Text: Kent Ljungquist, “Fitzgerald's Homage to Poe: Female Characterization in This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 90-97 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 90, unnumbered:]



F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fascination with the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe is well documented. Biographical evidence suggests that Fitzgerald was exposed to Poe’s works at an early age in the form of his father’s reading aloud “The Raven” and “The Bells.”(1) His affection for Baltimore stemmed partially from his knowledge of Poe’s burial there, an association reflected in a 1935 letter to Laura Guthrie: “I have stopped all connections with M. Barleycorn . . . . Baltimore is warm and pleasant. I love it more than I thought — it is so rich with memories — it is nice to look up the street and see the statue of my great uncle and to know that Poe is buried here and that many ancestors of mine have walked the old town by the bay.”(2) Study of Fitzgerald’s indebtedness to Poe has progressed beyond Maxwell Geismar’s somewhat fatuous comment: “Fitzgerald’s work, like Poe’s, is colored by the imagery of incest.”(3) His apprentice story “The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage” burlesques, almost certainly, the nineteenth-century ratiocinative tales of Poe and others.(4) Fitzgerald may have incorporated Poe’s use of symbolic imagery for horrifying effects into his early stories “The Cut Glass Bowl” (1920) and “The Ice Palace” (1920).(5) He reveals his most elaborate homage to Poe, however, in This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night, the latter marking a much more subtle interweaving of Poesque allusions and images than the former. In particular, female characterization in these novels reveals Fitzgerald’s kinship with Poe in presenting the dual nature of woman as elevating and terrifying.

James W. Tuttleton plausibly demonstrates how the numerous references to Poe’s works in This Side of Paradise indicate that horror and beauty are inextricably linked in Amory Blane’s mind.(6) This collocation of terrifying but beautiful images is embodied in Eleanor Savage, whose physical appearance and awesome intellect recall Poe’s Ligeia. Furthermore, her troubled mental state is reminiscent of the constitutional and family disease that haunts Madeline Usher and her line. In short, Eleanor reminds us of the host of female presences that dominate the minds of Poe’s male protagonists. Although her name calls forth associations with Lenore, as Tuttleton suggests, it more closely resembles a somewhat lesser heroine in the Poe canon, the title character of “Eleonora.” One might legitimately ask if Eleanor is a palpable, physical presence in the novel or a dream-like being called forth by Amory’s mind during his progressive disillusionment. In the latter guise, she [page 91:] is more akin to the ethereal and fairy-like Eleonora than to Ligeia or Madeline Usher.

Upon investigation, significant parallels present themselves between Poe’s “Eleonora” and complementary chapters in This Side of Paradise. The theme of adolescent love permeates both works. Just as Eleanor’s eyes entrance Amory Blane, Poe’s protagonist fixes on Eleonora’s “bright eyes.”(7) In both works there is an interpenetration of the physical landscapes, refulgent colors, and musical effects. The river in Poe’s “Eleonora” utters “a lullaby more divine than the harp of Aeolus — sweeter than all save the voice of Eleonora” (M:2:641). The setting of This Side of Paradise is a “fairyland with Amory and Eleanor, dim phantasmal shapes, expressing eternal beauty and curious elfin moods. Then they turned out of the moonlight into the trellised darkness of a vine-hung pagoda, where there were scents so plaintive as to be nearly musical.”(8) The peace of Poe’s Valley of Many-Colored Grass is matched by Fitzgerald’s landscape in which “No Wind is stirring in the grass; not one wind stirs . . . the water in the hidden pools, as glass fronts the full moon and so enters the golden token in its icy mass” (p. 234). The haunting quality of Eleonora’s voice parallels the “half rhythm, half darkness” (p. 280) of Eleanor’s voice. Eleonora’s ghostly presence, which survives after her supposed death, is matched by Eleanor’s “shadowy and unreal” (p. 234) fading like a ghost. As if in imitation of Poe and Swinbume, to whom Fitzgerald also alludes (p. 232), Amory and Eleanor pay homage to an irrecoverable dream world that is destroyed by the ravages of time. In both works, time may triumph over physical love, but the heroines Eleonora and Eleanor respectively live on in the protagonists’ minds.

