Review: ‘Tender is the Night’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Being a lover of all things ‘Gatsby’, I felt that I should acquaint myself with some of Fitzgerald’s other works. Having tried this with ‘Tender is the Night’, I’m not convinced it was the right decision. 

Dick and Nicole Driver are a couple clinging to one another in an attempt to find themselves – both psychologically, but both crossing over paths and diverging throughout the novel. Beginning with an encounter with film star Rosemary Hoyt and ending with a sudden reappearance of everyman Tommy Barber, the novel explores the difficulties of a love challenged by mental and physical suffering; similar to Fitzgerald’s own experiences later in life with his wife Zelda. In fact, reading ‘Tender is the Night’ is much like reading a confessional; the affair with Rosemary, the descent into despair and alcoholism, and the loss of a partner to a psychological disease all echo Fitzagerald’s own troublesome life. 

Perhaps its that quality which makes it difficult to follow the plot at times; if a confessional, it could represent Fitzgerald’s own turmoil as much as it does Dick’s, showing a descent into a chaos beyond his control. Likewise, the limited viewpoint of Nicole perhaps shows that lack of insight available into Zelda’s mind, whereas the understanding of Rosemary’s childish nature and her growth into a society girl is documented such as to represent the intense relationship he formed with a young woman whilst working on a film set. Regardless of representation, this is a difficult novel to trawl through – there are no contrasts of ups and downs, highs and lows; instead, everything becomes intermingled and, whilst life is never quite as simple as the labels I’ve offered, it does make it difficult to follow character and plot development. 

As well as this, I find Dick an entirely unsympathetic character. Whether this is on purpose as retribution for failings or accidental, the conceited nature of attempting to control the world around you, selecting company which represents your powers at making the world a more interesting place, and failing to deal with your children in a manner appropriate or loving, is somewhat unbearable in this. By the end, I was willing Nicole to leave and realise she was only unwell because she was dependant on her husband’s validation, and his depression deepened hers psychosis. I suppose it’s a difficult thing to judge contextually though; in 1930s America the woman could legitimately be dependant upon the males in her life, so perhaps in the beginning Dick was a sympathetic character, but social evolution has drained him of this, much as Nicole drained him of strength. 

 

I feel like I could talk about this book forever and end up nowhere, which is how I felt as I was reading – that I was reading for a while and nothing was happening. The shift in perspectives from Rosemary to the Drivers made it hard to understand who I was following and why I was interested in their narrative, and a lack of insight into motives made it difficult to establish this. That could be a flaw in my reading, or just a novel that was never meant to be deconstructed in such an impersonal manner. Either way, I’m not sure my nights reading this were tender, more puzzling. 

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