Tender Is the Night, first edition
First edition
Tender Is the Night
Novel, 1934
approx. 119,000 words,
340 pages @350 wds/pg

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On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, rose-colored hotel.

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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; chicle factories fumed and link belts 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.

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...his latest note was post-marked from Hornell, New York, which is some distance from Geneva and a very small town; in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.

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Before Francis Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44, he thought he was a failure. His obituaries described him as an obscure writer who never fulfilled his early promise.... more

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The movies screwed up poor Scott Fitzgerald in more ways than one. His novels generally translated very badly to the silver screen. Plus, his attempts to write for..... more

COMMENTARY

Poor story, great novel

A tip for reading Tender is the Night. Don't try it right after The Great Gatsby, even though it was Fitzgerald's next novel. If you do, you'll be disappointed. The tight writing of Gatsby—with its unforgettable images, controlled perspective from a single character and brilliant plot—is gone.

However, if you read Tender is the Night for its own very different charms you may find that it's also a great work by a novelist near the height of his powers. You may see it as the most mature work in Fitzgerald's non-Gatsby oeuvre, the best in the line that includes This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned.

The novel starts way too slowly, with a belaboured description of the Riviera beach and the well-to-do travellers who socialize with each other as they keep meeting at various European vacations spots. We follow the banal observations of 18-year-old Hollywood actress Rosemary Hoyt. Her mother encourages her to have an affair with fellow American Dick Diver, whose marriage with the beautiful Nicole seems perfect. The Divers are the social centre of the group. But about 127 pages in we discover all is not what it seems with the Divers. This is where the novel really starts for me. A long flashback begins, showing the Divers' unusual relationship from the beginning when Nicole was a psychiatric patient and Dick the doctor. Now this is interesting.

The back story catches up to the present and passes it, as the dynamic between Dick and Nicole goes through changes. Eventually it settles into a resolution that is perhaps realistic but not very dramatic.

The novel suffers from the lack of a climax. Without this to pull you through to the end, you are likely to become too aware that these characters are the semi-rich who can afford to be semi-idle and to suffer angst over affairs and social slights on Mediterranean yachts. I've heard variously that Fitzgerald was writing about his own relationship with Zelda in this novel, or that he was using another well-known couple in their circle as models. Perhaps his attempts to be be true to the original material—and he does have a wonderful eye for picking out details that reveal character—hindered his ability to invent a more vital plot.

Something I've noticed about Tender is the Night, which I've never seen anyone else point out, is what seems to be the influence of Hemingway's writing, especially in The Sun Also Rises. Some of the obvious parallels of course are the lost generation-like ramblings of the American ex-pats around Europe seeking amusement, getting drunk, having affairs and so on, and the role of the woman at the centre (Brett Ashley/Nicole Diver) who remains loved by the male protagonist despite her occasional capriciousness and unintentional cruelty.

But I find even some of Hemingway's writing style has been adapted. For example, note the paragraph in which Dick meets Nicole unexpectedly in another country after trying to avoid thinking of her:

In the compartment above and in front of Dick's, a group of English were standing standing up and exclaiming upon the backdrop of sky, when suddenly there was a confusion among them—they parted to give way to a couple of young people who made apologies and scrambled over into the rear compartment of the funicular—Dick's compartment. The young man was a Latin with the eyes of a stuffed deer; the girl was Nicole.

This trick of producing the woman, whose memory has haunted the man, in the last sentence of a paragraph that first seemed to be about something else is similar to Hemingway's trick of introducing Brett. (I've quoted the passage in my comments in The Sun Also Rises.)

Still, Fitzgerald is a uniquely gifted writer. Note the few words that neatly pin the young Latin's appearance in our minds. Almost every page shows such evidence of Fitzgerald's fine eye and ear. And he writes with great perceptiveness about the nuances and gestures that signal small shifts in relations between individuals—with a facility that Hemingway never had.

Plus there are those cinematic scenes that only Fitzgerald could reproduce in prose. The girls invading Nicole and her lover's hotel room to see their sailor boyfriends off from the balcony. Dick coming to the rescue of his superior sister-in-law who is thrown in jail for impersonating a man. The discovery and removal of an unknown dead man in the actress's bed.

One wonders what he could have made of Tender is the Night with a real, overarching story.

— Eric

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Related pages:

Author
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Stories
Tales of the Jazz Age

Novel
The Great Gatsby

See also:

Author
Ernest Hemingway

Novel
The Sun Also Rises

Author
John O'Hara

Novel
Appointment in Samarra

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Six Tales of the Jazz Age
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The Great Gatsby
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The Sun Also Rises
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Appointment in Samarra
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Tender Is the Night
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