This is such an imperfect novel and still, I love it so much. So far I have only read this and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, and since both novels deal with similar topics (ruined love, the corrupting power of money and the amorality of the rich) comparing them comes naturally to me. I think The Great Gatsby is the better novel of the two: it is structurally sounder, more succinct, more dramatic, and much more tragic. Tender is the Night, on the other hand, is more like a slow river: it is a meandering tale with quite a few uninteresting characters, and its end is much less dramatic and emotionally less oppressing than that of The Great Gatsby. What is more, since Tender is the Night is the long chronicle of the slow deterioration of a marriage, both truly shocking and truly uplifting episodes are virtually missing from the novel: the drama is made up of several small, disappointing moments, in the wake of which everything is slowly taking a turn for the worse. Lurking in the background, there is also a sad nostalgia for things which somehow always seemed to be better in the past. And perhaps it is because of this appealing sense of constant mellow melancholy that despite all its weaknesses I love Tender is the Night more than The Great Gatsby, and my current, umpteenth re-reading of the novel was just as heart-wrenching an experience for me as ever before.
The novel tells the story of the marriage of Dick Diver, a talented but not too aristocratic psychologist, and Nicole Warren, an illustrious member of the American monied class. Dick meets Nicole during World War I, when the mentally unstable, schizophrenic girl is being treated in a Zurich sanitarium. Nicole starts sending letters to Dick while he is away at war, and when the man returns, they renew their relationship and after a short while Dick decides to marry Nicole who is slowly but steadily recovering from her mental illness. Dick knows what he undertakes when he marries Nicole: he knows that there is a good chance that the girl will never make a full recovery, and that he will constantly have to be on the alert for signs which might indicate Nicole’s relapse into illness, and that he will have to keep shielding her from everything that might upset her or remind her of her illness. Although he does not admit it even to himself, with this marriage Dick gives up his promising career and dedicates his whole life to a single patient: Nicole. At the same time, Dick wishes to keep some of his independence and not to sponge on Nicole’s money, but the nonchalance and amorality which comes with having a lot of money slowly starts to ruin both his marriage and his personality.
What makes this novel particularly sad and melancholic is that we read virtually nothing about the happy periods of the couple’s relationship. We learn that they got married ignoring the scruples of the Warren family, and when we see them again six years later at a beautifully rustic spot on the French Riviera (which is not yet ruined by the crowds of tourists), we already witness the first signs of the collapse of their marriage. However, there are a couple of clues in the novel which indicate that the first years of the Divers’ marriage – despite the mental instability of Nicole – were truly happy, and the fact that we do not get much insight into this period makes the novel doubly sad for me: on the one hand, the sense that the Divers’ relationship was not doomed to failure makes its actual failure even more painful; on the other hand, since the happy period is only hinted at a couple of times, its importance is diminished and on the whole it feels as if it did not matter at all.
The couple, by the way, can be viewed as a two-in-one Gatsby: Dick and Nicole, just like Gatsby, are tremendously wealthy and magnetic people who throw magnificent parties, who are elegant beyond belief and can hit it off with everyone in a moment’s time, and who, at the same time, manage to keep their private lives private. So even though there are some who suspect something, no-one really knows what huge efforts it takes the couple to keep up the appearance of their perfect, elegant and active life, and hide the incessant threat of Nicole’s illness.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the major themes of the novel is the corrupting and demoralizing effect of money. This effect is manifested in the book in several different ways. First of all, Dick knows that many believe that he only married Nicole for her money. To disprove it, Dick insists for a long time that he use his own income to cover his personal expenses. However, as Nicole’s income increases and the family starts to live in a more luxurious way, Dick can no longer keep up the pretense of his independence. It is an important turning point in this respect when Dick agrees to buy his share in a sanitarium using Nicole’s money. This can be seen as a gesture of surrender, and even though Dick can again practise his profession in an institutional way, it is exactly at this point that his deterioration speeds up: he drinks more than ever, becomes an intolerable bully, and does not improve himself professionally.
Second, even though Nicole has had money all her life (and perhaps this should make her a bit more resistant), she does not escape the depraving effect of money either. During the years of her illness and the first years of her marriage, she does not care much about her wealth, but then she learns to enjoy the advantages and the power which come hand in hand with money. And as time passes, she adopts the mentality of her rational, material sister, Baby Warren, who has always regarded Dick as the pet doctor bought by the Warren family for Nicole’s personal use. So in the end, Nicole does not feel any remorse for having completely drained Dick of his talents and personal charms.
I am unable to say anything else. This is one the saddest books I have ever read, and perhaps the reason why I find it so unbearably sad is that it is beautiful and true to the core at the same time. Usually things do not end in such a dramatic fashion as in The Great Gatsby, they simply disappear slowly, and Tender is the Night conveys this in a harrowing way.