Bernice Bobs Her Hair

I’d like to say that my interest in this story came first from F. Scott Fitgerald’s writing. Or, even from the 1920s themselves. It didn’t. It came from the hair. Because a bob is my very favorite cut, the cut that I’ve worn most frequently for the last twenty years. (Although my curls are not in the formed waves you frequently see on Zelda. Look at the photograph of her above, and tell me she doesn’t look absolutely charming. Schizophrenic or not.)

A few years ago when I came to school after Santo had given me another fabulous cut, our Art teacher said, “Your haircut reminds me of Bernice.”

“Bernice?” I inquired.

“Yes, from that short story by Fitzgerald. You know, Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” she replied.
“No,” I said, “I don’t.”

So, when The Classics Circuit Tour came around, with The Lost Generation for its theme, I knew I had to write about this story which is included in the collection Flappers and Philosophers.

Now that I’ve read the story, I’m not certain that resembling Bernice is a compliment. Although it’s certainly preferable to me than being compared to her cousin, Marjorie. Bernice is visiting her cousin from Eau Claire, where she was perfectly comfortable driving her own car, living her own life. But, in Marjorie’s world a girl lives on her charms. And one of the ways that her charms can be measured is by the number of times she is cut into during a dance.

No matter how beautiful or brilliant a girl maybe, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate. ‘Perhaps boys prefer her company to that of the butterflies with whom they dance a dozen times an evening, but youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of fox-trotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious.

At first, Marjorie implores her many beaux to dance with Bernice. Then, when Bernice overhears Marjorie talking to her mother about Bernice’s lack of charisma, Bernice claims she will go home.

“I guess I’d better go back to Eau Claire–if I’m such a nuisance.” Bernice’s lower lip was trembling violently and she continued on a wavering note: “I’ve tried to be nice, and–and I’ve been first neglected and then insulted. No one ever visited me and got such treatment.”

Marjorie calls Bernice’s bluff, then teaches her how to be more effective socially. Bernice must brush her eyebrows so they’ll grow straight and have her teeth straightened a little; learn to be nice to men who are “sad birds”;  she must neither lean on a dancing partner, nor stand straight up. Bernice learns Marjorie’s skills so effectively, that soon she has not only many dancing partners, but Marjorie’s best beau, Warren.

When Bernice declares that she will bob her hair, Marjorie again calls her bluff, and Bernice finds herself in the barber’s chair much like Marie Antoinette at the guillotine.

Vaguely she wondered why she did not cry out that it was all a mistake. It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.

Courageously, Bernice has her hair bobbed. But, she is not prepared for the reactions she receives from the surrounding crowd, Warren, or even her aunt and uncle. The only thing we could foresee as an eventuality was the little smirk playing around Marjorie’s mouth when Bernice’s tresses were gone.

This is one of those stories with an incredibly ironic ending. Much like O. Henry’s story, The Gift of The Magi, it is not so much about the loss of hair as the reasons behind why it was cut. As well as the things that are learned from doing so.

You can read Bernice Bobs Her Hair online. Really, take the time to read this sensational story which was first published in 1922. Then we can talk about the ending together. It’s one of my favorite pieces by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

(This story was read and reviewed before my Lenten project of reading only the Bible until Easter Sunday.)