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Tender is the Night: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic 1934 novel, 'Tender is the Night,' examining the novel's primary characters and key themes. The lesson also provides an analysis of the text and its status as one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922
F. Scott Fitzgerald 1922

The Novel as Self-Portrait

For all his enormous talent and tremendous fame, F. Scott Fitzgerald's life did not end happily. As he watched his beloved wife, Zelda, descend into madness, Fitzgerald battled his own demons--insecurity, depression, alcoholism--struggles which are powerfully reflected in his last finished novel, Tender Is the Night.

The darkest and most autobiographical of Fitzgerald's novels, Tender Is the Night tells the story of Dick and Nicole Diver's crumbling marriage. Though not well received at the time of its 1934 serial publication, both readers and critics have since recognized the novel as one of the twentieth century's best. More than a simple story of estrangement and infidelity, Tender Is the Night grapples with the complexity of human relationships and the manipulations and ministrations of those closest to us. The novel explores how love can be won, lost, and perverted by the myriad forces that shape our lives, including money, illness, and politics.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Central Themes in Tender is the Night

Love is an action, not a feeling. At the outset of the novel, the Divers' life seems idyllic: two beautiful children, a luxurious lifestyle spent traveling across Europe, and a profound love for one another beginning when Nicole was a teenager and Dick not much older.

When Dick becomes infatuated with the beautiful young actress, Rosemary Hoyt, the chinks in the Divers' marriage emerge. A number of years pass before Dick and Rosemary consummate their attraction. During this time, Dick struggles to remain faithful to a wife he sincerely loves, demonstrating the arduous nature of romantic commitment. The reality is that love is a daily choice, one that's hard to make and even harder to fulfill.

The high life is not so high. Dick's infatuation with Rosemary is less a reflection of his feelings for her than a manifestation of the very real problems facing the Divers. On the surface, the Divers seem to have it all: Dick is a world famous psychiatrist with a seemingly limitless future, and Nicole a beautiful heiress with money to spare.

In Fitzgerald's novel, the couple owns beautiful homes in the most desirable parts of Europe, and their leisure time is spent sunning and shopping their way across the Continent. Readers soon come to find that the underbelly of things is far darker than this dazzling veneer.

As a child, Nicole was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, while Dick is an insecure working-class Midwesterner with a savior complex. Both are broken people, trying desperately to save each other and themselves. Their fraught relationship proves that money, for all its glamor, cannot mend wounded spirits.

No one can save you but yourself. Like Zelda Fitzgerald, who was institutionalized when Fitzgerald wrote Tender Is the Night, Nicole Diver suffers from severe mental illness. When Dick first meets her, she is in the throes of a psychotic breakdown and is hospitalized where he is a promising young physician.

Dick quickly finds himself enrapt in his beautiful young patient, and his savior complex begins. Nicole is eventually released and resumes a relatively normal life. After a brief period spent apart, the two reunite and eventually marry. Once man and wife, they each define themselves by their relationship with one another. With the memory of Nicole's illness and the constant threat of its recurrence ever in the background, Dick forges an identity as perpetual caregiver and Nicole as eternal dependent.

As their marriage deteriorates, it becomes increasingly clear that Dick and Nicole have lost themselves in one another. The depletion of each's individual sense of self begins to fracture their union. Nicole relapses for a time, while Dick seeks solace in Rosemary's bed and alcohol.

We are (not) what we can buy. The Divers' dysfunctional marriage and their increasing codependence are worsened by the blatant differences in their social class. Dick comes from a middle class Midwestern family, much like Fitzgerald's own, while Nicole hails from prodigious wealth, the daughter of a New York business mogul. This echoes Zelda Fitzgerald's own monied background and the very real burdens of class status that infected the Fitzgeralds' marriage.

The novel repeatedly meditates on issues of class, as this determines the level of treatment the sick and mentally ill receive. Class informs how friends and colleagues treat one another and even shapes one's identity: those born into money see themselves as superior to those with 'new' money and perceive their wealth and power to be virtually infinite.

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