The chapters marking Amory’s confrontation with the terror and beauty of Eleanor display a thorough assimilation of Poesque imagery and themes, but little aesthetic distance on Fitzgerald’s part from Poe’s materials. Allusions to “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ulalume” are obvious and explicit, and Poe’s name is invoked directly when the indolent Amory recites Poe’s poetry “to the corn fields . . . congratulating Poe for drinking himself to death in that atmosphere of smiling complacency” (p. 223). Fitzgerald’s use of Poe in This Side of Paradise seems self-consciously literary, almost as if he were seeking a famous figure of romantic dissolution to parallel his protagonist’s youthful disillusionment.

In Tender is the Night occur allusions to a specific poem by Poe, “To Helen,” but more subtle and less heavy-handed weaving of this tissue of allusions goes into this later and more mature novel. A reliance on Poe is also suggested by the complicated textual history of the novel. Revisions in Tender is the Night reveal that the earliest draft concerned a figure of [page 92:] youthful dissolution from the South, Francis Melarky, who is dismissed from West Point for insubordination and who tours Europe wit.(9) Fitzgerald later transformed the Melarky story into that of Dick Diver and Rosemary Hoyt, but Melarky’s connections with the South, West Point, and alcoholism perhaps kept the figure of Poe in Fitzgerald’s mind as he detailed Dick Diver’s disintegration. The twentieth-century writer may have found in Poe’s example a precedent for Diver’s victimization by internal and external forces.

Fitzgerald’s most explicit reference to Poe occurs when Rosemary announces the title of the film she is making, “The Grandeur That Was Rome.”(10) This allusion to “To Helen” is replete with irony because the Roman episodes of, Tender is the Night suggest corruption and decadence rather than the inherited glories of the classical past.(11) Nevertheless, the allusion calls attention to a host of other associations with “To Helen,” some ironic, some straightforward, which permeate the novel. This matrix of associations recalls the vaguely Odyssean elements of Poe’s poem and thereby provides a Romantic version of the heroic quest that serves as a backdrop to Diver’s emotional and psychological deterioration.(12)

Fitzgerald incorporates qualities of Poe’s Helen into a gallery of female characters in Tender is the Night. Foremost among these is Nicole Diver, whose physiognomy and bearing initially recall the “classic face” and “statue-like” demeanor of Poe’s idealized heroine. Although Nicole’s name may have been chosen because of its associations with the hardness of money (“nickel”),(13) his descriptions also stress her austere, statuesque features. The result is a riveting “effect” on the observer, a term reflecting a thoroughly Poesque absorption in female beauty:

her face could have been described in terms of conventional prettiness, but the effect was that it had been made first on the heroic scale with strong structure and marking, as if the vividness of brow and coloring, everything we associate with temperament and character had been molded with a Rodinesque intention, and then chiseled away in the direction of prettiness to a point where a single slip would have diminished its force and quality. (p. 17)

An emotional hardness underlies the aesthetic appeal of her beauty. As Nicole subsequently comments to Rosemary: “I’m a mean, hard woman” (p. 21). Fitzgerald, through Nicole’s conversation and physical descriptions, has followed Poe’s technique of connecting physiognomy and character, internal temperament and outward demeanor.(14) [page 93:]

Several other pictorial qualities of Poe’s goddess-like figure become incorporated into Nicole’s appearance. As Poe describes Helen’s “hyacinth hair,” Fitzgerald regales Nicole, aboard the Swiss funicular, with “fine-spun hair. . .fluffed into curls” (p. 148). The “classic face” of Poe’s Helen finds an analogue in Dick’s lavish appreciation for his future wife’s facial beauty, “delight in Nicole’s face” (p. 149). In concert with these lyrical, poetic descriptions of Nicole in the Alps, Fitzgerald apparently appropriates other images from “To Helen.” In a passage reminiscent of Poe’s female figure bearing an “agate lamp” in a frozen pose, Fitzgerald describes Nicole amid the beautiful mountains: “On the horseshoe walk overlooking the lake Nicole was the figure motionless between two lamp stands” (p. 153). Even after she and Dick part that evening, she remains a haunting presence like Poe’s figure in the “window niche.” Unable to sleep and thinking of Nicole, Dick goes “to the window. Her beauty climbed the rolling slope, it came into the room, rustling ghost-like through the curtains. . .” (p. 156).(15)

