This discussion guide has been created for book club groups or others who are interested in exploring the F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories collected in the new book,
Gatsby Girls. To enhance your discussion we also have a series of videos featuring Troy University professor Kirk Curnutt and Ashley Gordon of “Reading for the Rest of Us” about Fitzgerald and each of the stories featured in Gatsby Girls. Five videos are already posted and even more are on their way, so keep coming back to check for new posts.
1. The stories in the collection first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in the 1920s just as the country was entering a promising new decade. People looked forward to a new time of prosperity with the advent of affordable automobiles and electrical power. For the first time, more Americans were living in cities leaving farms and small towns for better futures and more interesting lives. To many young women, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories must have been a revelation. “Modern” girls were cutting their hair short, abandoning their corsets, driving cars, drinking liquor and kissing boys without worrying what others might think. It all seemed very wicked and fun. How did Fitzgerald’s heroines help shape the lives of women in the ‘20s? How did his “Gatsby” girls help create the expectations of American women today?
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of America’s greatest writers. Because his short stories were published in the Post, one of the country’s most popular magazines, he became one of the public’s favorite authors. His stories chronicled life in the 1920s and gave birth to the “Flapper”– the romantic version of the ‘20s girl who has been popularized through the years in both movies and books. According to Fitzgerald, all of his female characters were based on his wife Zelda. They are impulsive, fashionable and carefree women who command attention and dare to be themselves, but are they likeable characters? Which of his female characters were you favorites? Which one/s did you dislike the most?
3. Which story/stories appealed to you the most and why?
4. Do you see elements of how Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby Girl” evolved through the stories? What did these characters have in common? How are they different?
5. What main ideas—themes—does Fitzgerald explore?
6. What passages strike you as insightful, even profound? Perhaps a bit of dialog that’s funny or poignant or that encapsulates a character? Maybe there’s a particular comment that states the stories’ thematic concerns?
7. If you could ask the author a question, what would you ask? Have you read other books by Fitzgerald? If so, how does this book compare?
8. How do the Gatsby Girls heroines compare to Daisy in The Great Gatsby?
9. The first story, “Head and Shoulders” introduces the reader to Horace Tarbox, an intellectual young man busy with his studies. He meets, and falls in love with, Marcia Meadow, a singer at the local theater. This appears to be a simple story of ‘opposites attract’ featuring the studious Horace, and the free-wheeling actress Marcia. She dubs them “Head and Shoulders” for the odd pairing of one with brains and one with “shoulders” (a dancer who swings her shoulders). But as the story progresses, an unexpected twist changes things. What happens to Marcia and Horace? How does it change them?
10. In “The Ice Palace,” we meet Sally Carrol Happer, a young woman from Georgia. She’s bored with the quiet, dull life she has known and has decided to marry a northern man. “The Ice Palace” was published in May of 1920 and was the first of what is called the “Tarleton Trilogy,” a trio of works set in Tarleton,Georgia. This story tells the tale of local belle Sally and her harrowing visit to the cold North to visit her fiancé’s family. It is one of the most beautifully written of Fitzgerald’s short stories, and it contains autobiographical details from Fitzgerald’s own life, as he himself married a Southern Belle [Zelda]. In this story, Fitzgerald began his exploration of the differences between Southern and Northern cultures. What are the differences in Fitzgerald’s view? What differences still exist today?
11. “The Offshore Pirate” is a fantasy story. Published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1920s, it tells the story of Ardita Farnan and how she falls in love with the “pirate” that overtakes her uncle’s boat on its way to Florida. The story deals with a theme that is seen repeatedly in Fitzgerald’s early stories – a young man “tricks” a young woman into falling in love with him or marrying him or, in the case of “Myra Meets His Family,” not marrying him. Is the “pirate” a despicable character? “Pirate” is an in-depth character analysis of what would become one of Fitzgerald’s prototypical characters – the self-determined young “femme fatale.” Is Ardita a likeable character? How do you think she would have been perceived in the 1920s? How would she be perceived today? Fitzgerald was especially fond of this story, especially the last line, which he said was one of his best. Do you agree?
“What was in the bags?” she asked softly.
“Florida mud,” he answered. ‘That was one of two true things I told you.” And Ardita being a girl of some perspicacity had no difficulty in guessing the other.
