Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel has called forth more than the usual quota of discussion allowed these days for the works of writers definitely identified with the dead and gone pre-depression era. This alone should serve to indicate that it is an uncommonly interesting piece of work and one which makes plain, strange as it may seem to those who remember only the frothy brilliance of This Side of Paradise, that Fitzgerald has grown steadily and now definitely promises to emerge as one of the really important interpreters of the upper middle class in our time. Unusually sensitive to the charm and excitement of the life of the idle and semi-idle rich and near-rich and the vast army of hangers-on they attract to them, he has slowly moved toward a position which allows him to abate very little his sympathetic attitude while definitely taking up the position of an observer rather than a participant in their revels. Tender Is the Night exploits to the full the feverish beauty of a class in decay, the polished charm of a decadence that is not yet self-conscious, the exciting insecurity of our betters.
The integral significance of the opening pages of the book has been missed by most reviewers. Almost to a man they have complained that the stress laid upon Rosemary, the beautiful cinemastar, is unjustified by the future action of the story, that the pages devoted to building her up are really wasted effort, and that they “throw the reader off.” Rather I should say that in these pages Fitzgerald is presenting the type of girl who, in the past, has always been foreordained to absorption into the world of his characters. She is the typical outsider who, moonstruck by glamor, can be quite sure that some man will select her from the host of the beautiful and innocent as his particular contribution to the seraglio of physically charming females. She is obviously not a female hairy ape, excluded, downtrodden, and exploited. She can and will belong. For it is indisputable that this process of absorbing beautiful women from the outside has been going on from time immemorial and is a characteristic of all the “aristocracies” of history. It always goes on to the end. Not gifted with insight into social processes (and why on earth should she be anyhow?) Rosemary does not realize that she has come a bit too late and that on penetrating the world she will find it already in decay and dissolution. Seen through her eyes, however, what glamor remains can legitimately be exploited and by the same token, the tragedy of its actuality can be all the more accentuated.
And so we come to the central characters, Dr. Richard Diver and his wife Nicole, beautiful daughter of a wealthy household whose life has been distorted and made precarious by incestuous relations with her father. Fitzgerald has tried to use this situation, this extreme (according to our tabus) example of decadence, to symbolize the rottenness of the society of which Nicole is a part. This is well-nigh impossible. It is always difficult to argue from the individual to the social and when the social issues are so tremendous as they are here, the chances are that any individual will turn out to be an inadequate symbol. Nevertheless Fitzgerald has done as well as possible. Dr. Diver’s relation to his wife is more than that of a man to a woman he has loved enough to marry; it is also that of a psychiatrist to a patient. First encountering her in a sanitorium, he is gradually persuaded by his emotions and his technical interest and against his better judgment, to undertake her cure as her husband as well as her physician. He is, therefore, in much the same relationship to her as the reformer isto the sick society which he wishes to cure because he cannot bring himself to abandon it and which in the end forces him either to accept it on its own terms or reject it and with it his life. That the reformer should fail and in the process be corrupted by the poisons flowing through the social veins, is as inevitable as the slow corruption of the charming Dick Diver. And when he finally abandons the task, the chances are as good that he will plunge into an even more complete obscurity than overtakes those who reject the task from the first in favor of the more drastic cure of revolution as that he will go over to the masters and become at one with them in the tacit or self-conscious support of the corrupt values. Dick Diver when he finally realizes that his task of rehabilitating Nicole is accomplished and that he can do no more without abandoning the few remnants of physician’s values he retains and accepting all those of her world, chooses the way to obscurity, the corruption that follows on the realization of a wasted life, and death from the cultivation of that corruption. He is divorced by Nicole and disappears into upper New York State. No one knows what has become of him but “in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.” This fate is so close to that of unstable personalities in any place and time that it has been perversely misread by those critics anxious to avoid the implications of the whole book.
For it would be folly to ignore the fact that society always produces its misfits and no-goods and that many of them can and do move in leisured society until the inevitable disintegration takes place and they disappear into obscure saloons, shabby rooming houses and out of the way towns, there to nurse their vices to the death. It is even possible that no higher percentage of each college generation today goes down to obscurity and extinction than heretofore. But if this were all that Fitzgerald had intended to say he would not have been so careful to introduce overtones of a larger purpose into his book. In the light of the plainly indicated larger purpose, we are not straining the facts of the narrative to see in these miscellaneous and sometimes highly entertaining ascents and descents, mere symbolic reflections of a larger corruption. One passage which makes that perfectly clear is the following:
Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California; chiclet factories fumed and link vats grew link by link in factories; men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouthwash out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve; half-breed Indians toiled on Brazilian coffee plantations and dreamers were muscled out of patent rights in new tractors— these were some of the people who gave a tithe to Nicole, and as the whole system swayed and thundered onward it lent a feverish bloom to such processes of hers as wholesale buying, like the flush of a fireman’s face holding his post before a spreading blaze. She illustrated very simple principles, containing in herself her own doom, but illustrated them so accurately that there was grace in the procedure and pleasantly Rosemary would try to imitate it.
This is perceptive writing and I should like to stress for the benefit of those austere individuals who see in the bourgeois world nothing but filth and corruption the significance of the words “feverish bloom” and “grace.” Only a person utterly insensitive to the grace and beauty of the way of life open to the leisured will fail to see that even in decay these people are infinitely charming, insidiously beguiling to all but sea-green incorruptibles.
Published in The Modern Monthly magazine (1934). Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work, ed. by Alfred Kazin (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1951).