Book Review: Tender Is the Night

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Well, you never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people’s lives. Yet from this fog his affection emerged — the best contacts are when one knows the obstacles and still wants to preserve a relation.

Tender Is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I was a little girl, my mother encouraged me to read classics: Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. Until you’ve read Crime and Punishment, she insisted, you haven’t read much at all. I enjoy reading classics more than the average person, but I also think it’s necessary to read classics to be able to discuss much of modern literature, and often other media. Even the ever-popular superhero movies of today can be easily compared to equally magical heroes from eras past: Odysseus, Aeneas, Dr. Jekyll.

But what constitutes a classic? I was reading a Reddit thread on this topic just the other day, and the top answer was that a classic is a work that exemplifies the following:

  • Withstands the test of the time and contains universal and relatable themes that can be applied outside the context of the time and place it was written
  • Provides valuable insight into the culture of the time and place it was written
  • Allows readers to derive greater insight with additional readings, especially those not originally intentioned by the author

This is a tall order, obviously. But there’s a reason works like Hamlet and 1984 and Pride and Prejudice are shoved on us by our high school lit teachers and society at large. Despite being written centuries ago, Hamlet’s perpetual state of indecision, Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia, and the will-they-won’t-they nature of Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s relationship are all universal and relatable, even if the language makes them seem not to be so.

Is Tender Is the Night a classic? It’s no argument that Fitzgerald penned perhaps the greatest American novel, The Great GatsbyTender Is the Night echoes Gatsby in the portrayal of extravagance and excess with an overwhelming sense of personal and romantic dissatisfaction. I expected this from what little I know about Fitzgerald, but I discovered that the novel also explored the portrayal of mental health, which I found relatable even today.

Another question that came to mind as I read Tender Is the Night is how much we can dismiss the work’s shortcomings as being a “product of its time”. You hear this phrase a lot in college lit classes, especially when discussing anything earlier than 1900. Can we dismiss the inherent racism in this work, especially if it seems simply misguided and ignorant rather than outright malicious? There are passages in Tender Is the Night that involve black characters, but refer to them in a way I found offensive: using terms that are not politically correct, using black characters only as plot devices or as indications of violence, and so on. On the other hand, Fitzgerald paints a world where no character is wholly good nor bad, and where the female characters are equally as complex as their male counterparts. However, reading the passages revolving around black characters made me uncomfortable enough that I had to skim them. Is there a better way to compartmentalize this and not let it taint my opinion of the book as a whole? Or is it better to accept this about the novel and the time it was written in, and remark on it openly? I’m leading toward the latter.

YES OR NO?: I’m undecided on this book. I can see why Gatsby is considered Fitzgerald’s great masterpiece as opposed to Tender Is the Night. The prose is lovely and the characters masterfully painted, but the plot often felt meandering and pointless (I think often purposefully so). If I knew more about Fitzgerald’s life and his relationship with his wife Zelda, I’m sure it would have been a more fascinating read as well.

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