Dick Diver is a dominant figure in Tender is the Night. He’s a pretty shifty character, and by "shifty" we mean shifting, changing, and hard to get a fix on. Is he a playboy, a brilliant psychiatrist, a devoted husband and father, an evil manipulator or a madman? Or all of the above? Like most of the people we meet in Tender, Dick is extreme in everything he does. It is as though he knows that time could stop at any moment, leaving him unfulfilled, a failure, a blip in history. Let’s examine the phases of his transformation:
When we first meet him, he has oodles of groupies. He intentionally draws people to him, and there is a sinister edge to these interactions. We are told he has "a really extraordinary virtuosity with people," and that his rapid fire "intuition" allows him to treat people with "an exquisite consideration and a politeness." He knows how to amuse, how to pamper and sooth. We are told that except for "the tough-minded and perennially suspicious, he ha[s] the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love."
Dick lives for the warm glow of people happily basking in his light. But ultimately, he wishes he didn't. And even if he did, he couldn’t fulfill the unreasonable fantasies he provokes. As Nicole thinks, while working in her garden before the night of the first party in the book, people get "swept up" in Dick’s natural excitement to the point where he’s almost powerless to stop them.
When Dick understands how much mutual energy is wasted on relationships that won’t go anywhere, he gets depressed. It’s like waking up from a night of partying and guiltily realizing you’re not going to call that person you were so nice to at the party, who is by all accounts probably waiting desperately by the phone. You just needed someone to chat with; they inadvertently got swept off their feet. The novel makes sure we understand that what he’s doing isn’t very nice, and that he knows it, like here: "He sometimes looked back with awe at the carnivals of affection he had given, as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust."
Those are strong words. Uh-oh. He’s beginning to sound a little like a scary cult leader. It actually gets weirder though, in this passage: "So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done."
Oh, man. It sounds like he’s hypnotizing them. Creepy isn’t it? And we’re falling for it, too – we like him. If we met him, we’d probably join his cult, unless we are "tough minded and perennially suspicious" types that the novel talks about.
So what’s the perfect job for a person who has Dick’s intense intuition and insight into people? Well, psychiatrist, of course. And what happens when a brilliant psychiatrist stops practicing? In this case, he becomes the creepy guy we’ve just been examining. He uses his specialized knowledge of the human mind and his natural people skills in a highly unethical way, by any standard.
Before we judge Dick too harshly, let’s look at why he’s in this position. One word might sum it up: ambition. He wants to be "the best" everything – the best husband/"cure" to Nicole, the best psychiatrist, the best writer of psychiatry books, the coolest guy on the block, the best father, etc.
To his credit, the depth of Dick and Nicole’s love makes her mental well-being more important to him than his work. Above all, perhaps, Dick wants Nicole to be well. He’s willing to try anything to help her. But he can’t put his dreams of doing brilliant work aside. In the meantime, he can’t find a healthy outlet for his magnetic personality. That’s what the book is talking about here: "There was a pleasingness about him that simply had to be used – those who possessed that pleasingness had to keep their hands in, and go along attaching people that they had no use to make of."
Dick does try to put his "pleasingness" back to good use. But, at the beginning of 1926, when Dick buys the clinic in Zurich where he met Nicole and tries to get working again, he’s fallen too deeply into the party lifestyle to be a proper psychiatrist. His plan to stay aloof from the people he attracts has failed – he’s in love with Rosemary, and he knows it. Nicole knows it, too. But he’s even more in love with Nicole (which she doesn’t know), and trying to find a way to keep both his loves with a minimum of damage to all involved is a strain of that tears him apart for like a year and a half, which brings us to a third Dick:
Why does Dick tell Rosemary he’s the Black Death? First of all, what is the Black Death? Glad you asked. The Black Death is another name for the Black Plague, or the pandemic that spread through Europe in the 1300s. That’s pretty obvious symbolism, especially when we start looking at just how much death and near death is around Dick lately. Some of this is literal death, and some of it is figurative, like the death of relationships, or the death of a hope or dream. Dick feels like a plague. Let’s look at why.
First of all, Dick has been drinking heavily, and even kisses a patient’s teenage daughter who is infatuated with him. When Nicole finds out, he tries to pretend that crazy people are just making stuff up. The dark side of Dick seems to be taking over. He’s using a mentally ill person, his own patient, as a shield for his bad behavior, and Nicole sees exactly what he’s doing. That’s why she asks him, "Who do you think you are? Svengali?" (Svengali is a character in George du Maurier’s novel, Trilby, but has come to mean simply, "evil hypnotist.") And as Nicole tells him later, he actually showed interest in the girl right in front of Nicole. When he denies his patient’s accusation and accuses her of being crazy, he’s also trying to make Nicole think that she’s crazy, as if what she saw was a delusion or paranoia. And that’s really rotten. But it doesn’t seem like Dick is quite aware of how this affects Nicole. Sometimes people get so caught up in their own lives that they can’t see the obvious.
But let’s zero in on what happens to Dick after Nicole’s grabs the wheel and tries to drive them over a cliff. At least in this moment, his feelings for Nicole go through a big flip-flop, as described in these lines:
"You were scared, weren’t you?" [Nicole] accused him. 'You wanted to live!"
