Nicole’s Gardens
by Suzanne West


Several critics have analyzed Nicole’s role in Tender Is the Night, but they have not explored one artistic method by which Fitzgerald develops and reveals her character. In his General Plan for Tender Is the Night under the heading, “Method of Dealing with Sickness Material,” Fitzgerald writes:

Only suggest from the most remote facts. Not like doctor’s stories. Must avoid Faulkner attitude and not end with a novelized Kraft-Ebing—better Ophelia and her flowers.

Following his own prescription, Fitzgerald avoids the technical language of neurologist Krafft-Ebing in his story of a young girl raped by her father. Instead, he charts her career through flower imagery. Like the mad Ophelia of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Nicole is surrounded by flowers throughout the novel. Dick meets her on the grounds of a sanitarium and takes her to a garden on the French Riviera. Many of Nicole’s scenes take place in this garden or at least begin there. In the Swiss Alps she is placed among wild flowers and rambling roses. Even the metaphors surrounding Nicole are based on flowers. Like Ophelia, the “rose of May,” the lovely Nicole is most often linked to the rose. This flower appropriately suggests Nicole’s schizophrenic nature because, while it is considered the most beautiful of all flowers, its thorns make it dangerous as well. Certainly the beautiful Nicole proves dangerous for Dick Diver. In an introspective passage near the end of the novel, Dick realizes that in his desire “to be loved” he had “chosen Ophelia, chosen the sweet poison and drunk it.

In the course of the novel Fitzgerald underlines the development of Nicole’s character by associating her with three different gardens. The first garden, at Dr. Dohmler’s sanitarium on the Zurichsee, is a romantic Eden in which an innocent Nicole roams. It is here, in what seems like another world, that Dick falls in love with her “moving childish smile that was like all the lost youth in the world” (p. 178). The second garden, at the Villa Diana on the French Riviera, is an enclosed refuge that Dick establishes for his half-cured bride. Nicole lives in this protected garden until her ego blossoms and enables her to fashion her own world. Her final garden is metaphorical, not physical, but it is a garden that she creates herself. As Nicole moves from youth to maturity, from dependence to independence, and from innocence to calculation, Fitzgerald marks her growth with flowers.

Described as a “beautiful shell” when Dick first meets her, the Nicole who emerges from the sanitarium a year later is as pretty and promising as a budding spring flower. In a letter to Dick she even associates her improved condition with a returned awareness of nature: “—I am slowly coming back to life … —Today the flowers and the clouds” (p. 164). Formerly filled with pity for Nicole, Dick now finds her appealing. On his second visit they meet in a moonlit forest on the grounds of the sanitarium where Nicole is literally filled with the sweetness of nature: “Minute by minute the sweetness drained down into her out of the willow trees” (p. 180). There Nicole, with the help of her phonograph, brings back the essence of a lost world to Dick: “They were in America now.” Her youthful excitement, reflected in the music that she plays, not only takes Dick back to happier days, but suggests a brighter future: “The thin tunes, holding lost times and future hopes in liaison, twisted upon the Valais night” (p. 179). Nicole brings a flowerlike freshness to Dick’s life that he had not known with the “hot-cheeked girls in hot secret rooms” (p. 180). The very thought of her “promise” seems to blossom within Dick: “her youth and beauty grew on Dick until it welled up inside him in a compact paroxysm of emotion” (p. 178). Dick’s attraction to blooming young girls is underlined throughout the novel with similar flower imagery. For example, he turns to the blossoming Rosemary with the provocative comment: “ ’You’re the only girl I’ve seen for a long time that actually did look like something blooming’ “ (p. 27). But such incidents come later, after Nicole’s first freshness begins to fade.

