Wasted Youth: A Warning From Fitzgerald's Tender is The Night

Forget Gatsby, this is the best novel Fitzgerald ever wrote...

Tender is The Night was neither a critical or commercial success for Fitzgerald when he originally published the book in 1934.  It’s taken many years for his final story to receive the acclaim it deserves as one of the twentieth century’s most hauntingly honest accounts of human resilience; with a glimpse into the pain and struggles of the famously glamorous Fitzgeralds’ real lives littering the tales’ pages. 

Many consider The Great Gatsby to be Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, a work that enraptures its audience with the boundless decadence and irresponsibility of the novel’s characters. But for me, it’s his final piece of work that most sincerely displays both the allure and devastation of the world that he and his friends inhabited. 

Tender tells the story of the handsome, tanned and confident Dick Driver, a talented and magnetic young psychiatrist who falls in love with one of his own patients; Nicole Warren, and makes her his wife. Nicole’s the victim of sexual abuse by her own father, and its Dick’s self-elected task to remove her fear of men.
It probably already seems apparent that their relationship is doomed, but at first there does seem to be a sense of promise. Their marriage is a success, with children and a social life that befits a young, beautiful and talented couple. Thanks to Nicole’s inheritance, they can live a life of parties and travel, unbothered by the worries of maintaining a job or salary; the privilege of the most wealthy. But it’s from here that we see things start to unravel, not just in their relationship, but in Dick’s career and his sanity. 

Fitzgerald’s decision to write Tender came after a succession of events that led him to inspect his own self-perceived waste of talent and a life. His wife Zelda was by now in a sanatorium in Switzerland, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and considered incurable. His father had passed away soon after Zelda’s first break-down, and all this combined with his chronic alcoholism had led Fitzgerald to run away from the French and Italian Riveras as well as the life and friends that Zelda and he had made for themselves, for the stable monotony of Baltimore. 

The novel was Fitzgerald’s most painful to write, and you can feel Dick’s grip on life slip as easily as water through clenched fingers; the tighter he tries to hold on the easier the water runs out. An environment that had originally been filled with sensuality and revelry is replaced with one where friends easily transform into enemies, and the recognition of the inconsequential moments and days of their lives provide no answers for solace. 

Far more than Gatsby, Tender left me exhausted; its truth in the transient nature of happiness a bitter pill to swallow. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing lies in his ability to find and perfectly expose the nuances of human nature.

I’ve never partied on a yacht in the French Riviera, sipping on champagne and undressing my best-friend’s husband with my eyes. But when Fitzgerald writes of that moment when a word said in anger ends forever a friendship forged in childhood, or a glance between two lovers signals the end of their relationship, even if they then still go to bed together, those are moments that we can all recognise. 

I enjoyed Gatsby, but it had nowhere near the same effect on me as Tender. Maybe it's because I read Tender first, and once you've had your heart broken once by Fitzgerald, you won't let it happen again. The complexities of the characters and the self-annihilation that's destined to destroyed those that promised so much is truly heart-breaking. We all know someone whose personal story reads like the characters of the books, or fear such an outcome for ourselves, and it's with gratitude that I read Fitzgerald's tragedies; a warning against wasted talent and wasted youth.  

Illustration by Tamara-Jade Kaz