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Fitzgerald's Frankenstein: A Debt to Mary Shelley in Tender is the Night?

Edward W. Pitcher

American Notes & Queries: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, 2:2 (April 1989), 54-57

{54} At first glance, the suggestion of my title that Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night owes a debt to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus must seem wrongheaded. True, Fitzgerald's title was meant to establish a link with the English Romantic writers, but to Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," not to Shelley's philosophical, Gothic romance. If Fitzgerald did have Frankenstein in mind as a model when he wrote his tale of Dr. Diver's rise and fall, would he not have left a record of his indebtedness? Certainly, he would have done so -- if he thought his readers would fail to find the parallels or discover the implicit relatedness of the two works.

Both authors chose to move the reader by stages to the centre of the novels. {55} Frankenstein shifts our focus from Robert Walton to Victor Frankenstein and then to the creature; Tender is the Night, in the original format of 1934, shifts us from Rosemary Hoyt, to Dick Diver, to Nicole. We move, in each case, from the viewpoint of the naive outsider to the character who suffers a reversal of fortunes, to the character who, initially helpless, grows through periods of anguished anger, guilty frustration, and re-education, into confident self-assertion. The transferral of vitality (from Victor to the person of his making; from Dick to Nicole, the person nurtured by him) is unmistakably deliberate in both novels, just as are the protagonists' aspirations to restore life to those cut-off from life (cadavers or incest victims; the dead or the insane restored to this world). Robert like Rosemary is a traveller who comes upon the principal protagonist (Victor, Dick) for the first time early in the novel and feels immediate empathy and affection for him. Mary Shelley characterizes Robert as a young man of excessive sensibility and a "romantic" in the sentimental school who has been raised by a mothering sister; Rosemary is also a creature of sentiment and infatuations in a culture that is built on lies, illusions and "vicious sentimentality," and she has been raised by a sisterly mother. Robert confides openly in Mrs. Saville; Rosemary in Mrs. Speers; both find in the protagonists of the two novels a "friend" who can supplant the mother figures in their lives. Both are fascinated by protagonists who in their separate ways are philosophers who have sought after the "life principle," the secret of building a "perfect" being from corrupt or dead parts -- physically or psychologically. Through Robert and through Rosemary the authors move the reader to the second stage of narrative disclosure, and shift the focus to the protagonists.

Victor Frankenstein and Dick Diver both left single-parent homes to study in Germany. Both had lost their mothers before venturing out into the world, and become surrogate mother-figures to another person. Both are scientists but not "orthodox" ones, Victor being preoccupied with the secrets of physical life and Dick with the secrets of psychic life. Victor attempts to make a creature who is physically proportioned and beautiful, but creates ugliness and abandons his creation. He is indirectly responsible for its monstrous deeds, because he created it, and lacks the will to save Justine or to warn others of their danger. Dick Diver attempts to bring health of mind to the psychologically misshapen and ugly, but is temperamentally incapable of seeing "perversions" and the human capacity for evil and violence as natural to man. He shelters and mothers Nicole and perhaps prolongs her suppression of her sexual, instinctual nature, which suppression assures her continued disorder of mind, her outbreaks of monstrous behaviour. Always threatened by the presence of the monster loose in his world, Victor becomes increasingly "mad" and monstrous himself; Dick, with continued exposure to the "monstrous" in his world, also becomes monstrous as his "civilized" mask is torn {56} away. Both protagonists discover in themselves a capacity to be monstrous.

