The title is taken from the fourth stanza of John Keats’s famous poem, "Ode to A Nightingale." Several lines from the verse also function as the novel’s epigraph, which we discuss in Shmoop’s "What’s Up With the Epigraph," if you’re interested. But epigraphs and poems aside, the title can be seen as a tightly condensed overview of the novel. Let’s just break it down.
The title conveys a strong statement. Tender is the night. The night is tender. Just for some nerdy fun, let’s look up tender in the Oxford English Dictionary. Tender is used as an adjective because it describes the noun, night. According to the dictionary, tender means "soft or delicate in texture or consistence; yielding easily to force or pressure; fragile; easily broken, divided, compressed, or injured." So, Keats and Fitzgerald seem to be telling us that the night is very vulnerable. Well, after reading the text at hand, we see that the characters of Tender is the Night are extremely vulnerable, too.
Why are they so vulnerable? Well, everybody is – that’s part of being human. The more you put on the line, the more you have to lose, and the more you have to lose, the more vulnerable you are. The characters in Tender are all under extreme pressure to be unusually successful in a thousand different ways. And Nicole is perhaps more vulnerable than anyone else in the novel because ever since she was raped by her father when she was about twelve years old, she’s been having a lot of trouble hanging onto her sanity. Her struggle for sanity makes all those around her vulnerable as well, particularly her husband and children. And, as we see in Dick’s "Character Analysis," Dick’s own sanity is called into question many times.
The setting is "tender" as well. Most of the novel is set in Europe, between 1919 and 1930, the years following World War I. Europe was full of graves, and other reminders of the war are found at every turn of the novel, like when the Divers and some of their friends explore World War I battlegrounds during their Paris party week. World War I made everything and everyone vulnerable to the reality of the kind of war no one imagined was possible. World War I shattered previous conceptions of the world and this shattering is represented as a major tenet of modernism. We discuss this theme more fully in our "Genre" section.
So that gives us something in terms of tender, but what about night? For one thing, the characters in Tender is the Night rarely sleep, and much action occurs in the night. This goes back to ambition. When you want it all, sleep seems a waste of time. As noted in our "What’s Up With the Epigraph" section and our "Genre" section discussion of surrealism, night might also be viewed symbolically as the time when our deepest subconscious desires and anxieties can be explored. There is risk in this – night exposes things not noticed in the daylight – and that makes those things vulnerable, or, if you will, tender.