Bernice Bobs Her Hair is a short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920, initially published in the Saturday Evening Post in May the same year. The story is based on Fitzgerald letters to his sister. It marked the beginning of Fitzgerald’s writings from lifestyle issues to philosophy in the 1920s lifestyle. During the writing of this story, America was recovering from World War I. Families had been scattered, and communication was through letters. This was a period of assimilation and cultural pluralism, from the story the writer was against this. America culture had many cultures at the time and there were the nationalistic ideas that challenged earlier idea of melting pot theory. During the 1920s US was engrossed in racial and ethnic differentiation, and Native Americans were trying to fit in the US culture and become socially accepted. The 1920s were also significant years for women as they were beginning to have more rights and freedom.
The story reflects the culture in 1920s.Through the struggles of Bernice trying to fit in white culture and retain her culture, the story explains the ordeal of foreigners in their effort to settle in the new land. The author supports cultural pluralism and preservation of native America culture as this strengthens these groups. During the writing of the novel, the Native American culture was presumed to be a fading culture that would be integrated in to the western culture. Historians suggested that under given motivations the natives would abandon their lifestyle and incorporate the western culture. This triggered the federal government attentiveness into the American natives’ lands and natural resources and they took over the Indians lands. They enacted coerced assimilation into the western culture by enacting their education polices and elimination of native language and culture. They hoped to ruin links to native cultures. This process of assimilation took away the native’s languages and cultural links successfully shattering their cultural identity.
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Fitzgerald is against materialism, he presents himself as a believer of preservation of Native American cultural practices. He distinguishes Marjorie and Bernice in the character and physical appearance. Marjorie is light-toned with blond hair while her cousin is red-toned with dark hair. (Fitzgerald, 1989). Fitzgerald (1989) depicts the former personality as harsh and cold that was views as feminine while Bernice is presented as nice and boring. The presentation of a mean Marjorie compels one to side with the native character. Marjorie refers to Bernice as crazy and lazy this portrays the negative attitude towards the natives by whites yet they did not know them. The stereotype that natives were lazy is clearly represented as assimilation was also meant to make them more productive. The trend depicted is reason for forced labor and compulsory taxes to the federal government.
By 1968, the federal government had forced natives to dwell in tribal lands. In the 1920s Native American children were forced into boarding schools where they were forcefully assimilated this is brought out as Bernice has to live away from her parents for some time. By the end of boarding school, the native’s children had changed and a new culture was instilled in them. The idea of Bernice cutting her hair that attracts a spectacle is meant to make her fit. The assimilation era practices where the long red hair of the Indian children was cut as a way of disengaging them from their culture. This shows that the lives of natives were marred with fear. We are introduced to a period where assimilation attracted supporters from the general public and they openly came out to watch and support the federal government. To them the natives had to ‘pay’ a price so as to fully become Americans.
The story reveals and demonstrates the violence of assimilation era policies and tactics. Natives considered the perceived transformation as violation of their practices. After bobbing her hair Bernice vies it as an ugly sin (Fitzgerald 1989) this is similar to the feelings of the natives after assimilation which they knew would wash away their culture. Through cases such as United States v. Quiver shows that Native American rose against the whites as they were against some laws in the forced assimilation. Fitzgerald talks about Bernice’s courage to rise against her oppressor where she cut Marjorie’s hair (Fitzgerald, 1989). After assimilation natives were aware of their rights and they presented cases in the Supreme Court for fair representation. They wanted better representation and equal share of their resources. The story addresses the source of this courage one being realization of oppression, it also shows that after having had enough some people moved away from America feeling victorious.
The story demonstrates the need for culture pluralism and the negative impact of assimilation on native population. The 1920s were filled with immigrants and some Americans were against the immigrants as they polluted the way of life in America. Marjorie was not happy when Bernice moved in with them, this is depicted by the way she treats her she felt like her space was invaded (Fitzgerald, 1989). Groups like the Klu Klux Klan were against assimilation as they viewed the immigrants as outsiders who took their jobs. Some historians like Horace Kallen supported cultural pluralism as this would create a better society. Fitzgerald supports cultural pluralism by portraying the negative side of assimilation to him all immigrants should be treated same as the whites. The solution to peace in the period of assimilation was cultural assimilation and this way the Native Americans would have allowed the white access to their lands and resources.
Earlier acts such as the Dawes act of 1887 had deprived Indians off their resources and their lands placed under white settlers. They were denied rights to natural resources such as water. Fitzgerald portrays the lack of freedom in Bernice’s life where she cannot be herself she also has to live under the mercies of her cousin (Fitzgerald, 1989). By 1920s Indians were more aware of their rights and through the Supreme Court in cases such as winters v. United States they fought to have their rights. This era was faced with numerous cases in the supreme cases as they couldn’t take action without the court.
The book tells us that assimilation involved leaders that had ‘collaborated’ with the Americans (Fitzgerald, 1989). They were able to move up the social and political ladder as they followed the rules of the federal government. It shows that once the natives were assimilated and fully cooperated they had advantages as they were able to move freely. Assimilation greatly affects the lives of natives this proves that lives of assimilated natives changed during this time both positively and negatively. As much as they felt deprived there were some benefits as they acquired new skills The book shows us that natives appeared to be assimilated in the outside but still held on to their cultures.
Fitzgerald challenges the notion of immigration being due to search of a better lifestyle. According to him people moved for different reasons but they live the same lives as to those that move in search of a better lifestyle. The character Bernice is from a well off family but is faced with difficulty in adopting the new lifestyle, this are some of the challenges faced by the immigrants in 1920s. The story shows us a time of fun for the natives after they blended in, this brings in the era of acceptance and peace. The characters communicate the brutality of federal government in assimilation and cooperation of the natives by unwillingly adopting foreign culture as they were willing to learn.
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The story shows events in the social history in 1920s. At this time women were beginning to enjoy their rights as much as they considered themselves free they still depended on men. Fitzgerald shows a fierce woman in Marjorie he introduces us to fiery women who became leaders in 1920s. With the era of new thinking women and youth were able to have fun and open their horizons. He shows us the strength of women who pioneered the rest to think farther and move freely even at night. He portrays young ambitious girls who learn the ways and modes of the society (Fitzgerald, 1989). He also shows the social class where the rich go to parties and indulge in fun and dance. However he is keen to show us that natives (immigrants) are treated differently despite being from the social class.
Conclusively, Fitzgerald uses his own personal thoughts to show us America in 1920s.peharps assimilation would have been easier if culture pluralism was accepted. The author shows that the biggest challenge was in abandoning the culture as much losing their resources was damaging. The story shows the negative impacts of assimilationist view and the victory of indigenous ethnic characters. The discrimination of natives and negative impacts of assimilation depict the long process of America’s revolution. However, the writer doesn’t show the life after overcoming assimilation and whether it really wiped out the Native’s culture. From the ending, it is safe to assume that the natives finally enjoyed their freedom.
- Fitzgerald, S. F. (1989). Bernice bobs her hair. In J. B. Matthew (Ed.), The short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (pp. 25-47). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.