- Reviewed by
Chris Messenger’s “Tender Is the Night” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sentimental Identities offers a detailed and serious critical inquiry, exploring sentiment in Fitzgerald’s novel from multiple theoretical perspectives. Messenger argues that “no American male writer since Fitzgerald and no American novel since Tender Is the Night have told us as much about sentiment’s powers and failings in authorizing fictions” (16). This study illustrates how sentiment “is both a cultural formation and a temperamental imperative that helps unlock both Fitzgerald’s major novel and career” (2).
Messenger ultimately strives to make the controversial case for the persistence of sentiment in the larger cultural imaginary of modernism: “Sentiment has a long and varied history in the philosophy and fiction of the West in the last four centuries, but it is safe to say that sentiment was never as derided as it was by early twentieth-century modernity and thus by the creative and critical tenets of literary modernism” (23). Here the author is not unaware of the inconsistent or even contradictory coexistence of sentiment and modernity. Rather, he puts forward his revisionist view at the outset: “On an aesthetic level, Fitzgerald’s working through of sentiment’s broken premises and rhetoric in Tender heralds a triumph of modernism in his attempt to sustain his sentimental fragments and allegiances in new forms” (17). He also draws an important distinction between the terms “sentiment” and “sentimentality,” explaining that “Sentiment is the emotion while sentimentality is pejoratively considered to stimulate, indulge, and wallow in the emotion showing no confidence in the emotion itself” (8). He further holds that “perhaps all writers work on the edge of sentimentality and the most lauded in literary modernism in part were those deemed to have avoided falling into it” (9), which may arguably have accorded Fitzgerald his modernist fame, since he would “hold out against any sentimentality” (8).
Fitzgerald’s Sentimental Identities boasts an outstandingly balanced and well-organized structure. In addition to the introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into three sections of three twenty-page chapters each. It progresses through the personal origin of Fitzgerald’s sentimental form, which is “in the twinned narratives of the death of the two Fitzgerald baby sisters prior to Scott Fitzgerald’s birth and the ongoing crisis of Zelda’s institutionalization and writing overlaid and read ‘synchronously’”(6). In the first section, titled “Identities,” Messenger employs identitarian and psychoanalytic theories to interpret major sentimental scenes with emotional and historical resonance in Tender Is the Night (such as the Divers’ party, where Rosemary’s impressions of the gathering represent a sentimental high point; or the scene in the Amiens battlefield, where Dick Diver sentimentally re-imagines the reality of the First World War), showing how the various sentimental role identities of Fitzgerald’s characters become metaphorically embedded in the novel. Entitled “Refraction,” the second section examines different drafts of Tender Is the Night and carefully analyzes its major characters in an effort to demonstrate that, as the novel becomes “‘diverted’ and ‘reflected’ from successive lines of intent and narration,” “Sentiment itself is in continual refraction—representing, identifying, and absorbing—in its dynamic” (83). The last section mainly deals with the influence that sentimental literary works, such as Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, and Faulkner’s Sanctuary, bore on Fitzgerald during the nine painstaking years of writing Tender Is the Night. Altogether, the three sections offer a close and imaginative reading of the various roles and effects of sentiment in the novel. [End Page 846]
A particularly compelling feature of Fitzgerald’s Sentimental Identities is Messenger’s imaginative style of writing, which helps make his critical arguments vivid and compelling. In one example, he illuminatingly identifies a reference to Freud in a scene in chapter 6 of Tender Is the Night, where Dr. Dohmler tries to dissuade Dick from pursuing his relationship with Nicole, who at this point is a psychiatric patient at Dohmler’s clinic: “‘I’ll do whatever...