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Tender Is the Night | Context

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The Lost Generation

Tender Is the Night is set in Europe in the 1920s, when many writers who were discouraged by the aftermath of World War I moved abroad. They included poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. The expatriates were nicknamed the "Lost Generation" by American writer Gertrude Stein, who served as a mentor to them from her base in Paris. These writers often treated the theme of disillusionment, which features heavily in Tender Is the Night.

Treating Mental Illness in the Early 1900s

Tender Is the Night is set at a pivotal time in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, largely due to the work of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. The 1900 publication of his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams is arguably one of the most important breakthroughs in the field of psychology. Freud's psychoanalytical techniques are referenced several times in Tender Is the Night; it is evident the other doctors in the clinics with which Dick Diver is associated join him in embracing what were at the time modern approaches to helping those with mental health problems.

The term schizophrenia was not used until 1911, when a Swiss psychiatrist named Eugen Bleuler first employed it. Nicole was diagnosed just a few years later. From her case history, it is also evident the diagnosing doctor embraces Freud's perspective that mental health disorders are often generated by traumatic events—usually sexual. Franz Gregorovius shares with Diver that Nicole's father raped her, and this rape was the triggering factor for her illness.

People with fewer resources than the wealthy patients Diver and the other doctors treat did not have access to such care. For many, mental illness became nothing more than a prison sentence for life, as they were locked away and often abused. Nicole's course of treatment—and eventual healing—emphasizes the life of privilege afforded to her by her wealth. The world in which the Divers move is not in any way typical of the average lifestyle during the era of the story.

The French Riviera

During the 1920s the French Riviera became "the place" for prominent artists to congregate in the summers. Prior to this era, the beaches in the area practically closed down in the summer, a fact referenced several times in Tender Is the Night.

The fad of enjoying the Riviera during the summer months was begun by a wealthy, trendsetting American couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, who first visited the area in 1922 and decided it would be their home. They bought and renovated a house they named "Villa American" and moved into it in 1924. Soon famous people, including Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and American artist Man Ray, the Fitzgeralds, and Russian musical composer Igor Stravinsky, began visiting the Murphys for the summer. As the decade progressed, other Americans began renting or buying villas of their own or staying in the hotels that now remained open all year round.

Fitzgerald dedicated his novel to Gerald and Sara, offering them "many fêtes" (celebrations). The scenes on the beach and around the Riviera are based on his own experiences there during the Années Folles, "the crazy years." This era was France's version of America's so-called Roaring Twenties, when economic growth and a rise in leisure time spurred the popularity of jazz music, dancing, motion pictures, and an appreciation for modern technology. The era came to a sudden end when the American stock market crashed in 1929 and many people lost their fortunes in the worldwide repercussions of the crash.

Zelda Fitzgerald

Tender Is the Night is, more than anything, Fitzgerald's lament over the decline of the love of his life, his wife Zelda. He met the beautiful Zelda Sayre when he was in the army in 1917 while stationed near Montgomery, Alabama. She was the object of many men's desires, but in 1919 he won her promise to marry him. However, she broke the engagement the next year because he wasn't getting rich enough fast enough for her. After he managed to get his first novel published in 1920, however, the two married.

Zelda and Scott were an "it" couple and lived a cosmopolitan lifestyle. By the late 1920s, they were both drinking heavily. Zelda suffered a mental breakdown in April 1930 and was diagnosed as schizophrenic. She recovered in a Geneva hospital throughout that year. In the spring of 1931 she moved home to Montgomery, while Scott went to Hollywood. Then, in 1932, Zelda had another breakdown. She was placed in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Scott also moved to Baltimore, where he finished writing Tender Is the Night.

Zelda's next breakdown was in 1934. She never recovered completely, and she spent most of the rest of her life in a hospital near Asheville, North Carolina. She died there in a fire in 1948. During this time Scott further succumbed to alcoholism.

The ending of Tender Is the Night is about Nicole's return to health and Dick's broken heart and downward spiral. This does not parallel what happened for the Fitzgeralds, and for some readers the book's ending feels incomplete and unsatisfying. However, it could be interpreted as Fitzgerald's last gesture of love to Zelda—wishing for her restoration.

Modernism

Although Fitzgerald's work is not purely modernistic, it does have elements of this literary movement, and certainly Fitzgerald was among the post-World War I writers in revolt against Victorianism and its core belief that virtuous actions brought positive results. Some elements of modernism that appear in Tender Is the Night include the following:

  • Narration through fragmented or individual perspectives: Tender Is the Night uses a variety of styles to let readers see how different characters perceive events. The first-person fragments by Nicole in Book 2 are the most typical of this element.
  • Nonlinear time: Tender Is the Night breaks from a traditional straight chronology of events.
  • Rejection of social conventions and questioning of traditional authority: Many characters in Tender Is the Night refuse to "behave"—for example, lashing out in public, ignoring authorities, making insensitive remarks, getting wildly intoxicated, and so on.
  • There is a belief in the importance of the interior workings of the mind, with an especially strong nod to Freudian ideas.
  • Characters experience alienation or isolation.
  • Elements of metafiction, or fiction that refers to the conventions of fiction writing: For instance, in Book 1, Chapter 2 the character Mrs. McKisco refers to "a plot" as if the characters in the story are themselves characters in a story they are acting out. Midway through Book 1, Chapter 6 Fitzgerald writes, "To resume Rosemary's point of view," as if to remind readers of an authorial presence.
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