In her original innocence and naivete even Nicole thought of herself as a basket of flowers:

“I can remember how I stood waiting for you in the garden— holding all my self in my arms like a basket of flowers. It was that to me anyhow—I thought I was sweet—waiting to hand that basket to you.” (p. 204)

The Nicole who emerges from the total darkness of her psychological trauma has no pretensions. She is as beautiful and uncomplicated as a basket of flowers. Because she loves Dick and wants him to love her, she lists, quite naively but very openly, her qualifications—her knowledge of languages, music, and art. She even mentions passing these accomplishments on to her children. The attention that Dick has shown her, her beauty, and her talents gives her every reason to expect that Dick will accept her as his wife. Dick easily understands exactly what Nicole is proposing because she does not conceal her emotions: she is “wearing her hope like a corsage at her belt.” Knowing none of the wiles of a woman of the world, she is completely open with him. When she thinks that Dick will not marry her, Nicole entertains:

… a desperate idea of telling him how rich she was, what big houses she lived in, that really she was a valuable property—for a moment she made herself into her grandfather, Sid Warren, the horse-trader. But she survived the temptation to confuse all values and shut these matters into their Victorian side-chambers… (p. 189)

Nicole is aware of her wealth and the effect it may have, but she is as yet uncorrupted by it. She tries on the personality of her grandfather but rejects his unscrupulousness. She does not try to buy herself a husband, remaining instead as pure as the spring flowers which surround her.

Weeks later Dick has a chance meeting with Nicole, once again in the midst of flowers. On his trip to Caux, flowers trail into his compartment on the funicular, and tumbling in right after the Dorothy Perkins roses comes Nicole, as “fresh” and lovely as the flowers. Shortly after seeing her, Dick feels that “Something new was in the air; freshness—” (p. 196). Reluctantly, Dick had not accepted Nicole’s basket of flowers at the sanitarium, but he cannot resist her now that “every taint of the clinic” has departed. She is more playful and self-assured; flirtatiously she suggests that Dick carry her down the mountain on the handlebars of his bicycle.

The sign in the flower-filled funicular, “Defense de cueillir les fleurs,” is a symbolic  reminder of  the  warning  that  Franz Gregorovius gives Dick at the sanitarium: “better never see her again” (p. 185). Loosely translating this warning as “one must not pick flowers,” Fitzgerald significantly adds “on the way up” (p. 195). Thus he insinuates that perhaps it would be all right to pick them on the way down, but when one is headed for the top, toward a goal, one should not be concerned with distractions which might divert one from his goal. About to publish a book on psychiatry, Dick is apparently on his way to fulfilling his goal of becoming the “greatest” psychologist that ever lived, but caring for Nicole will make it difficult for him to achieve this ambition. He cannot have forgotten Franz’s warning, but this time he does not heed the warning and picks the blossoming Nicole.

Just as it is almost impossible not to pick the roses on the mountainside (they practically place themselves in people’s hands as they drag “patiently through each compartment slowly waggling with the motion of the funicular"), Nicole presents an irresistible temptation to Dick. Later that evening while they are strolling along the horseshoe walk on the hotel grounds, she pushes her “young lips” and body next to his and demands to be given a chance to make him fall in love with her. When Dick leans against the iron fence enclosing the horseshoe walk, she is reminded of the garden at the sanitarium. Nicole, however, no longer belongs in a garden of innocence. She has tasted the gay, moneyed world that her sister Baby lives in and, in doing so, has lost some of her freshness. She responds to Dick’s trite remarks “in succinct Chicagoese: ’Bull!’” (p. 202) and, after kissing him, turns “coquette” and walks away thinking, “I’ve got him, he’s mine” (p. 203).

The early years of their marriage reveal that Nicole is not as well as she looks and that she is still subject to attacks of hysteria. In order to avert relapses, Dick places her in a “pastoral” setting on the French Riviera. At the Villa Diana, far from the stresses of modern life, he hopes to keep her mind intact. Years ago, even before she entered the sanitarium, Nicole had improved when a French soldier gave her a flower along with his understanding: “He gave me a flower and said it was ’plus petite et moins entendue.’ We were friends. Then he took it away. I grew sicker and there was no one to explain to me” (p. 161). In her schizophrenic mind Nicole associated the soldier’s understanding with the flower. Years later Dick—with the help of Nicole’s money—gives her a whole garden as well as his understanding. This garden, the second garden in which Nicole resides, is a private garden that is a part of the world of “nursery-like peace and good will” (p. 27) that Dick has created for her. It is emphatically Nicole’s garden, and it mirrors the emotionally precarious world in which she lives:

“What a beautiful garden!” Mrs. Speers exclaimed.

