Francis Scott Fitzgerald

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Minimal Difference

A more complex literary case of this minimal difference is provided by the editorial fate of Tender Is the Night, Francis Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, the sad story of the disintegrating marriage between Nicole Warren, the rich American heiress, a schizophrenic victim of incest, and Richard Diver, a young brilliant psychiatrist who treated her in Switzerland. In the first edition, the novel begins years later at the Divers' villa on the French Riviera where the couple lives a glamorous life; the story is told from the perspective of Rosemary, a young American movie actress who falls in love with Dick, fascinated by the Divers' glitzy life style. Gradually, Rosemary gets hints of a dark underside of traumas and psychic breakdowns beneath the surface of the glamorous social life. At this point, the story moves back into how Dick encountered Nicole, how they got married in spite of her family's doubts, etc.; after this interlude, the story returns to the present, continuing the description of the gradual falling apart of Nicole's and Dick's marriage (Dick's desperate affair with Rosemary, etc., up to one of the most depressive and hopeless endings in modern literature). However, for the novel's second edition (the first printing was a failure), Fitzgerald tried to improve it by rearranging the material in chronological order: now, the novel begins in 1919 Zurich, with Dick as a young doctor called by a friend psychiatrist to take over the difficult case of Nicole.[1]

Why is none of the two versions satisfying? Obviously, the first one is the more adequate one, not only for purely dramatic-narrative reasons (it first creates the enigma - what is the secret behind the glitzy surface of the Divers' marriage? - and then, after arousing the reader's interest, it proceeds to give the answer). Rosemary's external point of view, fascinated by the ideal(ized) couple of Dick and Nicole, is not simply external. Rather, it embodies the gaze of the social "big Other," the Ego-Ideal, for which Dick enacts the life of a happy husband who tries to charm everybody around him, i.e., this external gaze is internal to Dick, part of his immanent subjective identity - he leads his life in order to satisfy this gaze. What this implies, furthermore, is that Dick's fate cannot be accounted for in the terms of the immanent deployment of a flawed character: to present Dick's sad fate in this way (i.e., in the mode of a linear narrative) is a lie, an ideological mystification that transposes the external network of social relations into inherent psychological features. One is even tempted to say that the flashback chapter on the prehistory of Dick's and Nicole's marriage, far from providing a truthful account of the reality beneath the false glitzy appearance, is a retroactive fantasy, a kind of a narrative version of what, in the history of capitalism, functions as the myth of "primordial accumulation." 4 In other words, there is no direct immanent line of development from the prehistory to the glitzy story proper: the jump is irreducible here, a different dimensions intervenes.

The enigma is thus: why was Fitzgerald not satisfied with the first version? Why did he replace it with the clearly less satisfying linear narrative? Upon a closer look, it is easy to discern also the limitations of the first version: the flashback after the first part sticks out: while the jump from the present (French Riviera in 1929) to the past (Zurich in 1919) is convincing, the return to the present "doesn't work," is not artistically fully justified. The only consistent answer is therefore: because the only way to remain faithful to the artistic truth is to "bite the bullet" and admit defeat, i.e., to circumscribe the gap itself by way of presenting both versions. 5 In other words, the two versions are not consecutive, they should be red structurally (synchronously), like the two maps of the same village in the example from Levi-Strauss (developed in detail later). In short, what we encounter here is the function of parallax at its purest: the gap between the two versions is irreducible, it is the "truth" of both of them, the traumatic core around which they circulate, there is no way to resolve the tension, to find a "proper" solution. What first appears as a merely formal narrative deadlock (how, in what order, to tell the story), thus signals a more radical deadlock that pertains to the social content itself. Fitzgerald's narrative failure and oscillation between the two versions tells us something about the social reality itself, about a certain gap that is stricto sensu a fundamental social fact. The "tickling object" is here the absent Cause, the unfathomable X that undermines every narrative solution.[2]

  1. For a condensed overview of the problem of the two versions of Tender Is the Night, see Malcolm Cowley's "Introduction" to the Penguin edition (Harmondsworth 1948).
  2. The Parallax View