The course of true love does not run smooth in Fitzgerald’s fiction. In all his work he created no lovers whose emotional attachment was honest, mutual, and permanent, no unions in which partners equally shared burdens and blessings. Instead, they engage in competition. During courtship his young men and women vie for dominance; once they are married, their struggle becomes fiercer. This pattern closely followed that of his own experience, and there is no blinking the fact that Fitzgerald was among the most autobiographical of authors. The situations and characters sometimes take on disguises, but in his best fiction he wrote about himself, and above all about his own feelings. As Wilfred Sheed has observed, Fitzgerald was one of those writers “who like the opposite sex but don’t trust it an inch.” His fiction portrayed sexual relationships as potentially incendiary, and uncovered some of his own burns.
In stories of childhood and adolescence, Fitzgerald treated the conflict between the sexes more as a game than a dangerous encounter. This Side of Paradise illustrates the point. In a pre-puberty confrontation, Amory Blaine manages to kiss Myra St. Claire and then, seized with revulsion, humiliates her by refusing to do it again. Several years later, Amory as a Princeton sophomore pits his skills against those of Isabelle Borge, an accomplished flirt visiting Minnesota for the Christmas holidays. In this scene, modeled on Fitzgerald’s first meeting with Ginevra King, Amory takesthe initiative at once by remarking, “You’re my dinner partner, you know. We’re all coached for each other.” At this stage Isabelle begins to “lose the leadership,” and she suffers another setback when Amory piques her curiosity with his old gambit, “I’ve got an adjective that just fits you.” Then Isabelle begins to assert herself. If he has an adjective for her, it is she who encourages the after-dinner rendezvous where she may hear it in private. Others burst in just before the moment of consummation—consummation by kiss, for Fitzgerald’s teen-age lovers—and so nothing happens. Neither of them is defeated, and both imagine themselves in love.
When they next meet for a weekend of parties at Princeton and her parents’ house, matters proceed swimmingly until, during an embrace, one of Amory’s shirt studs makes a telltale mark—“a little blue spot about the size of a pea”—on her neck. Isabelle is frantic, and when Amory does not sympathize properly, she refuses to kiss him. Though he hasn’t “an ounce of real affection” for her, Amory wants to kiss Isabelle, “kiss her a lot, because then he knew he could leave in the morning and not care.” Not kissing her “would interfere vaguely with his idea of himself as a conqueror. It wasn’t dignified to come off second best, pleading, with a doughty warrior like Isabelle.’ Predictably, they argue, with Isabelle, who’s annoyed by Amory’s insisting on analyzing every little emotion, holding firm. To save face, the unkissed Amory cuts the weekend short and leaves early the next morning.
It was a heady game these young competitors were playing, Fitzgerald realized while watching Scottie grow up. Life promises so much “to a pretty girl between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five,” he wrote in 1938, “that she never quite recovers from it.” Unless sobered by a flock of children, she was “liable to go on seeking the intensity of that game of playing with men. None of our colleges have succeeded in inventing anything to compete with the kind of love that doesn’t have to be paid for with responsibility.” But as in all games someone had to lose, someone had to pay. If they played too long even the Isabelles and Rosalinds of yesteryear were sure to be defeated. Recently, Fitzgerald had run into two such belles of his time “now ravaged by dope.”
Once women stopped playing games and settled down, however, Fitzgerald usually depicted them as ruling the roost. Married womendid not have to be beautiful to dominate their men. “Women with receding chins and shapeless noses go about in broad daylight saying ’Do this!’ and ’Do that!’ and all the men, even those of great wealth, obey implicitly.’ America was a woman’s country, Fitzgerald thought. “No Englishman would endure one-eighth of what an American takes from his wife.” To Anthony Patch, it seemed as if “all the distress he had ever known, the sorrow and the pain” had been caused by women. He determines not to marry, and in support of his resolution tells the parable of the Chevalier O’Keefe, an Irishman exiled to France in the last days of chivalry. O’Keefe has a debilitating weakness for the opposite sex. For twenty years women have “hated him, used him, bored him, aggravated him, sickened him, spent his money, made a fool of him—in brief, as the world has it, loved him.” To escape his obsession, O’Keefe becomes a monk. Mounting his tower of Chastity, he takes one last look at the world he is renouncing. At just that moment a peasant girl below lifts her skirt to adjust a garter, O’Keefe leans out too far to get a better view, and so falls to “hard earth and eternal damnation.” The poor Chevalier could not help himself. Neither could Anthony, who rapidly gives up his bachelorhood when he meets the bewitching Gloria Gilbert.