“Nicole’s garden,” said Dick. “She won’t let it alone—she nags it all the time, worries about its diseases. Any day now I expect to have her come down with Powdery Mildew or Fly Speck, or Late Blight.” (p. 36)

Fitzgerald devotes two pages of carefully chosen description to this garden which parallels the sheltered world in which Nicole lives. The garden is bounded on all sides just as her life is bounded and protected by Dick. In the isolated center of the garden, the leaves and petals are “curled with tender damp” while the plants close to the walls are “dusty” (p. 32). In the haven that Dick has created for her, Nicole is able to ignore the harsh real world, just as she can ignore the dusty extremities of her garden, by turning her back on them: “Nicole was invariably somewhat surprised that by turning in the other direction past a bed of peonies she walked into an area so green and cool” (p. 32). The “faintly rotten” wheelbarrow in the midst of this paradise is ominous and perhaps suggests the early stages of decay in Nicole’s marriage.

Nicole’s garden is not only analogous to her protected life but also parallels the dual world of her mind. Her carefully manicured garden, “lovely” and “grassless,” reflects the “hard and lovely” exterior with which she faces life. Her life is as outwardly orderly as her garden with its walks outlined in white border stones. Inwardly, however, she is still a schizophrenic, subject to spells that are as “kaleidoscopic” as her garden’s peonies and as “tangled” as its irises and nasturtiums. Her emotional state is as delicate as the “fragile mauve-stemmed roses” in her garden. The reason for her condition is even suggested. The irises and nasturtiums are tangled “as though sprung from a careless handful of seeds” (p. 33). Nicole, like her flowers, did not grow straight because of her father’s moral carelessness.

In the center of Nicole’s garden is an enormous pine tree. The table, wicker chairs, and market umbrella are “all gathered about” this tree just as people gather about Dick on the beach only a few pages before: “Even the children knew that excitement was generating under that umbrella and turned toward it—and it seemed to Rosemary that it all came from the man in the jockey cap” (p. 13). It is appropriate that this tree should dominate Nicole’s garden because Dick dominates her life:

Many times he had tried unsuccessfully to let go his hold on her… but always when he turned away from her into himself he left her holding Nothing in her hands and staring at it, calling it many names, but knowing it was only the hope that he would come back soon. (p. 237)

When Nicole believes that someone is threatening to take Dick away, such as Rosemary or the flirtatious young girl whose mother was a patient at Dick’s sanitarium, she loses control because her life is meaningless without him. When Rosemary enters her garden on the night of the party, she brings with her the stresses of life that Dick had tried to shield Nicole from by creating a sheltered world for her to live in. Deprived of Dick’s attention, her garden invaded, Nicole retreats to the safety of the bathroom where she suffers a relapse.

Her appearance after this spell, however, does not give her away. As she bids her guests good night, Nicole is once again “blooming away and filling the night with graciousness” (p. 50). But her “exterior harmony and charm” (p. 237) are as much a facade as the “artificial camellia” (p. 32) that she wears on her shoulder. The flower appears real, just as Nicole appears sane. That Nicole is wearing an artificial flower in the midst of so many beautiful real ones injects an early note of suspicion about her character.

Months later Nicole continues to conceal insanity with flowers when she designs the decorations and furniture for the houses of the permanently ill at Dick’s and Franz’s sanitarium: “no instructed visitor would have dreamed that the light, graceful filagree work at a window was a strong, unyielding end of a tether… even the flowers lay in iron fingers” (p. 239-240). The grillwork decorating the houses corresponds to the artificial flowers that adorn Nicole. Both are deceiving to unperceptive eyes. On the surface the sanitarium is as charming as Nicole:

—no longer a single dark and sinister building but a small, scattered, yet deceitfully integrated village… With the addition of a caddy house it might very well have been a country club. The Eglantine and the Beeches, houses for those sunk into eternal darkness, were screened by little copses from the main building, camouflaged strong-points. (p. 238)

The flowers and trees surrounding the sanitarium, like those at the Villa Diana, perform a double function. They shut in the mentally disturbed patients, just as Nicole’s garden confines her. They also masquerade as something normal, the grounds of an estate or “country club,” though they are actually arranged carefully and deceitfully. Similarly Nicole’s garden world is contrived to give the appearance of “expensive simplicity.”

