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Historical Context in Bernice Bobs Her Hair

Historical Context Examples in Bernice Bobs Her Hair:


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"Bernice..."   (I)

The name "Bernice" could be an allusion to the story of Berenice II of Egypt. Berenice was the wife of Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy III. When Ptolemy went to Syria to fight a war, Berenice sacrificed her golden hair to Aphrodite to secure his victory and safe return home. The gods took her beautiful hair and created the constellation Coma Berenices then returned her husband home. Queen Berenice was known as a hero among her people for her sacrifice.

"Indian blood in Bernice..."   (II)

By “Indian,” Marjorie means Native American. In 1924, the U.S. government passed the Indian Citizenship Act granting all Native Americans U.S. citizenship. Despite this movement in the government, little was done to curb racism towards Native American populations or relieve economic disparities. Mainstream U.S. culture still portrayed native peoples as savage, violent, and unreasonable. Marjorie’s comments about Beatrice’s “crazy Indian blood” reveal these deeply entrenched racist sentiments.

"gardenia girls!..."   (II)

A gardenia is an extremely beautiful flower that has a short life expectancy—it fades quickly once it has bloomed. A “gardenia girl” was a slang term in the 1920s for fashionable women who rejected traditional gender expectations and morality. Gardenia girls lived “fast and loose” in the party scene of the flapper era.

""Oh, I wasn't thinking about that. I was considering whether we hadn't better bob your hair." Bernice collapsed backward upon the bed...."   (III)

A “bob” is a short haircut in which one’s hair is cut straight around the head at the jaw-level with bangs at the front. In the 1920s, it was a controversial style that indicated a modern or fashionable woman and a shocking claim to independence. Traditionally, Western women maintained long hair that they would pin up when out in public. The bob was an affront to traditional style and the culture it represented.

"it's much harder on the man, and he's the one that counts."..."   (III)

Remember that Fitzgerald based this dialogue off of letters that he wrote to his sister instructing her how to appeal to men. While Marjorie’s advice might seem shockingly sexist to a modern audience, it might also be read as indicative of the author’s gender. This is a man’s imagination of what women believed and talked about in this time, not necessarily an accurate portrayal of how women thought.

"But except with a very small girl it's much harder on the man, and he's the one that counts."..."   (III)

Notice that Marjorie defines female roles (while revolutionary compared to traditional femininity) by how they appeal to men. Though women gain more social freedoms, this suggests that men are still the dominant force in society.

""I hate dainty minds," answered Marjorie. "But a girl has to be dainty in person. If she looks like a million dollars she can talk about Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations and get away with it."..."   (III)

The adjective “dainty” means delicate, small, and pretty; graceful in build or movement. Marjorie distinguishes between dainty minds and dainty appearances to reinforce her lesson about the role of women in the Jazz Era. She abhors “dainty minds,” delicate, posh, or unimaginative minds, but she champions “dainty appearances” because beauty allows women access to conversations and spheres previously restricted to them. In this way, Marjorie demonstrates how women of the Jazz Age repurposed social expectations of women, that they should be delicate and beautiful, in order to gain more social power, access to conversations and opinions about politics.

"First you have no ease of manner. Why? Because you're never sure about your personal appearance. When a girl feels that she's perfectly groomed and dressed she can forget that part of her. That's charm. The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you have."..."   (III)

Marjorie’s first piece of advice to her cousin is about her confidence. She connects this confidence to Bernice’s appearance, arguing that Bernice will automatically be more confidence if she is “perfectly groomed.” This suggests that in Jazz Era society, women were expected to use sexuality or beauty to gain social capital. Unlike traditional female roles, which dictated that a woman’s refined social skills, modesty, and domestic skill made her attractive; a woman’s bold confidence and overt sexuality made her attractive in the 1920s.

""The womanly woman!" continued Marjorie. "Her whole early life is occupied in whining criticisms of girls like me who really do have a good time." ..."   (III)

Fitzgerald’s collection of stories Tales of the Jazz Age, in which this story appears, sought to capture the culture and lifestyle of the 1920s. Marjorie’s character embodies the ideology of the Jazz Era. She actively rejects traditional femininity, or the “womanly woman,” because this lifestyle is about criticizing others rather than focusing on oneself. Marjorie is more concerned with her good time then on condemning the actions of others.

""Oh, please don't quote 'Little Women'!" cried Marjorie impatiently. "That's out of style." "You think so?" "Heavens, yes! What modern girl could live like those inane females?..."   (III)

Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women was published in 1868. Stories for women at that time focused on teaching domesticity and feminine roles. Unlike other stories published for girls and women at that time, Little Women focused on how the main characters developed identities and beliefs. The characters from this story became role models for their generation. Alcott defined the “All-American girl” that the women of the 1920s would solidly reject as dull, repressed, and uptight.

"Misty waves were passing before Bernice's eyes, while Marjorie's face wore that rather hard expression that she used when slightly intoxicated undergraduate's were making love to her...."   (III)

Notice Marjorie’s apparent lack of feeling. Unlike Bernice who feels offended, rejected, and sad, the narrator uses this parallel to show that Marjorie is apathetic even in situations where she should have some kind of emotional or physical response. The stark contrast between the two girls reveals the unsettling, apathetic mentality of the Jazz Age.

"I had to repeat myself—with different men of course. I hope they won't compare notes." "Men don't," said Marjorie, yawning, "and it wouldn't matter if they did—they'd think you were even trickier...."   (IV)

Marjorie’s statement suggests that social interactions between men and women were based in verbal games. The polish of one’s manners or conversation skills would be “even better” if it were discovered to be false because it would demonstrate that the woman was clever.

"Marjorie had culled this from Oscar Wilde...."   (IV)

The verb “culled” means to select from a variety of sources. Oscar Wilde was a playwright and writer in the 1880s and 90s famous for The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though he was imprisoned and condemned for homosexuality and his extravagant lifestyle, Wilde became an admired cult figure in the 1920s. His personality and writing became symbolic for how contemporary youth culture rejected traditional social conventions.

"Bernice had all the sensations of Marie Antoinette bound for the guillotine in a tumbrel...."   (V)

Marie Antoinette was the queen of France from 1755 to 1793 during the beginning of the French Revolution. After the rebels abolished the monarchy in 1792, they convicted Marie Antoinette of high treason against the French people and executed her by the guillotine. Bernice dramatizes her walk to the barbershop by comparing herself to the extravagant queen who was sentenced to death. This reveals both Bernice’s dramatic nature and the gravity with which she perceives this situation.

"the sphinx of sphinxes...."   (V)

A sphinx is a mythological creature that had the head of a human and the body of a lion. In Greek mythology, sphinxes were treacherous and merciless. They posed riddles to anyone who came across their path and ate or killed anyone who could not solve the riddle. They are depicted as ravenous, crafty, and manipulative monsters. This characterization of Marjorie, as the beast of all beasts, suggests to the reader that Marjorie’s retaliation will be severe.

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