Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Tender Is the Night and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Sentimental Identities


Chris Messenger


Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2015

Hardcover. ix+281 p. ISBN 978-0817318536. $59.95


Reviewed by Élisabeth Bouzonviller

Université Jean Monnet, Saint-Étienne



As a canonical writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald has been the subject of multiple critical studies, especially since the 1950s. The Great Gatsby (1925) has always been a favorite with readers, critics and teachers, yet Tender Is the Night (1934) has also become a recurrent subject lately, following the idea it had been unfairly set aside compared to the more popular earlier novel whose poetry, polished symmetrical structure, skillful network of symbols and lyrical evocation of the failure of the American dream have induced numerous studies on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, in 1994, Milton R. Stern, the former author of the well-known Golden Moment : The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, from 1971, published Tender Is the Night : The Broken Universe within the Twayne's Masterwork Studies series, a literary analysis focusing on personal and national history. In keeping with this new critical interest, in 2007, William Blazek and Laura Rattray published Twenty-First Century Readings of Tender Is the Night, with Liverpool University Press, to offer new perspectives on a novel considered as intriguing and complex, all the more as its structure was a topic of endless worries and changes for its author himself, even after its first publication which occurred after years of procrastination. Following this trend, and claiming that Tender Is the Night is “F. Scott Fitzgerald's richest novel,” his “most complex and powerful fiction” [2], Chris Messenger intends to examine it from the point of view of sentiment, an original approach, which he tries to define in his 17-page introduction. The work, which is 281 pages long, is divided into three parts; “Identities,” “Refractions,” and “Influences,” and followed by notes, a bibliography and an index. It also includes three well-known black and white pictures of the Fitzgeralds.

A professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Messenger has previously published books on sport and play in American fiction, but he has been a member of the Fitzgerald Society for about a decade now and he masters his Fitzgerald subject perfectly as he relies skillfully both on fictional primary sources novels, stories and the two editions of Tender Is the Night from 1934 and 1951 and on all the material published by the eminent American Fitzgerald scholar, Matthew Bruccoli, including his detailed biography, but also Fitzgerald's letters, notebooks and manuscripts.

An extremely learned person in various fields, Messenger resorts to philosophy, literature, criticism, history and psychoanalysis to feed his demonstration, as well as to constant quotations from Tender Is the Night in its final versions or in its early manuscripts. His analysis relies on biographical and literary sources which, according to him, have nourished Fitzgerald's novel, whether consciously or not. As noted by Fitzgerald scholar Jackson R. Bryer, in a critical assessment on the dust jacket, these sources are “highly original and often-surprising”: the result is therefore particularly original itself. Incidentally, one will notice Messenger’s passionate and personal involvement in his critical approach, which is always rather unusual for French academics, although the analysis remains fully detailed and well-argued.

Messenger differentiates sentiment and sentimentality, the former being the emotion whereas the latter is “pejoratively considered to stimulate, indulge, and wallow in the emotion, showing no confidence in the emotion itself.” [8] According to him, Tender Is the Night would be “an [sic] heroic biographical and narratological battle with and through sentiment” [12] and his analysis aims at “addressing the many angles of sentiment in the novel and in Fitzgerald's career-long affair with sentiment's power and contradictions.” [14] Messenger also asserts that “[n]o American male author or novel since Fitzgerald and Tender Is the Night has told us as much about sentiment's strengths and failings in authorizing affective narratives for modern American fiction.” [3] To him, this novel exemplifies “various grades of sentiment” [12]; thus his study highlights the ambivalent originality of a novelist torn between the typical rejection of sentiment of his era and his own obsession about it. This is certainly the most interesting aspect of a critical work which situates Fitzgerald within the modernist trend, but identifies his specificity as based on his constant interrogation of the romantic and sentimental strains, aspects which were disregarded during the modernist era.

Thus, the first part of his analysis starts from this idea that sentiment was derided by early twentieth-century modernity and therefore its use by Fitzgerald went against the grain in the context of modernist writing. From this first part onward, Messenger links the novel's use of sentiment with Fitzgerald's autobiographical evocation, in “Author's House,” of his writing as a consequence of the deaths of his two baby sisters. Messenger then relies recurrently on this family tragedy as the basis of Tender Is the Night writing, tracing the ghosts of these sisters in the narrative at all cost, mainly behind Nicole Diver and Rosemary Hoyt, but also behind secondary female characters, eventually wondering about an uncertain masculinity, in the character of Dick Diver, precisely “born several months after the death of two young sisters” himself [Tender Is the Night : 203], but also in many other male characters like Luis Campion, Royal Dumphry or Francisco. Whereas this well-known reference to Fitzgerald's dead sisters suggests a literary inspiration rooted in loss and intense feelings, which would set imagination at work, an idea also present in Fitzgerald's essay “One Hundred False Starts” from 1933, Messenger is very insistent on a specific use of this family event as a major pattern to be found in the narrative itself. Such an interest in biographical references is usual in many American approaches to literature and it is not surprising that it should please the American scholars quoted on the dust jacket and in the preface to the work – it is nevertheless less convincing to those who still believe in Foucault, Barthes or Blanchot's “death of the author” theory. Messenger's close readings of the novel are sometimes very skillful and clever, and he does work a lot with the text itself in details, but too much insistence on the link between the biographical and the diegetic becomes problematic in the long run although Messenger's analysis remains extremely well-documented in terms of literary, philosophical and psychoanalytical background.

Besides the “two dead baby sisters,” Messenger also relies on the inspiration provided by Zelda's mental disorder for the construction of Nicole's character. Thus he links Dick Diver, the husband-doctor, and Scott, the “analyst-novelist-husband” [91], in their attempts at “saving” their wives. The analysis is more original than the usual studies on this subject, as Messenger is very meticulous when looking at the narrative itself for such issues, yet despite his scholarship, close readings and enthusiasm at his demonstration, we tend to lose interest in what may seem far-fetched or excessive readings of the biographical in the narrative.

Messenger's intertextual reflection about the novel seems more engaging and is another proof of his very wide knowledge in various fields, both American and European, although, unfortunately, he feels again compelled to resort regularly to Fitzgerald's biography. Shakespeare's Ophelia, Faulkner's Sanctuary, Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy, Keats and famous historical figure Florence Nightingale, Dickens's Sarah Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, Marianne Moore and Robert McAlmon are all called upon cleverly to throw an original light on Fitzgerald's characters “plagued by the nightingale.” These influences may be critical constructions at times, but they nevertheless locate the text within a wider context, which pays homage to Fitzgerald's literary and historical concerns.

Thus, Messenger emphasizes the fact that Fitzgerald's fiction, and Tender Is the Night in particular, stage “the crisis of sentiment” [6] of modernism, a result of the devastation of the First World War and this is certainly the strong point of this critical assessment. However, despite this rather convincing and original aspect, this new publication, full of enthusiasm and the result of an extremely varied culture, will probably leave French readers a bit skeptical and lead them, for a more reliable assessment of the novel's qualities, to go back to Geneviève and Michel Fabre's didactic Tender Is the Night de F. Scott Fitzgerald, from 1993, published by Armand Colin or induce their reading of Blazek and Rattray's more recent collection of articles, which are closer to our French expectations in terms of literary criticism.


Cercles © 2015

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.