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Dick, the protagonist of the novel, is a complex and intelligent character. In the beginning of the story, he is a promising and respected American psychiatrist who is studying in Zurich. In spite of his brilliance, Dick does not always make wise decisions, for he is a very self-indulgent man. Although Dick does not acknowledge this trait in himself, other people recognize his self-indulgence and dislike him for it. Dick’s first self- indulging mistake is in allowing himself to become infatuated with Nicole, a patient at the clinic where he works. In spite of Franz’s advice against and Dick’s knowledge that it could ruin his professional career, Dick foolishly pursues a relationship with her; in the end, he marries her, largely because of her wealth. For awhile, the couple is happy, as they travel in Europe, living off of Nicole’s money. Dick, however, soon begins to feel trapped by his marriage; he dislikes being both a husband and a psychiatrist to his wife and feeling that he is “kept” by her. As a result, he finds himself interested in other women, whom he easily attracts. When Rosemary, a young actress, flirts with him, he cannot resist her for long. In Paris on a group outing, the two of them are amorous; later Dick chases Rosemary all the way to Italy, betraying his wife. In the end, he realizes that Rosemary is too young and immature for him, but his realization has come too late. He has already begun to drown his sorrows in alcohol to the degree that it destroys his career and his marriage. When Nicole announces that she loves Tommy Barban and wants a divorce, Dick accepts it calmly and leaves Tarmes forever.
Dick’s story is the tragedy of a wasted life. Totally self-indulgent, pursuing what makes him feel good at the moment, he finds himself with nothing. He returns to America, the place he says he will never visit again after his father’s death. There he tries to forge a new life for himself, but fails miserably. At the end of the book, Dick literally fades away into a wandering, alcoholic haze, somewhere in the area of upstate New York.
Although a beautiful woman, Nicole is depicted as a pathetic character, who is a victim of circumstance. At the beginning of the story, she is in a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland because her wealthy father has sexually abused her after her mother’s death. Totally needy, she becomes infatuated with Dick Diver, one of the psychiatrists at her clinic. Dick, at first, resists his attraction to Nicole, but when he later encounters her at a Swiss ski resort, he succumbs to temptation. He marries her, largely due to her wealth. At first Nicole is happily married, as she directs their lives and demands her husband’s attention. When Dick decides to open a new clinic in Zurich, he and Franz finance the venture with Nicole’s money. Nicole quickly becomes regretful of the arrangement, for she feels lonely and out of control with her husband devoting his time to his work instead of to her. She also realizes that Dick is attracted to other women and particularly notices his infatuation with Rosemary, the young American actress. His betrayal makes her miserable, and she sinks back into a mental instability characterized by having fits. As their marriage degenerates, she knows that Dick has no emotion for her and is drowning his misery in alcohol.
Throughout the novel, Nicole is treated shabbily; she is considered "too delicate” to be told the truth, too unstable for direct action, and too unsure of herself to act independently. Either her sister, Baby Warren, or her husband tries to direct her life. When she finally decides to rise up against her husband’s ill treatment of her, she does it in a foolish manner, deciding to have an affair with Tommy Barban, a mercenary and overbearing man. Although she finally accuses Dick of not caring for her for a long time and demanding a divorce, she is not sure of her decision, but is prodded forward by her lover. When she watches Dick leave Tarmes, she wants to run after him, but Tommy hold her back, proving she is still not in control. Although no details of her marriage to Tommy are given, it is clearly indicated that her second marriage will not be a happy one either. Her second husband, like Dick, is interested in Nicole’s money and controlling her life. In the end, Nicole seems like the poor little rich girl, who struggles throughout life to find a meaningful place for herself; unfortunately, Fitzgerald does not indicate that she ever finds real happiness.