F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post
in May of 1920 and subsequently in his first short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers
, later that same year. The piece was inspired by letters Fitzgerald had written to his sister Annabel in which he gave her advice on how to be attractive to young men. The mythological character Berenice, who sacrificed her long blond hair so that her husband would be victorious in war, might have inspired the name of the title character. The gods honored Berenice, adding her hair to the heavens in the form of the constellation known as Coma Berenices.
The story opens in a ballroom in a club on a Saturday night. It is summertime and the crowd consists of middle-aged women and those referred to as “dangerous youth.” The narrator points out the people in the crowd to the readers. He calls the attendees “a medley of faces and voices” and then singles out Warren McIntyre. Warren looks down upon the others around him, feeling superior because he had attended college in the East. He still, however, has affection for the local girls, in particular Marjorie Harvey. Marjorie is said to have a “bewildering tongue” and is remembered for once having done five cartwheels at a party. She has told Warren that she is not in love with him and that she did not give him a second thought while they were apart, during that time having relationships with other men.
Marjorie convinces Warren to dance with her cousin Bernice who is nervous and seems lacking in social graces. Bernice knows she is not like Marjorie who possesses feminine qualities. When back home, Mrs. Harvey tells Marjorie that there are things that are more important than being popular, but to no avail. Bernice overhears Marjorie telling her mother that Bernice has Indian blood and that is what retards her social development. Bernice threatens to leave, and Marjorie tells her that she is a weak coward. Once the heat of the moment subsides, Marjorie tells Bernice she will teach her how to fit in when in social situations. She begins by telling her to pay attention to the less popular men, or “sad birds,” as she calls them in order to get more desirable people to notice her. Bernice is not concerned with being popular like her cousin. Bernice mentions “common kindness” at which point Marjorie recognizes the quote from Little Women
and chastises Bernice for quoting a book about what she considers “inane females”.
A week later at a dinner dance, Bernice announces that she might get her hair bobbed. This is an exciting proposition and gets the attention of the crowd, including the much-desired G. Reece Stoddard. Bernice dances with many men that evening, among them Warren McIntyre, about whom she is still thinking when she retires for the night. The evening is successful in raising Bernice’s confidence along with her new-found popularity. When Warren and Bernice begin spending time together, Marjorie pretends that she does not care. She calls Bernice’s bluff about planning to cut her hair, which makes Bernice realize that she has to actually go through with it. When she does so, it does not have the desired results. The hairstyle does not look attractive on her. Her confidence plummets, and the crowd, including Warren, no longer pays any attention to her.
Marjorie knows that the next party she and Bernice are scheduled to attend will be the source of further humiliation and discomfort for her cousin. Marjorie spends the evening preparing her own long hair for the party. Bernice can no longer control herself. While Marjorie is sleeping, Bernice packs to leave the house but before exiting, cuts off Marjorie’s braids, takes them with her, and deposits them on the front porch of Warren’s home. Remembering Marjorie’s cutting remark about her Indian lineage, Bernice says, “Scalp the selfish thing!”
Although her final act in the story is one of revenge, Bernice is a more nuanced character than that implies. She may be unable to navigate the social scene with the grace of the other young men and women, but she has a sensitivity and a vulnerability that they lack. She has a willingness to get to know Marjorie and shows gratitude when Marjorie gives her advice. Marjorie has no inclination to accept anything from Bernice. Bernice has an individuality that brings her strength.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is revered as the preeminent voice of the Jazz Age and is counted among the upper echelon of American fiction writers of the twentieth century. A member of the Lost Generation of the 1920s whose work has seen more success posthumously that it did in his lifetime, Fitzgerald produced five novels and four collections of stories encompassing some, but not all, of his 164 stories that appeared in periodicals.