Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: July 2017

9 - ‘Out Upon the Mongolian Plain’: Fitzgerald's Racial and Ethnic Cross-Identifying in Tender Is the Night


When psychiatrist Dick Diver in Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night loses wife, vocation, and moral compass, his long decline is punctuated by repeated unstable boundary constructions of race and ethnicity in which Fitzgerald works through racial anxieties in a continuing dialogue on whiteness and darker males. By the end of the novel, Tender's three most prominent American white female characters (Nicole Warren Diver, Rosemary Hoyt, Mary North) are all paired off with ‘darker’ men in Fitzgerald's largely naïve Orientalism, beyond American and northern European identity and the desire and control of all-American Doctor Diver. Dick Diver himself repeatedly desires to desire a figure whom I designate as ‘the girl’ in a chaste sentimentalism that is often framed in his moments of racial and sexual stress. This ‘innocent’ desire is almost pre-pubescent in its articulation and is part of the dynamics of Dick's racialism and anger against foreigners exhibited during his eventual downfall in Books 2 and 3. He has a specific desiring script that is based on black–white difference and is displayed in his relation to Tender's ‘darker’ males, whom he often resents while defining himself against them. Ultimately, in Tender, Fitzgerald was captivated by Hollywood conceptions of darker (white) males while downgrading the conceptualization of African Americans and African Europeans to parodic emblem status, as in the Paris murder and narrative manipulation of the body of Jules Peterson. In these impulses, Fitzgerald recreated the tensions in the American popular culture at large with regard to the consumption of racialized sexual images in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Fitzgerald was familiar with ‘Nordic’ racial theorizing, as famously evidenced by Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and near the end of Tender when a fallen Dick Diver (a fellow Yale man) is ‘unroll[ing] a long scroll of contempt for some person, class, way of thinking’ (Tender 267). In Tender, Fitzgerald inscribes a complex male sexual melodrama into his racialism, that of intense frustration and fear of his own inadequacy in the face of his wife Zelda Fitzgerald's descent into what was diagnosed as schizophrenia, with his resultant guilt and depression. Tender's repeated scenes of ethnic and racial marking show his vexed awareness of popular American attitudes toward race and immigration which then underwrite and complicate his masculine insecurities.