Though the story’s main conflict focuses on Bernice and Marjorie, a broader, subtler conflict is shown to play out between the older and younger generations. At the start of the 1920s, when Fitzgerald was writing, a new teenage culture was coming into being, and adults, especially of the conservative upper class, reacted with indignation and scorn. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” uses this generational conflict to apply pressure to its protagonist, as Bernice must weigh the lessons of her upbringing against her desire to fit in among her peers. The difficulty of Bernice’s dilemma, and the lack of a clear answer weighing towards either side, speaks to how deep the rift between generations ran at that time.
Mrs. Harvey’s generation not only fails to understand young people, but seems largely uninterested in understanding them. Never before had American teenagers been so united in their rejection of their parents’ norms. It was, to all eyes, an anomaly, and so older adults dismissed it as such. The very first scene of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” begins with observations of how each generation conducts themselves at a party. While the middle-aged ladies gossip and “the younger marrieds […] performed ancient waltzes and terrifying fox trots to the tolerant amusement of their younger brothers and sisters,” the teenagers, caught in “the drama of the shifting, semicruel world of adolescence,” make an elaborate social competition of the dance. The narrator muses that unlike these “younger marrieds” of the previous generation, who dance in set couples like their parents before them, “youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of fox-trotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious.” The teenagers act with different goals and priorities in mind, and so the space of the summer dance is fragmented between generations.
This reflects the state of cross-generational relations at this time, which were likewise fractured. During her argument with Marjorie, Mrs. Harvey lazily ascribes her daughter’s behavior and opinions to a generation-wide lack of courtesy. Fitzgerald makes a point to say that her tone of voice “implied that modern situations were too much for her. When she was a girl all young ladies who belonged to nice families had glorious times.” The simple worldview afforded by age and privilege stays fixed in her mind, despite what her daughter tells her is happening to the contrary. As the narrator remarks later in this section, “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”
The bob haircut in particular seems to draw the ire of the elder generation, likely because it so radically departs from any feminine styles seen prior in America. Somewhat comically, Mrs. Harvey’s friend Mrs. Deyo wrote an entire paper titled, “The Foibles of the Younger Generation,” of which fifteen minutes of speaking time were devoted to denouncing bobbed hair. The fact that this paper doesn’t seem to have left “the Thursday Club,” evidently a social circle of wealthy middle-aged ladies, speaks to how insular and close-minded that demographic often was.
Against such opposition, the younger generation can only respond negatively. Marjorie carves out her own social space, away from her mother, and defends her control over it by any means necessary. She defends it from the outside by arguing persistently against her mother’s way of thinking, and from the inside by deceiving and undercutting competition like Bernice. Warren McIntyre, meanwhile, asserts his independence by driving his own car wherever he chooses, to parties all over New England. Nowhere are his parents even mentioned. Bernice, on the other hand, is completely cowed by her elders’ expectations, and winces in fear at the mere thought of her mother’s disapproval. Her first conversation with Marjorie ends in sobs as she considers that “if I go home my mother will know” that something had gone wrong. Even after she becomes popular and gets her hair cut, it stings her when Mrs. Harvey asks, “Oh, Bernice, what’ll your mother think?” Whether they share their parents’ values or not, the young people of this story have largely negative relationships to the older generation. Obedience means internal conflict, while rebellion only makes that conflict external. Fitzgerald suggests somewhat bleakly that the relationship between generations—especially the power imbalance between parent and child—simply does not permit straightforward, healthy communication.
Youth and Generational Difference ThemeTracker
Youth and Generational Difference Quotes in Bernice Bobs Her Hair
The main function of the balcony was critical. It occasionally showed grudging admiration, but never approval, for it is well known among ladies over thirty-five that when the younger set dance in the summer-time it is with the very worst intentions in the world, and if they are not bombarded with stony eyes stray couples will dance weird barbaric interludes in the corners, and the more popular, more dangerous girls will sometimes be kissed in the parked limousines of unsuspecting dowagers.
No matter how brilliant or beautiful a girl may be, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate. Perhaps boys prefer her company to that of the butterflies with whom they dance a dozen times an evening, but youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of foxtrotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious.
“Girls like you are responsible for all the tiresome colorless marriages; all those ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities. What a blow it must be when a man with imagination marries the beautiful bundle of clothes that he's been building ideals round, and finds that she's just a weak, whining, cowardly mass of affectations!”
“Why, child,” cried Mrs. Harvey, “in her paper on ‘The Foibles of the Younger Generation’ that she read at the last meeting of the Thursday Club she devoted fifteen minutes to bobbed hair. It’s her pet abomination.”