An Unwitting Feminist Attack on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night by Joe Canuck


This essay was originally entitled, “A Creative Approach to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night” and written when I was 21, in the summer of 1981 or 33 summers/years ago from today. In the summer of 1981, I was taking my first English literature course at the University of British Columbia. This essay was written for a course taught by Bickford Sylvester. I believe he is still alive and would be is his late-80s today. (I did a quick Internet search for him the other day.)

Bickford Sylvester is a well-known and respected Ernest Hemingway scholar who is the emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of British Columbia. He has served on the board of the Hemingway Foundation and the editorial board of the Hemingway Review. In February of this year, his latest book on Hemingway was published: Hemingway, Cuba and the Cuban Works, by Larry Grimes and Bickford Sylvester (Published by Kent State University: February 21, 2014.)

I found this old university essay recently in my mother’s basement when I helped her move house. I didn’t have the heart to trash it. Among all my university essays in my mother’s basement, I also found a copy of one of Bickford Sylvester’s first published essays on Hemingway that he had given the class as a handout for study. Apparently, I also hadn’t the heart to trash his essay neither, all those many years ago. I reread it yesterday, having not laid eyes on it for 33 years. His essay, “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and The Sea” (PMLA, March 1966) is now online.

I wrote 3 essays for Bickford Sylvester but I am particularly fond of this one on F. Scott Fitzgerald. I remember writing this essay, which is quite curious because I wrote a lot of essays at university that I have no memory of writing. This was the second essay that I wrote for Professor Sylvester. The other two essays were on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. In hindsight, his course on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway would have a profound effect on my life that, at the time, I had no way of knowing or realizing until many, many years later.

Surrey, British Columbia, June 14, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.


Once upon a time, in the summer of 1924, it seemed charm, humor, and money gushed out of Dick Diver with the intensity of a waterfall. At the age of thirty-four, Dick had everything going for him — a beautiful wife, two beautiful kids, and a beautiful villa in the Riviera. Thanks to his wife’s wealth, he literally bought glamour into his life, and into the lives of those who flocked to him. For a while it seemed the good times were never going to end. Like the rest of America, Dick never expected the stock market crash of 1929. Dick never expected the American dream to explode in his face. As the Roaring Twenties passed by; so too Dick, leaving only fragments and shards of a broken man.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night is classic American folklore: the poor boy climbing to the top of the social ladder, succeeding, and, therefore, confirming the superiority of the American way of life. Also euphemistically called the American Dream, the American way of life is ostensibly crass capitalism and mass consumerism, but this critique is nowhere to be found in Fitzgerald’s novel. Instead, we get all the clichés. We get the broad sweeps of the brush but no fine or refined details. People just automatically act and are inexplicably driven to succeed in America no matter what, and we are not told why they act the way they do or why Americans are so obsessed with success and being “winners.” The reader is left to fill in the blanks.

For example, I know that at the turn of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe poured into New York’s Ellis Island hoping to start a new and better life. For these weary and impoverished people running away from oppression and hunger, and also for the millions who came before them, America was the Promised Land. You could be anyone you wanted to be, and do anything that you wanted to do in America. If you were an American, nothing was impossible, improbable, or implausible. These are certainly the clichés and they are unabashedly writ large in Fitzgerald’s novel. But why?

Fitzgerald was not from this immigrant class or ethnic tribe, nor was he a publicist for the Dream Factory a.k.a. the United States of America. So why did Fitzgerald give us a cliché character in Dick Diver, the central protagonist of Tender Is The Night? Why did Dick Diver act like a fresh-off-the-boat Jewish immigrant who was maniacally driven to become a success, maniacally driven to be rich and famous or a ‘big shot’ as they used to say in Fitzgerald’s time? Implicit if not explicit in American culture is that there was something wrong with you if you weren’t a ‘big shot’. (This is an underlying theme or rather recurring psychosis in all of Fitzgerald’s major novels, incidentally.) Did Fitzgerald become a believer and victim or ‘sucker’ of his own fiction?

In any event, Dick Diver was certainly an American who wanted to be a winner and a ‘big shot.’ He wanted to be the best at everything he did. Trained as a psychologist (a peculiarly Jewish-cum-American profession) Dick was not content with being just a good psychologist; he wanted to be the very best. Asked about his goals in life, Dick replied: ‘I’ve only got one, Franz, and that’s to be a good psychologist — maybe to be the greatest one that ever lived.’ [1]  (This American obsession with being the very best and the leader of the pack is actually very Jewish; not that Fitzgerald was necessarily making this point about Dick’s character, if indeed Fitzgerald was conscious of just how Jewish a character he created in Dick Diver. In fact, the entire notion of American Greatness or  “Exceptionalism” is arguably Jewish and Talmudic, as in ‘We are God’s Chosen Ones.’ The quintessential American character is fundamentally Jewish!)

