Fitzgerald's novels are very poignant, and speak often to the middle-class and upper-class feelings that manque quelque chose
, something is missing. As in The Great Gatsby
, our sorry heroes attempt to fill in their emptinesses through infidelity, but ultimately relent: returning from some youthful romantic ideal to what remains of their broken marriage. While something in the fantastic, almost fairy-tale, simplicity and tone of The Great Gatsby
saves it from fatal wound of the most painful tragedy, overflows with sorrow and tragedy - "it didn't have to be this way" is our likely refrain as the book draws nearer and nearer its end. For me, I wonder what it means when love is lost, when love is corrupted. And also, is love a battlefield, as a Pat Benatar would have us believe? Nicole is the victorious spouse, she emerges from the divorce on higher ground than Dick, though she entered below: but her strength is paid for by Dick's destruction.
The surface issue in Tender is the Night
is "why did Dick Diver marry Nicole?" - what were his motivations? Everyone seems to have their own opinion. While ostensibly Nicole marries Dick out of some combination of love and hero-worship, Dick muses that he may have married Nicole as a measure of curing her, though he doesn't fully believe himself. Nicole's sister believes Dick has married her only because she is the heiress to a fortune - a fortune which Dick uses to his career and financial gains. The doctor-patient relationship which precedes the husband-wife one, complicates the issue of love by intermingling it with the issue of power. Dick uses Nicole's mental illness as a means to dismiss her, as a hold of superiority over her, but this dynamic, unusually, holds them in equilibrium: Nicole uses her illness as a noose of guilt, which she uses against Dick. "She only cherishes her illness as an instrument of power" one of their friends note. When Nicole recovers, this equilibrium is upset, she rises above him with the tide as he sinks into drunkenness and depression.
I am reminded as I write of "Passer Mortuus Est" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem's title refers to the turbulent love between the Latin poem Catullus and his love, Lesbia. In Catullus 85, he reveals the tormented bipolarity of his love for Lesbia: I hate and I love. Why I would do that, you may ask. / I don't know. But I feel it happening and I am tortured.
This conflict between love and hate, tenderness and bitterness, parallels the declining affections between the Divers. Power corrupts the tenderness of love, doubts the truth of affection, and murders the chance for mutual happiness. Furthermore, Dick's and Nicole's marriage also marries them financially and to Dick's medical career. When Dick's career declines, his desuetude is incongruous with what Nicole married, there is a shadow of her husband which is angry and broken, but which she is powerless to fix. She cannot fix Dick because he cannot step down from his prior feelings of superiority and power over Nicole - how could he respect the opinions of his previous mental patient
? Quickly their love dies:
Death devours all lovely things:
Lesbia with her sparrow
Shares the darkness,--presently
Every bed is narrow.
The rapid and complete decline of love between Dick and Nicole is tragic, one can't help but feel that they should be happy with each other. Though their relationship is founded on an ethical no-man's-zone, their affections seem genuine, which makes the dissolution so much the sadder. And quickly what was love, or at least what appeared love, washes away completely, leaving not even a trace of tenderness:
Unremembered as old rain
Dries the sheer libation;
And the little petulant hand
Is an annotation.
The final stanza of Millay's poem, for me, gets at the central question of Tender is the Night
: is it love if it doesn't last? Or is it something else? Millay argues that even a flicker of love is love:
After all, my erstwhile dear,
My no longer cherished,
Need we say it was not love,
Just because it perished?
Need we? I tend to think that love is something which is eternal, but not eternally constant, maybe even only ever truly for an instant. People are always changing, the only thing immutable in man is his constancy of change, his inability to avoid it. Sometimes man and wife, or man and man or woman and woman (to be politically correct, or what-have-you), change together. Sometimes the change apart, and drift. But is it fair to say their love was not real? I think it is an injustice to love. Take the love of Rhett and Scarlet, in Gone with the Wind
- I believe they each truly love the other, though their stubborn characters forbid that love at turns, until it is dizzied and dejected from the turnstile of muted affections.
Power and love are incompatible. The relationship between Dick and Nicole is fated to die because of the interloping spectre of power. Love is the ultimate equalizer, but power depends on hierarchy. Dick's inability to see Nicole as his equal, as his other half, but only as his patient or plaything, is his ruin; a ruin which Nicole's greater heart is able to transcend, and able to find love in the man of Tommy Barban. But that love, for a moment, was alive, I think, between them; it is deadened and destroyed, and swept away in the drunken wash of Dick's deterioration. And though all traces of it may be gone, that does not negate what once was, no matter how brief was that "once."