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[450] Flappers and Philosophers – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In this classic collection of short stories, Fitzgerald gives us a display of humanity at its frothiest, gaudiest, and most poignant. Although his critical reputation primarily rests upon his novels—especially The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, those novels were always interwoven with the short stories he was writing simultaneously. “Winter Dreams” is most noticeably parallel to Gatsby. Like so many Fitzgerald heroes, Dexter Green in the story makes the mistake of linking his expectations and aspirations to be rich, beautiful and fickle woman who “simply made men conscious to the highest degree of her physicial loveliness” and who was “entertained only by the gratification of her desires.” In the end her betrayal kills his capacity for hope and more sadly “the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion.”

Following a similar arc but more scathing is “Cut-glass Bowl”, in which the heroine heroine, Evylyn Piper, is gifted (by an old flame) the titled present that is “as hard as (she is) and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.” Although married with two children, she still toys with one of her male playthings. Her marriage is empty; she’s morally bankrupt. Her infidelity ruins her husband. Her prized glass bowl cuts her daughter’s finger, which later is amputated. Her son perishes in the war. The story attends the decay and fall of a former beauty’s happiness and life.

Although Fitzgerald’s stories often share the root in ambition, hope, (youthful) illusion and romance, but almost unfailingly these ideals and aspirations are curbed by a sharp sense of irony. “The Ice Palace” us such symbolic tale of a Southern belle, Sally carol, chilled by life in the frozen North. The coldness is not merely climactical as it is social, for the women whom she encounters in the North are just despicable. It ends with the breaking of her engagement, and hightailing back to Georgia, where she belongs.

The one story I resonate with the most is “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”, a dark tragicomedy about the bankruptcy of the American dream, its destructiveness and delusions. The allegorically named Washington family are the richest and most powerful in the world; their children invite poorer friends from school to visit who are then murdered to protect the secret of the Washington’s wealth. How amazingly relevant this story is if you look at the fraudulent discretion and greed behind Wall Street and corporate America in the present.

So wickedly funny, and thus warrants many re-reads, is “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: Bernice has a reputation of not being cut in on. Consider her enviable position in society, she has no clue why she doesn’t get any attention. Some pointers on etiquette from her cousin, who “had very few of the qualities which Bernice considered appropriately feminine” make her a huge star at the balls. That the young man who had had a hot for her cousin shifted his attention to her instead has provoked a malicious jealousy in Marjorie, who traps her into bobbing her hair (which is quote unquote ugly as sin). The outrageous trap by which Marjorie had made her a fool leads to this incredible revenge that is both funny and judicial.

As the stories have shown in this collection, they form the backbone of Fitzgerald’s longer works, amplifying the novels and playing out variations of characteristic motifs. Permeated in these tales is a sense of loss and regret. The stories read like a series of elegiac farewells to lost youth and lost opportunities.

352 pp. Penguin UK. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Reading Flappers and Philosophers

In Hong Kong, my friend gifted me a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Flappers and Philosophers with a beautiful, ornate cover by C. B-Smith. This hardbound contains more than the eight short stories published under the titled Flappers and Philosophers. Also included are selections from The Jazz Age, All the Sad Young Men, and Taps at Reveille.

Although Fitzgerald’s critical reputation primarily rests upon his novels—in particular The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night—those novels were always interwoven with the short stories he was writing simultaneously. To me, after a few hours with the intriguing Flippers and Philosophers, his intriguing stories amplify the novels, playing out variations on characteristic motifs. The opening story, Bernice Bobs Her Hair is brilliant and funny. It deals with a favorite theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s: the desire for popularity in the shallow, appearance-obsessed social climate of the famous Roaring Twenties.

Bernice is a young lady who is educated and from a family of influential position—but she fails to attract attention from young men. After an exasperated Marjorie confronts her with her social ineptness, Bernice meekly agrees to take any advice Marjorie has to give her—that is, to talk flirtatiously. Bernice tries it out and decides on her favorite: “Do you think I should bob [cut short] my hair?” At this time, short hair was seen as a sign of loose morals—no “nice” girl would do it. Soon, the newly confident Bernice is surrounded by fascinated boys. Marjorie realizes that her advice has worked too well. The boy who once adored her, Warren MacIntyre, is now paying attention only to Bernice. Angry and jealous, Marjorie hatches a plan: to challenge Bernice cutting her hair short. Of course it turns out to be a disaster. What happens when a cat fight doesn’t take place between the two cousins? Bitter revenge.

Then Bernice winced as Marjorie tossed her own hair over her shoulders and began to twist it slowly into two long blond braids until in her cream-colored negligée she looked like a delicate painting of some Saxon princess. Fascinated, Bernice watched the braids grow. Heavy and luxurious they were, moving under the supple fingers like restive snakes–and to Bernice remained this relic and the curling-iron and a to-morrow full of eyes. She could see G. Reece Stoddard, who liked her, assuming his Harvard manner and telling his dinner partner that Bernice shouldn’t have been allowed to go to the movies so much; she could see Draycott Deyo exchanging glances with his mother and then being conscientiously charitable to her. But then perhaps by to-morrow Mrs. Deyo would have heard the news; would send round an icy little note requesting that she fail to appear–and behind her back they would all laugh and know that Marjorie had made a fool of her; that her chance at beauty had been sacrificed to the jealous whim of a selfish girl. She sat down suddenly before the mirror, biting the inside of her cheek. (Part VI)

Bernice Bobs Her Hair is reminiscent of a modern high school comedy. Bernice is a socially awkward intellectual and a definite party pooper, so thinks her cousin Majorie. Majorie hatches a plan to take plain Bernice and make her into a socially attractive girl who becomes the center of attention. Majorie comes to represent the revolutionary free thinking, modern girl who pushes her ideas of popularity onto Bernice. As we might expect, Bernice soon becomes the talk of the boys, with Majorie a bit taken back and somewhat envious. When Majorie chides Bernice as a “bluffer” about actually going through with her plan to get her hair bobbed, it plants the seeds to a fantastic finish.