As a modern counterpart to Helen’s, Nicole’s face is cast on a heroic scale, its beauty associated with classical voyages of the past. Whereas in Poe’s poem Helen’s beauty is linked cryptically with “those Nicean barks of yore,” Nicole’s face is associated with sea voyages of mythic stature. At one point, in fact, she imagines herself on a boat’s prow as a sculptured figure with flowing hair:

Sitting on the stanchion of this lifeboat I look seaward and let my hair blow and shine. I am motionless against the sky and the boat is made to carry my form into the blue obscurity of the future, I am Pallas Athene carved reverently into the front of a galley. The waters are lapping the public toilets and the agate green foliage changes and complains about the stern. (p. 160)

Here Fitzgerald adapts several elements of “To Helen,” including the motionless face of a woman with striking hair and the effect of “agate” coloration.

If such connections seem conjectural even in view of Fitzgerald’s interest in Poe’s poem, it i s perhaps no coincidence that one of the boats occupied by Nicole is T. F. Golding’s ship, which temporarily anchors in “Nicean” waters: “It was the yacht of T. F. Golding lying placid among the little swells of the Nicean Bay, constantly bound upon a romantic voyage that was not dependent upon actual motion” (p. 260). Interestingly, Fitzgerald changed the geographical reference when he transformed source material from an early story “One Trip Abroad.” In the earlier tale — passages of which were later incorporated into Tender is the Night — Golding’s craft is positioned in [page 94:] “Monacan” rather than “Nicean” waters: “Before the maiddrew the curtains to shutout the glare, Nicole saw from her window the yacht of T. E. Golding, placid among the swells of the Monacan Bay, as if constantly on a romantic voyage not dependent on actual motion.”(16)

Fitzgerald was undoubtedly oblivious to the controversy concerning the meaning of Poe’s epithet “Nicean barks,” which has been ascribed to such varied sources as Milton, Coleridge, Vergil, and the mythological stories of Helen, Bacchus, Psyche, and Ulysses.(17) Fitzgerald may have used “Nicean” for purely geographical reasons or for its evocative sound. Probably, however, he associated the adjective with the ancient Ligurian town of Niceaa, now Nice in France.” Less likely but worthy of conjecture is the possibility that Fitzgerald knew that “Nicean” was the adjective form of the Greek word “Nike,” a traditional figure in Greek art that represented “victory.” In Greek sculpture and numismatics, a “Nike” was usually represented as a beautiful woman standing on a boat prow.(19) As he pondered the choices of his proper names, Fitzgerald’s imagination may have shifted among an array of mythic, artistic, and literary references, perhaps including Poe’s “Nicean barks.” Whatever his possible knowledge of the sources of Poe’s poem, there seems little doubt that Fitzgerald invited comparison, often using serious puns, among the following variants: “Nicole,” “Nice,” “Nicean,”and “nice.” It is also clear that Fitzgerald connects Nicole’s facial features and flowing hair with the onward thrust of seagoing craft, as for example, with the movement of Golding’s yacht: “Since dinner the yacht had been in motion westward. The fine night streamed away on either side, the Diesel engines pounded softly, there was a spring wind that blew Nicole’s hair abruptly when she reached the bow.,.,” (p. 273). Adrift in the Nicean bay, Dick comments, supposedly in innocuous fashion, but furthering Fitzgerald’s serious wordplay: “It’s a nice night” (p. 273).(20)

If Fitzgerald intended Nicole as a modern analogue to Poe’s Helen, he was not alluding unambiguously to Poe. If her statue-like features connect her with the grandeur of the classical past, they also reflect an emotional hardness that can easily turn into ruthlessness. If she temporarily fashions herself a goddess of wisdom, she also displays the most uncontrollable emotional instability. If she sees herself as a goddess calling brave men to board ships bound for adventurous seas, hers is also a siren song of madness luring potential heroes to destruction. Although handled more dextrously than in This Side of Paradise, the combined terror and beauty of Fitzgerald’s heroines in Tender is the Night hold the vulnerable Diver in their unremitting thrall.(21)

Fitzgerald further illustrates the ambiguous nature of the Helen figure [page 95:] in Tender is the Night in his characterization of two of Diver’s female patients at the Zugersee, both of whom serve as foils to Nicole. The first is the thirty-year-old American painter who suffers from nervous eczema but who discovers that emotional suffering is never skin deep. Her exchange with Dick on the instability of the modern world carries heroic echoes, perhaps suggestive of the first Helen who sent men into battle:

“I’m sharing the fate of the women of my time who challenged men to battle.”