There were two methods men might adopt to wrest dominance from their wives. If they were strong enough, they could assert their wills so powerfully as to brook no objection. Hamilton Rutherford in “The Bridal Party” makes it clear in advance who will run his marriage. So does Tommy Barban in Tender Is the Night and Philippe in the “Count of Darkness” stories Fitzgerald wrote after completing that novel. But these men were modeled on Ernest Hemingway or Tommy Hitchcock, not on himself. Fitzgerald’s own way of resistance involved a more subtle procedure, as an entry in his notebooks indicates. “One advantage of politeness,” according to his note, “is to be able to deal with women on their own grounds, to please or to torture the enemy, as it may prove necessary. And not to fire random shots and flowers from the pure male camp many miles away.”
The references to the enemy and to gunfire are not accidental. What had begun as a fairly harmless game had become, for theFitzgerald of the late 1920s and early 1930s, a deadly serious battle. In his most complicated and interesting novel, this battle between the sexes escalates to full-scale warfare.
The central character in Tender Is the Night (1934) is Dick Diver, a young man of middle-class origins who attends Yale and Oxford, rapidly becomes a leading psychologist, and, while practicing his profession in Zurich, meets and marries one of his patients, the lovely, troubled, and immensely rich Nicole Warren. As a girl Nicole had been seduced by her father, and Diver, a combination doctor and husband, works to restore her to full mental health. In the process of making her whole, he loses most of his own vitality. Early in the novel Diver is attracted to a young movie actress, Rosemary Hoyt, and the progress of their affair also traces Diver’s decline. At the end Nicole determines to divorce Dick and marry soldier-of-fortune Tommy Barban. Now that he has transferred his strength to her, Diver accepts her decision and simply fades away.
The novel is rife with military references. On several occasions Diver is compared to General Grant, another man who came out of obscurity and retreated back into it. He is sentimental about past wars. On a trip to Thiepval, Diver characterizes the World War I battle there as “a love battle… the last love battle.” Seeing a group of gold-star mothers in Paris, come to mourn for their dead, Diver is carried back in memory to his father’s knee and his story (Edward Fitzgerald’s story, too) of riding with Mosby’s cavalry in the Civil War. He is even saddened by a parade of German World War I veterans in Munich.
Men had once expended their energies and their lives on grander causes. Dick, however, confines his strategic efforts to the social front, brilliantly organizing parties “as dependent on supplies of attention as an infantry battalion is dependent on rations,” bestowing on others “carnivals of affection” he later looks back on “as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust. ”
Dick is armed with intelligence and charm for the struggle between the sexes. It is not enough. Rosemary is virtually impervious to defeat, “protected by a double sheath of her mother’s armor and her own.” Economically, she is reminded by her mother, a womanwho has outlasted two soldier-husbands, Rosemary is “a boy, not a girl.” Nicole is similarly powerful. Her principal weapon—besides her beauty—is wealth, and she uses it.
At one stage of their marriage the Divers had presented such a facade of harmony (“Dicole,” they called themselves to signify the union) as to drive the militaristic Tommy Barban back to actual warfare. “When I’m in a rut,” he tells Rosemary, “I come to see the Divers, because then I know that in a few weeks I’ll want to go to war.” Yet under the surface tensions were building from the start, when Nicole virtually forced Dick to kiss her on the mountain slopes of Switzerland, so dissolving the doctor-patient barrier, and then thought, “Oh, wasn’t it wonderful! I’ve got him, he’s mine” while cannons boomed across the lake to break up hail-bearing clouds and to symbolize, as they do on other occasions, a crucial incident in the novel. By the time Rosemary comes into their lives, Nicole is steeled for combat and Dick has sensed this happening. “Though he thought she [Nicole] was the most attractive human creature he had ever seen, though he got from her everything he needed, he scented battle from afar, and subconsciously he had been hardening and arming himself, hour by hour.” He is not hard enough, however, to resist the combined lure of beauty and wealth. He drinks, he lets his work slide, he becomes increasingly self-indulgent, while Nicole, “wanting to own him, wanting him to stand still forever, encouraged any slackness on his part.” Diver had somehow “permitted his arsenal,” the narrator comments, “to be locked up in the Warren safety-deposit vaults.”
