The Two Versions of Tender Is the Night

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an impressionistic painting of the Antibes skyline

While The Great Gatsby held an unflattering magnifying glass to the gilt frame around the social elite, Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night brought out the paint scraper. The novel, which was originally published in 1934 and was the last that F. Scott Fitzgerald would complete, centers on Dick and Nicole Diver—a husband and wife staying on the French Riviera with their family and a tight circle of (mostly American) socialites. Their clique is joined by Rosemary Hoyt, a beautiful and naïve teenage actor, whose arrival catalyzes the decline and dissolution of the Divers’ marriage. Duality is a constant theme of the novel, and fracture along the resulting fault lines is its constant threat. Nicole Diver’s mind swerves between being able to function in her social reality and not; Rosemary teeters between societal innocence and savvy; Dick Diver is stretched between his love for Nicole and his hunger for a perpetually healthy, perpetually young lover. Fitzgerald studied these fractures deeply, and mirrored them in a brilliant nonlinear structure, though whether he fully appreciated his own craft is unclear, given that he eventually decided to sabotage it.

The most meta duality of Tender Is the Night lies in the fact that there are two versions of the novel. The original version, released in 1934 in a serial format, features a fractured structure and chronology with a prolonged flashback midway through (and a very strange fast-forward back to the present). A second version, published posthumously in 1951, puts all events in the order that they occurred. It tells the story of the Divers chronologically, from their first meeting as beautiful teenage psychiatric patient and bright young doctor to their final separation and Dick’s decline. There’s no flashback, and Rosemary isn’t introduced until midway through, once we already know the Divers and their complex relationship.

The original version begins on the Riviera, in a third person narration that is very close to Rosemary’s perspective. It’s from this external vantage that we meet Dick and Nicole and, crucially, it’s an admiring gaze. To Rosemary, the couple seem to have everything—friends, children, beauty, a shocking amount of money—and it’s only later that she (and we) realize the existence and depth of their wounds. When, one successful seduction and a little over a third of the book later, Rosemary learns of Nicole’s breakdowns, Fitzgerald takes us back to the beginning of the Divers’ relationship, when Nicole was a patient being treated for schizophrenia by one of Dick’s psychologist colleagues. Rosemary disappears from the picture and Nicole and Dick snap to center focus, essentially re-starting the story and allowing readers to see the chasm between what the Divers had once been and what they later seemed.

Why the revision? And why was the second version released after Fitzgerald’s death? I had a teacher who said, about this, “Poor F. Scott—the estate vultures swooped down before his body was cool!” This is unquestionably true. The Last Tycoon, for instance, was unfinished at the time he died and published before it was ready, regardless. Things get a little more complex with Tender Is the Night. Fitzgerald himself planned all of the major revisions that appear in the 1951 version. He cut up and rearranged his own copy of the original published edition, indicating in the margins that he considered the rearrangement final. We’ll never know, though, whether Fitzgerald pondered these changes purely in response to the negative reviews of the first version (which shocked him), or whether he really believed that this was a better way to tell the story.

The man responsible for editing and reissuing the revised edition was Malcolm Cowley, another American hanging around Paris in the twenties. He wrote an essay to introduce the revised edition (a version of which was published in The New Republic in 2014). In his introduction, Cowley claims that “The early critics of Tender were right when they said that it broke in two after Rosemary left the scene and that the first part failed to prepare us for what would follow. By rearranging the story in chronological order Fitzgerald tied it together.” He goes onto say that the primary quality that Fitzgerald sacrifices in losing the original structure is mystery, but that, “One fault of the earlier version was its uncertainty of focus.” Of course, Cowley also seems to consider Dick Diver to be the character with whom most readers will sympathize, and his arc the true heart of the novel:

We weren’t quite sure in reading [the original] whether the author had intended to write about a whole group of Americans on the Riviera—that is, to make the book a social study with a collective hero—or whether he had intended to write a psychological novel about the glory and decline of Richard Diver as a person. . . . We are certain in reading the final version that the novel is psychological, that it is about Dick Diver, and that its social meanings are obtained by extension or synecdoche. Dick is the part that stands for the whole.

But of course, Tender Is the Night is a largely autobiographical novel. Dick was Fitzgerald. And worse than an estate vulture, Cowley was Fitzgerald’s friend. It’s possible that he saw his friend’s fate as the only important story, as the only thing that could be central in the novel.

The two tracks Cowley saw for the book (possibly, for any book) were social study or psychological novel. Cowley himself was a social poet—he chronicled the collective wandering of the whole Lost Generation. But Cowley didn’t seem to consider the possibility of an in-between—a psychological novel with multiple protagonists.

Cowley seems to ignore the narrative power of the uncertain protagonist (not collective hero) in the original non-linear version. For instance, when Cowley ponders Dick’s downfall, he blames, in part, “the strain of curing a psychotic wife, who gains strength as he loses it by a mysterious transfer of vitality.” This is an embarrassingly one-sided view of the relationship between the Divers. The best argument against it comes from Nicole’s own mouth, when, speaking of Dick’s treating her as being constantly ill, she reminds him that “It’s always a delusion when I see what you don’t want me to see.” If we read the novel as one which deals with the difficulty of finding connection between fractured selves—both in attempts to unify one’s own dual personality and attempts to connect with someone else’s—the “misleading” beginning of Fitzgerald’s original version serves to fracture the reader’s own sympathies, to foster and then break the tragic illusion of understanding another person.

Fitzgerald takes the title of his novel from the Keats poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which the speaker addresses and idolizes a bird he hears singing in a tree above him. In becoming an immortal idol, a protagonist, the nightingale inspires a vein of self-destruction in the mortal speaker: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die / To cease upon the midnight with no pain / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” Happily, by the end of the poem the speaker has broken free of this self-imposed curse. The protagonists of Tender Is the Night aren’t all so lucky. Nicole and Rosemary, at least, escape the trap of idolizing someone, specifically Dick. But Dick was his own idol, too, and that’s a harder escape to manage. The ends of both versions are the same: Dick’s vantage fades from view and we’re no longer privy to his thoughts. News of his fate is delivered by a perspective close to Nicole’s, who has “the impression that he had settled down with some one to keep house for him.”  We are left only with the perfectly unfocused and dual statement that he is almost certainly near New York, “in one town or another.”