Tender is the Night
Analysis: Writing Style
"All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath."
That’s a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald in an undated letter to his daughter. We think it’s a useful way to describe his writing style. We’ll look at a sentence and see if it holds true. This one, from the end of the novel, since it has the word swimming in it: "Swimming away, Nicole saw that the cloud of Dick’s heart-sickness had lifted a little as he began to play with Rosemary, bringing out his old expertness with people, a tarnished object of art."
Have you ever heard of Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory? In his analogy, when one looks at an iceberg, one sees only the 20 percent of it that’s above the surface. The other 80 percent is underwater. According to Hemingway, good writing is like that. What we see on the page is, well, the tip of the iceberg. Yet it provokes us to imagine the 80 percent below the surface.
If our swimming sentence is an iceberg, the part that’s on the surface presents a pretty simple scenario, right? A woman, watching her husband "play" with his lover, thinking that it’s making him happy, and thinking of how good he used to be with people. But whoa, there, Nelly – below the surface our iceberg is huge. The whole history of Dick and Nicole is swimming under there, and we are also being giving new information on Nicole that deepens her character.
The part of the iceberg that’s under the surface is often ambiguous, (as it’s also meant to represent the subconscious), which makes it easy for us to argue multiple meanings. One view is that when Nicole sees Dick, who’s been so, so unhappy, suddenly happy, she loses her jealousy out of love for him. Another view is that she loses her jealousy because it makes her decision to take Tommy as her lover more convenient. We could also argue that Nicole thinks what she thinks in a jealous way, or that her thought is malicious. Shmoop thinks her thoughts are tender and sweet. Cloud of heart-sickness. Such pretty yet sad words. Sigh. Honestly, we could go on and on arguing. Don’t get us started on the word tarnished object of art.
Our "Style" quote from Fitzgerald suggests that the writer is the part of the iceberg under the surface. And our swimming sentence is literally breathtaking, both in its beauty (cloud of heart-sickness), and in the possibility of its interpretations. Swimming under water, holding your breath, is hard work, both for the reader and the writer, but we think a novel like Tender is the Night is well worth the effort. We only wish F. Scott Fitzgerald was around to see us appreciate it.