In “Flappers and Philosophers”, the ideas of defeat and humiliation are presented throughout the collection. The author produces a profound exploration into the lives of the female protagonists who depend on popularity and sexuality as sources of power. It also deals with the ramifications of being an outsider during that period of time and how defeat is nearly always the result from the need for acceptance into those societies. Although many of the characters suffer the negative consequences of their actions in their respective societies, some do achieve victory, but at a price.
To understand the characters in the story we must first deal with the social, cultural and historical contexts. These short stories were written between the world wars and among the interwar boom, before the Great Depression. This era was very important of women, young people, the arts and creative industries. The blossoming of youth culture also contributed to the rise of “flapperdom”. Before this period, we had the Victorian era, where women were subjected to immense conservatism, and their emotions and opinions were unjustly oppressed. Women were expected to cover up and know their place in the social hierarchy. “Flapperdom” introduced the thought of independence and non-conformity. The epitome of this idea would be the character of Ardita in “The Offshore Pirate”. She is an allegory that represents a whole shift in the mode of behaviour, a kind of liberation into something that is more dangerous, alive and sexy.
In many of the short stories the female protagonist does suffer from defeat as shown in the short story “The Ice Palace”. Sally Carrol is a Southern Belle, who wishes to become a flapper. She does not succeed in this matter, as she is forced to return to her home after a trial run in the North. The author has used two distinct sematic fields to suggest the binary opposition between the North and the South. The South is warm and bright, with “the sunlight dripp[ing] over the house light golden paint.” The central motif in the paragraph of the short story is liquid light and that gives the reader a feeling of warmth and laziness. The two worlds are juxtaposed when the author describes the setting of the North. The rigid nature of the lexical choice in part III of the story shows how Sally Carrol is a microcosm of the South transplanted into the hostile nature of the North.
“It was very cold” and Sally Carrol “slid uncomfortably” into her clothes and she “stumbled” up to the diner. The semantic field of ice is used here as seen in the words “sliding” and “slippery”. This gives the reader the impression that Sally Carrol is very awkward in this setting and not in control as a flapper should be. Sally Carrol judges things by how long it has been around, not in terms of monetary value. The difference in value systems between the North and the South makes it impossible for Sally Carrol to integrate into the Northern society, a society fuelled by money.
Therefore Sally Carrol has the hallucination of Margery Lee, who is a personification of the old South. Sally Carrol experiences defeat and cannot follow her dreams of living as a flapper because of the restrictions in her abilities to adapt to a new environment. However, one may look at it the other way and say she has actually succeeded in living the life she is most suitable for – the Southern life. This is evident in the lexical shift in part VI, where the surroundings are smothered in the “wealth of golden sunlight”. This parallels part I of the story provides a certain unity that enables the reader to feel like the Southern life is where Sally Carrol belongs.
In “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, Bernice deals with the problem of being an outsider to an elite society full of successful people. She is seduced into “flapperdom” by Warren, who initiated the process by flirting with her. The remark that she had an “awfully kissable mouth” made her excited enough to change into someone who is obsessed with superficiality. She becomes an artificial flapper, a shadow of Marjorie. The struggle for acceptance is evident through the fact that even though the ideas underpinning their belief system is from two different paradigms, Bernice still learns to grasp onto that vibrant and fleeting youth.
Stripped from her original values, and seduced into the world of “flapperdom”, Bernice only superficially assimilates into the elite society but fails at the end when her bluff is called. However, through this defeat, one may argue that she has actually achieved more. Liberating herself from the shackles of the Victorian era, she started to exhibit the traits of a flapper when she cuts off Marjorie’s hair. Not only did this provide an intense climax to the short story, it also explains that although the character experiences defeat, the resultant victory can compensate for that.
Although on the surface “The Cut-glass Bowl” is a story about an enormous glass punch bowl ruining the life of Eveyln Piper, when you look at it closely, the story traces the deterioration of her “flapperdom” and her marriage to a prosperous hardware dealer whose business declines over several years. The author foreshadows this deterioration at the beginning of the text when he says that “the struggle for existence began”. “The bonbon dish lost its little handle”; a “cat knocked the little bowl off the sideboard”; “the wine glasses succumbed to leg fractures”. Throughout the story, an idea of superficiality comes into play.
The cut-glass bowl is a conceptual metaphor that not only embodies the character Evelyn, but also outlines the features of her marriage. It is “as hard as” she is and “as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.” Her marriage is empty as she has to see someone else other than her husband to relight her fire. Even her words contain nothing, as they are in italics suggesting a false and unnecessary emphasis. Evelyn lives in a society obsessed with external beauty and superficiality. The author finds it necessary to describe the “beautiful” Mrs Harold Piper with her “young, dark eyes”. Evelyn experiences defeat as she is married and no longer able to capture that fleeting youth and vibrant energy that formed the basis of her existence. She fails to retain her physical beauty in a society where it is valued the most.
Again, towards the end, she gains a sense of victory when she destroys the cut-glass bowl that has destroyed her life. Even here, the author stresses how vulnerable and helpless Eveyln is as she struggles to smash the bowl. The lexical choice here is in the sematic field of difficulty and uneasiness. She had to “tighten her arms” and her muscles were “tauted”. Her energy was “desperate” and “frantic”, and her effort was “mighty” and “strained”. The author cleverly uses the juxtaposition of the size of the bowl with the size of Evelyn to accentuate the difficulty she experiences. Furthermore, the repetition of the phrase: “she must be quick – she must be strong” shows that although she does suffer defeat, victory and liberation can be achieved through great difficulty.
In his short stories, F Scott Fitzgerald has made sure everyone at the end suffers some kind of defeat. This is achieved by Ardita in “The Offshore Pirate” being humiliated, Sally Carrol in “The Ice Palace” returning to her hometown, Bernice in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” bobbing her hair, and Evelyn in “The Cut-glass Bowl” losing the essence that used to define her as a flapper. However, the author has also made us realise that in life, even though we may experience defeat and humiliation, we must look within ourselves and find that personal victory that will surpass the negative feelings of loss.