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Relations Analysis in "Tender is The Night"

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They are American, young, wealthy and in love. Nicole and Dick are the souls of an age, a world of opulence, blurred boundaries and equally commanding desires, and their relationship reflects the ambiguities of its core values. Judged within an American popular culture, their success together may be measured romantically, professionally and economically. Even as they fulfil the best marital stereotype, making a pretty pair and their union for the most part a benefit to the society orbiting around them, theirs is not a typical love affair. Nicole’s mental sickness means it is doomed from the start, not only challenging their roles in relation to one another, but also reflecting the illusory nature and transience of appearances. Schizophrenia is the leitmotif of their partnership; split responsibilities, a tenuous hold on reality, or at least the self-control maintaining an image of sanity and happiness, and a double standard in their morality, social customs and financial attitudes. They are not entire, not ‘like everybody else’, and rather than distinguish them from the mass, their difference leaves them incomplete: under so many pressures, their marriage is too strained and themselves too separate for it to be anything but a delusion. At the very beginning of the relationship, this pattern of dream, illusion and futility is obvious; the love that should be satisfying, vigorous and uncomplicated is actually the reverse.

Each of the two bring with them their own ideals and emotional needs, baggage that both binds and divides them. Under the spell of a romantic promise, yet ultimately wishing for divergent things, this is not the meeting of minds and souls popularized in the general consciousness, and which Rosemary had with all the sentimentality of her age and generation worshiped in Section 1 as ‘Dicole’ (an impression engendered principally by the couple themselves and a pretense stoutly maintained until Dick’s break-down), two halves of a rose-tinted whole. The name, playfully crafted in their earliest months together, reveals the longing for closeness and excitement, and even the faultless exterior they show to the world. Above all, though, it suggests a melting and welding of identities; in the ‘idealization of togetherness (‘twoness’)’, the discovery of a kind of fulfilment.[1] For Nicole, this is the security of self, reconstructing the woman after the madness of the girl, and finding equally in Dick ‘an untarnished male-authority’, the good father to replace the sinister spectre of her own, and a lover to return her to the world of romance, hope and joy: ‘she thanked him for everything, rather as if he had taken her to some party . . .’[2] She sees in him at once her youth and her maturity; either as father or beau could he have taken her to a dance, a return to the sheltering care of a doting parent and the girlhood she had brutally lost, or a thrilling confirmation of the power of her beauty over men.

Still, there is something strange about the transference of affections to Dick: he is more a stage in the recovery process, ‘all soft like a big cat’ (in the words of her pathology), gentle enough to be non-threatening, but masculine nonetheless to interest a budding sexuality, than a man in his own right. Indeed, he is ‘a sort of stuffed figure in her life’, a dream of fun, youth and passion she attaches herself and her emergent reason to. To an extent, he fills the void, the yearning for a partner simply to complete her and remind her that, like the golden days before the trauma of the rape, there is something exhilarating still to live and get better for. Nevertheless, in order to merge with the upright gentleman she must repress her own nature, overlaying her grandfather’s ‘[confused] . . . values’ with another sexual paternal figure. It is a disturbing and ultimately frustrating development, not particularly because it prevents her from achieving independence or closure (it could be argued, of course, that Dick and his morals are necessary for her final flowering at the end), but because it associates the modern era with the fantasies of romantic love and its inevitable curtailing of the individual. The songs they sing and hear with one another symbolise the patina of the American dream in the boom of the Roaring Twenties and, either as a contrast or complement to, the long stretch of its history. ‘The thin tunes, holding lost times and future hopes in liaison, twisted upon the Swiss night’; their promise is the expectation of America, their disappointment the failure of its ‘fraudulent’ ideals.[3]

For Dick, his relationship with Nicole is the seductive pull of a continent. Made up of the ‘illusions of a nation’, he wants so much ‘to be kind, . . . to be brave and wise’ and, at the moment the umbilical cord of beliefs tying him to the motherland starts to wear, he is enthralled once more by America. Now in its most modern incarnation (a natural progression from the ‘generations of frontier mothers’ to the wounded girl of the dissolute and topsy-turvy Jazz Era), via the popular love airs of the day, the New Rhodes scholar, the dreamer from the States’ ivory towers, fulfils his people’s desire for hope, youth and gaiety, and his own yearning ‘to be loved’. Such vanity is America’s also and Dick is drawn to the same things the audience of the period would have appreciated: beauty, the bloom of the girl-woman, sweetness and the potential for greatness, a ‘true growing’. However, reality imposes itself on both: he ‘wished she had no background, that she was just a girl lost . . .’ The vision may not continue, she possesses too much history; the problems that Dick must cure. Nicole is all the dreams that bring him back and all the issues that keep him tied to the ugly actualities of this life. As Stern argues, Dick, ‘naively attached to a false view of the past as incorruptibly good and of the future as transcendent’, is the ‘ideal America’; Nicole, ‘confused, fractured, damaged’, is an ‘America scarred by the harsh contest for money and power characterising the post-World War I era, the real America’.[4] The two interact, the former bolstering the latter through dark times, but you cannot live in a world where both roads are pursued equally; the idea shatters before reality and ending only in a bitter dissatisfaction.

This is what Dick and the professors realise when they discuss his developing relationship with a patient. Can he combine the two roles, the ideal husband and matter-of-fact doctor? ‘What! And devote half your life to being doctor and nurse and all – never!’: Franz, with the hard-won knowledge of centuries of European experience at his back, answers with the truth. As soon as Dick accepts the double burden, the partitioning of dream and actuality, lover and professional, he is stuck until she is finally weaned. In her second childhood, he tries so hard to protect her from the brutalities of the universe, but learns too late that it is the idealist, not the survivor with her grandfather’s eyes, that will fail in a society where money, drink and excess corrupt all the good men. Initially, he may seem to meet all his principles, but his potential to become ‘the greatest [psychologist] that ever lived’ (as superlative and absolute as the American dream itself) is wasted through his resolve to satisfy his heart, in addition to his grand ambitions.

Ultimately, the growing relationship between Dick and Nicole is doomed. It is the tragedy of a Hamlet, torn between two conflicting desires and two possible courses of action, either to let go or to commit himself wholly to its execution, who went after his Ophelia, already mad, and failed. ‘Necessarily he must absence himself from felicity a while’; happiness supposedly lies in Nicole, yet therein, as Hamlet warned his Horatio, is death and the decline of his tale. He chose not to; and so his promise remains unfulfilled, their relationship is destined for disaster and the dreams of America are forever tainted.

[1] ‘Tender is the Night: Ordered Disorder in the Broken Universe’, E. W. Pitcher, ‘Modern Language Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 72 – 89, Modern Language Studies, p. 75

[2] Ibid., p. 85

[3] Ibid., p.75 [4] ‘Tender is the Night: The Broken Universe’, Milton R. Stern, Twayne Publishers, 1994, p. 135

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