I have a weird relationship with Fitzgerald.
Well, I say weird. I mostly mean I have a superficial relationship with Fitzgerald. While I enjoy his writing style, my decision to read more than just The Great Gatsby is entirely due to the foiled editions of his books that Penguin released at the 70th anniversary of his death. I found a copy of This Side of Paradise for cheap at T.J. Maxx and bought it because I had liked Gatsby and the edition was so pretty. So much shine. Very sophisticated.
Once I read This Side of Paradise and actually liked it, there was nothing to stop me from buying the rest of the collection (except, like, cash money. And also the fact that, while I liked Paradise as a whole, there were parts of it I really disliked). I periodically added a fancy Fitzgerald book to my Amazon shopping cart and eventually collected all the novels (including Gatsby, which I have already read and have no plans to reread). I haven’t yet bought the short story collections, but Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age are both just waiting on a single click.*
My Fitzgerald reading timeline goes: The Great Gatsby; This Side of Paradise; The Beautiful and Damned; and, now, Tender is the Night.
Someday I will read The Last Tycoon, even though I hate reading unfinished works, because I am a sucker for the pretty and therefore the book is on my shelf. Tender is the Night looked so long and chunky and Fitzgerald-y that it took me two years to make myself read it. And, of course, upon reading it, I am conflicted (would someone please find me an uncomplicated book?).
I loved the writing, just like I’ve loved the writing in everything I’ve read by Fitzgerald. If I were to rank his novels (subjectively) Tender is the Night might make the list slightly above Gatsby and This Side of Paradise. I did not like The Beautiful and Damned nearly as much, even though it has similar themes and characters to his other books.
From a modern perspective, much about Fitzgerald is irredeemable. He was sexist, racist, ableist, and homophobic. Or anyway, he wrote protagonists who are all of those things, and, while authors do create characters whose views are different than their own, I’ve never heard that said about Fitzgerald. Most people see his main men as fictionalized versions of himself. The Internet tells me it is widely accepted that Dick Diver, the protagonist of Tender is the Night, is essentially Fitzgerald. So Dick sucked, and while we were expected to be on his side (maybe? I hated him so much it was hard to tell what “we” were supposed to want for him), I was perfectly content to read about his fall from grace.
I loved his wife, though. Nicole was privileged and every –ist listed above, but she also had depth. (As did Rosemary, whom I also liked, although to a lesser extent and for different reasons.) Again, I don’t know if we were supposed to like Nicole. I loved the letters she wrote when she was supposedly insane; I loved that line about Dick being like a cat. I loved how distant she got around people. I did not love how Fitzgerald/Dick sometimes summed her up, and the way Fitzgerald wrote her opinion of herself. I did love that, instead of sacrificing herself when Dick started to fall apart, she found herself a different life. Her decisions were not really her decisions (there was, for the most part, a distinct lack of agency) but the one or two she did make for herself made me proud of her.
Like most books by white authors, and especially popular books by white male authors, Tender is the Night is informed by a severe level of privilege. Its political atmosphere is impossible to escape. Dick’s perspective was in no way atypical of his class during the 1920s/1930s, but it is atypical of the general population. His biggest struggle was that his wife was richer than him and his pride couldn’t handle it; his second biggest struggle was the fact of aging; these conditions led to him becoming an alcoholic, which in turn led to the destruction of his character.
This is not a big book, nor a brave one, nor a particularly important one. Fitzgerald addresses mental illness, primarily from the outside, and the tone is judgmental. Nicole, diagnosed as schizophrenic, is mostly treated as a fragile patient throughout her marriage to Dick. If Dick had not been the main character of the novel, or if he had been written differently, the conflict between wife/patient may have been a progressive focus for the plot. As it was, it was mentioned occasionally, as a shadow to Dick’s personal struggles. There’s this scene near the end where Tommy asks Nicole,
“Why didn’t they leave you in your natural state?…You are the most dramatic person I have known.”
She had no answer.
“All this taming of women!” he scoffed.
“In any society there are certain—” She felt Dick’s ghost prompting at her elbow but she subsided at Tommy’s overtone: “I’ve brutalized many men into shape but I wouldn’t take a chance on half the number of women. Especially this ‘kind’ bullying—what good does it do anybody?—you or him or anybody?”
Of course Tommy had to go and compare his treatment of men and women and make it all misogynist-y, and he doesn’t listen to Nicole and is condescending to her, but I still appreciated the general theme, especially that, “All this taming of women!” You are damned straight with your scoff, sir.
There’s also rampant racism, ranging from the easy cover-up of the murder of a black man in a French hotel to an offhand comment about a man’s skin being “not quite light enough to travel in a Pullman south of Mason-Dixon,” which description actually made me double take. Separating this book from the time in which it was written renders much of it abhorrent. Keeping it sealed up in that time and avoiding addressing these topics does a disservice to the work done in the past 70-plus years. It’s difficult to love this book without reservations, recognizing that almost all of its themes are harmful when not viewed critically.
Fitzgerald was a product of his time and social class, which is not an excuse, but is an explanation. Tender is the Night serves as a microcosm of a historical (and unfortunately not so historical) viewpoint on tense social issues that have still not been resolved. That was, of course, not Fitzgerald’s intent, but the way the book has lasted means that its role will adjust, and it has become educational regarding a very limited perspective of a very limited period in world history.
As far as this being a “classic” and being considered part of the alleged western canon (secondary to Gatsby, of course, and probably only included because of the success of that—but still included), I think that’s a load of bull. I would consider Fitzgerald a strong writer, but I am sure there were plenty of strong writers being published in the 1920s whose work is no longer in circulation. There is nothing about Tender is the Night that makes it stand out from any other tragic story I’ve read. (I am always a little upset over the success and longevity of books like this, versus the trivialization of similar books written by women—I’ve read books with nearly identical themes and good writing published as “chick lit” and demoted to the lines of pink filling bookstore shelves.)
Overall, though, this is one of my favorite Fitzgerald books, and I actually liked the way it ended…this may be the first of his books where I’ve actually liked the ending. Which probably just means that Dick is my least favorite of his characters. (And Nicole one of my favorites.)
I realize this was more of an emotional response than a review. Essentially, if you like Fitzgerald or books from this time period, you’ll probably like this one. If not, or if you have a hard time reading books where characters are unapologetically awful, then Tender is the Night would be a good one to avoid.
* Yet another example of this entry having been written years ago. I have since purchased and read both short story collections.