Dick and Nicole Diver are a sparkling 1920’s expatriate couple with two small children. They are whiling their life away on the French Riviera. Dick is a psychiatrist who, when we first meet him, is not practicing. Nicole had been his patient at an exclusive clinic where she had been admitted after a "nervous breakdown" (schizophrenia) occasioned by an episode of incest with her father.

The first section of the book presents the Divers through the eyes of Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress who is vacationing with her mother and develops an ambiguous relationship with Dick. Later, in a long flashback section, we learn the story of Nicole’s illness and treatment, culminating in Dick’s marriage--with the support of her family--to the incredibly wealthy Nicole. In the interest of Nicole’s health, her sister (“Baby”) helps Dick purchase an interest in the clinic. The remainder of the novel describes a gradual role inversion, whereby Nicole grows strong, healthy, and sympathetic; while Dick gradually weakens, succumbs to alcohol, divorces Nicole, and is finally left drifting from practice to practice in upstate New York.


Initially, Doctor Diver is presented as a compassionate physician and fine scientist. When we get to know him, however, he reveals the emptiness within: "The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing . . . Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged." Nicole grows, Dick withers.

Nicole clearly profits from her husband’s love and support, and from her experiences as a mother and friend. She gradually becomes a strong character who ultimately asserts her individuality. It is unclear whether Dick’s “emptying himself” for her (or his ambiguous role as husband-physician) leads to his own collapse, or whether his personal tragedy results from other character flaws. Is his addiction to alcohol, the chicken or the egg?


Charles Scribners' Sons

Place Published

New York



Page Count


Secondary Source