Metaphorically Dick Diver’s life represents the death of pre-War American morality and honor and the emergence of the post-War decadent Jazz Age. As a young man, Dick manages to circumvent the violence of World War I because his status as a physician insures his exemption from the draft. Unlike Tommy Barban who represents violence: “courage was his game and his companions were always afraid of him,” Doctor Diver takes the high road healing people (196). However, as his sense of morality crumbles, he increasingly manages to attract violence into his life.
The theme of violence, introduced in the duel between Tommy Barban and Mr. McKisco, continues in the figure of Maria Wallis, a woman scorned, who shoots a man to death in a Paris railway station and is followed shortly by the appearance of the body of Jules Peterson on Rosemary’s bed where just a few minutes earlier she and Diver would have consummated their relationship. In Italy, a drunken Dick gets himself into a fight with a taxi driver and winds up beaten and bruised in jail. Abe North’s murder in a New York speakeasy suggests that if Dick doesn’t heed this message, he too will die such a violent death.
The 1920s Jazz Age emerged in the euphoria following World War I. America became obsessed with anything new, and especially with the vitality of the younger generation who had survived the War. Dick Diver’s attraction to ever-increasingly younger women represents the impulse toward decadence and the destructive consequences of excess after World War I.
It was both Nicole’s money and her youth that attracted Dick to the teenage mental patient, Nicole. Diver takes on a parental role as her doctor and also a lover’s role as her husband and thus, psychiatrists would argue, he became fixated on young girls. At the beginning of the novel, the middle-aged Dick Diver is attracted to Rosemary Hoyt’s youthful childish beauty. At first he acts in a parental manner toward her, calling her “child,” but soon after begins a romantic affair with her. She is not yet eighteen. It is both Nicole’s money and youthful good looks that captures his heart. Later on, as he continues to decay morally, his involvement with a fifteen-year-old girl causes him trouble when her mother complains to Nicole. After the passage of five years, when he meets the twenty-two-year-old Rosemary, she reminds him of his nine-year-old daughter Topsy.