As the strain of Nicole’s illness and Dick’s own inability to achieve his goals drain his vitality and lead him to excessive drinking, their roles begin to reverse. She worries about his drinking and his growing inability to control himself, circumstances which are alienating their friends. On Golding’s yacht Tommy Barban advises Nicole to tell Dick to stop drinking. Although Nicole is amazed that Tommy should think her capable of telling Dick “what he should do or shouldn’t do,” she is beginning to lookout for Dick instead of Dick looking out for her. Scenes at Mary North Minghetti’s house and on Golding’s yacht illustrate this change in their roles. Thus, when Tommy asks if Nicole is all right after the party on the yacht, Dick replies, “Did you expect her to be dead because I was tight?… Nicole is now made of—of Georgia pine, which is the hardest wood known, except lignum vitae from New Zealand” (p. 356). Nicole’s superficial hardness, her air of self-control, has become internalized, and she is moving toward a complete cure. It is particularly appropriate that Dick compares Nicole to the pine because this is the tree that is associated with him in the first description of Nicole’s garden. As the roles have reversed so have the metaphors. Fragile Nicole has become hard; dependable Dick has grown soft.

Fitzgerald underlines this change in Dick by placing him in a garden very different from the one in which he first met Nicole. Wandering in a garden in Innsbruck on a “leave of abstinence” from his sanitarium, Dick thinks of his early garden meetings with Nicole “when the grass was damp and she came to him on hurried feet, her thin slippers drenched with dew” (p. 262). But now Dick’s charm has faded, and he is too uncertain to approach the girl who arouses him in the Innsbruck garden. The flowers here are not fresh, and Dick has grown as “fallow” as the rose bushes.

The new, saner Nicole, as hard as Georgia pine, is also as insensitive and amoral as the waving flowers to which Fitzgerald now compares her:

In the fine spring morning the inhibitions of the male world disappeared and she reasoned as gaily as a flower, while the wind blew her hair until her head moved with it. Other women have had lovers—the same forces that last night had made her yield to Dick up to the point of death, now kept her head nodding to the wind, content and happy with the logic of, Why shouldn’t I? (pp. 356-357)

Gradually shedding Dick’s influence, his “inhibitions,” and his morals, Nicole substitutes the amorality of the society around her. Reasoning “gaily as a flower,” she decides to do exactly what she wants. Nicole begins to participate in the recklessness that she had formerly only watched: “All summer she had been stimulated by watching people do exactly what they were tempted to do and pay no penalty for it” (p. 376). She is no longer content with living a sheltered existence in the safe garden that Dick established for her: “ ’I think we should do something spectacular. I feel that all our lives have been too restrained’ “ (p. 353).

At first Fitzgerald’s analogy of Nicole’s reasoning power may seem perplexing and illogical. Surely flowers cannot reason; they move at the will of the wind or by an external force, but so does Nicole. She is guided by the prevailing force of the moment:

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)

If the force is strong enough to move her emotions as the wind moves the flowers, Nicole will give in to it. Thus, in the space of twenty-four hours she can feel so strongly for Dick that she is willing to commit suicide with him and so strongly for Tommy that she can contemplate an affair. Her shallowness is further underlined when “In a week Nicole forgot her flash about Tommy—she had not much memory for people and forgot them easily.” (p. 359).

Nicole’s gay reasoning in her garden leads her to the conclusion that “If she need not, in spirit, be forever one with Dick as he had appeared last night [on Golding’s yacht], she must be something in addition” (p. 357). With annoyance she watches Dick’s attempts to impress Rosemary, and finally, “more confident than she had been five years ago” (p. 364), she speaks sharply to both Dick and Rosemary before leaving the beach. The growth of Nicole’s self-confidence is compared to a blossoming flower: “Her ego began blooming like a great rich rose as she scrambled back along the labyrinths in which she had wandered for years” (p. 373). At this point in the novel, Nicole’s confidence is further buoyed by the specific incident of driving the car, a task which she had not tackled in mouths. Her ability to steer the car parallels her growing ability and desire to take control of her life. That she is still influenced by Dick, however, is emphasized by the place in which her ego begins blooming. Not until she leaves the beach, Dick’s world, and turns into a road of pines does Nicole really relax, think clear thoughts, and begin to feel “new and happy.”