12. When Fitzgerald submitted “Myra Meets His Family” to his literary agent Harold Ober, he admitted: “I’m afraid it’s no good and if you agree with me don’t hesitate to send it back.” But Ober had no trouble selling it to the Saturday Evening Post for $400. Fox Studios bought “Myra” in 1920 for $1000–a good price at that time–and made it into The Husband Hunter with Eileen Percy. PBS’s American Playhouse presented an adaptation of “Myra” entitled “Under the Biltmore Clock” in 1985. Its popular appeal did not alter Fitzgerald’s feelings about the story. In 1921 he wrote Ober about English magazine rights: “I believe you have disposed of . . . ‘Myra Meets His Family’ which story, however, I never have liked, and do not intend ever republishing in book form.” The reasons for his rejection of the story are not clear. It relies on unlikely plotting, but so do a number of his other commercial stories. Perhaps he saw too great a contrast between “Myra” and “The Ice Palace,” one of his finest stories, which was written during the same month.
“Myra Meets His Family” is a representative early Fitzgerald story in terms of its material and characters. It stakes out the territory of the Eastern rich, and Myra is a readily recognizable Fitzgerald heroine who reappears under a dozen other names in later stories. Myra believes her only future resides in marring well, meaning marrying “wealth.” Was Myra a product of her time, when options were more limited for women, or is she a calculating character whose values and ambitions are shallow and misguided? Do women like Myra exist today?
13. When Fitzgerald included “The Camel’s Back” in Tales of the Jazz Age, he commented, “I suppose that of all the stories I have ever written this one cost me the least travail and perhaps gave me the most amusement. As to the labor involved, it was written during one day in the city of New Orleans, with the express purpose of buying a platinum and diamond wrist watch which cost six hundred dollars. I began it at seven in the morning and finished it at two o’clock the same night. . . My amusement was derived from the fact that the camel part of the story is literally true; in fact, I have a standing engagement with the gentleman involved to attend the next fancy-dress party to which we are mutually invited, attired as the latter part of the camel–this as a sort of atonement for being his historian.” “The Camel’s Back” is full of Fitzgerald’s wit and charm, but what do we learn about our main characters? Was the ending a surprise?
14. The inspiration for “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” came from a letter Fitzgerald wrote to his sister, Annabel, in 1915. He was advising her on the ways to succeed socially, which are explored in Bernice’s developments with Marjorie’s intervention in the story. There has been much comparison made with elements of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, implying that Fitzgerald was utilizing elements of the traditional code for young women and subverting them for the modern reader. Bernice, in contrast to the cultured youth who are adept at the artifice of the social scene, is sensitive and vulnerable. The overheard conversation between Mrs. Harvey and Marjorie has an almost physical effect on her. Fitzgerald’s use of metaphor emphasizes the directness of the event– “the thread of the conversation going on inside pierced her consciousness sharply as if it had been drawn through with a needle.” Bernice is wounded by the betrayal, but her spirit is not broken. The fact that the girls are cousins is the only commonality between them. Neither girl understands the other, although Bernice is more willing to get to know her cousin. Marjorie is a schemer: much more than just the lively socialite, she is a cruel manipulator. Bernice does want to be popular like Marjorie, and accepts Marjorie’s suggestions with innocent gratitude. Bernice is willing to learn from Marjorie, but not vice versa. Fitzgerald describes the luxury of Marjorie’s braids as “like restive snakes,” a simile that gives Marjorie Gorgon-like qualities. Bernice realizes that Marjorie’s hair symbolizes power. There is a play on the story of Little Women: as Jo in the novel cut off her hair to raise money for the family, so Bernice sacrificed her hair to be accepted by Marjorie. There is also the allusion to the Biblical story of Samson. Bernice, in cutting Marjorie’s plaits off, “scalps” her like an Indian. Throwing the plaits on Warren’s porch symbolizes Bernice’s rejection of him, and her glee is in “spoiling” Marjorie. How does Fitzgerald use Bernice and Marjorie to represent the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” – those with social standing and those without it? What kind of man is Warren and why does he side with Marjorie in the end?
15. In “The Popular Girl,” Yanci Bowman is enchanted to meet Scott Kimberly, a very rich and very eligible young man. Yet no sooner have they met than her drunken father dies unexpectedly, leaving her impoverished. Too ashamed to admit to Scott her desperate state, she creates a fanciful world full of parties and holidays, friends and suitors, to convince him she is still the popular girl he first met. However, as her charade grows ever more fragile, she endangers their friendship and her very hope of salvation. Once again, Fitzgerald explores the divide between rich and poor, social “rules” and expectations. How does Yanci’s character evolve in this story? Does she learn anything? Is she a femme fatale who is “tamed” by a young man?
16. Are the story endings satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not…and how would you change them?
17. Have these Fitzgerald’s stories changed you—broadened your perspective? Have you learned something new or been exposed to different ideas about people or about life in the 1920s?
18. Fitzgerald’s work has sustained the test of time. Are these stories still relevant today? If so, why?