The American Dream


The Great GatsbyOf all Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, The Great Gatsby is a particular favourite. Only recently I learned that it was originally a far longer novel, that Fitzgerald had written reams of Gatsby’s backstory. Thank goodness for good editing for the elusiveness of Gatsby is a marvellous feature of the book. If we knew more details about his mundane and murky past, we might not feel the tug of sympathy for this flawed and very human man. As it is, like the narrator Nick Carraway, we are drawn to Gatsby partly because we don’t know what he is really like. What we see is his romanticism, his hopeless yearning for Daisy and his futile desire for acceptance by the thoroughly unpleasant East Coast establishment. We all know what it is like to not to be included, to want something that we can never have, to desire without fulfilment. We can all, to some degree, identify with Gatsby.

The Psychologist, 2005 cover

Although I love The Great Gatsby, the Fitzgerald novel that I found most helpful as a psychotherapist is the longer novel, Tender is the Night. In 2005 I wrote an article for The Psychologist in their Eye on Fiction series, which I called The American Dream, in which I analysed the novel for what it tells us about the character of its main protagonist, the psychiatrist Dick Diver, and the narcissistic, ‘celebrity culture’ of the rich and famous. The setting of the novel is the French Riviera in the 1930s but the story is timeless and anyone reading it today will understand exactly what Fitzgerald is writing about.


Two extracts from my article

“In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, the charismatic psychiatrist Dick Diver falls for a beautiful heiress, Nicole Warren. He marries her but they don’t live happily ever after. Why not? One reason is that Nicole has a secret: she is subject to bouts of madness. Zelda Fitzgerald, Scott’s rich and beautiful wife, suffered a mental breakdown, and the story can be seen as a reflection of Fitzgerald’s own problematic marriage. But it is much more than that. Dick meets Nicole when he is working in a Swiss asylum; in fact, she is his patient. The seduction, when it occurs, breaks the doctor–patient boundary. Dick knows this, for the head of the clinic warns him of Nicole’s infatuation for him. But Dick ignores the warning. The marriage, instead of being a great coup – for Nicole is enormously rich as well as beautiful – is the start of Dick’s decline. Nicole’s madness proves hard to manage. Dick gives up his psychiatric work and takes to drink. Nicole leaves him for another man. The handsome, charismatic Dick Diver ends up a sad figure. We last hear of him at the end of the book, drifting from one relationship to another in various unnamed, small American towns.”



“There is something very special about Dick. As Fitzgerald puts it:

to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies… He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect.

“Fitzgerald is fully aware that this sense of specialness is an illusion:

So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said and done.

“The illusion is not just an individual’s magic trick. Fitzgerald also sees it imbued in the context, the Riviera beaches, the smart hotels, the chic social set, the immense wealth and social distinction, the playboy world of rich Americans in Europe. Another important theme of the book is the shallowness of this artifice of wealth and fame, the way it cannot compensate for something damaged inside. From the outset we like Dick Diver and feel the pull of his exciting, glamorous way of life. Dick is handsome, intelligent and charming, and the people he is with are fascinating. Nowadays he would be a celebrity, and this book does say something important about the dangers of that life. Some celebrities might do well to read it.

“But its essential point is about illusions, narcissistic ones in particular. Dick’s ambition is to become the greatest psychologist that ever lived. It is a grandiose statement and his taking on of the damaged Nicole is a grandiose act. Dick drifts through his life expecting it all to work out for him. He says:

I got to be a psychiatrist because there was a girl at St Hilda’s at Oxford that went to the same lectures.

“When confronted in the clinic about his relationship with Nicole, he blithely says:

I’m half in love with her – the question of marrying her has passed through my mind.

“This is the illusion of specialness and self-worth. Anything goes. You could be rich and famous, brilliant and successful, if you believe you are truly special. This the American dream. But it is a destructive illusion. In extreme cases, like Dick Diver’s, it can be a defence against an inner emptiness. Revealingly, Dick makes a comment about actors that is almost certainly also about himself:

The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing…maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged. “


American Dream (flag)



Photo of American flag by M J M shared under Creative Commons Licence