” (p. 223). The year 1925 ends on a point of perfect balance between Nicole’s growing strength and Dick’s waning energy. Prophetically, in mid-decade Dick stands immobilized, “listening to the buzz of the electric clock, listening to time” (p. 223).
From this point Dick begins to fall back in his battle against the all-consuming self-interest by which Fitzgerald characterizes the modern attitude. The barren and onanistic Baby Warren, who concentrates in herself the Warrens’ mindless lust for power and possessions, serves as the dramatized persona of Nicole’s increasingly amoral nature; consequently, she also stands as antagonist and inverse barometer to Dick’s rapidly failing moral vision. Dick knows “Baby is a trivial, selfish woman” (p. 235) and sees, beneath her lies, her true opinion of him: “ ’We own you, and you’ll admit it sooner or later. It is absurd to keep up the pretense of independence’” (p. 232). But simply being aware of Baby’s corruption does not give Dick the power to cope with her; his acceptance of Warren money to finance his clinic has involved him inextricably with all that he despises.
No longer the last hope of a decaying clan, Dick is now reduced to the futile task of “sorting the broken shells” of the “Humpty-Dumpty” Western world. And in another kind of reverse transference of energy, Baby’s harsh antipathy brings out something of the same in Dick. His uncharacteristic statement “’There’s too much good manners’ “ and his perverse, untoward baiting of the young Englishman (cf. pp. 233-234) reveal his strain and the self-defeating result of his trying to keep up a “perfect” front. The devil’s bargain Dick makes with Baby in financing the clinic is in fact the greatest compromise he ever makes with his own beliefs. What he gains is a brief period in which to comfort diose he can no longer help. What he gives up becomes clear in Rome, in 1928: “whatever Dick’s previous record was, they now possessed a moral superiority over him for as long as he proved of any use” (p. 306).
With emphatic suddenness Fitzgerald leaps from the decisions and indecisions of 1925 to the events of 1927, which in turn serve as general commentary and prelude to the novel’s climax and conclusion in 1928-1929. The drama of 1927 begins as Dick awakes “after a long dream of war” and goes to the bedside of the pathetic woman suffering from neuro-syphilis, diagnosed as “nervous eczema.” Ravaged and rapidly decomposing through the inheritance of a corrupt love, this sensitive soul is indeed correct in seeing herself “as a symbol of something.” Consistent with the book’s imagery, her illness is described as a lost battle; truly her innocent beauty, imagination, youth and charm are fled. But as she is thus being compared implicitly with Nicole and Abe North, we also see that her failure is Dick’s. For like her, Dick is “fine-spun, inbred,” and lacks that “measure of peasant blood” necessary to those explorers who perforce must “take punishment as they took bread and salt, on every inch of flesh and spirit” (p. 242). The suffering, unnamed woman is quite clearly a symbol of both aspects of the modern trauma, of all Nicole’s innocence capriciously destroyed, and of all Dick’s idealism, terribly futile. How touching, yet how futile, and how tragic a picture it is as Dick stoops to kiss the dying artist; how poignant his farewell: “We must all try to be good” (p. 243).
In 1927 Dick does not try to save his broken patients. He “makes his rounds.” He now admits there is “nothing much to be done” for the fifteen-year-old girl whom we readily identify with the young Nicole, this mad girl “brought up on the basis that childhood was intended to be all fun” (p. 243). Like the wasted parent of a mad child once docile, now grown to be overpowering, Dick finds it harder and harder to muster his tired, paralyzed faculties. He also realizes now that in the six years with Nicole “she had several times carried him over the line with her… had succeeded in getting a point against his better judgment” (p. 246). And haunting Dick ultimately is his self-reflection in the “collapsed psychiatrist,” to whom Dick croons falsely “that he was better, always better.” As an experienced explorer into the wilderness of the human heart, Dick in 1927 knows that the wolves not only are at the door, they are inside the house itself. In 1927, in Switzerland deja vu, the question is no longer one of “curing” Nicole; the question now is whether Dick can save himself.
Nicole’s increasing power and consequent control over Dick reveal themselves at the Agiri Fair. When Nicole becomes pointlessly hysterical on the ferris wheel, she overwhelms Dick’s reasonable admonitions with simple, point-blank hostility. Immediately, Dick prepares once more “to sit a long time, restating the universe for her,” but he quickly recognizes his acutely limited control over her now: “He felt it necessary that this time Nicole cure herself; he wanted to wait until she remembered the other times, and revolted from them” (p. 250).
