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The Disintegration of Dick Diver in Tender is the Night
The exact nature of Dick Diver¹s descent throughout the course of Tender is the Night is difficult to discern. It is clear enough that his disintegration is occasioned by Nicole¹s burgeoning independence, but why or how her transformation affects him this way is less than obvious. Moreover, it is not at all apparent what is at stake, more abstractly, in this reciprocal exchange of fates. In this paper, I will propose a reading of this change that relates Nicole¹s strength to her naturalness, her identification with instinct and natural impulse, and Dick¹s strength to his civilization, his identification with the curtailment of natural impulse through psychiatry and prewar American civilization. The relationship between Nicole and Dick is such that what happens to the one must happen to the other. Both Nicole and Dick turn by the novel¹s end to impulse and instinct, but while Nicole does this by gaining an independent self-consciousness, Dick achieves this only through drinking.
Throughout the novel Nicole is identified with the childish and animalistic wildness of instinct. This is most obvious in the uninhibited expression of emotion which characterizes her episodes of madness. We see, for instance, her frenzied laughter as she rides the Ferris wheel and causes her car to crash. As the car finally comes to a halt, "she, [Nicole], was laughing hilariously, unashamed, unafraid, unconcernedŠ.She laughed as after some mild escape of childhood" (192). And as a patient at the clinic, after having her affection for Dick rebuffed, we are told, "Nicole¹s world had fallen to pieces, but it was only a flimsy and scarcely created world; beneath it her emotions and instincts fought on" (143).
As the story progresses, though, the expression of these impulses become less openly dangerous and abnormal and more linked to her growing sense of self. One more restrained way in which Nicole is identified with impulse is her use of money. Money in the story is a sort of materialized passion, the tangible expression of an appetite to possess and control. Money becomes more and more plentiful as the story moves on, such that by the beginning of book three, after Dick gives up his stake in the clinic, "the mere spending of it, [money], the care of goods, was an absorption in itself. The style in which they traveled was fabulous" (257).
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Nicole¹s relation to impulse is also demonstrated by her attractions to others, culminating, of course, in her relationship with Tommy Barban. Fitzgerald tells us, for instance, that "the people she liked, rebels mostly, disturbed her and were bad for her‹she sought in them the vitality that had made them independent or creative or rugged, sought in vain‹for their secrets were buried deep in childhood struggles they had forgotten" (180). It was this raw vitality which Dick increasingly lacked‹he was far from rugged and becomes less and less creative through the course of the novel‹and that she saw in herself that became the focus of her external interest. Her search for this energy in others was an expression of her own growing awareness of this energy within herself.
I think it is noteworthy, as well, that Fitzgerald links this energy to childhood struggles. If the source of such interior strength is the experience of childhood, then perhaps Nicole¹s difficulty in finding this in herself can be explained by the fact that she has not left childhood. For much of the novel, she is still Dick¹s surrogate daughter and has yet to extricate herself from that role. One might also use this fact to explain her poor relation with her own children who seem, on the whole, more mature than she. How could she be a mother to children when she is a child herself?
Near the end of the novel, this identification of Nicole with instinct becomes more explicit. On page 280, for example, we are told that "Nicole had been designed for change, for flight, with money as fins and wings" (280). Freedom is her nature, but it is a freedom likened to that of animals. There is a wildness inherent in her, a unconstrained passion for movement. Fitzgerald continues in the next line, "the new state of things would be no more than if a racing chassis, concealed for years under the body of a family limousine, should be stripped to its original self" (280). Again, Nicole is represented by a unruly, passionate, and impulsive object. (I might also note the subversive power of the image in its denial of Nicole¹s familial role).
The culmination of Nicole¹s growing awareness of the wildness of her nature is her relationship with Tommy Barban. The exchange between her and Tommy in their impulsively procured hotel room is very illuminating in this regard. Tommy asks her pointedly, "Why didn¹t they leave you in a natural state?," following up with, "You are the most dramatic person I have ever metŠAll this taming of women!" (293). Nicole stays silent through most of this, feeling "Dick¹s ghost prompting at her elbow," but refusing to pay it heed, listens instead to Tommy¹s exposition of her nature. In the end she accepts his understanding of her as her own, endorsing his impulsive naturalness with her own and "welcom[ing] the anarchy of her lover" (298).
Dick¹s path is decidedly different. Throughout the first half of the book, Dick is presented in a very positive light. He is handsome and charismatic, the center of his social world. We are told that "save among a few of the tough-minded and perennially suspicious, he had the power of arousing a fascinating and uncritical love" (27). Due to people¹s affection for him, he becomes the head of his social group. He is shown very much in control of his environment.
We learn later that Dick is a psychiatrist with a brilliant mind who, if he could only organize his thoughts on paper, would lead to great advances in the subject. For all the emotional attachment he engenders in others, he himself‹except for aspects of his relationship with Rosemary, which we know is new for him‹is not given to emotional excess. As a friend of his says, "You are not a romantic philosopher‹you¹re a scientist. Memory, force, character" (117).
Dick¹s role as a scientist is not, however, impersonal observation. He is a clinical psychiatrist and works to bring those who are mentally disturbed back to the "normal" social world. It is in this capacity that he first meets Nicole. She is a patient, and it is his charge to alleviate her hysteria. In this regard, he must curtail the excesses of impulse and emotion that preclude her functioning according to social convention. She is wild, and he must tame her, domesticate her, bring her into the company of civilized men and women.
