Tender is the Night was published in 1933 by Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, better known as F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American author famous for his novel, The Great Gatsby. Set between 1913 and 1930, mostly in Southern France and Switzerland, the novel tells the story of what happens when the extremes of love, madness, and ambition play out against a high-glamour backdrop, in a physical and psychological landscape torn apart by World War I.
It’s hard to talk about Tender is the Night without talking about its author, his wife Zelda, and the famous people they knew, like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemmingway, to name a few. Fitzgerald officially began work on Tender in 1925. He agonized over it and revised it continuously even after its 1933 publication. In 1930 Zelda was admitted to a psychiatric clinic for treatment of schizophrenia. Scott finished the novel while Zelda was still under psychiatric care, and the novel reflects the anguish of Fitzgerald’s experience with her mental health.
Though based in part on Fitzgerald’s friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, to whom the book is dedicated, you can’t deny some of the biographical parallels between Dick and Nicole Diver, the main characters, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Like Zelda, Nicole is a brilliant and ambitious woman, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia; and like Scott, Dick is a brilliant and ambitious man who feels he’s not reaching the high goals he sets for himself. Like Scott, Dick is not wealthy. When Zelda and Scott were still together, Scott had an affair with a young film star, Lois Moran. Dick has an affair with Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress based on Moran. There's even a character that is widely believed to be based on Hemingway, Tommy Barban, the mercenary Nicole falls in love with. But, no, Zelda did not leave Scott for Hemingway.
The real life story of Zelda and Scott ends tragically. Scott, a heavy alcoholic (like Dick) died in 1940, at forty years old, of heart failure, before completing the novel he was working on, The Last Tycoon. Zelda’s death was positively gruesome. She died in 1948 inside a psychiatric hospital when it caught on fire. Luckily Dick and Nicole don’t die that way (or at all) in Tender is the Night – a biographical analysis of the novel can only take us so far.
You should know, though, about a unique controversy surrounding the novel. Despite its controversial content, including incest, Tender is the Night doesn’t really show up on the banned lists like its younger sibling, The Great Gatsby. Maybe this is because the biggest controversy surrounding Tender is the Night has to do with time, of all things. The novel opens in 1925. We meet the Divers at their fabulous French Riviera home, and watch their endless party. It’s not until the second part of the novel that we learn of Nicole’s dark past, and how she and Dick met. Doesn’t sound like any big deal, right? Well, the novel didn’t do so well. It was published in the heart of the Great Depression, and some critics say that audiences didn’t want to read about lifestyles of the rich and famous in a time of economic crisis.
Fitzgerald had a different idea of the problem. He made extensive notes for a revision, which would place the events in chronological order, but died before a revision was undertaken. Fitzgerald’s friend, the American writer, critic, and journalist Malcolm Cowley decided to do it for him. Cowley revised the novel according to Fitzgerald’s notes, and the revised version was published in 1951, after Fitzgerald’s death. The Cowley edition can be found online here, though Shmoop is using the 1933 original version.
So, you've found someone, fallen in love, and now everything is perfect, right? Well, sure, except, you know, it could be a just a little more perfect. For instance, how about a great house? In Europe? With lots of friends who come to your wild parties? That would really kick the awesomeness into overdrive, right?
Well, let's just suppose that you two come across a genie who could grant you these three wishes. Suddenly you've got love, fun, and an exotic backdrop for the whole kit and kaboodle. Now it's perfect, right? Well…
This book is a helpful reminder that one can seem to have it all—a family, successful career, material comfort—and yet not really have a stinkin' thing. If your relationship goes south, then everything goes south. That's exactly what happens to Dick and Nicole in this book, both of whom are unable to make their marriage work, despite having a lot of other stuff going for them. (Really, if we had a house near Cannes we'd work pretty hard to keep it together.)
All the while they're flitting around France and kicking up their heels at cocktail parties, their marriage is unraveling. And who's to blame? Well, it's clear that both are troubled people—Dick's an alcoholic and Nicole is mentally unstable—but the biggest problem is that they go elsewhere, and to other people, to solve their problems. By seeking happiness outside of their marriage, they're dooming the wonderful world they seem to have created together.
We'll stop playing Dear Abby for a moment to tell you that that's the real value of this book, Shmoopers. It reminds us that, no matter how fantabulous things might seem on the outside, nothing can stand without a solid foundation of love. Whether you're hanging at a Swiss ski resort, or kicking it in your crib just watching Good Times on TV, this book will remind you that the true key to happiness is how well we love one another.