Only with an understanding that the war between the sexes constitutes the pervasive theme of Tender Is the Night does the extraordinary violence of the book make sense. Here among wealthy expatriates in the fashionable resorts of Europe, where one would least expect them, occur the shootings, stabbings, beatings, duels, and brawls that function symbolically to underscore the theme. Similarly, the device of indicating turning points in the plot by gunfire takes on an added significance.
In the war of the novel Nicole wins through in the end, while Dick Diver struggles and eventually succumbs. Things have always come too easily to him. As “Lucky Dick” he coasted through college and medical school, established himself quickly as a psychologist,and married a rich and beautiful wife. But along the way he has acquired a debilitating weakness: he cannot do without love.
He wants, so he tells Franz Gregorovius during their early days together at Dr. Dohmler’s clinic in Zurich, “to be a good psychologist—maybe to be the greatest one that ever lived.” He also wants to be good and kind and brave and wise. But above all he wants to be loved. To that end, he has developed the power of “arousing a fascinating and uncritical love” among all save the “tough-minded and perennially suspicious.” So, when he senses Rosemary becoming “critical” and Nicole “tough-minded” enough to fall out of love with him, he is driven to seek the adoration of others. Soon he finds himself “in love with every pretty woman” he sees, but his own power of attraction is waning and fewer and fewer of them respond. Finally, he is reduced to attracting young girls.
Actually, Diver’s conquests are almost always of those much younger than himself. Nicole could hardly avoid falling in love with him, a combination doctor and father-replacement figure ten years her senior. Rosemary succumbs to his charm with the dew still on her, not quite eighteen to Dick’s thirty-four. And there are others.
The Divers go to Gstaad for the skiing, where Nicole suggests to Dick, who has turned an ankle and is loafing away the days, that he “meet some of these ickle durls and dance with them in the afternoon.” Dick insists that he doesn’t like “ickle durls” who smell of “castile soap and peppermint.” It’s a “dangerous subject,” Doctor Diver realizes: he is careful to “stare far over the heads of young maidens.”
The subject is dangerous because Nicole knows—from her own experience and from that of Rosemary (who played the lead in “Daddy’s Girl”)—of Dick’s appeal for young girls, and she is prepared to become, quite literally, insanely jealous. Besides, Dick has in fact been contemplating a flirtation with one of the peppermint girls. Even as he, Franz, and Baby Warren, Nicole’s sister, are exploring the possibility of opening a clinic, Dick looks and speaks with half his attention on the “special girl” who may be listening, who is picking up something from the floor, who is tying her sled to a sleigh outside.
This seemingly inconsequential scene foretells Nicole’s subsequent attempt, in the throes of jealous rage, to kill herself, Dick, and the children. Her jealousy is aroused by a letter from a former patient who accuses Doctor Diver of having seduced her young daughter (Dick is old enough to be the girl’s father). The letter, Dick tells Nicole, is “deranged,” but he is not entirely blameless in the matter, for on one occasion “he had let the girl, a flirtatious little brunette, ride into Zurich with him, at her request,” and had that evening kissed her in “an idle, almost indulgent way.” When the girl tried to carry things further, Dick “was not interested,” perhaps because he had already made the conquest. Nicole, however, had seen the way “that little dark girl” looked at her husband and was prepared to believe the worst. She has, after all, learned a bitter lesson of her own about young girls and older men. Dick has provoked her jealousy very indulgently indeed.
Dick Diver decides, after Nicole’s attempt to drive their car off a cliff, that he requires “a leave of abstinence” (so Franz puts it). The subsequent trip becomes a journey of deterioration. He travels alone, dreaming on the train to Munich of “the peasant girl near Savona with a face as green and rose as the color of an illuminated missal,” attracted despite himself in Innsbruck to a girl stopping at his hotel (“God,” he thinks, “I might as well go back to the Riviera and sleep with Janice Caricamento or the Wilburhazy girl”), and suffering at the hands of women in Rome a series of humiliations.