Dick’s mind, however, was not exceptionally brilliant; in the words of the narrator, Dick “had only one or two ideas — that his little collection of pamphlets now in the fifth German edition contained the germ of all he would think or know.”[2]  As a matter of fact, everything Dick Diver did seemed too great to be true, especially his parties. The narrator makes this observation: “The reaction came when he realized the waste and extravagance involved. He sometimes looked back with awe at the carnivals of affection he had given, as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal blood lust.”[3]

The truth of the matter is that Dick Diver did have his doubts. As a young man he had asked himself: “God, am I like the rest after all? Am I like the rest?” [4]  Of course, this was the bleak moment of truth. Furthermore and further on in the novel, the narrator writes: “In the dead white hours in Zurich staring into a stranger’s pantry across the up shine of a street-lamp, he used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in.” [5]

In the above quotation, the key word is “wanted,” and it is therefore repeated four times. The narrator, I believe, is suggesting that Dick wanted too much and so, in the end, got nothing. Notice also that the verb “want” is in the past tense. We know what Dick wanted, but it is uncertain what Dick now wants for the future. If Dick does have a future, we are not told about it. What, for example, are Dick’s desires and ‘wants’ for the future? It has been said that people who do not know what they want for the future (because basically they have no future and no hope) eventually commit suicide. This ambivalence about Dick’s future foreshadows his demise. Indeed, when his wife divorced him in 1929, it was just too much for Dick to take. Like the country in which he was born, Dick’s entire world shriveled up like a raisin in the sun. What could never happen happened: The Great Depression! America the Dust Bowl!

What happens to a man when he turns forty? Does his childhood dream of playing baseball in the major league recede like his hairline? Does the zip in his life suddenly fizzle out like soda pop that has gone flat? No one will disagree that life is filled with disappointments, but if you are to continue, you must try your best to fix up your life and look forward to the future. Sadly enough, this simple bit of advice is, for many men, easier said than done. Do you suppose Dick was one of these men who simply gave up on life? And if so, should we have any sympathy for him?

At the age of forty, if Dick had shown more insight into life or more remorse for the things he did wrong in life, he would have been a more sympathetic character. But Fitzgerald will not allow this. Dick will fade away into obscurity unrepentant and true to his American character and mythos. Nevertheless, reading this last sentence in the novel — “Perhaps, so she liked to think, his career was biding its time, again like Grant’s in Galena; his latest note was post-marked from Hornell, New York, which is some distance from Geneva and a very small town; in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.” — I am overwhelmed with pathos.

The final sentence of the novel is, of course, an elliptical sentence and what is unsaid is more meaningful and pitiful than what was actually said. The star that burns the brightest also burns the shortest. How sad and pathetic had Dick’s life turned out to be; how atypical and yet also how typical was Dick’s life in the end? Dick may have been rich and special for a brief period of time and in comparison to the rest of the anonymous men of his generation. But in the final analysis, Dick ended up just as hopeless and as anonymous as millions of other Americans whose careers and families and lives were all destroyed in the Great Depression. Dare I say destroyed in pursuit of the American Dream? Isn’t the American way of life just a big con, a rigged game at best? It was not Fitzgerald’s intention to make Dick Diver an allegory for America, the country, itself; but isn’t it incredibly ironic that he was, all the same?

And now for something completely different….

Judy Campbell, my good friend and sociology major from the University of Hawaii, had this to say about Dick Diver: “One thing is for sure, Dick was having a hell of a time coping. We all know the stereotype: the middle-aged man who abandons his wife and kids to live with a younger woman, and who turns in his station wagon for a foreign and exotic sports car in a desperate and pathetic attempt to be twenty-something again. As for Dick, this description fits him. Take for example the boating scenes near the end of the novel. Dick, at the age of forty, was doing water acrobatics that not even an experienced water-skier would attempt without practice. Unless Dick was immune to the physical deterioration which afflicts all living organisms, Dick was lucky he didn’t die of a heart attack.”

Ms. Campbell shook her head in disgust. Then she continued:

“Think about it. Dick was a loser; he was a failure at everything he did. He wasn’t satisfied with being a good psychologist, no, he wanted to be the best there was. So what happened?  He can’t even cure his wife. When he failed to cure his wife, he failed not only as a doctor, but he also failed as a husband. Dick was never at the clinic when he was needed most. When the anonymous woman-artist died of neurosyphilis, Dick was sprawled out drunk and nearly beaten to death in the back alleys of Rome. His relationship with his children was hardly a flesh-and-blood one. He was a miserable father!

“As a matter of fact, if it had not been for his wife’s money, he never would have been able to open his clinic. So to repay her generosity, he cheated behind her back! He had no true friends to speak of, and when his absenteeism and drinking got out of hand, not even his partner wanted anything to do with him. With no one else to blame, he blamed the closest person to him, his wife. He resented her wealth now, felt it belittled his work. What nerve! Finally, it was best for Dick and Nicole to break up before they stopped being human beings. The divorce was inevitable — the tension was so thick you could cut it. It’s a classic case of male menopause! Isn’t that obvious?”

I looked at Ms. Campbell and smiled. She is still the excitable and emotional person I met a year ago. I thought about what she had said, and then I thought about what my Professor would think about such an unorthodox, if not anti-literary interpretation of this classic American novel. No doubt, my Professor will not be pleased when I tell him that Dick Diver, the hero of one of the better-known novels about the Roaring Twenties and from one of America’s greatest novelists of the 20th Century, was simply a middle-aged man struggling with male-menopause. How banal then was Fitzgerald and his Tender Is The Night?


[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is The Night, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, Copyright 1933, 1934, p. 32.

[2]  Ibid., p. 165.

[3]  Ibid., p. 27.

[4]  Ibid., p. 133.

[5]  Ibid., p. 13.


2 thoughts on “An Unwitting Feminist Attack on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night by Joe Canuck

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