I recently reread my favourite book, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and found that it had changed, or rather I had. Instead of joy at the literary magnificence, I felt mixed emotions when reading it a mere three years later. I noticed that it is in parts sexist, homophobic and racist.
Tender is the Night chronicles the slow and subtle decay of Dick Diver’s marriage, career and eventually his mind. It deals with fading youth and glamour as the 1920s pass, the difficulties of mental illness and institutionalisation, and the lasting effects of alcoholism. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel and he put a lot of himself and events from his life into it. It’s much darker but also more complex than The Great Gatsby.
At one time, when I was fresh out of high school, Tender was my favourite book, an idolised piece of literature. I worshipped the dreamy prose and subtle portrayal of emotion, not noticing the subtly embedded sexist, homophobic and racist ideas. But I was different then; I didn’t literally subscribe to Everyday Feminism or critically analyse books I deemed ‘perfect’ (thanks for that, buzzkill BA).
On re-reading, there were moments when I had to put Tender down and have a brief intermission of male privilege ranting, but on reflection there were also complexities and broken down stereotypes within the pages. But is it enough for an author to have good moments? Or should readers have a no tolerance policy?
Fitzgerald writes through the lens of the patriarchy, or to be more specific he possesses a white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative worldview. While he portrays his main character Dick Diver as racist, Fitzgerald also uses racist thought and terminology in his writing. He says in a descriptive paragraph, “the chink-like eyes stilled forever under the frail delicate lids.“ And when describing an institutionalised patient who is grappling with coming out, he portrays gay men as the stereotypical sex fiend, stating, “he had that roguish look in his eyes that homosexuals assume in discussing [sex].”
While some injustices flourish under Fitzgerald’s pen, others are dismantled and scrutinised. He highlights that women may not desire to be mothers and that they can be career-driven and talented. A stereotype well worth breaking down, which is still alive and strong today. He portrays domestic violence between a married couple, showing how onlookers prefer to look away as a character publicly humiliates and abuses his wife.
In one scene, Fitzgerald shows extreme racial bias by the police. A drunken character, Abe North, insists that a person of colour stole his money, and the police promptly arrest a successful restaurateur assuming he is the culprit due to the colour of his skin. In the end, it turns out the “stolen” money was taken by a waiter to pay for North’s bar tab.
I can add and subtract feminist brownie points from Fitzgerald all day, but his social justice stance is not why his books are printed and reprinted. His grasp on language is captivating (his grammar, not so much). In one passage from Tender, he reminds me why at 17 his prose blew me away. He writes:
One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.
Lindsay Johns in her essay, In Praise of Dead White Men, argues that the canon -despite being heavily white and male - still has a place in the education system and broader society. She says, “Many great black intellectuals—men such as CLR James, WEB Du Bois and Stuart Hall—were all devotees of the canon. They understood that you have to be fully conversant in it to be able to meaningfully criticise it.”
She goes on to say, “We should accept the truth of history, which is that white men have dominated intellectual life in the west. Let’s not resist this; let’s run with it. It is Western history that has indelibly shaped our consciousness.” Reading works that remind us what our society was built upon helps us to understand why things are the way they are today. It also assists us in working out how to dismantle systems, which remain and continue to oppress.
Sometimes we may look into past thought and see how much the world has changed for the better. Kind of like looking at 1960s advertisements, where Kellogg’s PEP vitamins proclaim: So the harder a wife works, the cuter she looks! It’s upsetting to revisit times of immense oppression, and sometimes what we see is so different from our own lives that it’s bizarrely funny (like those 60s ads). But these thoughts are valid examinations of our literary past, and as readers we should be engaging with these questions.
Perhaps we don’t need to abandon books written by dead white men whose work perpetuates the existence of a white supremacist, patriarchal and heteronormative society. But at the same time, we sure as hell shouldn’t idolise them.
Katerina Bryant is a writer, editor and law student based in Adelaide. She spends her time thinking about greyhounds and tweets at @katerina_bry.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.