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Tender is the Night Themes

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Major Themes

Youth/Infancy

From the beginning, the novel focuses on the attractiveness of youth. Both Nicole Warren and Rosemary Hoyt are emblems of youthful beauty, not only in the freshness of their skin and their childish energy, but also in their naivete. These qualities attract Dick Diver to them, and he maintains a complicated relationship with each of them in which he represents an authoritative father figure, but in which they essentially determine the course of the relationship and thus have the power. This interest in youth is an obsession of Dick's, however, and he searches for it in women wherever he goes. Toward the end of the novel, he even devotes an unnatural degree of attention to his young children, Lanier and Topsy.

The novel is also preoccupied with the ideas of youth and infancy in less direct ways. Many of the characters are described as behaving childishly at times, and Nicole reflects upon society's preoccupation with youthful beauty. Between the title of Rosemary's hit film (Daddy's Girl) and Beth Warren's nickname ("Baby"), the theme pervades even the smallest details of the novel and reflects its context. During the Jazz Age, American society, on the whole, became fixated with newness, youth, and vitality. With the throwing off of prewar history, new trends emerged that focused on the younger generation. Fitzgerald's novel is truly a product of its time in that it captures a national theme of the 1920s.

War/Battle

War and battle imagery pervades the novel. This symbolism is varied and extensive. For Dick, World War I represents the end of an honorable era. He views his own father as a representative of the prewar world, and he seems somewhat torn between the values instilled when he was young (honor, courtesy, and so on) and the appeal of the postwar world. His attraction to youth and freshness is, in one sense, symbolic of Jazz Age preoccupation with youth and gaiety. The war itself provided the crucial demarcation between these two periods, and Dick reflects on prewar society mournfully and wistfully.

War, battle, and violence are also themes of Dick's personal decline. When he is a promising student, Dick is impervious to war. Because he shows so much talent, he can avoid the draft. But as he and his moral integrity progressively deteriorate, violence becomes increasingly central to his life.

He witnesses two murders in France and fights with Italian taxi drivers. Whereas his life was peaceful when he lived by his father's moral code, it becomes littered with violent episodes as the novel progresses. The anarchy of battle and violence, then, provides a fitting counterpart to Dick's internal anarchic battle.

Dick is also compared thoughout the novel to President Ulysses S. Grant, who was a famous American general. Grant was considered one of the greatest military leaders, but the reputation of his presidency is marred by corruption. This analogy is fitting because, like Grant, the trajectory of Dick's life highlights an early period of promise and success followed by the consequences of various forms of corruption.

Sexual Abnormality/Perversion

Tender is the Night abounds with examples of abnormal or perverse sexuality (as it was construed during the 1920s). At the very beginning of the novel, we meet Luis Campion and Royal Dumphry, who seem to be in a homosexual relationship. Baby flirts with men without any intention of marrying them. Mary North and Caroline Sibley-Biers turn out to be lesbians. Dick treats Francisco, another homosexual young man who also seems to have been involved with Royal Dumphry.

Dick's relationship with Nicole seems to mirror, in some ways, Nicole's relationship with her incestuous father. Dick then falls in love with Rosemary, who is half his age, in a relationship that is reminiscent of the early days of his love with Nicole. Furthermore, Dick becomes unnaturally interested in his own children, noticing (with concern) that Topsy is as beautiful as her mother. Perhaps the most extreme example is the one that is the most vague, with details only faintly insinuated: he is involved in a lawsuit for his relationship with a girl from a grocery store in New York.

Like the theme of war and violence, sexual perversion is both a cause and a consequence of Dick's continual decline. It represents just one aspect of his growing moral depravity.

Wasted Youth/Promise

The title of this novel was taken from a line of a poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," written by John Keats:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:

Already with thee! tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;

(Keats, ll. 31-37)

Written in 1819, the poem explores the themes of transience and mortality. The opening of the poem abounds with imagery of youth and freshness, but the poem in its entirely marks a progression toward death.

Fitzgerald's choice of title speaks volumes about a major theme of the novel. Dick Diver begins his career with extreme promise and potential. With the best education and as a Rhodes Scholar, it seems that he might become one of the best and most influential psychiatrists in the world. He is also extremely well liked for his charm and affability. People are drawn to him and feel lucky just to be invited to join his social world. But due to a multitude of choices and circumstances, he allows this potential to go to waste. As he loses his own youth and promise, he becomes obsessed with these very qualities in young women. The entire novel is, essentially, the narrative of Dick's decline and wasted promise.

