F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this book in the middle of his battle against alcoholism and his wife’s neuroses and mental deterioration. Because art forever reflects life, this book is precisely about a man and wife who each battle alcoholism and schizophrenia, respectively. One of them gets better by the end of the novel and the other one gets worse, but it’s not necessarily who you would expect.
The novel’s prose is imbued with a certain lyricism that does not pull you away from the story. The best thing about the story are the characters. Each of them is so three-dimensional and well written that they jump off the page, filled with a life of their own. Fitzgerald was a master of observing people and understanding their moods and motivations, and it really shows in this novel. I dreamed about these characters last night, actually. That’s how real they felt for me.
Dick and Nicole Diver, the protagonists of the story, aren’t exactly relatable or even likeable. In fact, they are only likeable when seen from the point of view of Rosemary, the main secondary character, a young and self-absorbed naif who gets in between Dick and Nicole’s marriage. Rosemary sees Dick through the eyes of infatuation, when he had not yet deteriorated into bitterness and drink. In this first part of the book, Dick is seen as charming, well-mannered, and a true people-person. Nicole on the other hand is seen as strong and determined, but aloof and distant.
Rosemary’s impression of the couple may have been accurate at first glance, but when she leaves the picture for a while and we get to see Dick and Nicole up close in the second part of the book, we become familiarized with everything happening backstage in their marriage. And while Nicole, at first, seems to be the one dragging Dick down with her history of mental problems, the reader soon realizes that this is not the case, and that Dick is ruining himself and cannot blame his wife for it.
The affair with Rosemary had left Dick bitter. He started to grow bored and resent his wife and his problems, and he tried to escape this resentment through drink, but that only made things worse. And the more he drank, the more bitter he became towards everyone, until he had alienated himself from every friend he once had. Of course, towards the end of the novel we realize that Dick’s charm is so strong, that he could recover everything if he wanted to.
He could make his marriage work, he could bring his friends back to him, he could make his life better. But he chooses not to. Nicole, on the other hand, has no qualms about doing what is necessary to survive, and we see that the strength that Rosemary perceived in her was not at all imaginary, but very real, despite her perceived mental fragility.
On the whole, this novel is a story about the demise of a marriage due to the choices of one character, Dick. He decided to throw it all away because he couldn’t get out of the downward spiral that his addiction lured him into, and neither did he want to. Slowly his life turned from rosy, to cynical. And it seems that somehow, Rosemary was the inciting incident of it all, but truly she wasn’t all that important. Dick’s choice of attitude was what made all the difference in his life.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in getting to know Fitzgerald’s works a little better. Though not as good as his masterwork, “The Great Gatsby”, “Tender is the Night” shines with a melancholic light of its own and ends ambiguously, the world after all not being either black or white, but made up of different shades of grey. Like this novel.