Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Head and Shoulders" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Literature lives. More titles appear daily. I despair of ever keeping up so I don’t look back often. Recently I have, pulling from my shelf a heavy paperback: The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. I wanted to re-visit the language and wince once more with characters who suddenly see themselves as others might, usually unfavorably.

The first story, “’Head and Shoulders,’ was the first Fitzgerald story to appear in the Saturday Evening Post (21 February 1920);” (Bruccoli 3) it seemed a good place to begin. I couldn’t recall reading that particular story and stopped myself from scanning the table of contents to find my favorites. I wanted to discover Fitzgerald again so “Head and Shoulders” is where I directed my attention.

The details provided by Fitzgerald’s insightful narrator delight, and from these, characters apparate, becoming tangible and heavy as gravity inexorably pulls them toward the event horizon, there to remain frozen forever, unaware that time and events continue. Horace Tarbox, the protagonist, is a prodigy admitted to Princeton University at the age of 13. There he studied, aloof, introverted, and insulated until Charlie Moon, Horace’s first cousin, introduces Marcia Meadow into Horace’s closed, darkened suite of rooms.

Possibilities are endless in the Light
Photo by Al Griffin
Light arrives with Marcia. She’s bold, a young starlet who sings and dances upon the stage after World War I, a time when being on the stage bore the stain of scandal. She dares Horace to kiss her, calls him Omar, and promises to entertain him in her own apartment when she moves to New York City to perform. She is a siren singing of life, and Horace answers. For the first time, he doesn’t ask why; he leaps and races across the threshold into a world of unknowns and pulsing possibilities.

Meeting Marcia is a happy accident. They marry, and she seems to adore him. She makes him her first care and concern, never minding that his bookish background makes it difficult for him to find work that pays well. He settles for an office post, earning a bit less than she as a performer. She breaks with custom and continues to work after they marry in order to help. She even defines their respective roles as he the head and she the shoulders; in other words, he the brains and she the work horse. She also nurtures Horace, understanding that a life behind a desk may make a man dull and sluggish. She urges him to join a gym and enjoy gymnastics, something he’d forsaken after devoting himself entirely to scholarship, and in exchange, she vows to read Pepys, a work he admires.

At the gym several nights weekly, an old, dormant talent surges to life, so much so that others take notice just when notice must be taken. Horace is good on the rings, and that's a lucky break for Marcia can no longer be the shoulders. She must retire after becoming pregnant so Horace forsakes the office and books on economics in favor of rings and a muscular torso. He becomes the shoulders. Even more surprising, Marcia has become the head. She confesses that she’s been writing a book she calls Sandra Pepys, Syncopated and begs Horace to take it to a publisher, believing it worthy. Horace, always charmed by his dear wife, agrees even though he’s keenly aware of the book’s flaws after a first reading.

But Sandra Pepys speaks to people, and the book succeeds. Now Marcia is definitely the head while Horace the shoulders, and Marcia draws the attention of a French philosopher much admired by Horace. Anton Laurier appears in the Tarbox home to meet Mrs. Tarbox. Horace is actually only acknowledged as Mrs. Tarbox’s husband. Horace's own scholarship, scholarly articles, and early intellectual gifts are no longer a factor in his life; he is the performer.

And thus, Fitzgerald lets fall a tiny toxic drop: Horace who’s been absorbed in love, by love, and by devotion to duty, warns his guest not to answer when someone knocks upon the door and crosses the threshold, intruding upon a well-formed, narrowly defined existence, surprising us readers for we believed in the joy created when Horace and Marcia unite. Horace’s warning jars our belief, and we know that Regret has become a member of the Tarbox household. We are now certain that it will surely cloud the light upon the meadow, preventing all therein from flourishing.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Head and Shoulders” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Writing Challenge:


Write a journal entry capturing your reaction to the story immediately after reading the last sentence.