- Tender is the Night & F. Scott Fitzgerald's Sentimental Identities by Chris Messenger
I write this review in Montgomery, a little more than two miles away from the Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum. Though the couple was notably nomadic, the museum resides in what was the Fitzgerald home for a brief time in 1931 and 1932. This was a period of dramatic transition for the Fitzgeralds: they returned to America in part because Scott had been invited to write for Hollywood, but then Zelda's father died and her unstable mental condition worsened markedly. She was moved to Johns Hopkins for treatment; after staying behind in Montgomery briefly, Scott took up residence north of Baltimore in a house called La Paix. This was also a particularly fruitful artistic period for the couple: Zelda wrote her novel, Save Me the Waltz, while Scott began the final version of his much-revised manuscript for Tender is the Night.
Chris Messenger reads Tender is the Night in part as the outcome of Scott's immediate struggles with Zelda, both as a patient and as a fellow author. These intersect with and complicate his reckoning with longer-term family dynamics in his work. Throughout the [End Page 91] monograph, Messenger interweaves his biographical arguments with psychoanalytic and cultural ones. In this way, he comes up with occasionally frustrating, but always interesting, claims about Dick Diver as the nurturing but troubled center of Tender, his wife/patient Nicole, and the expatriate characters who move through their lives.
But this is not merely a biographical reading of the novel. Messenger has written an ambitious and playful analysis of Tender is the Night as a vehicle for F. Scott Fitzgerald to work through his thoughts about feeling. Messenger calls him "the most accomplished and also most self-conscious sentimentalist in literary modernism" (p. 211). This is a particularly fraught topic for Fitzgerald as a male modernist writer, since sentiment and the sentimental were both rejected in that era due to their associations with Victorian moralism, particularly that of woman writers from the prior period. Sentiment is a deployed in this book as a way of thinking about the emotional connections among characters, the author, and the audience. As Messenger moves back and forth between biographical and literary analysis, he shows how Tender is the Night recombines Fitzgerald's own emotional affiliations in order to explore those of his central characters in a more complex way.
The book is laid out in three sections. Part I, Identities, looks at Dick Diver's interpersonal relations in the novel in terms of characters' management of sentimental attachments. In Chapter 1, we see how different scenes in the book foster a felt connection among people that is constructed but still moving. Chapter 2, the one that I found the least convincing in terms of its argument, considers the ways that Dick Diver's repeated encounters with pairs of sisters and maternal figures might echo and help soothe his guilt about his mother losing two baby girls just before he was born. Chapter 3 reads Dick Diver's sympathy and charm as feelings that cross gender boundaries, placing him into homosocial relationships with many of the male characters.
Where Part I focuses on Dick as a character, Part II attends to Nicole and her many female analogues and foils within the novel. Chapter 4 considers the ways that Nicole participates in and diverges [End Page 92] from the tradition of the sentimental heroine. Chapter 5 places her in dialogue with the other tragic women in the novel. This is the place in the book where Scott's relationship with Zelda really came to the fore and, as such, it was the one that interested me the most as a Montgomery resident and scholar of modernist women writers. At first glance, Chapter 6 seems like it might belong in the third section, which talks about literary influences and parallel references. Its discussion of surrealism and the uncanny, though, makes...