Tender is the Night
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Nicole’s mental illness permeates everything. Her world is torn apart when she’s a young teenager. Her mother had just died, and her father, Devereux Warren, whom she adored, raped her. When she is diagnosed with schizophrenia, both Devereux and his other daughter, Baby, claim there is no history of schizophrenia in their family, and so, strongly suggest that her illness was directly caused by the rape.
The novel gives the character of Nicole extra-special treatment. She is the only character who gets to narrate a section in the first person. And even before this first person section, she gets an epistolary section (as you might know, epistles are what fancy literature people call letters). Notice that we get to see some of the letters she wrote to Dick, but not any of Dick’s letters to her. On the other hand, we have to remember that this section could be composed of Dick’s memory of Nicole’s letters, rather than Nicole’s letters themselves. It’s not clear which interpretation is intended by the author – perhaps a little of both. But either way, the letters present Nicole as an extremely intelligent, highly educated, complicated person, battling something very dark and painful.
Before we examine her first person section, let’s look at a line or two that might foreshadow it. We here at Shmoop are just a tad bit confused when during the private screening of Daddy’s Girl, the film staring starlet Rosemary Hoyt, for the Divers and their friends, we see this line: "Was it a ‘itty-bitty bravekins and did it suffer? Ooo-ooo-tweet, de tweetest thing, wasn’t she dest too tweet?"
Since all we’ve seen is third-person narration, it looks at first like the third-person narrator is commenting on Rosemary’s character in the film. But let’s compare it to what Nicole tells Dick that winter when they are celebrating the holidays at a ski lodge in the Swiss Alps:
"Please be happy, Dick." […] "Why don’t you meet some of these ickle durls and dance with them in the afternoon?"
"What would I say to them?"
"Say: ‘Ickle durl, oo is de pwettiest sing.’"
These are the only instances of "baby-talk" in the novel. And since in between those two scenes, Nicole gets a great big first person section, it’s possible that the "itty-bitty bravekins" stuff is her first-person narrative trying to break through.
Why would it try to break through during the screening of Daddy’s Girl? It’s safe to say Nicole feels threatened by Dick and Rosemary’s relationship (and Dick is just old enough to be Rosemary’s father), and if you take that together with the fact that Nicole was raped by her father, we can imagine Nicole’s discomfort at watching the woman who might be her husband’s lover playing the role of "perfect" daughter to the "perfect" father on the big screen. In this moment, perhaps the third-person narrator is no longer sufficient to express Nicole’s pain, which is probably the most important thing going on in the room. And it subtly prepares the readers for the shock of "hearing" Nicole’s voice, unmediated by the third-person narrator, for the first time, later in the book.
In the chronology of the novel, Nicole’s section begins in Book Two. This is after we’ve seen Dick and Nicole’s fabulous lifestyle on the Riviera, after we’ve learned of her tragic past, and how she and Dick got together in the first place. In the chronology of Nicole’s life, it begins after she and Dick have decided to marry.
Her section can be divided into about twelve mini-sections, each characterized by a different form of the first person. It’s almost like snippets from a very creative diary, maybe the one being kept in Nicole’s mind, as if we are peering into a compressed version of her memory. The first of these min-sections is narrated in the first-person direct address – that is, it is Nicole directly addressing her lawyer and Baby Warren as they iron out the details of her marrying Dick, and how much of her enormous trust fund she’ll be able to access. We see what she’s saying to them, but don’t see their responses.
Many of the sections are Nicole directly addressing Dick, several seem to be addressing the reader, as in a traditional first person narrative, and others seem to be addressing a person (or people) she knows, but doesn’t name. All in all, her section gives us some important information that helps us understand her character, and the novel as a whole.
For example, this passage:
"Yes, the little book is selling everywhere—they want it published in six languages. I was to do the French translation but I’m tired these days—I’m afraid of falling, I’m so heavy and clumsy—like a broken roly-poly that can’t stand up straight."
It’s not clear who Nicole (pregnant with her first child) is talking to, but we learn something about Nicole’s ambitions, as well as Dick’s success as a writer of psychology books. His career seems to be taking off; and she wants to do something meaningful, a French translation. A few paragraphs later we find this passage:
When I get well I want to be a fine person like you, Dick – I would study medicine except it’s too late. […] You’re bored with Zurich and you can’t find time for writing here and you say that it’s a confession of weakness for a scientist not to write. And I’ll look over the whole field of knowledge and pick out something and really know about it, so I’ll have it to hang on to if I go to pieces again.
Nicole is desperately trying to get better here. Again, she wants to do something meaningful with her life that will keep her illness at bay. Also, remember when Dick says that Nicole tries to discourage him from working, motivated by a desire to "own" him completely? This casts doubt on the reliability of Dick’s perceptions with regard to Nicole, or if you believe Dick, it makes Nicole’s version sound unreliable.
At another point in her section, Nicole says, "[…] my principal interest in life is archeology. I am tired of knowing nothing and being reminded of it all the time." These three passages concerning Nicole’s ambition might make us feel sad for her when we read the passage that brings Nicole’s first person section back to the beginning of the book, on the beach, when Rosemary comes on the scene: "Everything is all right—if I can finish translating this damn recipe for chicken a la Maryland into French."
Instead of translating serious work, instead of pursuing her interest in archaeology, instead of finding something to study, Nicole is translating recipes. Like Dick, her potential is being squandered by the circumstances of their life.
Her first person section also gives us critical information regarding her mental illness. She says, "That was why he took me traveling but after my second child, my little girl, Topsy, was born everything got dark again." But why did she have such a hard time when Topsy was born? It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to figure out that maybe she was afraid that what happened to her, might happen to her daughter – either at the hands of her own father (even though she has no contact with him), or maybe even at the hands of Dick, though there is no explicit statement of this kind in the novel.
A few paragraphs later, we get a confirmation of Doctor Dohmler’s diagnoses, that Nicole has "a divided personality":
Talk is men. When I talk I say to myself that I am probably Dick. Already I have even been my son, remembering how wise and slow he is. Sometimes I am Doctor Dohmler and one time I may even be an aspect of you, Tommy Barban.
There is no doubt that Nicole was mentally ill, by most standards anyway, when we first see her on the beach, yet this gives us no indication of the really dark side of her illness, which we see when she tries to kill everybody in the car that day.
So, Nicole’s first person section is really important to understand her character and, in turn, to understand the novel. It counters the prevailing view that Nicole actively tries to keep Dick from working. It counters the view of someone like Kaethe Gregarovius who accuses Nicole of not really being mentally ill. It also illuminates, rather sadly, her potential and her ambition, which is wasting away, just like Dick’s.
And here’s one last point to consider. If we think about the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald was dealing with his wife’s mental illness when he was writing the novel, Nicole’s first-person section becomes problematic. You could see it as a cruel and presumptuous parody of madness. Alternatively, you can think of the first-person section as a brave and kind act, and attempt to give voice to a person who is constantly shut down from speaking, to allow Nicole to weigh in against all the other strong voices in the book. It could also, perhaps, be Fitzgerald's desperate attempt to understand his wife’s illness by becoming (at least while he was writing her first-person section) the fictional character upon whom she is largely based. What do you think?