Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Scribner 1995 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This is a fine work with beautiful language about people who could use a little moderation.
The title derives from Keats' Ode to a Nightingale. The novel opens in June 1925 on the French Riviera near Cannes. Rosemary Hoyt, an American actress who went to school in Paris and is nearly 18 y/o, arrives at Gausse's Hotel with her mother (Mrs. Elsie Speers, a widow). Rosemary has just made the hit movie "Daddy's Girl." She meets Luis Campion (an effeminate man), Mrs. Abrams (outspoken), Mr. Albert McKisco (a 30 y/o novelist) and Mrs. Violet McKisco , Mr. Royal Dumphry (a young man), Abe North (failed musician) and his wife Mary North. She also meets Dick Diver (Richard, a psychiatrist, c. 32 y/o) and Nicole Diver (24 y/o) at the beach and tells her mother she has fallen in love with him. The Divers have a nice house (Villa Diana) at Tarmes, overlooking the beach from 700 feet up. She also meets the Frenchman Tommy Barban. The Divers ask Rosemary to join them.
Rosemary visits the director on the set Earl Brady, who desires her.
The Divers have a party at their house (he hopes to have "a brawl and seductions"). Their children Lanier and Topsy sing for Brady. Tommy Barban, who is half-French and half-American soldier, is bellicose and wants to go to war. Rosemary murmurs to Dick that she has fallen in love with him, but he pretends not to have heard. Mr. McKisco fails to fit in. Nicole exhibits peculiar behavior to Violet. Mr. McKisco (a socialist and Russian sympathizer) gets in a violent argument with Barban (who wants to fight the Soviets). Violet is dumbfounded by a scene she has encountered in the bathroom, but Barban advises her against talking about what she has seen. Rosemary, alone with Dick, again declares her love, which he deflects. He invites her to join them on a trip to Paris.
Back at her hotel, Rosemary's mother condones Rosemary's quest for Dick, thinking it will be a useful experience or at least unavoidable. Rosemary finds the weeping Campion, who informs her that Barban and McKisco have determined to fight a duel. McKisco is ill-prepared for this but neither is wounded when they face off at 40 paces.
Nicole is the granddaughter of a self-made American capitalist. Her mother died when she was 13. She and her older sister Baby were trained to be hard. Rosemary is disappointed to hear Dick's eagerness to meet Nicole at the hotel.
On their trip, the Divers, Norths, and Rosemary visit a recent WWI battlefield near Amiens. Dick gives his romantic view of the terrible battles there. Rosemary begins to drink more hoping to win Dick's approval. Rosemary invites Dick to her room and asks him to take her, but he declines. Rosemary later asks Dick to be in a movie with her but he also declines this. Collis Clay, a Georgian and Rosemary's college classmate, shows up, perhaps in mild pursuit of Rosemary. They all go to a party in Paris hosted by an American. Dick tells Rosemary he is in love with her but doesn't want Nicole to know or to be hurt-- he says she is not very strong. Mary North wants to get Abe North back to America. Abe later becomes unpleasant with Nicole. At the train station, Maria Wallis shoots an Englishman, and Dick debates how to be helpful.
By July, Mary North has left. Collis Clay seems interested in Rosemary. He tells Dick of a past tryst on a train between Rosemary and Bill Hillis-- this awakens more passion in Dick and he seeks her out unsuccessfully and recklessly in a film studio. He calls her in her room and wants to see her, but is unable to follow through. Instead he takes Nicole to a play and Rosemary writes her mother of her interest in a movie director.
The police arrive at Nicole's room to inform them that Abe North has become entangled in a mess-- he was robbed in a bar, a black man named Freeman was arrested, and another black named Crawshow wants Freeman freed. They get a garbled phone call from Abe. As Abe drinks at a bar, a black named Jules Peterson wants to see him but is refused admission. Dick goes to Rosemary's room with romantic intentions but they are interrupted by Abe accompanied by Jules Peterson-- Abe fears for Jules' life, as he had something to do with Freeman's being arrested. Dick refuses to let them come in and sends them to another hotel. Jules is later found in Rosemary's room, murdered and bleeding on the bed. Dick moves the body into the hall to spare her scandal and exchanges the bloody sheets with Nicole's. Nicole is found in the bathroom by Dick and Rosemary soon afterwards, decompensated after receiving the bloody bedding (similar to when Mrs. McKisco had seen her in the bathroom at Tarmes.)