In 1927 Dick’s commitment to reason and his hope for its supremacy are equally futile. Nicole, indeed, does remember the “other times” of violence and disorder, but far from rebelling against them, she embraces them as reality itself. What she rebels against is Dick and his rule. And her declaration of independence from his ordered world is immediate and categorical: on the way home from the fair she tries to kill Dick, herself, and their children. Completely aware of her action, Nicole can only laugh “hilariously, unashamed, unafraid, unconcerned … as after some mild escape of childhood” (p. 251). “ ’You were scared, weren’t you?’ “ she taunts Dick: “ ’You wanted to live!’ “ (p. 251). For Nicole there is no essential difference between life and death; both are abstractions without significance. Dick’s values, Dick’s dreams, Dick’s life have not prevailed, and power has become the world’s only reality, exertion of power man’s only grip upon existence.
Avatar of the new order is Tommy Barban, who reenters the novel in the singularly fitting setting of “the Marienplatz in Munich” where “The air was full of politics, and the slap of cards.” In this cynical, aggressive world of Realpolitik Tommy is a “ruler” and a “hero,” characterized essentially by his “martial laugh.” He is, most of all, Dick’s antagonist, the antithesis to all his ideals.
Tommy’s narration of Prince Chillicheff’s escape from Russia and his bringing to light Abe North’s death in a New York speakeasy reflect at once the decline of the old order and the birth of the new. Both the Prince and Abe are “parched papier mache relic[s] of the past” (p. 258); both have necessarily yielded to overpowering force—whether it be that of the Red Guard or of New York thugs is of little consequence. By contrast, Tommy is the man of force, perpetually “relaxed for combat,” without cause, faith, or loyalty. He specifically doesn’t wish to be “heroic” in Mr. McKisco’s sentimental sense—“to fight on the just side.” “’How do you find out which it is?’ asked Barban dryly.” His attitude is as simple and uncluttered as it is inhuman: “Well, I’m a soldier… My business is to kill people” (p. 45). Amoral and self-indulgent, Tommy worships the power of money, which can bring him his dreams of good food, good clothes, and “good” women, and his only church is the stock market, where “everybody… is making millions.” Caring no more for Abe lying dead in New York than for the “three Red Guards dead at the border” (p. 258), Tommy is ultimately committed only to himself—to his own survival and self-indulgence.
In direct contrast, Dick is stricken by Abe’s death and mourns the irrecoverable past. He walks in step with the “slow mournful march” that wakens him the morning after talking with Tommy. The column of war veterans marches “slowly with a sort of swagger for a lost magnificence, a past effort, a forgotten sorrow,” and “Dick’s lungs burst for a moment with regret for Abe’s death, and his own youth of ten years ago” (p. 261). Dick’s intricate destiny is entering its final phase—of precipitous decline. It is 1928.
For Fitzgerald the years 1928-1929 are the years of crisis defining the modern phase of America’s history. The period is signally defined by the death of Abe and the death of Dick’s father. It is then marked by the sudden death of the long lingering neuro-syphilitic artist and by the contrasting, miraculous deathbed “recovery” of Devereux Warren, by Dick’s unfeeling, sterile seduction of a careless Rosemary and by his irrevocable loss of Nicole to Tommy. It is marked by Dick’s descent into the Roman city of dreadful night, where he is saved only by his persistently dark angel, Baby, and marked by Nicole’s ascent to power. Ultimately, the period is defined by Dick’s recognition of his own inability to make people happy.
The death of Dick’s father informs the last half of the novel. In a serious, reflective sense, Dick sees all of an earlier, simpler America in his father; as he travels southward to Virginia he can almost hear “the rasping wheels of buckboards turning, the lovely fatuous voices, the sound of sluggish primeval rivers flowing softly under soft Indian names” (p. 267). And in his father’s death, Dick sees the passing of all those who once believed that “nothing could be superior to ’good instincts,’ honor, courtesy, and courage” (p. 266). His stunning, brief eulogy, “Good-by, my father—good-by, all my fathers,” signals the end of an era; Dick truly is the last mourning survivor of all those dead, with “their weather-beaten faces with blue flashing eyes, the spare violent bodies, the souls made of new earth in the forest-heavy darkness of the seventeenth century” (p. 267). The “good instincts” and “spare violence” which for one historical moment had lived the illusion of a common purpose have, in another historical moment, revealed their true incompatibility. Thus Dick leaves Virginia and its dead dreams forever; he returns to an alien, unyielding Europe, to Rome and to Rosemary—as it were, to his dying future.