This “new and happy” Nicole, however, is not the same “fresh and new” Nicole with whom Dick fell in love. The lovely rosebud that he plucked on the funicular has blossomed into “a great rich rose,” a rose that is receiving its nourishment from the unscrupulous roots of its horse trader grandfather: “Moment by moment all that Dick had taught her fell away and she was ever nearer to what she had been in the beginning” (p. 384).

The uncomplicated naturalness of the Nicole who presents herself to Dick as a basket of flowers at the sanitarium provides a sharp contrast to this new Nicole, who makes her “person into the trimmest of gardens” for Tommy Barban. Nicole no longer relies on her natural beauty alone, but feeling “a jealousy of youth” (p. 375), spends all morning preparing herself for Tommy as a gardener spends hours pruning and clipping a garden. Nicole prepares herself in a way that she never prepared the garden at the Villa Diana. Dick had always hired gardeners to care for that garden, but by 1929 Nicole is able to be her own gardener. Unfortunately, she cultivates people rather than flowers, and Tommy is her first specimen.

The garden that she makes for Tommy is more artificial than the basket of flowers because it is painstakingly arranged. Nicole calculates her emotions and exhibits pretensions that she was incapable of when she wore “her hope like a corsage at her belt": “she greeted Tommy as if he were one of many men at her feet, walking ahead of him instead of beside him.” A desire for “mystery” has replaced her former openness. She toys with Tommy’s love for her with the idea in the back of her mind that she is “merely feeling her way and that at any moment she could withdraw” (p. 376).

Nicole’s method of trimming her garden underscores the change that has taken place in her life. The operation has the characteristics of a religious ritual. Nicole “anointed” herself with bath oil, “crossed herself reverently with Chanel Sixteen,” and presented herself as an object “to be worshipped” by Tommy. This scene recalls an earlier one in which Nicole worships Dick with “gifts of sacrificial ambrosia, of worshipping myrtle” (p. 181). Now, however, Dick is no longer Nicole’s god. She has replaced Dick as the most important person in her life. Forgetting the troubles that she has caused Dick and paying only “lip service to the fact that he had led her back to the world she had forfeited” (p. 388), Nicole very casually, with the prompting of Tommy, brings an end to all that had previously mattered in her life.

Nicole’s trim garden presents a striking contrast to the “tangled” garden of the Villa Diana where she roamed for so many years. By the end of the novel, however, Nicole no longer lives in a tangled, schizophrenic world. Neither does she live in a world as innocent as her first garden at the sanitarium. The naive, half-cured girl that Dick found “flowering under a stone on the Zurichsee” loses her sensitivity and reverts to the amorality of her grandfather as she gains her sanity. As Nicole blossoms, Dick withers. Although he is still attracted to blooming young girls in Edenic gardens, Dick consigns himself to searching for secure havens, but they too elude him like the English girl in the bar whose appearance suggested to him “the story of safe gardens ringed around by the sea” (p. 290). In constructing a private garden for her own amusement, Nicole leaves behind a disintegrated husband. The creation of her final garden involves Dick’s destruction, just as the creation of the garden at the Villa Diana had taken its toll: “five small houses had been combined to make the house and four destroyed to make the garden” (p. 34).

Through flower imagery, Fitzgerald emphasizes that Nicole’s process of maturity, while a psychological growth, is a moral decline. Her movement from a garden of innocence is not a fortunate fall because the garden that she creates in its place is calculated and contrived. In Tender Is the Night Edenic gardens prove illusory and safe gardens, impossible to maintain. The gardens that survive are as artificial as the camellia that Nicole wore on her shoulder and as valueless as the artificial flowers that she purchased during her shopping spree on the Rue de Rivoli.


College of William and Mary

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