It is in Rome that Dick and Rosemary finally consummate “what had begun with a childish infatuation on a beach,” but there is not much pleasure in the consummation, since Rosemary is now in command. Dick cannot stop asking about her adventures with men during the past four years, and she is repelled by his unjustified jealousy (“I’ve slept with six hundred and forty men—if that’s the answer you want”). She determines when and how they will make love. She takes Dick along to the movie set one day, and buys him lunch the next. Finally, she breaks off the affair with the news that she is half-engaged to the Italian actor Nicotera, whom Dick calls a “spic.” She saves her last evening in Rome for Diver, but by then he is disillusioned and angry, hating Rome as the place where his dream of Rosemary died, and he goes on to abject drunkenness, an unsuccessful attempt to pick up a young English girl, a disgraceful brawl with taxi drivers, and jail.
When Baby Warren finally secures his release from the Roman jail, Doctor Diver has lost his dignity and, she believes, any moral superiority that he, as guardian of the skeleton in the family closet, had formerly possessed. A crowd of Italians boos and hisses as he walks toward freedom. They think Dick has “raped and slain a five-year-old child.” It is a case of mistaken identity, but the incident is suggestive symbolically. After Nicole dismisses Dick, he practices general medicine in one small town after another in upstate New York. He is, Nicole hears, “much admired by the ladies,” but is forced to leave at least one town when he becomes “entangled with a girl who worked in a grocery store.” Fitzgerald does not reveal how old she is, and he does not have to.
Despite what happens to Dick Diver, Fitzgerald still believed that it was a man’s world and that women could not directly usurp their position of leadership. The point is driven home forcefully in the most obviously autobiographical section of the novel. An exceptionally pretty American painter, thirty years old, comes to Diver’s clinic in Switzerland and is there transformed by eczema into “a living, agonizing sore.” The situation exactly parallels that of Zelda, trying to establish herself as a ballet dancer and then undergoing terrible attacks of eczema. After some preliminary sparring, the distressed artist locates the cause of her troubles.
“I’m sharing the fate of the women of my time who challenged men to battle.”
“To your vast surprise it was just like all battles,” he answered, adopting her formal diction.
“Just like all battles.” She thought this over. “You pick a setup, or else win a Pyrrhic victory, or you’re wrecked and ruined— you’re a ghostly echo from a broken wall.”
“You are neither wrecked nor ruined,” he told her. “Are you quite sure you’ve been in a real battle?”
“Look at me!” she cried furiously.
“You’ve suffered, but many women suffered before they mistook themselves for men.”
The patient is suffering for having challenged men to battle. Doctor Diver attempts to minimize the gravity of his patient’s struggle: Is she sure she’s been in a real battle? But he knows she’sright. In the course of three nights’ vigil by her bed, Diver comes to love “the scabbed anonymous woman-artist,” for he recognizes in her someone like himself, marked for defeat in the war between the sexes. The artist was doomed because she openly issued a declaration of hostilities. His lover-enemies were different. They worked from within, covertly.
Nicole Warren, Rosemary Hoyt, Mary North: In background they represented “the enormous flux of American life,” yet shared common ground in their attitude toward men. “Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them.” They were marvelously adaptable creatures, more dangerous to men because not officially recognized as opponents.
Regarded autobiographically, Tender Is the Night represents the dark side of what might have been. In Fitzgerald’s depiction of the war between the sexes, what was more or less innocent fun in 1920 became the most deadly of intramarital conflicts by 1934. The change reflected his own experience, with significant variations. Fitzgerald did not marry into money and become swallowed up like a gigolo by wealth. Nor did he crack under the strain of combat with the unstable woman he did marry. Yet in at least two important respects—the loss of vitality, the compulsion to attract women— Dick Diver’s ills were also Fitzgerald’s. He was the survivor, but in such wars no one emerged unscathed. Even the winners were losers.
116 “opposite sex… an inch”: Webster Schott, review of Wilfrid Sheed’s The Good Word it Other Words, Washington Post Book World (24 December 1978), p. 4.
117 Life promises…“dope”: FSF to Mr. and Mrs. Eben Finney, 16 March 1938, Letters, pp. 574-75.
118 “receding chins…”: FSF, The Beautiful and Damned (New York: Scribner’s, 1922), p. 28.
118 a woman’s country: Harry Salpeter, interview with FSF, Miscellany, p. 276.
118 “No Englishman …”: Marguerite Mooers Marshall, interview with FSF, Miscellany, p. 256.
118 “advantage of politeness …”: FSF, Notebooks, p. 192.
Published as Fool For Love: A Biography Of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Scott Donaldson (New York: Congdon & Weed, 1983).