Aside from this professional concern with bringing the mad into civilization, Dick is also very invested in his particular conception of civilization. We read, for instance, of Dick¹s early "illusions of the essential goodness of people; illusions of a nation, the lies of generations of frontier mothers who had to croon falsely, that there were no wolves outside the cabin door" (117). Further on, as Dick becomes more reflective, he begins to question dying for one¹s beliefs and of the social imperatives "to be goodŠ.brave and wise" (133). What prompts this questioning is the war, which shook Dick deeply.
We see this most clearly in 1.xiii where he and his entourage visit an old battleground. There, Dick becomes melancholy and "his throat strain[s] with sadness" (57). He also proclaims dolefully that "all of my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love" (57). In this odd statement, Dick takes ownership of this world and feels a great personal loss at what has happened even though he did not directly participate. The importance of the war to Dick is further shown by the scene in which he helps the red-haired Tennessee girl looking for the grave of her brother.
In these ways, then, Dick is portrayed as the protector of civilization, mourning the disillusioning effects of the war while working to repair civilization by treating the psyche. We are told a little over half way through the novel that "Šsomehow Dick and Nicole had become one and equal, not opposite and complementary; she was Dick too in the marrow of his bones" (190). Given the novel¹s outcome, there is an air of paradox to this statement. Clearly Nicole and Dick end the novel in very different conditions. How can this be if they are one and the same? Doesn¹t this indicate an oppositeness or complementariness rather than a unity of identity? I think that this air can be dissipated by understanding the trajectory of Nicole and Dick¹s relationship, using the identifications elucidated above, as an increasing move toward natural instinct and impulse, the effect of which is positive for Nicole and detrimental for Dick, as the only way he can handle such feelings is through alcohol.
The first decisive move in this direction is Dick¹s relationship with Rosemary. We are told again and again that Dick had never done anything like this before, that the emotional whirlwind in which he is caught up is entirely new. This comes out most clearly at the end of 1.xx in which Dick impulsively goes to visit Rosemary at her movie set: "He knew that what he was now doing marked a turning point in his life‹it was out of line with everything that preceded it" (91). And further on, "Dick¹s necessity of behaving as he did was a projection of some submerged reality.ŠDick was paying some tribute to things unforgotten, unshriven, unexpurgated" (91). I interpret this submerged reality as the presence of natural impulse and instinct which he has hitherto repressed, the aspect of himself which it is the psychiatrist¹s job to subdue in the process of bringing someone into civilization. But, as they are aspects of him as well as of every person, they are "unforgotten" and "unexpurgated." (The inclusion of "unshriven" is interesting; as he cannot remove these aspects of himself, neither can he seek pardon for their presence. The feeling that he should need such pardon‹the idea that such instincts are wrong‹stands in stark contrast to Nicole¹s unabashed expression of impulse later in the novel).
This episode and others like it mark a breakdown in Dick¹s civilized worldview. It is this breakdown that allows Nicole to begin finally to express her own nature, first by relapses into her hysteria and then by a more consistent and holistic embrace of instinct and impulse in her relations with Tommy. The final stages of Nicole and Dick¹s break brings this out clearly.
Near the end of the novel, Nicole comes to the realization that "she had somehow given over the thinking to him, [Dick],Š.She knew that for her the greatest sin now and in the future was to delude herselfŠ.Either you think‹or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize, and sterilize you" (290). Nicole, then, awakens to her natural self, recapturing sovereignty over her own person and refusing to allow Dick to fit her into his mold as to what she should be; Dick would no longer be the father with the authority of reason. As Fitzgerald says in narrating the decisive moment of their rupture, "She achieved her victory and justified herself to herself without lie or subterfuge, cut the cord forever" (302).
It is crucial to note that Dick comes to the same point, but as his natural instincts and impulses were for him a "submerged reality," he could not accept healthily this change like Nicole, for whom instinct and impulse were always much closer to the surface. The only way for Dick to handle this unearthed reality within was to turn to the bottle. There is, of course, a natural comparison to made between Dick and Tommy here. It is noteworthy that Fitzgerald explicitly tells us that "Tommy Barban was a ruler, Tommy was a heroŠ.As a rule, he drank little; courage was his game and his companions were always afraid of him" (196). Tommy does not have to drink to deal with his passions; he is a man of passion already and, as such, is more similar to Nicole than Dick. In this way, also, the love between Tommy and Nicole could have the reciprocity which Dick and Nicole¹s hierarchical, paternal, doctor/patient relationship could never have. Tommy could love back where for Dick, "so easy to be loved‹so hard to love" (245).
At the novel¹s end, then, the naturalness of Nicole and Tommy has triumphed over the civilization of Dick. I should say, though, that I do not take this outcome to be an endorsement on the part of Fitzgerald of this impulsive naturalness. Rather, I read the novel as an exploration of disillusionment with the idealism of prewar America. I think Fitzgerald suggests as much when he posits the postwar years as the natural environment in which a story such as Dick¹s emerges:
"His love for Nicole and Rosemary, his friendship with Abe North and Tommy Barban in the broken universe of the war¹s endingŠthere seemed some necessity of taking all or nothing; it was as if for the remainder of his life he was condemned to carry with him the egos of certain people, early met and early loved, and to be only as complete as they were themselves" (245).
This plight, this condemnation, was not Dick¹s alone; it was that of an American civilization thrust into a new world in which it, like all others, must now deal with the sins of past and present in its struggle for survival.