“To your vast surprise it was just like all battles,” he answered, adopting her formal diction.

“Just like all battles.” She thought this over. “You pick a set-up, or else win a Pyrrhic victory, or you’re wrecked or ruined-you’re a ghostly echo from a broken wall.” (p. 184)

These echoes may be too faint for the reader to discern their provenance in grand, ancient battles since the heroic ideal has been so devalued in modern society. Nevertheless, Dick takes leave of the American painter and enters the room of another foil to Nicole, an “American girl of fifteen who had been brought up on the basis that childhood had been intended to be all fun” (p. 18fi). This adolescent girl suffers from a variant of the “Daddy’s Girl” syndrome. She has been spoiled by her “normal and conscientious” but overprotective father, a more benign version of Devereux Warren. But the relevance of her role to those of the other female characters is made certain when we learn that her name is Helen.

Poe’s “To Helen” provided Fitzgerald with a text that incorporated traditional elements of the classical quest with somewhat vague, evocative suggestions of Romantic longing. Moreover, the poem embodied a serious heroic statement against which he could measure Dick Diver’s deterioration and his failure with a gallery of women. Fitzgerald’s keen awareness of the ambiguous nature of Poe’s heroines also allowed him, in both This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night, to portray female characters who were equally daunting in their physical beauty and in their emotional instability. In the latter novel in particular, the ambiguous Helen figure became the object of Diver’s quest as well as the proximate cause of his emotional disintegration. Yet this latter-day Helen, whether in the guise of Nicole or of the minor female characters surrounding her, remained the sustaining force behind Diver’s imagination, even if she became merely a “ghostly echo from a broken wall.” From Poe’s “To Helen,” Fitzgerald learned much about man’s yearning for a world of dreams, often embodied in a female figure of compelling beauty. From Poe’s works overall, Fitzgerald learned much [page 96:] about possible ambiguities in female characterization and so achieved a partial education in Romantic agony.

[page 96, continued:]


1.  See Andrew Turnbull, Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography (New York, 1962), p.15. For other references to Poe, see pp. 96 and 187.

2.  The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull (New York,1962), p. 531. See also p. 513 and Turnbull’s biography, p. 267.

3.  Maxwell Geismar, “A Cycle of Fiction,” The Literary History of the United States, ed. Robert Spiller et al. (New York, 1953), p. 1299.

4.  See John Kuehl, ed. The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald (New Brunswick, NJ, 1965), p. 18. For Poe’s works in Fitzgerald’s library, see Kuehl, “Scott Fitzgerald’s Reading,” PULC 22(1961), 58-89.

5.  See Sergio Perosa, The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald, trans. Perosa and Charles Matz (Ann Arbor, 1965), p. 35. For affinities between emotional qualities in Fitzgerald’s and Poe’s works, see also Perosa, pp. 58,185,191-193. For a suggestive discussion of the legacy of Poe’s dream world as inherited by Fitzgerald and Nabokov, see Martha Banta, “Benjamin, Edgar, Humbert, and Jay,” YR, 6(1(1971), 532-549. I am indebted to Richard Kopley for alerting me to a possible Fitzgerald borrowing from Poe in The Great Gatsby. During his interrogation of Gatsby, Tom Buchanan inquires about Oxford, as a waiter enters the room:

Another pause. A waiter knocked and came in with crushed mint and ice, but the silence was unbroken by his “thank you” and the soft closing of the door — The Great Gatsby (New York, 1953), p. 86.

Stanza 5 of “The Raven” reads:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dram before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!”

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word “Lenore!”

Merely this and nothing more.

Whether Fitzgerald borrowed the line consciously or unconsciously, his language, if not unique, is identical to Poe’s. In both works, the phrase appears after a door opens. As Kopley pointed out to me in a letter: “The similarity in language suggests a possible relation between Daisy and Lenore, and between Gatsby’s dram and ‘the dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before’ of the narrator of ‘The Raven.’ “ [page 97:]

6.  Tuttleton, “The Presence of Poe in This Side of Paradise,” ELN, 3(1960), 284-289. Tuttleton mentions “Ligeia,”’Usher,” and “Murders,” but not “Eleonora,” in his discussion of Poe’s influence.