Leaving the honor, courtesy, and courage of his fathers behind, Dick finds himself on the same Atlantic steamer as the McKiscos. Caricatures of the banal world of false art and false thought, the McKiscos prepare us for Rosemary—appropriately engaged in filming The Grandeur that was Rome. Rosemary, amid the poses, the props, the mascara and the petty jealousies of the Roman movie set, is still “young and magnetic,” but she is morally a Topsy, who just “growed.” (Dick’s explicit comparison of Rosemary to his daughter, Topsy, effectively and immediately rekindles the book’s whole complex of psychological and historical themes.) She is older in 1928 than she was in 1925, and she has had more “experience.” But she has not learned a thing.
Rosemary, in short, is one of those “risen to a position of prominence in a nation that for a decade [since 1918] had wanted only to be entertained” (p. 278). In a broadly metaphorical sense, she is one of a large company of self-deluded “actors” who think themselves “people of bravery and industry” but who are merely “on the hop” (p. 278). Emotionally she is still “Daddy’s Little Girl,” but with a perverse sex appeal; she wears black pajamas, reads Albert McKisco, and coyly “necks” with a thirty-eight-year-old man. Almost needless to say, for both Dick and Rosemary it is a futile recherche du temps perdu. The sterility of her world and the pathos of his now strain together to reach the anticlimax so clearly reflected in Fitzgerald’s syntax and diction: “She wanted to be taken and she was, and what had begun with a childish infatuation on a beach was accomplished at last” (p. 278).
The remainder of Book II charts Dick’s tortured wanderings in Rome, his city of dreadful night. No sooner has Dick “accomplished” his seduction of Rosemary than Baby Warren reappears, signalling, as she always does, bad times for Dick. And these times are Dick’s worst. For he is old in a world of youth; he can do nothing to win Rosemary against the blandishments of Nicotera. Dick is weak in a world where only strength matters; he can make no headway against the countinghouse mentality of Baby, who answers moral questions with financial statements: “there’s so much money now. Plenty for everything, and it ought to be used to get Nicole well” (p. 280).
Dick’s response to this alienating world is less heroic perhaps, but certainly more human than that of Hemingway’s Jake Barnes, Frederic Henry, or Robert Jordan, for Dick cannot indefinitely maintain his “purity of line through the maximum of exposure.” Dick is a man subject to history and human change like the rest of us, and when history’s stream changes course, leaving him to flounder in a drying channel, he, like the rest of us, strikes out blindly in panic and frustration. In this light Dick’s bigotry toward the French and the Italians, his drunkenness, his violence with the cabmen, and his pointless baiting of the police do not mark his acquiescence to the calculated violence of Baby’s world; they mark his violent, but futile protest against her world’s recalcitrance to moral order. But violence in the service of virtue is nevertheless violence, and Dick’s personal vision of a lovely safe world blows itself up in 1928 as surely as his larger Victorian world blew itself up in 1914-1918.
Though Dick is an extraordinarily complex character, as we have seen, Fitzgerald makes clear that his conception of Dick is essentially tragic. Amid the defeat and hopelessness of his experience in Rome, Dick is identified with Keats, the genius prematurely withered in a world of crass materialism and cheap pleasure. The picture that Rome lastingly imprints on Dick’s mind is “the walk toward the American Express past the odorous confectioneries of the Via Nationale, through the foul tunnel up to the Spanish Steps, where his spirit soared before the flower stalls and the house where Keats had died” (p. 288).
Book III of Tender Is the Night is the story of sane crooks and one mad puritan. Set in 1929, it chronicles the end of the decade in which heartless money and amoral force carry the day at the expense of moral values and purposive behavior. Like a final fade out in a spurious Hollywood epic, rude self-interest joins with the glamour of wealth to seduce America’s taste and desires with a travesty of her original dreams of endless moral expansion, making the nation of Jefferson and Lincoln and Wilson merely the most powerful nation in the world. Dick’s waning energy is viewed against the background of the general social chaos generated by Mary Minghetti, Lady Caroline Sibley-Biers, T. F. Golding, and the rest of the “new crowd” on the Riviera; his defeat is assured when Nicole deserts him in favor of Tommy Barban.
The Divers’ return to the Villa Diana in the summer of 1929 signals the final retrenchment of Dick’s original vision. As ideally he might have governed nations, by a “long, careful watchfulness, the checking and balancing and reckoning of accounts, to the end that there should be no slip below a certain level of duty” (p. 331), Dick now governs—his children. In the large arena of his life, his old “good instincts” are no match for Nicole’s growing selfishness and capricious will. When she begins to reason “as gaily as a flower, while the wind blew her hair until her head moved with it,” when she becomes “content and happy with the logic of, Why shouldn’t I?” (pp. 356-357), the days of Dick Diver, the old man of an older America, are indeed numbered.
