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- Western Literature
Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald wrote Bernice Bobs Her Hair in 1920. The work has been critiqued from a large number of perspectives - from feminism to fashion – yet, the work continues to inspire today for its relevance. The relevance here is the age old dichotomy of tradition and modernity. Tradition and modernity are contrasts that may often complement rather than compete. However, what is old and traditional might also be at odds in context of modernity even as both might address the same set of issues. Marjorie and Bernice face the same issues in common as how to be popular and attractive so as to draw the attention of suitors, and how to compete against the other girls. These are not just the issues of the modern age. These were the issues that their mothers and all other adolescent girls before them experienced. Are Bernice and Marjorie rivals? The answer is “No”.
Bernice and Marjorie represent two distinct and opposite personalities, as products of two distinct cultures and social classes. Marjorie is city bred, while Bernice is a country girl whose family acquires wealth. “Bernice is the beautiful daughter of her mother’s generation. Sweet and virtuous, she believes that “women are beloved because of certain mysterious womanly qualities, always mentioned but never displayed”. Marjorie, in contrast, understands, men find boring such a woman, who is little more than a “beautiful bundles of clothes”; they prefer her sort of toughness because it makes life anything but tiresome and colorless”.
Yet Bernice doesn’t see Marjorie as her rival. Neither does Marjorie until she begins to threaten her social standing. While a struggle for popularity might appear a strong theme in Bernice Bobs Her Hair, a closer and more intimate reading informs us that Fitzgerald is rather clear in depicting the actual motives of Bernice. She is quite interested in developing an intimate association with her cousin, an unfortunate but inadvertent outcome of which results in Bernice outclassing her cousin in the social scene. So long Marjorie had been popular with boys and holds a low opinion of Bernice. However, her opinions and evaluation of Bernice are quite biased. No wonder she is equally incapable of questioning the values she holds. Bernice is really innocent and naïve. She scrupulously follows whatever Marjorie tells her to do not because she is interested in attaining popularity but she merely wants to please her cousin Marjorie.
However, there comes a climax in the story when Bernice can take no more offence. She takes her revenge, although it is the sweetest revenge scene. Bernice is the provincial cousin of glamorous Marjorie. She takes Marjorie’s advice on how to be popular and eventually becomes more popular than Marjorie, her mentor. Marjorie schemes out of sheer jealousy to get her to bob her hair, an act that ruins her looks. Bernice eventually cuts off Marjorie’s locks while she was sleeping, out of wrath and vengeance. However, Fitzgerald has made Marjorie so wicked that the readers revel in the sweet vengeance inflicted upon her. Perhaps Fitzgerald is exploring the competitive nature of social classes through Bernice Bobs Her Hair, which was one of his favorite themes. Jealousy and revenge fuel the social competition. Marjorie Harvey is the self-absorbed representative of the new generation, while Bernice is “womanly woman” whom Marjorie contemptuously pities, and decides to transform her into “gardenia girl” like she herself is, perhaps out of pity. Under her tutelage, Bernice learns to dance and converse with men.
Under normal circumstances your tutor doesn’t become your rival. The happiest moment for your mentor is when you achieve success with the lessons taught. However, Marjorie might never have anticipated Bernice would so excel in the lessons being taught as to threaten her own social standing. Perhaps their project might have gone on without hiccups had not Warren McIntire shifted his loyalty from Marjorie to Bernice. That’s what no women – traditional or modern – would ignore without resisting. Bernice turns into her rival now even as Bernice herself was not at all aware of what was going inside Marjorie’s head. Although Marjorie apparently made the others believe that she didn’t care about McIntire’s new found interest: “Marjorie on being twitted only laughed. She said she was mighty glad that Warren had at last found some one who appreciated him. So the younger set laughed, too, and guessed that Marjorie didn’t care and let it go at that” (Fitzgerald 22).
However, Marjorie was far from the casual self she apparently presented to the world outside. She displayed her ruffled self in three cold and succinct sentences.
“”You may as well get Warren out of your head,” she said coldly”.
“”What?” Bernice was utterly astounded”.
“”You may as well stop making a fool of yourself over Warren McIntire. He doesn’t care a snap of his fingers about you” (Fitzgerald 22).
This clearly shows Marjorie became Bernice’s rival only when she thought she was going to lose her boy friend to Bernice, a country girl whom Marjorie merely wanted to become modern and stylish.
Right in the beginning of the story, it is clear that Bernice is the kind of girl no one notices because she fails to make an impact on young men. Marjorie is especially irritated because she made several men get to dance with Bernice but they find her utterly boring. She doesn’t know the conversations that can draw boys’ attention in her. She lacks grace in her dancing. Marjorie complains to her mother that Bernice is “absolutely hopeless”. She refers her as “a lame duck visitor”, that is not at all “vivacious”. However, Marjorie’s mother is empathetic toward Bernice probably because she can seen in Bernice the Victorian ideals she honors. Bernice accidentally overhears Marjorie’s words that disappoint her. Marjorie has no sympathy or kindness toward Bernice. At this point we get a glimpse of the contrast between old fashioned and the modern girls. Characteristically, they are poles apart. A modern girl is confident and brave while a traditional girl is cowardly and lacks confidence. Yet, there is no rivalry between the two traditions because they do not compete. Rivalry between the two girls develops only when the two of them have the same social and personal goals.
It is quite possible and plainly apparent that Bernice is only trying to appease Marjorie. At one point, Bernice was preparing to leave Marjorie’s house that she had come on a visit for a month, because she felt utterly humiliated. However, she hesitated from actually moving out because she probably didn’t want to create a scene and she didn’t know how she would face her mother on returning barely after a few days’ stay. She wanted to keep Marjorie in good humor. She couldn’t have possibly stayed with Marjorie while at the same time not complying with her wishes. When Bernice declares her intentions to go back, Marjorie appears little concerned or ruffled. Much against Bernice’s anticipation, Marjorie didn’t request her to stay a little longer but instead urged her to leave if she wanted to. However, when Bernice humbles herself before Marjorie and pleads to mentor her into a society girl that can dance and indulge in interesting conversations, so that she can be popular with boys, Marjorie expresses her happiness with the decision and asks her to follow whatever she teaches unquestioningly. In other words, Bernice knew what she was but was prepared to change herself to placate Marjorie.