Through a flashback, we learn the history of how Dick and Nicole began. Dick was a Rhodes scholar 1914, got his degree (apparently not the MD) at Hopkins in c. 1916, came to Vienna in 1916, Zurich in 1917 (at 26 y/o-- there he completed a degree, which?, perhaps his MD), joined a neurological unit at Bar-sur-Aube, discharged (apparently from the Army) in 1919, published a book in 1920.
In April 1919, Dick visits Dr. Gregory (Franz Gregorivius) at Dohmler's clinic for the mentally ill-- Franz is a "pathologist" (a clinician) and hypnotist. Franz has had the care of Nicole, who has been writing many letters to Dick ("Mon Capitaine") after a brief encounter, which Franz refers to as a transference and wants to talk to him about it. Nicole was brought there at 16 y/o in c. October 1917 to Dr. Dohmler's by her wealthy and highly connected father, Mr. Devereux Warren, who comes from Chicago. She had become schizophrenic 8-10 months ago at c. 15 y/o after an episode of incest, to which Warren tearfully confesses. She had begun fantasizing that there had been an episode with an indecent valet. Dr. Gregory explores Dick's intentions regarding Nicole.
Dick and Nicole begin to meet each other. By May they are falling in love. Dr. Dohmler wants Dick to break off this unprofessional relationship. Dick tries to break it off, and resumes work on his revision of his textbook "Psychology for Psychiatrists". Later he encounters Nicole on the Glion funicular. She is accompanied by her sister Beth (Baby), who is older (24 y/o then) and was previously engaged to an Englishman killed in the war. Also there is the Conte de Marmora, who is pursuing Nicole. Dick avoids intimacy with Nicole. Beth is unsure how to help Nicole, and talks to Dick about her influential father and their wealth. Nicole meets Dick, asks him whether he could have ever loved her, and asks him to give her a chance. They kiss and he is hooked.
Later Beth questions Dick's motives. He tells more about himself. He is the son of a clergyman, great grandson of the governor of N Carolina. Nicole and Dick marry, love each other, have a son Lanier and daughter Topsy, travel-- she has several relapses.
(Resuming in 1925): Dick meets with Rosemary's mother to say goodbye-- they are leaving for ?America. They discuss the love between Dick and Rosemary. Later Dick contemplates his doubts about his professional writings. He reflects on Nicole's recent breakdowns. Dick and Nicole leave the Riviera-- she is relieved that he is hers again, having been suspicious and insightful about Dick and Rosemary. With Rosemary gone, Dick feels at loose ends. Nicole has prevented Mrs. Speers from coming to see them one last time and has some knowledge of his love.
In December 1925, they vacation at the Gstaad in the Swiss Alps. Dr. Gregory arrives to propose that Dick and he become partners in a new psychiatry clinic, funded implicitly by Nicole's money. Dick resents Beth's encouragement and senses that her family's money has bought him. The clinic will benefit Nicole, however, and he acquiesces.
(Probably 1929): Life at the clinic, which is modern in appearance, is described. Nicole has helped to lay it out and decorate it. Dick is now 38 y/o. He receives an accusatory letter accusing him of seducing a patient's daughter, and Nicole doubts his truthfulness. She is becoming difficult and is hysterical at the fair. Coming home, she causes them to have a car accident. Dick feels he must get away and leaves. In Munich he learns from Tommy Barban that Abe North was beaten to death in a speakeasy in New York. In Innsbruck, Dick considers but rejects casual sex, feels lost, learns his father has died. He goes to America for the funeral.
On the boat returning, he encounters the McKiscos and in Rome, he encounters Rosemary (filming) and Collis Clay. It has apparently been four years since he saw her (p. 206). He goes to her room, but she resists his advances for the moment. He later tours the set with her. Back at her hotel, "she wanted to be taken and she was." Beth shows up and grills Dick about Nicole-- she wonders aloud if Nicole would be happier with someone else. Dick knows that he and Rosemary are not in love. He pointedly asks Rosemary about her past affairs. He is jealous of the young Italian actor Nicotera, who wants to marry Rosemary. Rosemary is frustrated with Dick-- what can he offer her? She is confused and expresses regret at their encounter.
Collis and Dick go drinking in Rome. Dick is disillusioned and in a foul mood. Rosemary sends Dick a note saying that she stayed home for him and wants to see him in her room, but he ignores it. He gets drunker, dances with an English girl, picks an unseemly fight with a taxi driver, and is taken to the police. At the station, he slugs a plainclothes detective, gets beaten badly, and is jailed. He calls Beth, who works heroically to get help from the consulate to get him freed. The judge says he has been punished enough. Rome was the end of his dream with Rosemary.
