Theme of excess and self-destruction essay

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Specifically it will discuss the theme of the novel, including documented research. “Tender is the Night” is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last complete novel. Released in 1934, the book is an emotional look at his own troubled life and marriage, couched in the story of Dick Diver, a psychoanalyst who analyzes his own wife. In the Introduction to the 1995 edition of the book, editor and publishers Charles Scribner III notes, “The novel is as much a product of the author’s own experience of struggle and heartbreak as it is his credo of fidelity, perseverance, and romantic love” (Scribner ix). Thus, while the novel is a work of fiction, it is also woven with the texture of Fitzgerald’s own life and experiences. The theme of this novel is complicated, reflecting as it does Fitzgerald’s own life. However, one of the most compelling themes of the novel is youthful beauty and youth itself, represented by Diver’s continual interest in younger women, and even his own children. This theme flows throughout the novel, making it interesting and a bit controversial at the same time, along with an underlying theme of excess and self-destruction that help flesh out the theme of an obsessive and destructive interest in youth and beauty.

The story concerns a threesome of Dick Diver, his wife Nicole, who is also his psychiatric patient, and Rosemary Hoyt, an almost eighteen-year-old American starlet who Dick meets on the French Riviera and has an affair with. Fitzgerald introduces Rosemary this way, “Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood — she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her” (Fitzgerald 4), and the theme of the book is immediately set. Fitzgerald cements it when he notes her first film that has made her a star is called “Daddy’s Girl” (Fitzgerald 13). It is clear she is a child/woman, she will be enticing to Dick because of her youth and innocence, and it is a theme that will follow Dick throughout the novel. It is interesting to note that Fitzgerald begins the book by introducing Rosemary, but in reality, she is a relatively minor character in the novel when compared to Dick and Nicole. Fitzgerald throws the read off by making them think the novel is going to center on Rosemary, and then, turns to the Divers for the meat of the novel.

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In addition, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Dick is strongly attracted to young women who exude a certain charm and naivete. He meets Nicole when she is only sixteen and being checked into a mental institution in Switzerland, and he clearly admires Rosemary from the first time he meets her. He is attracted to younger women, possibly because he is older, more educated, and can feel as if he dominates them and has power over them. Fitzgerald describes Rosemary as “Her immature mind made no speculations upon the nature of their relation to each other, she was only concerned with their attitude toward herself” (Fitzgerald 19). Thus, younger women are less complicated and speculative, and so, he does not have to worry about being dissected or understood by these younger women, where older, more mature women would be more apt to question him and his motives. In short, younger women are easier to deal with, and expect less from their men, and Dick takes advantage of their “immature” minds to mold them into something he thinks he wants.

Dick also acts as a father figure to the women in his life, and attempts to dominate them emotionally. For example, he invites people to a party that Nicole does not want to invite, and does not listen to her concerns. Later, the main women of the group laugh and drink in a Paris restaurant, and indicate they are content to allow men like Dick to dominate them. Fitzgerald writes, “Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world — they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them” (Fitzgerald 53). Clearly, Fitzgerald is placing his own thoughts into the novel again. He does not admire women who “oppose” men, but instead appreciates women who allow themselves to be dominated by men. These are the girl/women of his novel, and the women he hoped to surround himself with, it seems. Today, this line of thought is old-fashioned and more than a little disturbing, which fits in with the dark and disturbing patterns of this novel. It also indicates that Fitzgerald may have had some disturbing ideas about women of his own, which may indicate why his male characters are also so dominant in his works. The paternal aspect of his nature shows itself when Rosemary attempts in her own childish way to seduce him. Fitzgerald writes, “When you smile — ‘ He had recovered his paternal attitude, perhaps because of Nicole’s silent proximity, ‘I always think I’ll see a gap where you’ve lost some baby teeth'” (Fitzgerald 64). If he means it as sarcasm, Rosemary does not take it as such, and later, he encourages her with kisses and his own acknowledgement of love for her. He may see “baby teeth,” but they attract him, and continue to attract him throughout this novel.

The second book of the novel indicates just how Dick met Nicole, and how tenuous their relationship really is. Nicole, only sixteen, was being treated at a mental hospital. Dick notices her, and thinks, “The girl was about the prettiest thing I ever saw'” (Fitzgerald 120). Again, Dick is attracted by youth and innocence, and not what lies inside. Again, his paternal nature is aroused to take care of and “cure” this girl and his pattern of admiring youth and beauty above all else is reestablished. In this, Dick seems like a shallow and insensitive character, because he is only attracted to the physical side of women, and does not encourage their emotional and mental growth. In fact, he seems to stand in the way of it, preferring to keep his women dependent and naive throughout their relationship. Interestingly, Nicole, because of abuse, is afraid of men, and yet, she settles on Dick for her husband, a man who may not physically abuse her, but certainly dominates her emotionally. What is most interesting, is at the end, Nicole manages to pull herself up from the depths of mental illness, while Dick degenerates into a meaningless shell of his former self. Dick falls from grace and makes a mess of his life, while Nicole manages to overcome her obstacles and become happy again. Ultimately, Dick’s obsession with youth and beauty has not served him well, and his domination of women has not helped him, either. He is the one who loses everything at the end of the novel, while the women, who were so content to allow men to dominate them, become the strong survivors after all.

In another disturbing parallel to youth and beauty, Dick rediscovers Rosemary five years after their initial meeting in France, and now, in Rome, he compares her favorably to his daughter, which is disturbing and dark, yet carries on the theme of eternal youth and beauty. Fitzgerald writes, “At first he thought nothing. She was young and magnetic, but so was Topsy” (Fitzgerald 207). Dick compares Rosemary and her youth to his daughter, and then embarks on a passionless affair with her. Later, Nicole accuses him of an “almost unnatural interest in the children” (Fitzgerald 267) which again seems to relate to Dick’s obsession with youth and beauty, and may even point to darker intent. Dick has lost control of himself through drinking and self-loathing, and his life spirals out of control as Nicole becomes more strong and self-assured. Dick, when he loses his power over the women he loves, turns into the madman, while Nicole becomes the strong, powerful one in the relationship. It is a complete juxtaposition of their roles throughout the novel, and it seems to indicate that Dick’s reliance on youth, beauty, and dominance throughout the novel has not served him well at all.

An important aspect of the novel, and one that enhances the themes throughout the novel, is Fitzgerald’s parallels to his own life throughout the tale. Sadly, his own wife, Zelda served as a model for Nicole’s mental illness, because she battled mental illness throughout their marriage and was institutionalized several times (Pelzer 104). Critic Linda Pelzer notes, “Fitzgerald had certainly invested much of himself in his novel, turning the euphoric highs and poignant lows of his own marriage and career into the lives of his fictional characters and endowing their story with his own tragic sense of waste and loss” (Pelzer 106). Another aspect of this real-life parallel is the reference he uses to two of his good friends, Gerald and Sarah Murphy, to whom he dedicates the novel. 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 the Chronicle — and One of the Causes-of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Fall from Literary Grace.” Book Sept.-Oct. 2002: 26+.

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