For Fitzgerald the historical issue of 1929 could be stated summarily as the conflict between the pursuit of self-gratification and the maintenance of moral principles and propriety; dramatically, the crisis centers upon a small bottle of camphor rub. This small bottle of balm is provocatively and irresistibly symbolic. “It’s American,” and Dick “believes in it;” yet it is also “extremely rare” and Dick has only the one bottle left (pp. 358-359). In so few remarks the bottle of rub is invested with all the values Dick has stood for throughout the novel—healing love, care, and what Fitzgerald once called the definitive American characteristic—“a willingness of the heart.” Tossing the bottle to Tommy with a cautionary “Now catch it,” Nicole is fully aware that she is betraying Dick, his principles, his love, his work, and his devotion. Her final remark to him is worthy of Baby: “We can always get another jar—” (p. 359).
Fitzgerald describes Nicole in 1929 as “delicately balanced… between an old foothold that had always guaranteed her security, and the imminence of a leap from which she must alight changed in the very chemistry of blood and muscle” (p. 361). But in this crisis of 1929 it is Nicole who will survive, she who will feel “the lifting of a burden, an unblinding of eyes” (p. 362). Now hating Dick’s world, “with its delicate jokes and politenesses, forgetting that for many years it was the only world open to her,” Nicole welcomes her original self, “designed for change, for flight, with money as fins and wings” (p. 362).
Nicole simply has outlived Dick’s dreams, which now lie “buried deeper than the sand under the span of so few years” (p. 363). Her inheritance of moneyed power no longer needs or seeks the approval of moral idealism. Or, to put it another way, Dick’s inheritance of moral idealism has been spent maintaining the illusion of its own necessity. Dick’s once wonderful beach is “perverted now to the tastes of the tasteless” (p. 362), and Dick, once the mandarin of culture, is now merely “a deposed ruler secretly visiting an old court” where he could “search … for a day and find no stone of the Chinese Wall he had once erected around it, no footprint of an old friend” (p. 362). His old strengths drained and then scorned, Dick can no longer resurrect his old world.
The precise nature of Dick’s diminished position in the changed world of 1929 is dramatically compressed in the aquaplaning scene. Unlike Nicole, who “refused her turn” on the board, and unlike Rosemary, who “rode the board neatly and conservatively, with facetious cheers from her admirers” (p. 365), Dick can still muster the energy “to try his lifting trick” (p. 366). Desperately he tries three times to lift a man upon his shoulders, “then he was simply holding his ground, then he collapsed… and they went over, Dick’s head barely missing a kick of the board” (p. 367). Though Nicole considers Dick to be showing off for Rosemary, we clearly view the scene as a synecdoche of Dick’s longtime efforts to lift everyone—especially Nicole. In the larger context Dick has indeed “put his heart into the strain, and lifted,” but what “he had done… with ease only two years ago” (p. 366) leaves him now “floating exhausted and expressionless, alone with the water and the sky” (p. 367).
Dick is beaten. In fact, as he tells Rosemary after the aquaplane fiasco: “The change came a long way back—but at first it didn’t show. The manner remains intact for some time after the morale cracks” (p. 368). Dick has been slowly but irresistibly crushed by the same force giving ascendance to Nicole—by the “billions” and “trillions” of the booming stock market, by the “plenitude of money” which became “an absorption in itself” (p. 332). How appropriate it is that Nicole’s new transference—from Dick to Tommy—should be initiated on the “Margin,” the yacht of T. F. Golding. This scene of reunion between Nicole and Tommy is redolent of wealth tentatively gained and tenuously held, of lives bordering upon each other, but not bonding: “Golding’s cyclonic arms blew them [Dick and Nicole] aft without touching them” (p. 346). From this point of transference, all Dick has left of himself is his poise, stretched taut over the hollow laughter and despair within. What Tommy offers Nicole is hard confidence, “good stocks in the hands of friends” and “all the old Languedoc peasant remedies.” Truly the day of the barbarian has come.
The new barbarism is revealed clearly and emphatically when Tommy and Nicole seduce each other in the small room of a hotel on a beach outside Nice. There is no love or warmth of any kind in what merely amounts to coincidental self-gratifications. “Thinking with Dick’s thoughts,” Nicole realizes the affair is a “vulgar business … without emotion”; on the other hand, she is compelled by her desire to do what she is “tempted to do and pay no penalty for it” (p. 376). Tommy is equally amoral, equally aggressive. He feels no need to understand Nicole or to explain his actions: “Symbolically she lay across his saddle-bow as surely as if he had wolfed her away from Damascus and they had come out upon the Mongolian plain” (p. 384). Together they perform a travesty of love making, each forgetting the other in a perversely inverted sexuality. While Tommy plays the role of a “fighting Puck, an earnest Satan,” Nicole becomes, in a most telling image, a “decapitated animal” (p. 380).
