Tender Is the Night | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Tender Is the Night | Themes

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Patriarchal Submission of Women

The atmosphere of Tender Is the Night can clearly be labeled "a man's world." Men are in charge of nearly everything; they own and run the businesses, hold all government offices, protect their countries, provide for their families. This is the reality of the time in which the novel is set. Women did not have these roles in the 1920s.

At the same time, the wealthy women in the novel are more than happy to turn their lives over to men. They don't feel the need to think for themselves, make decisions for themselves, or even decide for themselves what they need or want. It's a kind of unhealthy expectation they should be pampered and cared for that allows them to be so passive.

Strong women without men to depend on, like Mrs. Speers, give lip service to raising their daughters to earn their own way in life and not rely on men. Yet she sends Rosemary into Dick Diver's arms, thinking it will give her daughter some sort of advantage in life and not caring Rosemary might actually be very hurt by an affair with him. Similarly, Baby Warren, who never herself comes to rely on a man, decides the best way to keep her sister safe is to keep her attached to a wealthy doctor who will take care of her. Nicole is brave enough to realize she has outgrown Dick, yet she quickly attaches herself to Tommy.

When male domination of women becomes particularly dangerous is when the men are not good men and use their power in destructive ways. The best example of this is Devereux Warren, who rapes his daughter, ruins her mental stability, and because of the patriarchal order prevalent at the time, suffers no legal consequences for his actions.

War and Violence

War comes up over and over in Tender Is the Night. That is not surprising; a global war has just rocked the world. Psychologists like Dick Diver and Franz Gregorovius see many patients who have been traumatized by their war experiences. Dick himself views World War I as the destruction of a civilized way of life and himself as a victim of that. Things will never be as stable as they once were, leaving the world prone to more violence. As Dick loses his own stability, he becomes violent. Indeed the unraveling of a person seems tied to violence. Abe North gets closer and closer to violent acts as he loses his passion to live, and eventually he is beaten to death. In the depths of her instability, Nicole even thinks it's OK to try to send her family to a violent death.

Tommy Barban, whose name suggests the word barbarian, loves war and engages in it as a living. He thinks the thirst for violence in all men can be channeled. He looks at violence as something to be controlled with honor. The duel he fights with Albert McKisco is what should happen between men, he thinks. Yet it is a shocking thing to be willing to shoot a man over a small disagreement. Tommy practically brags about killing people to get Prince Chillicheff out of Russia—to him it is justified. And he is not the only one in the novel who sees violence as a means to an end. Señor Pardo y Cuidad Real tries to beat the homosexuality out of his son. Officers think it's OK to beat prisoners. Augustine feels she has the right to draw a knife on Dick because he criticizes her for doing something he himself does daily.

Youth and Beauty

The men and women in Tender Is the Night practically worship good looks and youth. The major characters are all "beautiful people." When Dick is at his height, others' descriptions of him always begin with his golden-boy good looks. Similarly, Nicole's beauty rarely goes unremarked upon, and the gorgeous Rosemary makes her living off of her good looks.

Indeed, if anyone has a measure of good looks in the novel, it is mentioned. Readers learn Baby Warren and Violet McKisco are both quite pretty, and Elsie Speers once was. Devereux Warren is handsome and remains so most of his life. Royal Dumphry has feminine good looks. All of the girls Dick looks at throughout the book are different variations of pretty.

People who have youth and beauty are vain about it and constantly compare themselves to other young, beautiful people to be sure they are measuring up. For example, Nicole closely examines Rosemary when she reenters the Divers' world and is satisfied to see that even though Rosemary is more youthful than she, Nicole is thinner. When she examines herself on the day she becomes Tommy's lover, Nicole is well satisfied with how she looks for her age. On the other hand, Rosemary feels wounded when her mother refers to Nicole as a timeless beauty, implying Rosemary herself pales in comparison.

When people age and begin to lose their youthful good looks, their value diminishes. This happens most noticeably to Dick, who is described early in the novel as having a "fine glowing surface." As Nicole acknowledges their marriage is over, she compares her "health and beauty against his physical deterioration" as one of the reasons justifying the breakup.

Infidelity

Characters in the novel are literally unfaithful to their partners, as exemplified by the affairs between Dick and Rosemary and Nicole and Tommy. Dick's attraction to Rosemary seems to be an attempt to recreate his early life with Nicole without the enormous burden her past mental illness places on their marriage. Nicole, in turn, reaches out to Tommy with a "short provocative letter" after watching the aging Dick flirting with Rosemary. Disgusted by Dick's efforts, she thinks to herself, "Why, I'm almost complete. ... I'm practically standing alone, without him." The marriage can last only as long as Nicole needs Dick emotionally.

Characters are also unfaithful to themselves, knowingly or not, as they repeatedly fail to realize their own potential. Dick, in particular, gives himself over to the hedonism of wealth, sacrificing his brilliant career as he succumbs to an intellectual laziness enabled by Nicole's money. Rosemary never matures because she is under her mother's thumb; Nicole turns from one man to another because it is the only way she can get the "completion" she craves.

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