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A Confession of Faith

November 21, 2008
Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night
By F. Scott Fitzgerald

Foucault and Wimsatt and Beardsley drilled into my head that there is a grave misdemeanor in considering an author’s personal history when reading a work. What the writer did and where he or she came from should be of no consequence whatsoever to the piece of art. The Intentional Fallacy and New Formalism and all that good stuff. For the most part, the old chaps were rather convincing; art should be able to stand alone. L’art pour l’art, you know.  

But then artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald come along and I find it almost impossible to disregard their backgrounds. He is a shining counter-example. For Fitzgerald is a man who could not seem to keep shades of his own troublesome life out of any of his novels. I have read all of his novels and every one is concerned with these chief three themes: money, psychology and marriage.

These three things defined Fitzgerald’s glamorously unhappy life. While he made enough off of his novels to live, the Fitzgeralds preferred to exist well beyond their means and seemed constantly in debt. Psychology is an interest of every novelist, but for Fitzgerald it was perhaps particularly so. His own struggles with alcoholism and the emptiness of the post-WWI world was complicated by Zelda’s own mental illness, eventually resulting in her confinement in a sanitarium. Naturally, all of these things burdened their marriage, a union strained by passions and tensions that seemed without solution.

Money, psychology and marriage are the driving subjects of Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s last novel published in his lifetime, in 1934 (The Last Tycoon was published posthumously). Although it is a dangerous thing to read it as autobiographical, the book is evidently influenced by his own deeply troubled life.

Fitzgerald wrote in an inscription to a friend in a copy of Tender is the Night: “If you liked The Great Gatsby, for God’s sake read this. Gatsby was a tour de force, but this is a confession of faith.”

His confession of faith makes this, interestingly, his least accessible work. And this is not because the form or style is particularly challenging–he still writes with the same charming, sporadic lyricism–but because the story line itself is difficult to track. The slipping chronology does not pose many problems, but the loosely drawn characters tend to complicate a smooth reading.

All of Fitzgerald’s characters seem to variations of himself and Zelda and their friends; all spun from the same glittery, frivolous thread. They seem like frustratingly shallow people, but that’s the glory of them.

In a passage that might well have been taken from any of Fitzgerald’s novels, Dick Diver, the psychiatrist protagonist, and his beautiful wife, Nicole, his former mental patient, discuss Dick’s evident dissipation. His alcoholism is finally becoming clear and she has been watching his downfall with a helpless, grieving fascination:

“We can’t go on like this,” Nicole suggested. “Or can we?–what do you think?” Startled that for the moment Dick did not deny it, she continued, “Some of the time I think it’s my fault–I’ve ruined you.”
“So I’m ruined, am I?” he inquired pleasantly.
“I didn’t mean that. But you used to want to create things–now you seem to want to smash them up.”

They the intensely self-absorbed, conceited, quarrelsome quasi-rich. And yet they are endearing because they are so human, so destructive in every way. These are people who throw sumptuous parties, drink themselves into oblivion, sleep with the most accessible person and then wake up in the morning and for a moment, just a precious, white moment, wonder, What is my life? Fitzgerald is an expert at catching these moments. And that is why we will keep coming back to him, time and time again.

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