Dick returned from his debauch and told Nicole an expurgated version of the events, which Beth helped to cover up. Dr. Gregory's wife Kaethe confides to him her worries about Dick's loss of seriousness and his debauch in Rome. She is also bothered about Nicole's aloofness from her, her withdrawal from Kaethe's smell, and her refusal to let their children play together. Dr. Gregory inwardly concurs that Dick is no longer a serious person.
In May (?1930), Dick goes to Lausanne to consult on a case: a wealthy Spaniard has an only son Francisco who is homosexual, and this shames the father. Royal Dumphry tells Dick that Nicole's father is sick, dying of liver disease. Dick sees him, and the father says he wants to see Nicole. She learns of this accidentally and comes to Lausanne, but the father has already changed his mind and fled to Paris, apparently somewhat improved. Nicole expresses negative thoughts about Dick's type of work.
Dick is accused by a patient's father of having alcohol on his breath on several occasions despite the fact the son is himself there for alcoholism. Franz returns from out of town and expresses his own concerns over Dick's drinking and loss of enthusiasm for the clinic. They decide Dick will pull out of the partnership and be bought out.
The Divers are vacationing lavishly after selling the clinic. Mary North has married a wealthy North African Arab named Hosain, Conte di Minghetti. They stay with them. Dick drinks excessively, tells preposterous tales (playing on Hosain's ignorance), and fails to pay attention to what his hosts say. He ends up insulting Hosain's sister, accusing her of bathing his Lanier in dirty water infected by Hosain's son and insisting that she clean the tub first-- he fails to understand that she is Hosain's sister and not just an attendant. Hosain and his sisters leave insulted and Mary washes her hands of Dick and Nicole after they indicate a lack of repentance.
At Tarmes, Dick must fire the drunken cook, who in turn accuses him of drunkenness. Dick has become more moody and hot-tempered and Nicole laments that they can't go on like this. She thinks she has ruined him. They depart from their usual aloofness and join a decadent yacht party of Mr. Golding's. They encounter Tommy Barban there, who shifts his attention to Nicole from Lady Caroline Sibly-Biers, the "wickedest woman in London"-- she is irritated to be supplanted. Dick is drunk and insults Caroline and her country. Later he expresses vague thoughts of jumping overboard. Tommy drives them home.
Nicole knows Tommy loves her and contemplates an affair. He leaves. In June, he comes to Nice and Rosemary is also in the area. Nicole gives Tommy their only camphor rub, over Dick's protest. Dick and Nicole greet Rosemary at the beach. He tries to show of his prowess with aquaplaning but fails. Mary North Minghetti arrives and is hostile to Dick. Rosemary is surprised at Dick's uncharacteristic bitterness. Dick plays mind games with the innocent Rosemary regarding her acting-- she is confused. Nicole leaves angry, wanting to be independent of Dick. She writes a provocative letter to Tommy. Dick drives away not stating his destination.
Tommy arrives to pick up Nicole-- they go off for a liberating affair, but she insists they return before dawn because of the children and governess. Dick returns sooner than expected. He acknowledges that he was with Rosemary, but has put her on a train-- he says to Nicole that Rosemary hasn't grown up and doesn't have anything to offer him. She says she has been out dancing with Tommy-- he does not want to hear any more details. She feels remorse, but he repels her when she tries to console him. She accuses him of blaming her for his failure. She feels at last that she has won her freedom, and has cut the cord from Dick.
At 2 AM, Dick is awakened-- he must go with the hotelier Gausse to the police to rescue Mary North and Lady Caroline. They were arrested while cross-dressing on a lark, pretending to be sailors on leave. Lady Caroline behaves insufferably, though Mary is mortified and hopes her husband will not learn of it. Dick applies money to smooth the situation over.
Tommy wants to meet Dick. He informs Dick that Nicole no longer loves him and wants to marry Tommy. Dick hears this revelation calmly, having suspected it.
Dick is to leave for America. He says goodbye to the kids. Nicole and Tommy on Gausse's beach look up to see him on some rocks overhead. He is talking to Mary, who chides him about his drinking. They discuss momentarily a possible interest in each other. But Dick soon returns to reality, says he must go. He goes to America, practices general medicine in several towns of progressively decreasing size, gets entangled with a girl and a medical lawsuit, has little success in his medical practice, and fades into obscurity, eventually out of touch with his children and Nicole.