‘The Bowl’ is not one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best-known short stories, but it is a notable work which deals with the themes of fame, football, and envy, among other things. Written in 1927 and published a year later in the Saturday Evening Post, ‘The Bowl’ is about a college football player who meets a girl who demands that he give up playing.
You can read ‘The Bowl’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Fitzgerald’s story below.
‘The Bowl’: plot summary
The story is narrated by Jeff Deering, who recalls his days at Princeton, where his roommate, Dolly Harlan, played American football for the university. Although Dolly was not the best player, he was a solid all-rounder and he made the team, despite not especially enjoying playing the game, or having to train for it.
One night after a game, Jeff introduced Dolly to a sixteen-year-old girl named Vienna Thorne, and Dolly promptly tells her he loves her. However, Vienna has no love for football because her brother had been killed in a prep school football game the previous year; Dolly only discovers this at the end of the evening when he and Jeff get back to their dorm room and Jeff tells him.
A man named Carl shows up and confronts Vienna, accusing her of lying to him about being in town. She responds that things are over between them because he has a drink problem. Shortly after this, Carl goes into the washroom and tries to kill himself, but shoots himself in the shoulder before being restrained. Dolly tells Jeff that he suspects Carl did this just to try to gain Vienna’s pity.
Shortly after this, Vienna goes back to Europe for fifteen months. During the second year at college, Jeff watches Dolly become a good player and admires his talents, though it’s clear Dolly hates every moment. In the New Year, Vienna returns to America from Madrid, and arrives at the senior prom, abandoning her date to be with Dolly instead. They get engaged, and Vienna persuades Dolly to give up football.
Dolly twists his ankle playing tennis and reflects how it would have been much easier if he’d broken it outright as then he’d have had to give up football. Not long after this, during the summer break, Jeff receives a letter from Dolly informing him that he has broken his ankle and so can no longer play, but Jeff doesn’t think the wording of the letter sounds like Dolly at all, and suspects that Vienna has helped him write it.
Without football to fill his time, Dolly becomes restless and bored. He grows to love watching football in a way he never could when he played it. He starts to miss playing it, and announces he is going to return to the game, much to the disappointment of Vienna, who breaks off their engagement. Dolly seeks medical help with his ankle and makes an appearance at the next game, where he attracts the attention of Daisy Cary, a young film actress. He returns to play in a decisive game and afterwards, Jeff, Dolly, and Daisy drive into town to celebrate.
Dolly reluctantly parts from Daisy, saying he has to go and meet Vienna. Jeff doesn’t know what happened at this meeting, but shortly afterwards, Dolly arrives at the hotel where Daisy is staying and goes up to see her.
‘The Bowl’: analysis
‘The Bowl’ deals with a number of themes: fame, success, and the desire to be admired and adulated by others. This last theme is obviously related to the first. At one point, Vienna accuses Jeff of returning to football because he’s weak and he craves the admiration of other people; it’s revealing that Dolly only develops an appreciation for the game when he starts to view it as a fan, rather than a player. Has he started to realise the level of enthusiasm following the game can bring?
Vienna and Daisy are complete contrasts. Vienna is selfish, immature, and willing to cast aside those men who fail to do her bidding. She demands that Dolly give up football, not out of any real concern for his welfare, but because of the unhappy memories the game has for her. By contrast, as Jeff observes, Daisy – being an actress – understands that Dolly’s calling is hard work but is something he has to do, much as the show (or the shoot) must go on even if the star of the show has a terrible fever. Daisy can be replaced by a ‘double’ as a last resort, just as Dolly can be replaced with a lesser player, but they are the ‘stars’ people turn out to see.
Jeff is a quintessential Fitzgerald narrator, another avatar of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, who spends his time in the shadow of a much brighter, if romantically complicated, figure he looks up to. It is clear that Jeff envies both Dolly’s success on the pitch and his life: at one point, he wishes he had Vienna in his arms, as Dolly does, while he compares himself unfavourably to Dolly in terms of their prowess and achievement. (Jeff is himself a failed football player who, at the beginning of ‘The Bowl’, tells us he became too tall and lean to make the team.) It takes Daisy, someone else who understands what it means to live one’s life in the spotlight, to show Dolly how to cope with the success he enjoys.