I went through a F. Scott Fitzgerald phase in my late teens and early twenties. It was evident to me I had been born in the wrong decade. This opinion wasn’t based on a hatred of the present. It was based on the dresses and haircuts of the past. If I had a time machine which could carry me back to the Roaring Twenties, it would have been fueled solely on a burning desire to give my then-flat chest the glory it was due. Flappers were described as boyishly built, but with faces like roses. They had swinging hair, bobbed short. For balance, strands of pearls hung long and low over rows of nervous fringe. Once a Flapper began to dance, each string leapt to full attention. In animals, we see this with porcupines and hedgehogs.
Flappers wore furs and smoked and drove men crazy. I could do two of those things.
One of the Fitzgerald stories that has stayed with me for decades is Bernice Bobs Her Hair. It’s about the subtle bullying that goes on between girls. Nobody throws punches, but psychological warfare can be just as vicious, calculating, and destructive. Bernice is the naive, plain, timid cousin of classic Flapper It Girl, Marjorie, who is queen of the swirling social scene of rich, bored kids. When boring Bernice arrives for a lengthy visit, Marjorie is forced to drag her along.
One night, Marjorie complains about her burdensome cousin to her mother as Bernice lurks in the hall. She overhears the conversation and is hurt and indignant. The next morning, she confronts Marjorie, who is shockingly unapologetic. Bernice invokes the virtues of decency and kindness, to which Marjorie retorts “Oh, please don’t quote Little Women!’ cried Marjorie impatiently. “That’s out of style.”
Bernice continues to be shocked by Marjorie’s rejection of meek femininity. But when Marjorie offers to makeover Bernice from head to toe, teaching her the ways of a social queen bee, Bernice accepts. It works well. In fact, it works too well. The story closes with an act of revenge I wasn’t expecting. Maybe that’s why I loved the story so much when I first read it?
I was Bernice when I began the story.
I was the new Bernice when I shut the book.
Leading up to the revolutionary act of revenge, Fitzgerald wrote: “And some last energy rose up in Bernice, for she clinched her hands under the white cloth, and there was a curious narrowing of her eyes that Marjorie remarked on to some one long afterward.”
A curious narrowing of her eyes.
We start with wide eyes, with wonder. Life whittles the wideness down into slits. Less gets in and the edges harden. Skepticism is birthed and Little Women is trashed as inane. Sometimes, this happens organically as a side-effect of aging, of seeing and feeling too much. But in the case of Bernice, it was a person’s influence that caused her fists to clench and her eyes to narrow. She probably would have stayed on the same trajectory of a meek, naive girl clinging to old fashioned ways. Either Marjorie birthed a monster or she birthed her saving grace when she undertook the project of improving Bernice. We don’t know, except for the fact Marjorie told someone about Bernice’s narrowed eyes long after.
She knew what she wrought.
Do I know what I’ve done?
For a year, I’ve been trying to convince my teenaged daughter to read Bernice Bobs Her Hair. It struck me as a good idea because she, too, is shy and unsure of herself. Plus, I figured she’d like to branch out a bit from dystopian teenagers fighting mazes and shrill authority figures. It’s at the point it’s a joke. I’ll poke my head in her room and bark, Bernice! She rolls her eyes and reiterates how boring it sounds.
She’s never been a queen bee but doesn’t have obvious aspirations to join more rarified air at her high school. She’s happiest in the art room or singing. And here I sit, being such a Marjorie. I could help her change, but why? Why am I worried about her social maneuvering when she seems happy enough? How does a Bernice turn into a Marjorie in less than two decades?
I’m not sure I want to notice the narrowing of her eyes, especially if it’s in response to something I’ve done or said or foisted on her. Putting a copy of The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald in her room could be dangerous business. Of course, she put a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on my nightstand.
“Read it!” she ordered.
I think I’m going to tiptoe back into her room one day when she at school, find Fitzgerald, and remove him.
I feel my eyes opening.