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“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (thoughts)

January 12, 2009

shotsofshortIn addition to being a challenge read, I’m posting this review on Monday to participate in John’s Short Story Monday feature. I encourage everyone to go read a short story (if you need some links, check out my current list, C.B. James’ posts from his Short Story September challenge last year, Gautami’s list, or a list of New Yorker short stories from 2008, helpfully linked to by Myrthe) write something about it, and leave a link over at the official post. :)

I learned when reading Joshua Zeitz’s Flapper that it’s sometimes difficult to tell if Fitzgerald invented the flapper, or the flapper invented Fitzgerald. In either case, Fitzgerald made the bulk of his money through his short stories featuring flappers, many of which were published by The Saturday Evening Post. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is one such story (and the link I’ve provided includes scanned images of its original publication). It was later included in his collection Flappers and Philosophers and inspired the cover illustration.

We enter his world of glittering young things through a young buck, striding about at a party and commenting to himself on the people he sees. While this sets a generally frivolous mood, there are some luminous Fitzgerald touches, such as I would expect from the author of The Great Gatsby. My favourite is the image at the end of this passage:

There, for example, were Jim Strain and Ethel Demorest, who had been privately engaged for three years. Every one knew that as soon as Jim managed to hold a job for more than two months she would marry him. Yet how bored they both looked, and how wearily Ethel regarded Jim sometimes, as if she wondered why she had trained the vines of her affection on such a wind-shaken poplar.

The story soon shifts to the minds of its key players: Marjorie, a successful young flapper, and her ‘dull’ (if traditionally good) cousin Bernice. Although at home Bernice enjoys quite a bit of popularity, among her cousin’s set she doesn’t know how to act at all, and she’s horribly conscience of not being ‘in.’ Finally, after a particularly trying conversation, she asks Marjorie to tell her what to do. Here’s a taste of the advice that follows:

“All right–I’ll just give you a few examples now. First, you have no ease of manner. Why? Because you’re never sure about your personal appearance. When a girl feels that she’s perfectly groomed and dressed she can forget that part of her. That’s charm. The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you have.”

In no time at all, by following Marjorie’s advice to the letter (she even memorises witticisms), Bernice has transformed herself into a popular flapper and even decides to extend her stay. But, in a twist reminiscent of Emma (and it’s fun modern adaptation Clueless), Marjorie herself isn’t so sure what to think of Bernice’s new image.

flappersandphilosophersI’m not going to say more than that about the plot (it’s so difficult to discuss short stories meangingfully while not ruining them!) , but the story really brought home another thing Zeitz discussed in his book. Before the 1920s, unmarried women’s relationships with men were closely supervised. However, their relationships with other women were not so constrained-adults encouraged them to form tight friendships and at all-women colleges, the girls would send things like flowers and chocolate to one another. The flapper, on the other hand, might have ever so many boyfriends while maintaining her distance from other girls, who were now considered competition. That’s reflected in Bernice’s view of Marjorie:

As a matter of fact Marjorie had no female intimates–she considered girls stupid. Bernice on the contrary all through this parent-arranged visit had rather longed to exchange those confidences flavored with giggles and tears that she considered an indispensable factor in all feminine intercourse. But in this respect she found Marjorie rather cold; felt somehow the same difficulty in talking to her that she had in talking to men. Marjorie never giggled, was never frightened, seldom embarrassed, and in fact had very few of the qualities which Bernice considered appropriately and blessedly feminine.

This story, with its makeover, its look at relationships between girls and girls and boys, its exploration of feminity (Marjorie explains to Bernice: “But a girl has to be dainty in person. If she looks like a million dollars she can talk about Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations and get away with it.”) brought up a lot of issues in my mind. However, at the same time, I’m inherently mistrustful of Fitzgerald’s characters. How can I trust a man, especially a man who might have ‘invented’ the flapper, to show what’s actually going on in girl’s heads? Is this just how he imagined a flapper might talk in private? Or how he wished flappers talked?

Obviously, there’s lots of food for thought here, so definitely a story I’d recommend. But I’m taking Fitzgerald’s flappers, with their cattiness and seeming independence from other women, with a grain of salt.

(Since writing this review, I went ahead and watched the ‘movie’ version with Shelley Duvall-the creepy wife from The Shining-while knitting. It’s funny-even though it was almost perfectly true to the story in the dialogue and plot, there didn’t seem to be any of the vivacity I always associate with Fitzgerald’s writing on screen. I’d say stick with the story.)

Other Notable Passages
There was another silence, while Marjorie considered whether or not convincing her mother was worth the trouble. People over forty can seldom be permanently convinced of anything. At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.

Charley, who knew as much about the psychology of women as he did of the mental states of Buddhist contemplatives, felt vaguely flattered.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2009 10:22 am

    I saw the movie in middle school I think (wow) but never even realized it was a short story. Will have to check it out! Wonderful review.

