Tender Is the Night

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have fond memories of reading The Great Gatsby in high school, but I wasn’t able to get into this novel in the same way. It’s longer, denser, more oblique and more demanding of a reader. The characters are harder to sympathize with, their motives almost impenetrable at times.

The thing that bothered me the most about the book was protagonist Dick Diver’s unawareness of his privileged position and his sense of entitlement. He’s a hotshot young doctor whose career somehow survives the astounding breach of ethics of falling in love with and marrying his underage patient. He’s surprisingly culturally insensitive even for his time, dropping ethnic slurs with abandon and offending the natives in almost every European country he visits. He drinks and parties and brawls with taxi drivers and gets bailed out of jail by the consulate, and helps his friends out of similarly senseless jams. He has multiple affairs and flirtations and seems not to care about their effect on his partners or wife. He feels like he deserves his job, though he’s not actually performing it. He’s oh-so-emasculated because his rich wife pays all his bills and allows him to live in luxury on the French Riviera. I feel so incredibly sorry for him. In so many ways, his life is blessed beyond belief, but all he does is whine. I don’t really think that these aspects of Dick’s life and personality are meant to be especially admirable; rather they’re the flaws that any protagonist with depth displays. That doesn’t make him or the novel any more likeable or enjoyable, though.

The plot is concerned with the gradual dissolving of the Divers’ marriage. It’s hard to sympathize with any of the characters because they’re all so selfish. For example, I just cannot comprehend a woman who encourages her 18-year-old daughter to begin an affair with a married man twice her age. Dick acts like he’s a martyr of some kind because of his wife Nicole’s mental illness, but most of her worst breakdowns are caused by his bad behavior. Nicole’s mental illness itself is pretty incomprehensible, since no one knew much about psychology 100 years ago, so it’s hard to tell if she has PTSD, or bipolar, or if she’s just kind of playing sick to get sympathy.

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3 thoughts on “Tender Is the Night

  1. It has been a very long time since I read this book, but to me it was autobiographical and appeared to me that Fitzgerald had very little self-awareness. Or maybe he had considerable self-awareness and used his writing skill to give us an understanding of the shallow, self-centered life-style that he and Zelda embraced.

  2. I definitely agree it was autobiographical. I don’t think Dick Diver is meant to be particularly admirable. I think Fitzgerald was much more self-aware than his character, and perhaps wrote him as a way of exorcising his worst self. But perhaps he still suffered from a bit of privilege blindness. I guess we’ll never truly know, and it’s up for interpretation.

    • I read most of Fitzgerald’s books in the early ’70s .At that same time, I found his grave site in a very small, untended cemetery near Rockville, MD. It was a lonely, ill-tended site, the engraving barely legible due to weeds growing across it. It was very sad that Zelda died so tragically and that F. Scott followed so soon afterward. I just looked up Fitzgerald on wikipedia and there’s a photo of the grave site. I don’t remember Zelda having been buried there at the time; apparently, they were buried together later in a different cemetery in 1975, after my visit.

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