She spoke with such force that in his shocked state Dick wondered if he had been frightened for himself – but the strained faces of the children, looking from parent to parent, made him want to grind her grinning mask into jelly.
This is rather confusing and ambiguous. Nicole’s accusation isn’t something we can use reason to wrap or minds around. It’s not meant to be a sane statement. Dick seems to think she’s accusing him of only thinking of himself, of not caring about her and the kids. But when he sees how she’s affecting the children, and how she’s the one that isn’t taking them into account, he wants to try to kill her back. There’s nothing ambiguous about that.
For Dick, this is an entirely new vision of Nicole, as far as we know. She has gone from victim to monster in the space of a few hours. We’re not ragging on Nicole here. She is seriously mentally ill, knows it, and tries desperately to be well, as we discuss in her "Character Analysis." And as we discussed above, he really, really pushed her. But, we can’t and neither can Dick get around the fact that she is now dangerous to herself and others, no matter how much Dick loves her.
So, to sum up, this episode can be seen as the figurative death of Nicole’s trust in him, perhaps of his for her, the almost literal death of his family, and possibly the figurative death of his family, too (after the Ferris wheel episode just before the near death experience, Dick says, "Fifteen minutes ago they had been a family. Now as she was crushed into a corner by his unwilling shoulder, he saw them all, child and man, as a perilous accident."). It’s also the death of himself as a real psychiatrist – he’s messing people up worse than they were before they came to him.
Then Dick’s father dies. And then, after the funeral, he hears that Abe North was beaten to death. And that one hurts because Abe North was asking for his help back in Paris and Dick couldn’t do anything for him. And, thinking of that probably reminds Dick of the death of Jules Peterson, the guy that Abe was trying to get Dick to help, who got shot and died in Rosemary’s bed.
Then he has sex with Rosemary, but they fight and break up, hence, possibly the death of their relationship, which is what leads him to put it all together in his mind and tell her he’s the Black Death. He understands that he is suddenly the opposite of what he set out to be. Remember, he doesn’t just say, "I guess I’m the Black Death," he says, "I guess I’m the Black Death. I don’t seem to bring people happiness any more." In that moment, he feels that everything good in him has died, which is probably why he goes on a suicide mission in Rome. This brings us to…
Remember Dr. Dohmler’s diagnoses of Nicole? "Schizophrénie. Divided Personality. Acute and down-hill phase of the illness." Sounds an awful lot like what Dick has when he breaks down in Rome. Not only is he the Black Death, but he’s become Nicole, too, in a way, on a suicide mission. He can’t fulfill his desire to kill Nicole, so he tries to kill a cop instead.
It’s a suicide mission from the moment he sits down in the bar. He sends back a note from Rosemary saying she’s waiting for him in her room. The drunker he gets, the wilder and angrier he gets, and the closer he gets to his inevitable meeting with the cops. You remember, the broken nose, the broken ribs, Dick screaming "they put my eye out." Yes, that’s suicide mission, and you could call his hitting the cop attempted murder if you want to. But, the freakiest part of all is when Dick says: "I want to make a speech. I want to explain to these people how I raped a five-year-old girl. Maybe I did—"
What is going on with Dick now? It’s not so shocking when you think about it. He’s at one of the lowest points ever, and even though he’s escaping from Rome with his life, the universe, or whatever, he just has to take a final stab at him before he does. When Dick walks into the courtroom, "a groaning, hissing, booing sound went up from the loiterers in the courtyard, voices full of fury and scorn." Dick is told that "a native of Frascati had raped and slain a five-year-old child and was to be brought in that morning – the crowd had assumed it was" he.
Think about it. He was nine years older than Nicole when he met her, seventeen years older than Rosemary when he met her, and what precipitated Nicole’s awful lapse was his fooling around with yet another teenager. To be fair, both Nicole and Rosemary were both almost eighteen when he met them, and seventeen or eighteen is much different than eleven or twelve (Nicole’s father says Nicole was eleven when her mother died; Nicole tells Rosemary she was with her mother in Paris when she was twelve). But in his mind he’s not just taken on Nicole’s desire for suicide and murder, but he’s also become a child rapist like Nicole’s father. Not only does he exhibit the symptoms of Nicole’s illness, but, he’s become like the person that caused her illness in the first place. It’s safe to assume he feels like a total monster. There is no indication that he’s really schizophrenic, or mentally ill in the way Nicole is, but it’s interesting to consider the parallels.
We’re sorry to end on such a sad note, but this is important to recognize that Dick is a hugely tragic figure in the book. Dick is a brilliant, talented, and driven man, and in many ways, a very nice man, even a sweet man, who gets caught up in the complexity and tragedy of life and never gets to fulfill his dreams.
Here’s something that might perk you up after all that tragedy, the name of the book Dick wanted to write (but didn’t):
An Attempt at a Uniform and Pragmatic Classification of the Neuroses and Psychoses, Based on an Examination of Fifteen Hundred Pre-Krapælin and Post-Krapælin Cases as they would be Diagnosed in the Terminology of the Different Contemporary Schools Together with a Chronology of Such Subdivisions of Opinion as Have Arisen Independently.
Talk about ambition. Alas. So sad he never wrote it.