  2. Chelsea permalink
    January 12, 2009 10:24 am

    I love Fitzgerald! I’ve never read “Bernice”, but I’ve considered it a number of times, mainly because I’m interested to see exactly what Fitzgerald has to say about the women of the time period. I’d caution to take any male authors portrayal of a female character, and I much prefer F. Scott’s male characters (yes, I’ll admit it – I’m obsessed with Amory Blaine!) but overall I would say that its the time period in which Fitzgerald writes that has me so enamored!

  3. January 12, 2009 10:50 am

    I love Fitzgerald, but I’m woefully underread when it comes to his short stories. Thanks for the recommendation! I’m almost positive I have this one around here somewhere!

  4. January 12, 2009 11:02 am

    Eva, your reviews are so well written, they always lengthen my reading list! I just ordered “Flappers and Philosophers” from Paperback Swap. The only Fitzgerald I’ve managed to read is “The Great Gatsby,” which I love.

    I have followed your short-story posts with interest. I may take on the “100 Shots” challenge myself once I clear some other challenges off my plate.

  5. January 12, 2009 3:11 pm

    I’m doing this challenge too! After reading the book Zelda, I can’t believe there’s been no movie about the two of them. Love the quote about hills and caves particularly in this one.

    The ring on my page was an etsy find. Too much of my money would go to etsy sellers if I lacked a bit more control.

  6. January 12, 2009 3:19 pm

    Interesting review. I agree with you about taking Fitzgerald’s flappers with a grain of salt. Though she is a bit later, you may want to check out Dorothy Parker. Big Blonde is an almost flapper story.

    The best flapper story I know is actually a movie called The Plastic Age with Clara Bow, who was probably the epitome of flapper. It is a silent movie, but it’s excellent, and available on DVD.

    There’s also a decent 1920’s picture starring Joan Crawford movie called Our Dancing Daughters which was written by a woman.

  7. January 12, 2009 4:39 pm

    Daphne, thanks-I think the story was better than the movie! What a weird thing to watch in midle school, lol.

    Chelsea, this is a pretty short story, so you coul read it quite easily. I agree-I love the 20s (at least the 20s in my brain), and that’s why I’m attracted to Fitzgerald.

    Andi, you can always read it online! ;)

    Felicia, thank you so much. :D The cool thing about the “100 Shots” challenge is that there’s no time limit involved. :)

    Claire, I’m surprised there’s no movie abotu them either-they had such a crazy (and ultimately depressing) life. I hear you on etsy-I have to avoid it most of the time. :)

    CB James, I’ll have to try out that Clara Bow film-thanks for letting me know about it. And I haven’t read any of Dorothy Parker’s short stories, so on to the list she goes!

  8. January 12, 2009 5:48 pm

    Speaking of re-reading, I’ve been meaning to re-read Fitzgerald. This, however, would be a new read. LOVE that book cover!

  9. January 12, 2009 5:52 pm

    I love the last line of Claire’s comment… ” … if I lacked a little more control” ah yes.

    I must say what struck me most from this post was the names. Can you imagine the latest Gossip Girl featuring the names Ethel and Bernice and Marjorie? How did these ever go out of fashion and/or are they regaining in popularity? just wondering. (Heck, I really wouldn’t know if babies are being named such and I don’t know about it.)

    I can’t watch Shelley Duvall – too creepy.

  10. January 12, 2009 6:52 pm

    What a timely post – I just bought an anthology of short stories! I know I won’t be able to post every monday for John’s challenge but good to keep that in mind! I need to read more short stories :)

  11. January 12, 2009 7:16 pm

    You’ve really reeled me in to the short stories. I keep telling myself that I need to work harder at including these into my reading lists!!

  12. January 12, 2009 7:28 pm

    I have to admit, I had to look up the meaning of “flapper.” I wasn’t a big fan of The Great Gatsby, but I liked it enough to pick up one of his short stories. Thanks for participating in SSM.

  13. January 12, 2009 7:57 pm

    Totally off-topic: thanks for changing that link :)

  14. January 13, 2009 4:13 am

    Emily, isn’t the cover great?! I want to read more Fitzgerald, although a reread of the Great Gatsby would be great too. :)

    Care, you’re so right about the names! lol And Shelley Duvall was significantly less creepy in this movie-I think her being a blonde had something to do with it.

    Iliana, cool!

    Staci, lol-they’re so great. :D Before I started blogging, I didn’t really have a habit of reading them, but now I love them to bits. ;)

    John, well-now you know what a flapper is! :) Thanks for hosting SSM.

    Christine, no problem!

  15. January 15, 2009 5:02 am

    We had to read this story in high school. I really loved it and the reactions that came from Bernice cutting her hair. We also saw the movie version and I have to agree, it fell kind of flat. Although, I didn’t associate Shelley Duvall with the Shinning when I saw it. Personally, I love most everything that I’ve read by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books.

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