Tender Is the Night
The book’s title is from the John Keats’ poem, “Ode to a Nightingale”:
Already with thee! tender is the night….
…..But here there is no light”
Fitzgerald introduces the whole story and cast on the French beach and hotel Dick and Nicole have made their own (Cannes? the Riviera?) mostly through the character of the young American film star Rosemary, who arrives with her mother in tow, and who then almost instantly falls in love with Dick Diver, also developing a quick affection for Diver’s wife, Nicole — with whom everyone is in love, thankfully also Diver.
There’s a round of parties, a good bit of drunkenness, some worry about Abe North’s excessive drinking, then a rather out-of-control party during which Violet McKisco encounters a mysterious and upsetting scene upstairs, during a trip to the bathroom. We as readers wonder what it is, but Fitzgerald seems to have little interest in telling us.
Then there’s a flashback, to Dick’s days as a medical student (he’s Dr. Diver), studying psychiatry in Europe with the first generation of psychiatrists after Freud. Soon we learn that Nicole is in the sanitarium where he’s studying, and he doesn’t yet know her. When he encounters her, though, he’s intrigued by her. He wonders what it would be like to care for her, and have to care for her medically. He goes away, and she writes him 50 letters. Who she is and her mental state (or states) is masterfully expressed through the letters. Letters that are charming, amazing, and quite unhinged; frighteningly so.
In the first part of the book, before the flashback, I truly had no idea that Nicole had mental health issues. (Maybe I need to go back and see if I missed some hints, subtle or not.) Well, it’s a day or two later, and I went back to see about any evidence of Nicole’s mental health issues. Not really. There’s some uncertainty on her party, and she’s definitely always following Dick’s lead–but then just about everyone in their set does. It’s not clear that Dick is Dr. Diver, and it’s definitely not clear that he’s her doctor. He just seems to be a loving and supportive husband, and they’re definitely much in love — when young Rosemary falls in love with Dick and tells him so, he’s quite clear that he wants nothing to do with because he loves Nicole.
And then Dick and Rosemary finally have a brief fling, about halfway through the book. It seems to be the signal that the wheels are just going to come off everything. In this part of the book, Nicole’s disintegration and Dick’s anguished helplessness over it. Is. Just. Heartbreaking. My heart goes out tonight to everyone in the whole wide world who is struggling, or who has struggled, with brain illness and addiction, or has cared for those people.
The disintegration continues, both in the Diver’s relationship and their mental health: Nicole has a brain illness, maybe schizophrenia if we must label it, and Dick is an alcoholic. Nicole notes, as the “most unhappy” part of their relationship, “Dick’s growing indifference, at present personified by too much drink.”
Amazing, that — indifference, disconnection, and too much drink. There is no possibility, to my mind, of any connection with too much drink — no connection to others or to a spiritual life.