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Mind Over Pop Culture: Tender is the Night

Tender is the Night is one of those books that has been on my to read list for as long as I can remember. Considered one of the classics of American literature, its reputation precedes it, to the point of obscuring what the novel is actually about. A scathing review of the idle rich and mental health in the 1920s and 1930s, the novel illuminates one ugly, persuasive view of psychiatry.

Tender is Night is about Dick and Nicole Driver, two rich expat Americans in Europe after World War I. Dick is a highly renowned psychiatrist , and Nicole is a Chicago heiress, and the two have a glamorous lifestyle and intelligent, wealthy friends. Introduced to Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress traveling with her mother, the Divers take her under their wing, and she and Dick fall in love. Over the course of the novel, we learn that Nicole was a patient of Dick’s, and their lifestyle begins to fall apart. He develops alcoholism and Nicole falls in love with someone else. Eventually, they separate, with Nicole now the strong one and Dick the weak one.

This novel has a very bleak outlook on psychiatry, much more than I was prepared for. Dick is a terrible psychiatrist, renowned only for writing textbooks. He has very little interaction with patients until Nicole, whom he meets while she is living at a clinic in Switzerland. He goes to talk to Dr. Franz Dangeu, a man who eventually becomes his partner in another clinic, and meets her. She falls in love and writes him a series of letters, some of which are barely coherent. By the time he comes back to the clinic, Dr. Dangeu’s suggestion is that her transference to him is great and that they should get married. It’s completely irresponsible, and every mental health decision in the novel is (to say nothing of the prejudice and bigotry of the 1920s, fully on display). Dick sees his few patients as allegories and characters, not actual people. Even Nicole is not a real person, just an idea to protect. He never does any actual therapy with her (though we see it with Dr. Dangeu), and never actually helps her. The fact that he’s her therapist comes as a surprise to everyone in the story, and rightly so. I’m not sure what it means that Dick is reported based on Fitzgerald himself.

Nicole’s story, though, is fascinating. As an heiress, her father has the money to send her away to get well, and he does his best to do so. She is originally seen as hysterical, and that is seen through disordered thinking, irrational anger and loss of control of her emotions. Within sessions with Dr. Dangeu, we learn that her father raped her as a child (“just once” he explains in his own session), and her repression of the incident caused her symptoms. Once she dealt with the issue, and her father agreed not to see her for five years, she gets much better. She still has a hard time dealing with stressful issues, a problem that gets worse through the novel, but at the end, she is in recovery and able to take control of her own life. She’s relatively open about having been a mental patient, retorting to Dick’s insistence that another patient is lying about him, “I used to be a mental patient.” Another character tells him “You don’t understand Nicole. You always treat her like a patient because she was once sick.” For the 1920s, the attitude to her is quite progressive, even if the attitude to psychiatry isn’t. She’s a really interesting character, a complete person whose illness is only a small part of her. Nicole, is based on Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda, and I think his love for his wife comes through in her character whether he means it to or not.

Tender is the Night is a beautifully written book about terrible people. Dick is a horrible person who only gets worse, and he’s the main character. Nicole and Rosemary aren’t much better, with Nicole throwing money around and Rosemary swooning over Dick. If anything, their love for Dick makes them harder to like. But the writing is so beautiful, and the way the narrative flows between the characters is gorgeous. Lines like “Later she remembered all the hours of the afternoon as happy -- one of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure, but turn out to have been the pleasure itself” and “Sometimes it is harder to deprive oneself of a pain than of a pleasure and the memory so possessed him that for the moment there was nothing to do but to pretend” are everywhere. My personal favorite is “you never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people's lives.” The language alone makes me want to re-read it, but the idle richness and casual cruelty on display put a lot of distance between the reader and the characters.

Classic books are classic for a reason, and Tender is the Night certainly lives up to its reputation. It encapsulates one very biased viewpoint of psychiatry at one point in time, a very clear view of a very angry point of view. The novel is an interesting look at psychiatry from the upper class, white point of view in a time dominated by psychoanalysis, and for that, it’s worth reading. For the language alone, it’s worth reading. Just don’t plan to like any of the characters.


Next week, we’re going to switch gears completely and look at an episode of the current children’s show Adventure Time. Have you read Tender is the Night? What did you think of the psychology and mental health conditions on display?


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