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Tender is the night: The strain on family members of sufferers of mental illness
by Solomon Wakeling
There has been
much talk of the value of high literature in schools, so I thought it
appropriate to dwell on some that I've read. There is no better way to lead
than through example. Of course discussing literature should need no excuse.
By the end of the novel Dick Diver has undergone a complete change of character. In the first book he is viewed from the eyes of Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress who sees him with youthful idolatry. In the world of the novel, Rosemary is the prey, representing what everyone in the novel would like to have or to be. She is youthful, beautiful, talented and disciplined. In a way, there appears to be more of Fitzgerald in her than in any of the other characters. He sympathises with her search for something unattainable. No matter how hard she improves herself, no matter what she is willing to give, she is unable to receive the love of a father that is now dead.
The second and third books view him more objectively. He begins sober, observant, attentive and in complete command of himself. By the end he is an anti-social, brooding alcoholic who has driven his wife away from him and abandoned his children. Paradoxically, there is continual growth in maturity in his character as the novel progresses. His loss of confidence helps him to learn sympathies with those that he would previously have looked down upon. He loses his shallowness and becomes approachable, rather than alienating. Fitzgerald prophesies his transformation through the use of a nursery rhyme. "The best I can wish you, my child, is a little misfortune." Tragedy in the novel is seen as a complex phenomenon, containing brighter as well as darker shades.
I found myself going on a journey with Dick, at first repulsed, then intrigued and finally feeling a mixture of pity and love. The last chapter is seen through the eyes of his wife, Nicole, and we feel her sense of loss. Somewhere, we feel, something could have been done to prevent all of this.
Misfortune makes Dick grow, but in the end it breaks him. The plot of the novel, a man who is driven to alcohol by his schizophrenic wife, makes an obvious parallel to Fitzgerald's own tragic life with Zelda. There is no doubt Fitzgerald drew upon his own experiences in constructing the story but there is every reason to believe that Dick and Nicole were never intended to be Scott and Zelda. The unflattering portrait of Albert Mckisco, the scruffy literary man with his naive wife, better represents the two of them at that stage in their lives than the glamorous Dick and Nicole. Sheila Graham notes that Dick Diver was intended as the story of himself and Zelda, superimposed on Gerald Murphy. Fitzgerald has observed the vapid and leisure-filled lifestyle of the Murphy’s, and has imposed a tragedy on them that life had failed to do. It is a moral fable, but one that side-steps all clichés. There is no predicting the fate of the characters, yet once it is finally revealed, it seems inevitable.
Deveson's Tell me I'm here, the novel
deals with the under-valued effects of schizophrenia on family members who are
close to the sufferer. In my view, this is the most important aspect of this
multi-faceted work. Fitzgerald vividly describes a "hardening"
process that his protagonist goes through, "Sensing battle from
afar", even though he loves his wife dearly. Towards the end of the novel
Dick is clearly depicted as being both her doctor and her lover and stru
There is much talk of manners in Fitzgerald, almost as if manners were a form of morality. He sees decency in being social, as if it were a moral imperative. He longs for a way of life free of indulgence, excess or immaturity. This conflicts sharply with the reality of schizophrenia, with its messiness, its selfishness and its anti-social nature. The harshness with which he sees bad behaviour is almost a rebellion against insanity. Dick's life with Nicole is described late in the novel as being a "regime". He becomes unsympathetic to weakness and believes his wife's health is predominately a matter of her own will. At his most extreme point, after Nicole has endangered the lives of their children, he is described as wanting to "Grind her grinning mask in to jelly".
Ultimately it is a novel with a single theme: heart-break. The truest and most shattering sentence in the novel comes at the end of the first chapter at the close of book II. "He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in." This sentence contains an ache, one that only occurs because we are aware of what is to come. As in Hemingway, who Fitzgerald treated as his artistic conscience, every indulgence is paid for by work. This contributes to the effect, also seen in Hemingway, of making the novel difficult to break in to, but ultimately moving.
Towards the novel's close, Fitzgerald reveals his trump card. With a single sentence, "Doctor Diver was now at liberty," we are given an extraordinary revelation. Until that time we feel that Dick is lost and completely out of control of his own life. For a second we come to understand that underneath this, he was quietly planning his escape. Having withdrawn himself from his wife he slowly transfers her over to another man, who had something to give her when he had nothing left. He doesn't simply leave, he assures her security, even though the thought of which makes him "physically sick". After his escape, he is unable to do anything else but to repeat the pattern, over again. He has been trained in to healing hurt wherever he sees it, not really knowing how to do anything else.
At the close of the novel, Nicole is substantially free of her illness, finding happiness with another man. The tragic figure of the novel is not the sufferer of mental illness but her spouse. Without proper support, there may be more truth in this scenario than fiction. The question I want to ask the forum is: what can be done to ease the burden on family members of those with mental illness, by governments, the mental health system and by the community at large?