Legal Tender Is the Night

“The governess’s maid and Madame Diver’s maid have come up from second class to help with the baggage and the dogs. Mlle. Bellois will superintend the hand-luggage, leaving the Sealyhams to one maid and the pair of Pekinese to the other. . . . Presently from the van would be unloaded four wardrobe trunks, a shoe trunk, three hat trunks, and two hat boxes, a chest of servants’ trunks, a portable filing-cabinet, a medicine case, a spirit lamp container, a picnic set, four tennis rackets in presses and cases, a phonograph, a typewriter . . . [and] two dozen supplementary grips, satchels and packages, each one numbered, down to the tag on the cane case. Thus all of it could be checked up in two minutes on any station platform, some for storage, some for accompaniment from the ‘light trip list’ or the ‘heavy trip list,’ constantly revised, and carried on metal-edged plaques in Nicole’s purse.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

THUS THE AMERICAN DOCTOR Dick Diver, his psychologically unstable wife, Nicole, and their two children arrive at the train station to visit the Contessa di Minghetti at her Italian palazzo.

Always the faithful friend, Hemingway criticized Tender Is the Night (1934) for its lack of artistic imagination: He accused Fitzgerald of drawing too heavily on his own life. Though this charge is unkind and aesthetically irrelevant, it’s also true: Like F. Scott, Dick Diver is a romantic; Dick, like his creator, becomes a self-destructive drunk. But the force that pulls the tragic dive of Dick—almost everyone else in the novel departs from its final pages in excellent condition—is neither love nor booze, but Fitzgerald’s third and greatest fascination, money.

The insidious power of money is more than sufficiently documented: Like its partner in crime, power, money corrupts even the noblest souls, inspires greed, creates poverty. But what Fitzgerald analyzed inTender Is the Night is less observed these days. He is not opposed to wealth as such, but is concerned to show what happens when money crashes onto the lives of those not born for it, when a person whose self-definition depends on striving for suddenly has everything given to. Before meeting the flamboyantly wealthy Nicole, Dick is a brilliant, young, broke soon-to-be psychiatrist on the rise. He will never be rich, but he will, we feel sure, succeed. What undoes him is not a moral failing, but a material one—Nicole’s money overmasters him, because he does not come from money. In this way Fitzgerald marks a break with the generation of writers just before him, like Henry James and Edith Wharton, whose characters pair up with people in their own economic class. Fitzgerald recognizes that in the twentieth century an intellectual aristocracy has emerged—Dick Diver typifies it—that is socially encouraged to mingle with the rich, while showing the effect that wealth can have on that new, unmoneyed class.

Unlike Gatsby, whose flaw comes in misunderstanding the power of money—it can never give him what he seeks, not in a single generation—Dick has the appropriate respect for old money: He even disdains it. He mocks Nicole’s sister Baby when she proposes to buy a psychiatric clinic for him to run (and for Nicole to be cured in). In fact, it’s probably Dick’s active disregard for money that makes him vulnerable to it: Like a recovering alcoholic too certain of his sobriety, he considers himself superior to money’s powers, and pride goes before the fall. When Dick, as a student, burns his textbooks to stay warm, he does so only after he has memorized their essential contents. Once married to Nicole he has money to burn, and there is no content to it. There is, however, the question of whether he can be content in it. Nicole, born to money, breathed it, like golden amniotic fluid, in the womb—thus her ease with managing their luggage on the train, every asset neatly sorted, numbered and labeled, on a “metal-edged plaque” (note the metal edge).

Dick is the middle class as Fitzgerald envisioned it: happy so long as money was part of the project, and only so long as it was never the project itself. Upon the release of Tender Is the Night, the critic Philip Rahv complained in the Communist Daily Worker: “Dear Mr. Fitzgerald, you can’t hide from a hurricane under a beach umbrella.” But Fitzgerald was not opposed to capitalism as such; on the contrary, that a person can work and make a living seemed to be a great good in Fitzgerald’s world (as it does to anyone who loves his or her work and at least occasionally is well paid for it).

What the story of Dick Diver teaches us is a bit like the moral of the story of the Wall Street bailout: Beware when the rich reach out to the rest of us (and perhaps especially when those born rich, like Nicole, seek the middle class’s help). In the end the wealthy will return to their mansions and palatial apartments, to the bright lights of their big cities, and the rest of us will be left disoriented in the dark, with hopes that we’d never had somehow dashed, silent and unknown—like Dick in the last sentence of the novel—in “a very small town . . . in one town or another.”

Clancy Martin is the author of the novel How to Sell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009).