Falling from Fiction – Analysis of Dick Diver’s Degeneration in ‘Tender Is the Night’

by Ben Linder

Although America is not the originator of creating oneself, the country finds itself with the image of the ‘self-made man’ stamped into the foundation of its national psychology, economic philosophy, and core mythology. Some might say the ability to create oneself through rugged self-determination is at the heart of America’s original mission. Material self-determination often serves to create and affirm an image of the person in their mind – the magnate, the politician, the inventor, the entrepreneur, the priest, the psychologist. A person willingly pursues these things in their life, and it becomes their self-image. However, an image can never be more than an image – thin and lifeless. Most importantly and painfully, if an image is altered at all, even imperceptibly it is a fundamentally different thing; life is nothing if not alterable and constant. Egoists, people who believe themselves the originators and creators of everything in their lives, including the nature of themselves, constantly fear the nature of life and the nature of the subconscious. The subconscious, written here to refer to everything that exists in the human mind not put there by the human the mind belongs to, constantly assails and puts pressure on the egoist, threatening to shatter the illusion of control at any moment. Dick Diver, one of the central characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Tender Is the Night, is one such person.

Diver is an American psychiatrist living in Europe. He lives completely self-assured of his control over his life and psychology. Anything that happens in his life is either a product of his own intellect and will power, or something he can suppress by the same means. However, the character created by Fitzgerald demonstrates the inevitable failing of ego, how the mere uncontrollable, unpredictable pressures of reality brought with the passage of time break down and unravel the fiction Diver created for himself, a tragedy underscored by a tone of desperate sadness.

From almost their first appearance in the story, Dick and Nicole Diver exude ethereal, almost divine qualities. When Rosemary, a young film star taking time off from working on movies in the south of France with her mother, meets the Divers on the Riviera, the words used to describe her dinner with them are angelic bordering on biblical. “The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky … giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe … the two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand,” (34). The scene describes a heavenly scene, where the Divers have untethered the otherwise ordinary dinner from the very surface of the Earth, elevating everything by the mere fact of their divine grace. But it’s a fiction carefully created by the Divers. They are as human as everyone else and the appearance of their divinity comes merely from tricks of the light and the mind, which sees what it wants and expects.

Soon after this dinner, Rosemary goes with the Divers and their friends, namely Abe North, to one of the deadly battlefields of World War I. This scene contains one of the first indicators that Dick Diver struggles with conflating his fiction with the reality of the world, and that reality of the world will win out in the end. As Rosemary, Dick, and Abe tour the trenches and battlefield, Dick excitedly tells them both about the battle. However, Abe fought in the first world war, Dick never fought in any, and yet he runs around with emotion in his voice telling them about what happened and what the soldiers felt as they fought, and above all, romanticism and literary references.

“‘No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation … This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes… You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember… This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, … and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle … All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love,’ Dick mourned persistently.” (57)

He deeply and overly romanticizes his conception of war and of life. He makes grand claims about something he knows nothing about because he can and because the nature of his world demands it. For the creation and maintenance of his ego, he must create the world he inhabits, so why would he act any differently toward a world he never lived in?

Somewhat hilariously, Dick can’t see the childish absurdity of his conceiving and reconceiving of the world. Soon after his tirade about love and war, Abe throws a handful of dirt at him and Rosemary, pretending it was a grenade that killed them. Dick’s response, “I couldn’t kid here… The silver cord is cut and the golden bowl is broken and all that, but an old romantic like me can’t do anything about it,” (58) is foolishness that inspires a mixture of pity and anger, and offers an illuminating look at what happens when he has to face a contradiction. Dick can’t play in such a scene. One reason for it might truly be the one he claims, that out of sadness and respect for the tragedy he can’t pretend. But he pretended only a moment ago when he made grand claims about people he never knew fighting in a war he only read about. Playing in reality would force him to realize how much he’d played already. It’s as though having to consciously create an illusion inside of the one he created unconsciously would force him to realize the illusory nature of what he believes to be reality. One can pity his ignorance, the depth of which reflects something in him bordering on innocence. But the difficulty lies in forgiving his self-delusion because of the pain its continuation results in for the people involved in his life, the ones who depend on him, believe in him, and love him.

Dick suffers immensely because he cannot live beyond the confines of his fixed ego in his ever-changing world. Though surrounded by infidelity and divorce he must continue to see himself with the same God-like control over his life with which he viewed himself before, despite everything, including the mere passage of time, pointing out to him the impossibility and vanity of such an attempt. Time presents such an unavoidable problem for Dick Diver because of its uncontrollable, unstoppable nature, as well as the problems that presents, namely age. The first half of the book, from the introduction to the Divers, is characterized by the same qualities that define the two, chiefly beauty and youth, qualities which while desirable are ephemeral and fundamentally inimitable. By the end, Dick loses nearly everything that marked his life when Rosemary first met him, every brick from which he built himself as a person crumbled away, leaving him in America, clinging to God knows what and slowly disappearing from memory and existence, like a painting fading to something unrecognizable from exposure to the sun.

Works Cited –

Fitzgerald, F Scott. Tender Is the Night. Scribner, 2003