What a vivid, unique, and not altogether felicitous book. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald stopped me dead in my tracks many times . . . often in good ways . . . but also in bad ways.
The Good Aspects of Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
As expected for a classic Fitzgerald novel, there are many lovely, lovely sentences. Take this one, for example, from the first page of the book, which describes a scene on the French Riviera:
“The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one.”
Goodness, I don’t know quite what this means, but it’s beautiful and I’m forming an instant picture in my mind of what this might look like. I see the brightness of the sun reflecting off the windows of the hotel and the sand of the beach. I see the enormous tan prayer rug, laid out serenely and majestically, bringing its magic. And I see the way the hotel and the beach are merged together, as if one could not exist without the other.
Is this what this sentence means? Again, I’m not sure—but I’m struck through the heart by it. And, lucky me, the paragraph continues . . . as does the novel . . . bringing more of these showstopper sentences. . . .
The Bad Aspects of Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
But showstopping indeed was the racism in this novel. Blatant, casual racism—as if castes could never not exist in the world. Yes, there was sexism in this novel; but this tended to be couched in language that let the reader know that Fitzgerald knew that sexism was a flaw of society and not founded in truth. But the racism, good lord—it seemed to fly over Fitzgerald’s head unnoticed, unadorned, and uncommented on.
Midway through the novel, events occur that must have been horrific and traumatizing for the Black (referred to as Negro) community, though Fitzgerald does not dwell on or even mention this. The focus is on the reputation and mental health of the White characters, whose suffering is on a completely different scale from the Black characters’. The whole episode made me sick, and I almost stopped reading.
But oh, the beauty of the sentences and the pull of the story—this is F. Scott Fitzgerald, for goodness’ sake! So I kept reading. But I almost refrained from writing about the novel on this blog, because I wasn’t sure I could in good conscience recommend it, because of the despicable casual racism.
Here is what I believe. We can appreciate what is good in a piece of art while simultaneously recognizing and condemning what is bad. Were this book published today, I would certainly not be recommending it to others. Tender Is the Night was published in 1934. That fact does not absolve Fitzgerald or his book in any way. But it does allow me, the reader, to take some perspective. Casual racism was, sadly, awfully, a fact of life in 1934. And let’s face it—lots of books contain ideas that I personally find distasteful or even repellant, no matter when they were published.
If this book were mediocre or even pretty good, I would not recommend it. But honestly—it’s touching the masterpiece level. Touching, I say—not quite there. But on the cusp.
I did not start to love this book until about two-thirds of the way through. There is a long buildup to the really good stuff, and you have to wade through the backstory, and the racism, (while also enjoying the beautiful sentences) to get there.
In my opinion, the effort is worth it. This is a story about how far a person can go with their god-given talents, about the sacrifices people make for love, about the finding of yourself and the changes that happen in people over the years. It’s about mental health and fame and social mores. It hits hard at many of the big themes of life, and, in summary, I don’t think you should miss it.
What are your thoughts about artworks that mix the very good with the very bad?