An Analysis of Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hemingway was well known for his elegantly simple and easy to understand writing style that allowed for total transparency and submersion into the stories he told, but perhaps part of what put him at odds with the likes of Fitzgerald is the way the supposed “mentor” preferred to write. It seems that Fitzgerald, rather than choosing to remain simple and transparent in his writing style, preferred not only sweepingly imaginative and interpretable passages, but changes in perspective as well, and he even makes frequent use of a form of free indirect discourse. All of these shine forth in his writing in Tender is the Night.
Fitzgerald has always been known for these passages where the narrator tends not to speak directly, but instead he creates sections of abstraction that muse and linger on a subject rather than advance the plot or the action in any way. Sometimes entire chapters have this quality of musing, but more often they come at a pause in the action in which Fitzgerald feels the need to expound upon an idea presented in the story itself. For instance, in chapter XIX, just after the train shooting, Fitzgerald doesn’t describe the moment of tension by simply stating the emotions of shock and anxiety we should be feeling at such an occurrence. Instead, the narrator says, “Only after a hundred years did the train stop.” This moment of exaggeration is rare even for Fitzgerald’s writing style, and yet he still pulls it off impeccably to show us how this moment slows down for everyone involved in the scene.
And he does have other such moments of intense, thought-provoking material writing as well. At the end of the chapter, he stops the action for a momentary reprieve following in the aftermath of the shooting. Both women, that is Rosemary and Mary, are horrified, and Dick is stunned as well, and the chapter’s previous encounter with Abe and Nicole culminate in this final passage: Then, as if nothing had happened, the lives of the Divers and their friends flowed out into the street.
However, everything had happened— Abe’s departure and Mary’s impending departure for Salzburg this afternoon had ended the time in Paris. Or perhaps the shots, the concussions that had finished God knew what dark matter, had terminated it (p. 80/299). This is Fitzgerald’s method of removing his readers from and framing the action in such a way that we cease the experience and begin the process of thought surrounding the symbolism surrounding such an event. The gunshot is important, he’s telling us. He’s giving us a hint, which is something Hemingway would never have bothered to do for us.
As we’ve discussed in class, Fitzgerald also has a tendency to skip smoothly but frantically between the points of view of several of the characters in the novel. Aside from outright choosing a character to begin the chapter with and sticking with them through it, Fitzgerald often shows us multiple perspectives within the same chapter. For instance, the chapter above starts from Abe’s perspective but then shifts to Dick’s and then briefly drifts into Rosemary’s and Mary’s, and usually the transitions are never intrusive nor difficult, nor do they throw the reader out of the story. That said, one section (p. 27 in my copy) does see Fitzgerald outright stating that the narrator now “resume[s] Rosemary’s point of view,” which feels a little strange.
He also tends to have the narrator dip in and out of the character’s minds from time to time. On page 83, we’re shown Dick imagining what might have transpired between Rosemary and her potential other man, and we slip directly into his consciousness just for the tender moment he pictures between Rosemary and this other, just as one says “Do you mind if I pull the curtain down?” And the other replies “Please do. It’s too light in here.” We have no context: are they about to have sex and they want to close the curtains so nobody sees? Or do they simply share this moment of quiet intimacy with each other before whatever happens to transpire occurs.
All this creates a very distinctive and separate style from Hemingway, deeply contrasting what style he does have. Rather than remain transparent, Fitzgerald works on the surface as well as below. Whether this is a richer experience for that work is up for debate, of course, but personally, I enjoy both for different reasons. They both have their merits, their excellences and their flaws. All that can be said is that Tender is the Night is rich not just for its story but for its style, not unlike a sweet desert delicious for both its taste and texture.