Abe North is another character who represents this theme. When we meet Abe, he is already a raging alcoholic. However, Nicole remembers a time when he did not rely on liquor to survive and was a good man. He sacrifices his career as a musician and, eventually, his life to this addiction.

Excess and Destruction

One overriding moral message in the novel is that living recklessly and excessively leads to personal decline and destruction. The consequences extend beyond the individual and affect others, as well, such as when Abe's excessive drinking causes the imprisonment of one innocent man and the death of another. Dick's excessive drinking also has dire consequences, such as alienating his friends, ruining his career, and getting him beaten and imprisoned. His obsessive interest in youth and beauty contributes to the destruction of his marriage, paints him as a sexual pervert, and eventually entangles him in a lawsuit.

Fitzgerald wrote this novel during an era that clearly indicated how living excessively and recklessly has serious and destructive consequences. The Jazz Age was, in essence, a period of excess. Following World War I, the social climate reached an energetic peak during the Roaring Twenties. With a new emphasis on individualism and the pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment, this period was filled with raucous gaiety that, in the end, had serious negative consequences. The excesses of drink and pleasure that cause the destruction of characters in Tender is the Night reflect Fitzgerald's sensitivity to the excesses of the Jazz Age prior to the Great Depression.

Paternity

The figure of the father is important and recurring in Tender is the Night. There are several accounts of distorted or corrupted father-child relationships and perhaps only one good example of a father-child relationship that is healthy and normal (that of Dick and his father). Devereux Warren is the most obvious example of a corrupt father figure. As his daughter's molester, he is both an incestuous criminal and the cause of Nicole's ten-year struggle with schizophrenia.

Other corrupted "father-child" relationships take place between unrelated parties. Dick becomes a father figure for Nicole, for instance, although he is actually her husband. This relationship provides a key example of a distorted father figure in which the parameters of the relationship are undefined and inevitably place great strain on the individuals and their relationship. Dick has a similarly distorted father-figure relationship with Rosemary. He legitimately views Rosemary as a child (she is half his age when they meet), yet he is attracted to her and they become involved in a sexual relationship. Both of these women appeal to and indulge Dick's apparent need to play this role in a woman's life. By the end of the novel, even Dick's relationship with his own children becomes distorted, as he demonstrates an unnatural interest in them and is preoccupied by his daughter's beauty.

The novel also contains a fair amount of religious imagery that centers on the relationship between Dick and Nicole. In many ways, she worships him as a holy man (part priest, part divinity), and in this way, he represents a completely different sort of father figure. He watches over and protects her and, in the final section of the novel, blesses Gausse's beach as she kneels down below him.

Acting

Aside from the concrete example of acting in the novel (Rosemary is a famous Hollywood actress), the theme appears significantly in more subtle contexts. When Rosemary first sees Dick, he is "giving a quiet little performance for his group" (p. 6). It becomes apparent that, in a sense, the Divers have been full-time actors. Dick especially enjoys being the center of attention, and he wins the hearts of all of his friends with his unfailing charm. The Divers are able to conceal their hardship and misery in public, and most of their friends remain unaware of Nicole's fragile mental condition. Despite his natural propensity for performance, Dick views acting as an ignoble profession and he refuses to take a screen test after the showing of Daddy's Girl. Nevertheless, on Rosemary's film set in Rome, he is confused for an actor, which signifies that he at least projects certain key characteristics of one.

During a rendezvous with Rosemary, she tells him that they are both actors. They behave as though they are in love when, in fact, they harbor no deep or significant feelings for one another. Their dialogue is dramatic and romantic, though bereft of actual feeling: "He sent his words to her like letters, as though they left him some time before they reached her" (p. 210). Finally, Dick provides Rosemary with a brief philosophical treatise on acting, explaining that the force of a performance rests on the actor's ability to do the unexpected as a way of capturing the audience's attention before behaving in character once again. Dick's decline is marked by several instances of acting unexpectedly and out of character until, all at once, he becomes an altered version of himself.

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