Study Guide

Bernice in Bernice Bobs Her Hair

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On paper, Bernice looks like she should be in the popular crowd; she's rich, pretty, and has an awesome car. However, in real life, she's also something else – incredibly boring. Compared to her cousin Marjorie, who's a party girl par excellence, Bernice is about as exciting as a pet rock.

She's also not incredibly quick on the uptake. Up to this point, she's never questioned why other girls who aren't as pretty or wealthy as she is are more popular than her, even back in her hometown of Eau Claire. Little did she realize that what popularity she attained at home was due to her rich, socially influential family. Bernice is a conventional good girl, who prides herself on her obedience, good breeding, and old-fashioned feminine qualities. Unfortunately, these things do not make a girl popular in the rapidly changing Jazz Age.

Bernice's values come straight from her mother (and her mother's mother, and her mother's mother's mother…), who basically trained her to believe in a traditional model of femininity – that is to say, no matter how smart a girl is, she should also be proper, polite, gentle, and thoroughly domesticated. These ideas worked out just fine when Bernice's mom and her aunt were growing up in the turn of the century, but in the shifting social climate of the 1920s, they just don't fly.

Fitzgerald's heroines are usually jazz-loving flappers, whose sassy repartee and bold, modern social standards knock the bonnets right off the staid older generation. Bernice is a rather unusual character for Fitzgerald – her personal transformation marks the change he saw happening in young people everywhere, who flaunted their modernity and challenged the beliefs of their elders. The dramatic shift in Bernice's character – from Victorian good girl to wild, pigtail-amputating modern woman – demonstrates both the good and bad sides of modern society. Bernice learns to finally stand up for herself and be her own woman, but at the cost of her own happiness; when she bobs her hair, she apparently loses both her physical beauty and her sense of pride in her self.

So what, ultimately, is the meaning of Bernice's final acts (bobbing her hair, then cutting Marjorie's off)? Well, it's kind of ambiguous. First of all, we see that she has learned something about the value of holding strong and being her own person; the old Bernice never would have rebelled against Marjorie and gone through with the fatal bobbing. However, there's a new and somewhat unsettling note of danger in the Bernice of the ending – we're not sure what she's capable of. The violence of her parting action and her malediction to the town, "Scalp the selfish thing!" (128) is both incredibly satisfying and oddly discomfiting. We wonder a little nervously where our modernized heroine will go next and what she'll do. We just hope she'll be OK.

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