Study Guide

Tender is the Night Madness

By F. Scott Fitzgerald


[Dick] had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love. The reaction came when he realized the waste and extravagance involved. 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 (1.6.15).

Even before we know that Dick is a psychiatrist and that Nicole has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, we are asked to question the sanity of the characters we meet. This is a good example of such a moment. We live in a pop-psychology word. Since Freud, the psyche is public domain. Pull up any news website and you’ll find gosh knows who giving you advice about the inner workings of your mind. Sometimes the advice is good for us, but sometimes it is not so good for us. The point is, like in Tender is the Night, we are being asked to decide. Is this serial killer crazy or is he just mean. Is Quentin Tarantino sane? Does his art reflect the workings of a sane mind? We have to ask ourselves this question many times about Dick Diver and about his art, which just happens to be psychiatry. He’s the guy that helps the mentally ill.

Drawing on your knowledge of pop-psychology how might you "diagnose" Dick in this passage? Manic depressive? Violent? Sadistic? Anti-social? The point is, we’ve heard all these things, but we don’t really know what they mean, probably not a whole lot more than F. Scott Fitzgerald did when he was writing. Luckily, we do know when something is way off. And when the mind is in extreme turmoil and pain, madness of some form ensues. In Tender is the Night, we are often asking: "who is madder than whom?"

Dick moved on through the rain, demoniac and frightened, the passions of many men inside him and nothing simple that he could see (1.24.3).

Oh, this one is just fodder for pop-psychology. Demoniac. Dick has turned into a demon. The passions of many men – is he schizophrenic like Nicole? Careful with those labels – we aren’t psychiatrists. So we better focus on the last clause of the sentence nothing simple that he could see. That’s a form of madness, right? We’ve all had that experience. When things get so mixed up that we can’t decide what to do, believe, or think, we feel like we’re going crazy. And as the clause before it tells us, Dick is just an extremely passionate guy. He wants to be everyone, to all people. No wonder his mind is getting all busted up.

"But I was very busy being mad then, so I didn’t care what he said, when I am very busy being mad I don’t usually care what they say, not if I were a million girls" (2.2.52).

With Nicole we have an elevated madness. While Dick’s is driven by extreme passion and ambition, Nicole suffered extreme childhood drama. This is from one of her letters to Dick, when she was like 16. Just before this, she’s describing being accused of faking her illness by a Chicago doctor. Isn’t it ironic? She’s so deep in her madness that she doesn’t care whether the doctor thinks she’s faking. It’s heartbreaking, really. And this thing about the "million girls," can be taken as "proof" of Nicole’s "divided personality."

"That’s all right. She’s a schizoid – a permanent eccentric. You can’t change that."

"What is it?"

"Just what I said – an eccentric."

"Well, how can any one tell what’s eccentric and what’s crazy?"

"Nothing is going to be crazy – Nicole is all fresh and happy, you needn’t be afraid" (2.9.12-16).

Dick’s outlook on Nicole’s condition is elegant, frank, and hopeful. He has faith in Nicole’s transformation from, as Baby puts it, "gone coon" to beautiful blooming flower basking in the light. Baby isn’t so sure. All through the book she remains convinced that Nicole’s problems are incurable. Interestingly, it seems that Baby doesn’t know what happened to her, though there is some argument to the contrary. On the other hand, at least in this moment, doesn’t Baby have a right to be suspicious of Dick? He’s nine years older than Nicole and is the guy behind Nicole’s cure. He’s a trained psychologist. Who knows what experiences he has had? It’s within his power to hurt Nicole badly. Baby’s no light-weight. The basis of her reservation is couched in terms of money. She never sees Dick as a part of her class. How do you feel about that? Who is sane and who is mad? Is Baby paranoid? Is Dick trying to trick her? Don’t forget, he’s deeply in love with Nicole by this point.

"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" (2.10.34).

