One of the things I hated about English in high school was when teachers would attempt to explore the deeper themes of a text which was all surface and no substance. Trying to “uncover the author’s intentions” would turn into an exercise in wild speculation which would invariably have nothing to do with the author’s intentions or ideas, and would therefore be incredibly frustrating to study – like a game of Hypothetical Eye-Spy, except with more chance of being shot down by the teacher if you offered up an idea that was too tangential to their lesson plan.
The Great Gatsby was different. At 16 (the first year of A Level) I was finally studying a text that felt, for the first time, like even the deepest discussions only scratched the surface of the author’s intentions. Layers of subtext, symbolism, contextual references and character beats would be stacked to form towers of beautifully crafted prose which read cleanly and opened the door to a richness of character and story and feeling that belied the novel’s tiny length.
It is therefore slightly surprising that it has taken me three years to pick up another of F Scott Fitzgerald’s books, especially considering that Gatsby has been my favourite book for all of that time. Life got busy and I wasn’t reading much during that time anyway, but I think there was also a little Fitzgerald-based reticence involved: given how much I love Gatsby, how do I go into another of his novels with reasonable expectations?
Tender Is The Night follows the marriage and social lives of Dick and Nicole Diver, exploring themes of love, marriage, social acceptance and mental illness through rich and socially connected Americans living in Europe during the 1920’s. As is par for the course with Fitzgerald, much of it is based on his own life and experiences; he draws from his own social experiences and his troubled marriage to Zelda Fitzgerald when creating his characters.
Structurally, the novel starts in the middle of these character’s stories, and it’s not until third of the way through the novel that Fitzgerald begins an extended flashback to explain the beginnings of the Diver’s marriage, before he picks up the story threads and leads them to their conclusion. The novel in its early stages focuses on the character of Rosemary as if she were the main character, before switching to Dick Diver at the advent of the flashback sections and staying with him until the end. Fitzgerald considered putting the flashback chapters at the beginning so that the story would play out in chronological order, but I quite liked way this structure shrouds Nicole’s health in mystery; it forms a powerful literary device to draw the reader’s attention to the emotional and narrative heart of the story. The choice to make Rosemary the narrator in the early stages of the book would otherwise be quite disconcerting, but the reader’s desire to understand the enigmatic Dick and the possibly very troubled Nicole subtly moves their focus on to these characters in time for us to learn of their beginnings.
Onto the story: the book starts with Dick at the height of his social and personal prowess and then goes back to document his rise and subsequent fall. It’s interesting to analyse the way that he invokes the reader’s sympathy, as well as Rosemary’s, Nicole’s and other characters around him, before throwing it back in all of our faces with his degradation into drinking and social ineptitude. The ending is, in my view, rather ambiguous about Dick’s possible redemption. I think lot of readers may choose to believe that he simply wasted the best of himself on Nicole and gave up on himself and their marriage, but I believe his degradation was actually a final selfless act in his treatment of Nicole. He gave up his life to make her well, and I think he knew that as long as he was both her husband and her doctor, their marriage would fail and her treatment would be in jeopardy. I think he all but manipulated Nicole into marrying Tommy Barban, in order to set her free. I’m sure he had selfish motives too – the use of money as instrument of power in their marriage was a fascinating literary device (as well as pointed social commentary on gender roles and sexual politics of the time), giving Nicole more power than Dick was comfortable with, especially in the light of her mental condition. However, my interpretation of this ending actually makes the ending remarkably less feminist than it could otherwise have been, as it removes much of her autonomy in her decision-making.
I love Fitzgerald’s writing style, I think his powers of description are fantastic. In a sequence towards the end of the book where Dick becomes involved in a brawl with the Italian police, Fitzgerald writes an inebriated character better than any I’ve ever read. He’s also very good at writing about love and kissing and sex in ways that invoke precisely what he means without ever becoming cheesy, or gross, or overstating things. He implies rather than demonstrates, bringing out the romanticism of situations and producing a real depth of feeling where a lesser writer would have written something crass (*cough* E.L. James *cough*). He is also wonderful at describing people in very few words, in the same way that one makes a snap judgment about a person when they first meet them. In fact, throughout the novel he conjures up wonderful microcosms of depth and feeling. My only real gripes with the book lie in the few unnecessary complications which detract from the novel, such as the number of supporting characters to keep track of throughout. The duel is a bit pointless, and Abe and Mary North could easily have been excised or else featured less without impacting the novel much.
Overall, I loved the book – it’s definitely cemented Fitzgerald as one of my very favourite authors, and it joins the ranks of The Great Gatsby as one of my favourite books, despite a few frustrations as I read it. I’d love to read it again and reevaluate it someday. (And in the meantime, a copy of The Beautiful And Damned lies tantalisingly on my stairs…)