Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Repression and Counter-Memory in 'Tender Is the Night.'

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Repression and Counter-Memory in 'Tender Is the Night.'

Article excerpt

What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning --T S Eliot, Four Quartets

It is a commonplace of Scott Fitzgerald criticism that Tender Is the Night (1934, rev. 1951) embodies its author's most comprehensive account of a certain kind of fate--a fate all but mythologized by Fitzgerald himself in the course of his lifelong meditation on the meaning of America: that of the genteel American idealist who strives to create illusions of invulnerable beauty and munificence, only to fall prey to the triple temptation of money, sex, and glamor which informs Fitzgerald's unique version of the modern wasteland.[1] So conceived, the story of Dick Divers long descent (or "dying fall," as Fitzgerald described it [Letters 310]) from his initial eminence into ultimate obscurity repeats a pattern of disillusion and decline already firmly in place by the time Fitzgerald began writing Tender in 1925. The pattern is most immediately apparent, of course, in The Great Gatsby, published that same year, whose dashing hero enacts in his material obsessions and seamy downfall an almost legendary destiny in American literature, one that illuminates the otherwise unequal fates of Clyde Griffiths, Thomas Sutpen, Willy Loman, and even Humbert Humbert.[2] But the pattern is also prevalent in such other narratives of the twenties as The Beautiful and Damned, "May Day," "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," and "The Rich Boy"--works in which, as Bruce Grenberg suggests, Fitzgerald "depicts an America whose ideals, noble in themselves, are becoming untenable, whose idealists, by the very nature of their ideals, are being corrupted, or crushed and cast out by a new culture progressively giving itself over to material, amoral pleasure" (217).

In this predominantly tragic view of the novel, the story of Dick Diver's uneasy marriage to Nicole Warren and of his humiliating attachment to her family's fortune is not merely the story of one man's failure to resist the corrupting influences of wealth and privilege; by allegorical extension it is also, as Nick Carraway once said of Gatsby, the story of America itself, or at least that portion of its history--postwar, urban, and early modern--which Fitzgerald repeatedly portrayed as the period inaugurating America's moral decline as well as its eventual emergence as a major military and economic power.[3] Insofar as Tender Is the Night exposes its hero to the inherent contradictions and confusions of this historical moment, the conventionally darksome view of the book's significance is both pertinent and suggestive. But is this the only point of view encouraged by the novel? Is there another way of understanding the problematic structure of Fitzgerald's plot which allows us to moderate, if not overturn completely, the preeminently tragic value usually assigned to the hero's life? Does Tender Is the Night contain, in other words, what Michel Foucault has called a "counter-memory," a memory that impedes and disrupts the narrative of inexorable decline and fall favored by most readers of the novel?[4]

No one, of course, was more eager to endorse this Spenglerian estimate of his hero's fate than Fitzgerald himself. "The novel should do this," he wrote in his "General Plan" for Tender in 1932: "Show a man who is a natural idealist, a spoiled priest, giving in for various causes to the ideas of the haute Bourgeoise [sic], and in his rise to the top of the social world losing his idealism, his talent and turning to drink and dissipation" (Bruccoli 76). Given this authorial emphasis on the hero's "giving in" and "turning to" his moral destruction, it is hardly surprising that most readings of the novel have focused on the "various causes" of Dick's decline--causes that conform not only to Fitzgerald's announced intention in the book but also to the alleged masterplot of his earlier fiction. In a recent essay that addresses the controversy surrounding the 1951 edition, Milton R. …

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