7.  M.2:642. Subsequent references to Poe’s fiction will be noted in the body of my essay by volume and page number.

8.  Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (New York, 1920), pp. 233-234. Subsequent references to this novel will be noted in the body of my essay by page number. Fitzgerald’s phantasmagorial lighting, pungent scents, and musical effects also recall the oppression of the senses in “The Assignation,” in which Poe presents an “overpowering sense of splendor and perfume, and music” (M.2:159) in the eccentric visionary’s chamber.

9.  See Matthew Bruccoli, The Composition of Tender is the Night (Pittsburgh, 1963), pp. 26-28 ff.

10.  Tender is the Night (New York, 1933), p. 207. All other references will be noted in the body of my essay.

11.  Robert Roulsmn briefly notes that Fitzgerald’s borrowing from Poe is a grim commentary on Dick’s moral disintegration in “Dick Diver’s Plunge in the Roman Void — The Setting of Tender is the Night,” SAQ 77(1978), 85-97.

12.  Fitzgerald connects Poe’s poem and The Odyssey when Rosemary announces the title “The Grandeur That Was Rome.” Rosemary is then described as “the person for whom [Dick] had made the Mediterranean crossing” (p. 207). In this passage Dick is a Romantic wanderer a la Ulysses. Epic and heroic elements in Tender is the Night have been discussed, with varied conclusions, by Edwin Mosely, F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Critical Essay (Grand Rapids, 1967), pp. 36-41; Richard Foster, “Time’s Exile: Dick Diver and the Heroic Idea,” Mosaic, 8(1975), 89-108; and Maria Di Battista, “The Aesthetic of Forbearance: Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night,” Novel, 11(1977), 26-39.

13.  Bruaoli, p. 97.

14.  Poe’s most famous example of connecting by analogy physiognomy and psychology is “The Fall of the House of Usher.” For comments on Poe’s physical shapes or outlines and internal temperament, see John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (New Haven, 1980), pp. 52 and 55.

15.  Fitzgerald may have also had in mind the Marc Aphrodite in “The Assignation,” whoa “stave-like form,” “classical had,” “large lustrous eyes;” and “curls like those of the hyacinth” recall Poe’s Helen. The Marchesa also looks out from her chamber window on a “dark, gloomy niche” (M.2:153).

16.  “One Trip Abroad,” The Bodley Head F. Scott Fitzgerald (London, 1963), 6:254.

17.  An informative survey of Poe’s sources is Edward D. Snyder, “Poe’s Nicean Barks (A History of Attempts to Interpret the Cruces),” CJ, 48(1953), 159-169.

18.  A hypothesis first suggested by F. V. N. Painter, ed. Poets of the South (New [page 98:] York, 1903), p. 217 — that Poe may have had a French locale in mind — has been generally discredited. See Snyder s comments, p. 167.

19.  See Mario L. D’Avanzo, “‘Like Those Nicean Barks: Helen’s Beauty,” PoeS, 6(1973),26-27. That Poe meant “Nicean” to be an adjectival form of “Nike,” that is, “victory,” is convincingly argued by Thomas Ollive Mabbott — M.1:167.

20.  Fitzgerald’s manipulations of these variants — “Nicole, “‘Nice,” “Nicean,” and “nice” — are legion, as just a few passages indicate. See Tender, pp. 12, 99,143, 152-156, and 273.

21.  The dual nature of Fitzgerald’s women, “sources of delight and admiration” as well as “forces of destruction,” is capably highlighted by Sister Mary Verity McNicholas, “Fitzgerald’s Women in Tender is the Night,” CollL, 4 (1977),40-70. An insightful study connecting the novel to the Gothic tradition but not to Poe is Judith Wilt, “The Spinning Story: Gothic Motifs in Tender is the Night,” Fitzgerald /Hemingway Annual, ed. Matthew Bruccoli (1976), 79-95.





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - Fitzgerald's Homage to Poe: Female Characterization in This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night (Kent Ljungquist, 1986)