In real life, the social whirl Dick and Nicole create in a backwater French resort area parallels the real life story of the Murphys, who were American expatriates who lived in "Villa America" on the French Rivera long before it became fashionable (Pelzer 106). Fitzgerald found them a blend of "old graces" and "new money," and it seems that some of the more perverse and corrupt of the novel's scenes and innuendos were based on what Fitzgerald experienced in socializing with the Murphys and their friends. Another critic shows how closely the Murphy experience parallels the Divers' time on the French Rivera. He writes, "He [Fitzgerald] would later describe the time as one of '1,000 parties and no work.')" (Sullivan). Thus, the excesses of the parties, drinking, and strange sexual behavior all belong to Fitzgerald's own time with his socialite friends, and they point to the excesses of the era.
Of course, this ode to youth and beauty is not the only theme in the novel. In fact, some critics believe there are many themes and symbols woven throughout the novel, giving it depth and keeping it from becoming one-sided and one-dimensional. Certainly, youth and beauty are two of the central themes, but the gradual descent into madness and disintegration is another theme that Fitzgerald used to comment on society. Critic Pelzer notes, "[T]the psychic disorder of its central characters, Dick and Nicole Diver, mirrors the chaos, disintegration, and sexual confusion of an increasingly violent and perverse world. Tender is the Night is thus the story of a generation gone bust on its own promise, its own excesses" (Pelzer 103). In this, the novel resembles the Great Gatsby, another one of Fitzgerald's complex novels that showcases the excesses of young and wealthy socialites after the First World War, and also showcases their inevitable descent into disintegration. It is an enduring theme in Fitzgerald's works, somewhat like a self-fulfilling prophecy, for as Fitzgerald aged, he became an alcoholic, which affected his ability to write, and his wife never was cured of her schizophrenia, and she spent most of their married life in various mental institutions.
There is another underlying theme to this novel that is much darker and perverse, and since the novel parallels Fitzgerald's own life in so many ways, the reader must wonder if these aspects were also a part of his life. There are many sexual and perverse sexual references throughout the novel, from Diver's obsession with his children to the references to gay and lesbian couples that would have been quite shocking in 1934 when this book was first published. However, there are other nuances throughout the book that give glimpses perhaps into Fitzgerald's dark and dual nature.
For example, Dick appears on the beach in lacy underwear his wife has created for him. Fitzgerald writes, "He went into the dressing tent and inspired a commotion by appearing in a moment clad in transparent black lace drawers. Close inspection revealed that actually they were lined with flesh-colored cloth" (Fitzgerald 21). There are perversities like this throughout the book, linking Fitzgerald and his characters together, for who could write of "flesh-colored cloth and lacy drawers" without experiencing them or seeing them on another man first hand? It seems that Fitzgerald may have had more than just an interest in young girls, his sexual tastes may have run toward the more bizarre and unusual, and he uses that as another autobiographical aspect of this novel. It is almost as if he feels compelled to share his deepest secrets in the guise of this character, in some strange way of cleansing himself from his own dark desires.
Critics have called this novel dark and disturbing, and there are many aspects of the novel that are indeed dark and disturbing. There are allusions to child abuse, homosexuality, and open references to murder, madness, and alcoholism. This is not a pretty or pleasant book to read, and although it is now considered a classic and one of Fitzgerald's finest works, at the time in was published, it only sold 13,000 copies, plunging Fitzgerald even deeper into despair and alcoholism (Sullivan).
In conclusion, the theme of youth and beauty permeates this novel, and sets up the comparison with Fitzgerald's own life. There are many disturbing aspects to this novel, from Dick's domination of the women in his life, to his obsession with youth and beauty, the perverse nature of some sexual situations in the novel, and the end, which is strikingly similar to Fitzgerald's own inability to deal with life. Critic Sullivan continues, "In December 1940, after working on dozens of film scripts and making a start on the Last Tycoon, he [Fitzgerald] died at age forty-four in his mistress's Hollywood apartment. Tender Is the Night was out of print" (Sullivan). In the end, Dick falls from grace and becomes a "loser" in the worst sense, while Nicole finally finds happiness and sanity. It is interesting, because Dick has always been the father figure and dominant male in the novel, but in the end, his obsession with youth and beauty has not served him well, and the women he has admired for their naivete and innocence end up being the strong, healthy characters at the end of the novel, while Dick is the one that falls into oblivion, just as Fitzgerald did in his own life. It is an interesting analogy that indicates obsessing over youth and beauty may be even more destructive than it seems.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender is the Night. New York: Scribner Paperback Edition, 1995.
Pelzer, Linda C. Student Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Sullivan, Paul. "The End of an Era: Tender Is the Night Is…