1934, Books, Fiction

Tender is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Apparently I read this years ago and forgot. I wrote the following:

“The same great qualities as with his other classics but lacking the completeness of The Great Gatsby. There are still moments of profound insight and lots of great description, but it lacks the earlier novel’s wholeness. I don’t mean to nitpick. It’s a great book.”

Do I ever feel differently now. But the good news for me is that I had no idea I had read it before so it was like I was reading it for the first time.

I have not read a lot of break-up/divorce novels and so I don’t really know how this compares to other novels in the genre. I do wonder if some of the appreciation this novel has built up over the years comes from where it stands in the history of these types of novels. Because I didn’t really enjoy it.

I don’t feel like Fitzgerald does a good job of showing Dick is a genius. He tells us a bunch, but I’m not sure he shows us. The thing he does show us is how good Dick is at making people feel comfortable. But that doesn’t make him a genius psychiatrist.

People in general and Americans in particular have a really weird idea about psychiatry. So many American novelists (and other creatives) portray psychiatry as this profession geniuses go into. I really don’t know why they think that. It might have made more sense in the ’30s though, when the profession was still developing, as opposed to in the ’80s when it makes very little sense.

Anyway, how crazy is Nicole? Sure, she says some crazy things. But, until she grabs the car wheel, is it really that clear she’s nuts? Meanwhile, Dick cheats on his wife and becomes an alcoholic and he’s normal. What I mean to say is, the novel’s depiction of mental health has dated somewhat. Nicole clearly has problems though I’m not sure she’s schizophrenic. Dick isn’t exactly healthy by the end (which is the point, I know). We’re now a long way form “mental illness directly caused by childhood trauma” but in this novel that is the cause (spoiler). Again, I feel like he tells more than shows with Nicole’s illness much of the time.

I think it also has quite a dated idea of “genius.” Most of what human beings have written about genius doesn’t leave much room for luck, and this is no different. Though Dick comes from humbler beginnings than Nicole, it’s not so clear to me that he hasn’t benefited from some very clear luck (his age, for example) and it’s not entirely clear to me how getting so lucky as to marry into wealth derails his career. I get that Fitzgerald felt this way about himself, but he’s clearly not the most reliable on this account. We look at people like Freud and Jung and think that only they could have created psychiatry. But that’s just the historian’s fallacy.

The book reeks of the sexism and, occasionally, the racism, of its day. The white male anglo is correct about everything and better than everyone, even as he cheats on his wife. Women are strange, alien creatures who are all a little crazy, black people are animals, the guy from Asia is also an alien, and even the French and Italians are wilder and less sane than Americans. (I don’t entirely disagree about the Italians…) At least he also has it in for the British.

At this stage of my life, I have a lot less tolerance for a book like this than I did when I was younger (clearly). But it still has its moments and it’s still well-written for its era. It’s constructed well, the descriptions of the characters and places are good (the sense of place is rather excellent) and there are some great sentences.


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