Themes and Symbols
The Sexual Metaphor
While incest has often been cited as a theme of Tender Is the Night, it has less frequently been seen as part of a larger pattern of sexual relationships in the novel. Incest as a theme is pervasive; it recurs again and again, from Devereux and Nicole Warren in its blatant physicality to its artistic manifestation in Rosemary's movie, Daddy's Girl, to its psychological level in Dick Diver's relationship both to Nicole and Rosemary, each of whom plays a girl-child to his father role.
But incest, psychological or physical, is part of a larger pattern of sexual roles in this novel. One is reminded of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" in the Ariel poems, where "daddy" comes to stand for her own father, her husband, and Hitler, and finally for power, control, and even oppression. Fitzgerald says early in the novel that in Paris, Dick Diver was surrounded by women — Rosemary, Nicole, Violet McKisco, and Mary North — who "were all happy to exist in a man's world," therein differing from most American women. To exist in a man's world means, in each of these cases, that the woman allows herself to be managed by her mate or lover. When Abe North says that he is "tired of women's worlds," then, he probably means that he is tired of the passivity and lack of imagination exhibited by women.
Only two women in the novel stand outside this "women's world" — Baby Warren and the Iron Maiden. Dick, as we have seen, sympathizes deeply with the Iron Maiden and is deeply affected by her death. She perishes, Dick knows, because she tried to live in a man's world and failed. She does not have the endurance to be independent and creative. Baby Warren is the other character who does not live in a "woman's world" because she refuses to submit to any man; indeed, with the aid of her fortune, she labors to attain power over men. Significantly, she never marries.
The underlying dichotomy, then, is "woman's world" and man's world," with the former standing for coherence and passivity, and the latter embodying creativity and dominance. Abe North needs a man's world in order to create; the Iron Maiden, because she is a woman, cannot exist in the raw world of the independent artist. The homosexuals, who are male but reject the dominance and creativity due them and are generally treated scornfully for that reason, provide one variation on this theme. The American Woman, who, in one brief passage comes to be identified with Baby Warren, offers another variation; this creature unjustly usurps the dominant male role and, clumsily wielding her new-found power without its natural concomitant creativity, brings only destruction.
There are many references to war in the novel, references which provide a continuing metaphor for the disintegration of the Western world, as well as those which enrich the author's descriptions of Dick's state of mind. Dick Diver is associated with all three major American wars. He claims to be a descendant of Mad Anthony Wayne, a Revolutionary War hero. He is also compared, unfavorably it turns out, with Ulysses S. Grant, a Civil War hero. And Dick himself notes after a bad dream that he suffers from "non-combatant's shell-shock" after World War 1.
As has been stated in the foregoing critical commentary, the First World War is described by Dick as a "love war" because it represented for both sides the eager defense of a way of life, a culture that had been centuries in the making. In the aftermath of the war, the Western world lay in disarray. Dick Diver has internalized that sorrow and fragmentation, and, as a result, he comes to typify a man of the Western world who is left to survive after its most devastating war.
In the revisions that Fitzgerald sketched out for his reorganization of the novel, there is the cryptic phrase — "change moon" after the first chapter revision. Malcolm Cowley confessed to never finding this exact reference, but the notation suggests that Fitzgerald probably saw the moon as an important symbolic vehicle in the narrative.
Some of Fitzgerald's most poetic and flowing language is associated with descriptions of darkness, moonlight, and sunlight in the novel, and a complex interplay between them begins to emerge. The sunshine often glares down on the beach, revealing the dramatic action of the novel. The dark night, often illuminated by the moon, seems by the same token to suggest the erotic and mysterious underside of human action.
While the moon becomes progressively associated with passionate love, in one case it suggests a kind of artistic desperation. This occurrence is the song performed by Lanier and Topsy in Chapter vi of Book 1; it is the popular "Mon Ami Pierrot," the verse of which they sing roughly translates as:
My friend Pierrot, fetch me your pen to
Write a word by the light of the moon.
My candle is out; I have no more
Light. Open the door for the love of God.
The song seems to suggest that in darkness caused by the extinguished candle, the artist sets down his word only by the light of the moon. The moon is evanescent, shining only occasionally on a world otherwise either dark or blindingly lit by the sun.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was always deeply moved by John Keats's poetry, and even in the course of this novel he shows Dick Diver's "spirit soar" as he pauses at the house in Rome where Keats died. The lines from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" which give the novel its title are inscribed on the title page, but exactly why Fitzgerald chose that particular poem or those particular lines is something of a mystery.
There are references within the novel to a nightingale, suggesting that the same influences that Keats describes as transforming him as he sat listening to the bird's song are also working upon the characters in the novel. When Abe North is trying to describe why McKisco agreed to duel with Tommy Barban, he says that McKisco was "probably plagued by the nightingale," meaning that, as in Keats's case, the nightingale's song encourages thoughts of death and immortality. Later, the cricket's song has much the same effect on Nicole and Dick as it holds "the scene together with a single note." A last, perhaps confusing fact is that in her novel, Save Me the Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald calls the Riviera home that Fitzgerald names the Villa Diana, "Les Rossignols," which in French means "the nightingales." To both Fitzgeralds, then, the nightingale seems to have been an emblem of their Riviera experience.
It is significant that Fitzgerald deletes two lines from the section of the ode that he quotes. They are: "And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, / Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays." In Keats's poem these lines suggest a kind of saving optimism, the thought that perhaps somewhere the moon and stars are shining brilliantly, although the poet himself is cloaked in darkness, unable even to see the flowers at his feet. The "tender night" of the poet is without a moon, and the song of the bird has brought him to this trancelike state of suspended time, when his thoughts are on death and immortality.
The moon, in Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, is often an elusive symbol, whether or not it can be identified with Keats's Queen Moon. It comes to punctuate time often in the person of a young and beautiful woman or, not surprisingly, during scenes of love. Rosemary awakens during the night she first falls in love with Dick Diver, and the time is described as a "limpid black night," just as it is in Keats's evocation, though Rosemary, awaking, is "suspended in the moonshine." In this instance, Rosemary seems almost to become identified with the Queen Moon of Keats's poem.
The other moon references in the novel occur largely with Nicole. In one of her letters to Dick before their marriage she says "I've thought a lot about moonlight too," suggesting some conspiracy of knowledge between them about the effect of the moon on human beings. Later, as Dick falls more in love with her, they meet on the sanitarium grounds, and as the young and beautiful Nicole comes to meet Dick, she comes out of the woods into "clear moonlight," a kind of goddess of youth and beauty. Although the moon is not specifically mentioned, sexual love between Nicole and Dick is suggested by such a phrase as "between the loves of the white nights," a transforming act after which Nicole feels bereft and alone. And after she has left Dick for the affair with Tommy, their sexual unions are described as "tangled with love in the moonlight."
The phrase "Tender Is the Night" suggests the dominant mood of the novel, in that the characters are often shrouded in darkness, literal and metaphorical. Their motives, their actions, and their very lives are not illuminated by optimism or self-knowledge. When the moon sheds its light, a romance ensues even a period of illumination, but the romance passes too, leaving the bare world with its problems, a world in Keats's words:
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin,
and dies; Where but to think is to be full of
sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.