By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ is a 1920 short story by the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), first published in the Saturday Evening Post before being reprinted in his 1920 collection of stories, Flappers and Philosophers.
A scathing satire on the viciousness of the American privileged lasses, ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ is about a young girl who goes to stay with her callous cousin. When she proves unpopular at the local dance, she enlists the help of her cousin to make her desirable to the local young men.
You can read ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Fitzgerald’s story below.
‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’: plot summary
Eighteen-year-old Bernice has gone to stay with her cousin Marjorie, at their parents’ suggestion. Marjorie considers her cousin to be boring, and when Bernice is shunned by the boys at a country club dance, she complains to her mother that Bernice is unpopular because she’s so dull.
Bernice overhears this conversation and confronts Marjorie afterwards. However, Marjorie stands by what she said. Bernice threatens to leave, growing upset by her cousin’s harsh criticisms. But Marjorie agrees to help makeover her cousin into a socially confident, popular young woman who the young men will be queuing up to dance with.
Marjorie’s efforts work, and Bernice is soon in great demand at the next dance. One of the talking points she initiates is whether people think she should ‘bob her hair’: that is, have it cut short into a bob cut. Warren McIntyre, a young man who had previously courted Marjorie, starts to pay Bernice attention, and the two of them begin spending time together regularly.
But when Bernice is getting close to the end of her stay with Marjorie, and is due to return home in three days, Marjorie suddenly tells her cousin to stop making a fool of herself over Warren, as he doesn’t care about her. They are just about to go out, and Marjorie’s comments cause Bernice to lose her confidence. She realises she must have offended Marjorie by stealing ‘her’ man.
Marjorie seeks to call Bernice’s bluff. In front of everyone she accuses her of having no intention of bobbing her hair. Bernice can feel everyone watching her so she says she will get it bobbed right away, so she rushes to the barber’s with them and gets her hair cut short.
She can tell it looks awful and has robbed her face of its charm, and it’s clear that the others all hate it, too. Marjorie seizes her chance and steals Warren back from her.
Afterwards, Marjorie apologises to Bernice and said she didn’t think she would go through with having her hair bobbed. That night, Bernice packs her bags and leaves, but before she departs she sneaks into Marjorie’s room and cuts off two blonde braids of her cousin’s hair while she’s asleep.
As she walks past Warren’s house, she throws the two braids onto his doorstep, giggling as she does so.
‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’: analysis
Like many of Fitzgerald’s works, ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ focuses on the lives of the moneyed and privileged living in early twentieth-century America. This story is notable for focusing principally on the female members of this society, with most of the main characters – Marjorie, Bernice, and Bernice’s Aunt Josephine – being women.
Marjorie represents the harsh and remorseless element of this society, in which, as Marjorie tells her mother, it’s ‘every girl for herself’ as young women try to attract a suitable – and suitably rich – mate. Marjorie represents the newer, pitiless breed of women who, by Marjorie’s own acknowledgment, stand in stark contrast to the women of her mother’s generation.
In a revealing conversation which acts as a ‘messaging’ section of ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’, Marjorie scoffs at the value of ‘common kindness’ which Bernice advocates, dismissing the characters of Alcott’s Little Women as ‘inane females’.
Marjorie belongs to the first generation coming of age in the wake of the First World War, and the gender dynamic is shifting, with women being more proactive, pragmatic and even ruthless when it comes to courtship rituals.
But it’s not simply a generational divide, for Bernice and Marjorie clearly differ in the kinds of womanhood they represent. Bernice is more traditionally ‘feminine’ in being full of ‘affectations’ and being a ‘womanly woman’: the bobbing of her hair represents a denial of this femininity in favour of a more masculine, tomboyish appearance that, she thinks, will give her the upper hand over her cousin in the mating game.
But in relinquishing her locks, Bernice gives up her natural feminine beauty which gave her a potential ‘edge’ over Marjorie. Neither natural looks nor a confident attitude are enough in themselves, Fitzgerald’s story seems to say: a woman needs to use whatever nature has given her and work out how best to utilise it to her full advantage.
And of course, a key theme of ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ is competition: if it is, as Marjorie asserts, ‘every girl for herself’, then that wisdom is perhaps the most useful lesson Marjorie has imparted to her cousin. It’s something she puts into practice at the end of the story, in its surprise twist ending which sees Bernice cutting off Marjorie’s hair to thwart her chances with Warren.
But whereas Marjorie acted out of vicious competition, to win back her man from a love rival, Bernice acts out of cold spite: as she is leaving town, she no longer wants Warren, but she doesn’t want Marjorie to have him either.
Social success in the world of Fitzgerald’s story, then, depends not just on a tough competitiveness but also, arguably, a vindictive streak which enables the individual to leave their conscience at the door: something Bernice recognises in Marjorie, who is described as ‘an untroubled conscience’, and something she is prepared to become at the end of the story.
Analysed this way, ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ is a kind of coming-of-age story in which the protagonist becomes wiser not by becoming kinder but by shedding some of her youthful sensitivity – and that includes sensitivity to others.
The sequence where Bernice is driven to have her hair bobbed and she feels like Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine highlights the frivolity of upper-class American society; one wonders if Fitzgerald was recalling Alexander Pope’s satirical eighteenth-century poem about a war among the English aristocracy which breaks out when a lock of a woman’s hair is rudely snipped from her head.