Thursday, July 10, 2014

"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Those pesky pronouns! At first glance, the title of Fitzgerald’s story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” leads readers to assume that Bernice bobbed her own hair, but as readers read on, they learn that pronoun referents are not so easily identified. Bernice certainly bobs some hair, but not her own.

Fitzgerald explores why Bernice would cut hair belonging to someone else in this short story, written in the early twentieth century when styles for women were changing. Hemlines were climbing to expose a bit of ankle, then the calf, and later knees. Hair lengths were also becoming shorter. Long tresses gave way to shorter bobs, a cut still in vogue today.

In fact, women of all ages enjoy great hair freedoms today. They may choose a bob, but add extensions or poofs for special occasions. They may be blond in the morning, strawberry blond later in the day, and brunette by midnight, thanks to dyes, wigs, and tints. Nearly a century ago, women did not enjoy such variety. Their hair grew from birth, but only young girls wore their hair loose down their backs or swinging in braids. Older women pinned their hair into loops and waves upon their heads, letting it down after undressing for bed. Those young women who dared to defy convention by bobbing their hair often faced derision and criticism.

Today, more men cultivate long hair
on their chins and upper lips while
others visit spas to wax away the
unruly chest and back hair.
Al Griffin Photography
When we first meet Bernice, we quickly discern that she is neither daring nor defiant. She's restrained and reserved, so much so that her beauty fades. Others overlook her appearance because her personality drains all color from her cheeks and eyes. She does not understand allure, flirting, or popularity, but she’d like to be the girl sought after, like her cousin Marjorie, and finally begs Marjorie to be her Pygmalion, her Svengali, molding Bernice into a girl the boys admire, unaware that such transformations involve power and power—well, you know, corrupts.

Both Marjorie and Bernice are unaware of the nasty little beast that nests inside the human heart. Marjorie’s comes to life when she realizes that Bernice has become a bit too attractive to the boys who once adored Marjorie herself. Bernice’s springs forth when Marjorie inflicts a great humiliation upon Bernice.

That pesky human heart, so fickle, absolutely unreliable, and perfectly capable of breaking, is the pulse of Fitzgerald’s story. It, like those pesky pronouns, can befuddle and confuse us unless we take great care with our own heart, and even more important, with the hearts of others.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:

I might argue that “Head and Shoulders” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, considered in last week's post, is a story in which Mrs. Tarbox transforms Mr. Tarbox, initiating a shift in power comparable to the shift that occurs between Marjorie and Bernice in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Elaborate.