Victor's "creation" turns against him, destroying the things he loves, but especially destroying Victor by transforming him into something Victor had thought himself incapable of becoming. Nicole turns against Dick, after nearly destroying his family in the car accident, contaminating him with her money, exhausting him with her illness. She embraces Tommy Barban, the "barbaric" replacing the civilized code of Dick Diver, while Dick yields to an adulterous, futile affair with Rosemary Hoyt. Victor pursues the "monster" into the Arctic wasteland until lost, stranded, and taken aboard Walton's ship; Dick Diver is last heard of wandering from town to town in the Finger Lake district of New York State. The protagonists are equally exhausted and destroyed while the "monsters" triumph with ambivalent feelings toward the vanquished. In part, the "monstrous" and ugly are set free in both novels to testify to the existence of evil and to shatter the illusions of Victor and Dick that evil is not inherent and natural. Victor had hoped to triumph over death (even to the restoring to life of his mother); Dick had begun his studies in Germany convinced of "the essential goodness" of man. Both "monsters" however are made so by the "evil" in others, in society. Nicole's illness results from incest and a guilt springing from her feeling of complicity in a prohibited act. Victor's monster is rejected, abhorred, and senses responsibility for inspiring the hate of others.

Nicole was taught and encouraged to suppress guilt and to ignore the inclinations (violence, sexual aggressiveness) within her which would outrage societal conventions. Society made Nicole ill by teaching her guilt, made her potentially violent because suppressed emotion ultimately breaks free. Frankenstein's "monster" is set loose in society from the outset and is taught prejudice, hatred, injustice by the world. His aggressive emotions also break free from control and he focuses his aggression on the one most responsible, Victor, just as Nicole focuses her aggression on Dick (accusing him of having affairs with very young girls, etc.). The hypocrisies and injustices and illusions of society are exposed in both novels through the viewpoint of the "monster." Nicole reflects Dick's inner self and both reflect the suppressed truth of a human nature hidden away by "culture" or "civilization"; the monster reflects Victor Frankenstein's inner self and both mirror the injustices, violence, and passion of the world in which they live.

These broadly applicable parallels are perhaps reinforced by citing some further "minor" coincidences. In both novels, for example, there is the murder of a five-year-old child (William, and the unnamed victim in Rome) with a general accusation of an innocent party (Justine, Dick Diver). Dick like Victor is willing to assume responsibility; both have failed to "cure" the "monster" in society that does such things.

We might also note that a good friend of the protagonist is killed in each {57} novel (Clerval, Abe North) at some distance from the geographical centre (Switzerland) which anchors the movements of the characters. The main characters are also most at danger when away from this centre. Indeed, Switzerland is Victor's place of restoration to health, among family and loved ones who have values, humane, civilized norms to support them. Alphonse Frankenstein had "adopted" into his home the world's helpless and emotionally exhausted (his wife, Elizabeth, Justine); that home seems the model for the clinic of Dick and Franz Gregory, a metaphor for society's efforts to maintain health by care, and compassion. In drifting from this symbolic centre (to Germany, Scotland, the Arctic; to Paris, Rome, America) one risks destruction.

Beneath the conceit of a horizontal "perilous journey" from the centre, one sees, of course, the corresponding vertical or inward perilous journeying. Victor's family is murdered in Switzerland; the home is destroyed. The woman in Room 20 at the clinic dies of a mysterious disease that has made her ugly and indigent (a "love" disease -- syphilis); Nicole carries the "disease" (another "love" disease -- incest) into the core of Dick's daily life and to the very centre of his sense of "home." The cultivated gardens are violated equally by the death of William, and by the gardeners' talk of fornication overheard by Nicole. Murder in the bridal chamber in the nineteenth-century novel is matched by whores breaking into the hotel love nest (Nicole-Tommy) in the modern work.

The parallels and coincidences are fascinatingly abundant, but Fitzgerald's novel transcends them utterly. I strongly suspect that he did see Dick Diver as the twentieth-century, sophisticated version of the Victor Frankensteins of an earlier age. But there was so much more that he wished to convey through his novel, and this something more has, rightly, been found more deserving of our critical attention.1


1. I have addressed some of these other matters, at greater length, in "Tender is the Night: Ordered Disorder in 'The Broken Universe,'" Modern Language Studies, 11 (Fall, 1981), 72-89.