This passage is so important because it’s in the first person, unlike most of the novel, and because it gives us Nicole’s illness laid bare. We have to remember that she’s a fictional character, so we can take a few liberties which we wouldn’t take with a ‘real" person. It’s simple: she pretends to be other people; she walks around pretending to be her son or her doctor. When she can’t do it as Nicole, she does it as Dick, or as her son. Hey, haven’t we always heard, like in the movie Sybil, that she’s not supposed to know about her other personalities? Nicole is completely aware of what she’s doing and is doing it intentionally. She’s not slipping into it unawares. She just doesn’t know where she stops and others begin anymore. In some ways, Nicole’s particular form of madness is a sign of her intelligence and creativity. She’s willing to trying anything to cope with the word around her.

"Home!" she roared in a voice so abandoned that its louder tones wavered and cracked. "And sit and think that we’re all rotting and the children’s ashes are rotting in every box I open? That filth!"

Almost with relief he saw that her words sterilized her, and Nicole, sensitized down to the corium of the skin, saw the withdrawal in his face. Her own face softened and she begged, "Help me, help me, Dick!" (2.15.49-50).

As we know, this is a prelude to Nicole’s climactic breakdown. She’s so freaked out because Dick was accused by a patient of seducing her teenage daughter. Nicole knows that there is truth to the statement, but Dick says the patient is just crazy. When she talks about children’s ashes rotting, she might be talking about her own rape. She feels like Dick is spitting on it and denying her own experience by denying the girl’s experience. It doesn’t sound like Dick actually raped the girl, but we can see how this would make Nicole feel insane. She is unable to cope with what she sees as a huge betrayal. Not Dick’s act itself, but perhaps even more importantly, his reaction the accusation. But then, we see her clinging to Dick for help, believing still that he can help her. Maybe that would have been the time to admit he kissed the girl? But who knows, maybe it was already too late. What do you think? There is a lot of meat in this passage.

"You were scared, weren’t you?" she 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 (2.15.65-66).

We also discuss this passage in Dick’s "Character Analysis." It’s one of the most important passages for understanding Nicole’s madness. She tries to kill herself and her family here. Who is she "being" when she grabs the steering wheel? Is she being Nicole or her father? Or has she become "nobody" - an inhuman force? Dick’s reaction is also interesting. He wants to kill her back.

"Dick, I don’t pretend to advise you or to know much about it but don’t you think a change might be good for her – to get out of that atmosphere of sickness and live in the world like other people?"

"But you were keen for the clinic," he reminded her. "You told me you’d never feel really safe about her" (2.21.10.).

We wonder if Baby can tell that Dick just had sex with Rosemary? But isn’t what she’s saying what we’ve been thinking? How the heck is Nicole supposed to get well when she pretty much lives at the clinic where she "recovered" from being raped? This is also where she met Dick, and now she’s watching that relationship go down the tubes. Interestingly, Nicole was in favor of the move to the clinic. We’re just speculating here. We have no way of knowing. But Baby Warren brings it up so it’s fair game.

"I want to make a speech," Dick cried. "I want to explain to these people how I raped a five-year-old girl. Maybe I did" (2.23.101).

Did this freak you out, anyway? As we see in Dick’s "Character Analysis" it’s an explainable sentence. We know Dick isn’t the rapist, but he does feel like one. It’s an important passage for our discussion on madness. If Dick is ever really insane in the book, it might just be at this moment. He feels like the lowest of the low, and he has the broken body parts to prove it.

"You know, you’re a little complicated after all."

"Oh no," she assured him hastily. "No, I’m not really – I’m just a – I’m just a whole lot of different simple people." (3.13.23)

This brings up an interesting question. How much does Tommy know about Nicole’s mental illness? He sure knows something. He seems to assume that Nicole is cured though. He doesn’t seem to find anything amiss in her admission of being more than one person. Believe it or not, there are some contemporary philosophers like Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who take Freud to task for criminalizing schizophrenia or having multiple personalities. They claim that it’s not a disorder, but the natural state of the human mind. The book strongly suggests that Nicole is "cured" by Tommy’s acceptance of her and of his refusal to see her as sick. Does the book make an argument like that of our philosophers? It’s something to think about anyway.