The world immediately outside Tommy and Nicole’s hotel room offers a graphic commentary on the new alliance. Within the hotel itself, only two floors below, the brawling American sailors and the French poules who “follow them from place to place wherever the ship goes” suggest on a level only slightly more sordid the vulgarity and anarchy of unrestrained self-indulgence. In a complex’ crossover of values, the half-French, half-American Tommy is comparable both to the whores, who mindlessly perform for American wealth and power, and to the sailors, who mechanically indulge themselves in pleasure. In like manner, Nicole, the European-American, seeks simple stimulation like a whore and, like the sailors, looks to more promising shores, secure in her sense of power.
But finally it is the American battleship anchored in the bay outside the hotel that perfectly exemplifies the union in Nicole and Tommy of money’s power and selfish, aggressive purpose. In fact, in his eagerness to make the parallel between ship and lovers exact, Fitzgerald almost overwrites the scene. Precisely as Tommy and Nicole prepare to leave, as he is “pulling the shoulder strap of her slip into place with his teeth … a sound split the air outside: CrACK—BOOM-M-m-m! It was the battleship sounding a recall” (p. 382). Precisely as Tommy and Nicole leave the room, the poules break in to wave good-by to the sailors with a flag made from step-ins—“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” (p. 383).
Nicole thus returns “to what she had been in the beginning, prototype of that obscure yielding up of swords that was going on in the world about her” (p. 384). Corollary to Nicole’s regeneration is Dick’s return to his origins—to the obscurity of the Finger Lake region in New York state, to the withering green breast of the once New World. But Nicole’s ascendance over Dick is itself founded upon a fateful illusion and fraught with a controlling irony that would have been painfully obvious to readers of 1934, had any recognized Fitzgerald’s historical purposes. For if only with the accuracy of hindsight, the reader of that year could have seen the imminent disaster awaiting those who in July 1929 followed the creed of “Why shouldn’t I?” The reader of 1934 could have seen that the arrogant dreams of a sunny July beach—dreams of permanent wealth, endless power, and the right to do what one was tempted to do and pay no penalty for it—had led to the nightmare of October’s Black Friday and to the grim years of the Great Depression.
For Fitzgerald the issuing events of history are thus as complex as their origins, both springing from the incalculably wrought human heart. The human passion for self-determination which made “idealism” the dominant force in nineteenth-century philosophy and politics inevitably had overextended itself and in World War I could scarcely bear the horror of its own creations. Dick’s “beautiful lovely safe world” did blow itself up, and in 1929, with no one to love and no one left to love him, Dick retreats deeper and deeper into upper New York State, a Keatsian wood of indefinite place and uncertain time. But Nicole’s acceptance of aggression and self-indulgence as the basic principles of her behavior doesn’t rectify the excessive errors of the earlier idealism so much as ratify their failure. And her future, as Fitzgerald clearly implies, will be written in a hard, but cramped hand, and will tell the story of hollow men: “New vistas appeared ahead, peopled with the faces of many men, none of whom she need obey or even love” (p. 379). Her world, unlike Dick’s, will not blow itself up with a “great gust of high explosive love"; it will linger on in the discontent of those whose wants are insatiable—it will end, we are assured, with a whimper.
In every sense Tender Is the Night marks the culmination of Fitzgerald’s art. It is nurtured by the same vision and techniques we find in “May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned, and “Babylon Revisited,” but it is a riper, more mature work, founded upon a maturity and historical perspective that could come to Fitzgerald only with the passage of time. His long struggle with the writing of the book, the many changes and alterations he incorporated into it as his imagination feasted upon the decade-long struggle between Old and New America, all testify to his patient determination to capture honestly the complex essence of an era. To finish this novel, he had to wait, as it were, for history to declare itself definitively. And it did—in October 1929.
More than any other work, Tender Is the Night makes it clear that Fitzgerald’s creative vision and expression required the presence of moral questions—if not necessarily answers, required a conception of history founded upon purposive human activity—if not necessarily “manifest destiny.” And finally, Tender Is the Night presents with the clearest intensity Fitzgerald’s profoundly paradoxical conception that man’s nobility lies in his unyielding efforts to be his best self—even when faced with certain defeat, that man’s tragedy lies in his failure to recognize his own limitations and live with them.
University of British Columbia.
Published in Fitzgerald-Hemingway Annual (1978).