F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a friend's copy of Tender Is the Night, "If you liked The Great Gatsby, for God's sake read this. Gatsby was a tour de force but this is a confession of faith." Set in the South of France in the decade after World War I, Tender Is the Night is the story of a brilliant and magnetic psychiatrist named Dick Diver; the bewitching, wealthy, and dangerously unstable mental patient, Nicole, who becomes his wife; and the beautiful, harrowing ten-year pas de deux they act out along the border between sanity and madness.
In Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald deliberately set out to write the most ambitious and far-reaching novel of his career, experimenting radically with narrative conventions of chronology and point of view and drawing on early breakthroughs in psychiatry to enrich his account of the makeup and breakdown of character and culture.
Tender Is the Night is also the most intensely, even painfully, autobiographical of Fitzgerald's novels; it smolders with a dark, bitter vitality because it is so utterly true. This account of a caring man who disintegrates under the twin strains of his wife's derangement and a lifestyle that gnaws away at his sense of moral values offers an authorial cri de coeur, while Dick Diver's downward spiral into alcoholic dissolution is an eerie portent of Fitzgerald's own fate.
F. Scott Fitzgerald literally put his soul into Tender Is the Night, and the novel's lack of commercial success upon its initial publication in 1934 shattered him. He would die six years later without having published another novel, and without knowing that Tender Is the Night would come to be seen as perhaps its author's most poignant masterpiece. In Mabel Dodge Luhan's words, it raised him to the heights of "a modern Orpheus."
In the wake of World War I, a community of expatriate American writers established itself in the salons and cafes of 1920s Paris. They congregated at Gertrude Stein's select soirees, drank too much, married none too wisely, and wrote volumes--about the war, about the Jazz Age, and often about each other. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were part of this gang of literary Young Turks, and it was while living in France that Fitzgerald began writing Tender Is the Night
. Begun in 1925, the novel was not actually published until 1934. By then, Fitzgerald was back in the States and his marriage was on the rocks, destroyed by Zelda's mental illness and alcoholism. Despite the modernist mandate to keep authors and their creations strictly segregated, it's difficult not
to look for parallels between Fitzgerald's private life and the lives of his characters, psychiatrist Dick Diver and his former patient turned wife, Nicole. Certainly the hospital in Switzerland where Zelda was committed in 1929 provided the inspiration for the clinic where Diver meets, treats, and then marries the wealthy Nicole Warren. And Fitzgerald drew both the European locale and many of the characters from places and people he knew from abroad.
In the novel, Dick is eventually ruined--professionally, emotionally, and spiritually--by his union with Nicole. Fitzgerald's fate was not quite so novelistically neat: after Zelda was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and committed, Fitzgerald went to work as a Hollywood screenwriter in 1937 to pay her hospital bills. He died three years later--not melodramatically, like poor Jay Gatsby in his swimming pool, but prosaically, while eating a chocolate bar and reading a newspaper. Of all his novels, Tender Is the Night is arguably the one closest to his heart. As he himself wrote, "Gatsby was a tour de force, but this is a confession of faith."