Short Story Review: Head and Shoulders

From Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald

(You can read the story here)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Head and Shoulders” narrates the ironic twists in the life of Horace Tarbox. Horace is an intellectual prodigy who, at 17, is attending Yale for his Masters of Arts. His entire academically-inclined life is derailed when he meets Marcia Meadows. A 19-year old vaudeville performer, Marcia is everything that Horace has never known.

Horace is the quintessential reclusive genius, painstakingly raised to be an academic all his life. Marcia, on the other hand, is vivacious, given to passions with an entirely common streak to her. The how and why of their attraction is  unclear. It is simply taken for granted that they are meant to fall in love.

Fitzgerald, even in his early writings, already had a very unique identity. His penchant for mismatched love interests, as in this early short story, will become one of his recurring themes in later works. His perceptive characterization and unique yet startlingly precise imagery are already evident this early on in his writing career.

After three meetings, Horace and Marcia marry to the shock of the academic community. Horace turns away from his intellectual life to work as a clerk for an export company. Marcia continues to perform to make ends meet until Horace starts to earn better money.

“We’ll call ourselves Head and Shoulders, dear,” she said softly, “and the shoulders’ll have to keep shaking a little longer until the old head gets started.

Another of Fitzgerald’s recurring themes is the ironic or downright bitter ending. In “Head and Shoulders”, this comes about in an odd reversal of roles where Horace becomes the performer (Shoulders) and Marcia becomes the acclaimed author (Head).

Horace is recruited to perform the trick gymnastics he has been practising after Marcia convinced him to exercise more. He accepts the job as Marcia is pregnant and no longer able to perform. For her part, Marcia comes up with a book entitled Sandra Pepys, Syncopated which she derived from a Samuel Pepys book Horace lent her. The book goes on to be a huge success and Marcia is dubbed a literary prodigy. The complete absurdity of the situation dawns on Horace when his once idol Anton Laurier comes to call on Marcia who couldn’t even pronounce the caller’s name.

Flappers and Philosophers

“Head and Shoulders” appears in Flappers and Philosophers, Fitzgerald’s first compilation of short stories. It is gratifying to see his writing develop in stories like this to novels like Tender is the Night  and his masterpiece The Great Gatsby.  “Head and Shoulders” is a great start to reading Fitzgerald. It is entertaining and poignant and so typically Fitzerald. It is the work of a budding and brilliant writer.

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