At breakfast the next morning, Bernice confronts Marjorie about what she said to Mrs. Harvey the night before. On the verge of tears, Bernice says that she had “better go back to Eau Claire—if I’m such a nuisance.” She then proceeds to list her grievances against Marjorie: that she has neglected her as a guest, been overcritical of her fashion sense, spoken to her unkindly, and insulted her behind her back. Sprinkled throughout this little speech, Bernice also includes several self-pitying remarks on her apparent lack of social skill.
Bernice is clearly trying to prompt some sympathy from Marjorie, which shows her insecurity. Even as she scolds and berates Marjorie, Bernice craves the approval of someone with higher social status.
Far from responding with pity, Marjorie says that she “wasn’t trying to be nice” when she criticized Bernice, then bluntly asks Bernice when she would like to leave. When Bernice breaks down in tears, Marjorie, bored and unimpressed, says that she has called her cousin’s bluff. Clearly Bernice does not intend to go home; she seems terrified at her mother’s scorn, should she return home early. Marjorie, at this point trying to get Bernice to leave, offers her month’s allowance for hotel and travel expenses—but to this, Bernice only flees the room, sobbing.
The end of this conversation shows the social hierarchy in Bernice’s mind: Marjorie is above her, by virtue of her popularity and superior social skills, but Bernice’s mother looms far above Marjorie, as a figure of authority. Bernice’s fear of disappointing adults is a recurring point of her character, and it comes into play in Part VI.
The girls’ conversation continues some time later, as Bernice returns, red-eyed. When Marjorie refuses to respond with any kind of sympathy, Bernice prompts her with the comment, “I suppose I’d better get my railroad ticket.” Once again, Marjorie refuses to take her cousin’s threats seriously; she agrees that Bernice had better return home if she isn’t enjoying herself. To this, Bernice begs a little “common kindness,” but Marjorie cuts her off, exasperated, saying that Little Women is “out of style” and that she shouldn’t quote it. Marjorie goes on to say that the “inane females” modeled in that book are of no use to modern girls, and are responsible for ruining lives and marriages by modeling “ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities,” turning a woman into “a weak, whining, cowardly mass of affectations.” Her criticisms then turn to Bernice in particular: Bernice is beautiful and wealthy, “starting life without any handicap,” yet she still refuses to cultivate herself, simply begging pity while criticizing those girls who do succeed in society.
Here, Marjorie outlines her values and principles. Cruel, shallow, and selfish though she may be, her behavior is nonetheless based in a set of beliefs. Marjorie values competence, skill, drive, and individualism—all qualities which traditionally belong only to adult men. As such, though she remains an immature teenager in temperament, she possesses the confidence and social savvy of an adult, and she uses this skill to justify her attitude towards Bernice. The social competition in this story is very American in character: there is a prevailing notion that hard work earns social success, even when wealth and privilege are plainly shown to be advantages for both Bernice and Marjorie. From Marjorie’s distinctly American point of view, Bernice is demanding rewards that she has not earned—while Bernice, whose old-fashioned values hearken back to Europe, believes that there are certain boundaries of politeness and decorum which should never be crossed.
After spending still more time away in thought, Bernice returns to Marjorie with a proposition. Conceding that Marjorie might be right, she agrees to give Marjorie’s ideas a chance, and accept whatever recommendations or instructions she gives without question. Immediately Marjorie lists several points for Bernice to improve: her eyebrows, her grooming, her dancing, her posture, and her attire. Bernice is bewildered but grateful. Marjorie also advises her on how to target the clumsy boys, the “sad birds” among the crowd, as practice to get people talking about her. She concludes with a remark on whether Bernice should bob her hair, a thought which causes Bernice to reel backwards on the bed.
The gender politics of this section offer a glimpse into the state of gender relations in the 1920s. In earlier times, a woman’s appearance was important for maintaining the bare minimum of dignity, and perhaps for attracting a husband. From the 1920s onward, however, femininity could be “weaponized,” so to speak, as a tool for social advancement.