Mankind seems always to have been concerned with the problem of failure, for Western literature abounds with stories of a fall from a state of goodness and promise. In its Hellenic roots, failure was discussed in the great tragedies; in its Judaeo Christian roots, failure began with man's fall from God's grace. There is no need to discuss whether, in Dick Diver, Fitzgerald was intending to create a prototype of the historical tragic hero. It is enough to know that the author was working within a long tradition in order to create this tale of failure in the twentieth century.
Classically, characters fall for one of two reasons or, most frequently, from a combination of the two — because of fate, which rules that what will be will be, and because of a character flaw, or human frailty, which causes people to err, thus leading to their doom. Dick Diver, like a Shakespearean hero, is a victim both of external circumstances and the flaws in his own character.
There is an additional likeness to classic tradition in Dick Diver's original state before his fall from fame. It has often been argued that the most moving tragedy involves a fall from a high place, from a position of esteem and promise. At the beginning of his career, Dick seems dauntless, a veritable golden boy: his education has been excellent and his future as a psychiatrist is a respected one in the dawning years of that profession. His residency in Switzerland places him in Europe, where the great Freud and Jung were located. In the days after the close of the war, Dick Diver's future seemed full of hope — like that of Grant's in Galena.
His marriage to Nicole, however, introduces the complicating external circumstances. Nicole brings wealth, which becomes a serious deterrent to Dick's career, since it determines his social class, the kind of patients he will deal with, the sorts of friends he will have, and the social circles in which he will move. Even his location is determined by Nicole's wealth, since the clinic has been, in a sense, purchased for Dick. He has to live with the crippling realization that it has been Warren money, not his own professional reputation, which has provided him a place to practice psychiatry.
Nicole's money leads to Dick's being used by her family, well. He is in a human situation, a marriage, where he must always be on duty. The character of Nicole is not sufficiently developed, but it is clear that her very presence drains Dick's strength. By transference — that is, directing her childhood feelings to a new object, in this case her husband — Nicole requires that Dick simultaneously be her father, guide, and physician, as well as her spouse. The demand would be too great for anyone, and the many roles he must play exhaust Dick.
That Dick Diver ever submitted to the marriage in the first place suggests one of the flaws in his character. He chose to marry a woman whose history he knew and the course of whose mental illness he could have predicted. His capacity to love Nicole, far from a weakness, should be considered a credit to his humanity. What is a limitation is his inability to judge matters in the light of his own self-interest. Indeed, one of Dick's friends at the university warned "that's going to be your trouble — judgment about yourself." just as he finally realized that his infatuation with Rosemary Hoyt was "self-indulgence," so might he have realized that marriage to Nicole would be an encumbrance to his future. He could have chosen not to marry a mental patient who was also an heiress.
His succumbing to Nicole suggests that Dick Diver had, on the one hand, a weakness for beauty and, on the other, a deep need for approval and love. To love and be loved constitutes a healthy human relationship, but Dick seems to want love so much that he will destroy himself to get it. His very social charm springs from a kind of self-effacing desire to put others at their ease so that they will like themselves and him as well.
Critics have frequently charged that it is Dick Diver's weakness for wealth that leads to his downfall. What seems to be more important, however, is that Nicole's money dictates his lifestyle. Dick does not have the strength to ignore the leisure that money can buy, and his commitment to his work erodes thereby and, with it, the requisite self-esteem.
Indeed, it is possible that Dick Diver's most serious flaw is a lack of discipline in regard to his work. After his life seems to have been loosed from its moorings, Dick turns often to his work, but his career never progresses, possibly because he has no lasting commitment to it. His first book, it should be noted, was a handbook that has become a standard text in the field. His oeuvre was not a creative effort but rather an integrative compendium of information. Likewise, his second projected work has a verbose and inflated-sounding title that will, Fitzgerald points out in a footnote, look especially impressive in German. Dick has a bit of Albert McKisco in him, for his two books, while not altogether derivative, have not emerged from a period of absorbing research to become pioneering, thought-provoking efforts. After his marriage to Nicole, Dick seems unable to settle down to work in anything more than a kind of dilatory way. And the presence of Nicole is not really an excuse for relaxing his professional efforts, since after the divorce, instead of starting over in earnest, he even leaves his original calling.
Dick Diver's most serious lapse, then, is a spiritual one. He could have done great work in his field if he had been disciplined in the practice of his profession and in his application to his writing. Had he been that disciplined, a saving measure of self-awareness might have kept him from Nicole Warren, whose wealth and illness diverted his life from its true intellectual track, that "fine quiet of the scholar which is nearest of all things to heavenly peace."