The Disintegration of Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night

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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).

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...
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