Head and Shoulders Summary

Synopsis

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Head and Shoulders" first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1920. It was later printed in his first short story collection, Flappers and Philosophers.

"Head and Shoulders," a five-part narrative, introduces the reader to Horace Tarbox, who was a child prodigy and is now an abstraction philosopher at Yale University. When an attractive flapper "raps" (knocks) on his door after being paid to do so, Horace, who lacks social skills, is "unrolled like a piece of Irish lace on a Saturday afternoon bargain counter." Thinking that the flapper, Marcia, is the laundress, he ignores her until she sits in Hume, his armchair named after the philosopher David Hume. Horace is discomfited. Explaining that he is not interested when Marcia asks for a kiss, Horace tells her he is, instead, interested in modern philosophy as a realist of the School of Anton Laurier. Undaunted, she invites "Omar," as she calls him, to come see her dance. Long after she leaves, Horace notices that Hume radiates something: "Attar of roses."

In part II, Horace develops an appreciation for women, experiencing much emotion. When he visits Marcia at the theatre and objects to her "shoulder dance," Marcia tells him it is just a stunt and an act; she is really just Veronica Meadow, but she has made a name for herself in Vaudeville. She has even been in communication with a columnist, Peter Boyce Wendell, who has told her she should quit dancing and write North American literature. Departing, Horace promises to visit her when he turns eighteen.

During part III, Marcia glances into the audience one night and sees Horace, sensing an "unwonted responsibility." After performing her stunt, she rushes from the theatre, but eighteen-year-old Horace appears at her apartment and proposes. She kisses him and shakes with "absurd laughter" as he tells her not to be so logical when she asks what his family will think.

In part IV of the story, newspapers report that Horace Tarbox is "throwing over his career" because he chooses to work as a clerk while Marcia continues her dancing. "We'll call ourselves 'Head and Shoulders' dear," Marcia says, declaring the shoulders will have to shake a little longer until the head gets started. Later, concerned about his tireless reading, Marcia encourages Horace to exercise. He thus goes to a gymnasium where he experiments on the trapeze. One day, a man notices Horace's stunt created from the "fourth proposition of Euclid," asking him how he performs it.

Pregnancy puts "shoulders" out of business, and Horace finds himself performing on the trapeze for money. While he wonders at his career adjustment, Horace feels "when you opened the door at the rap of life, you let in many things." Sweeping through the air "in amazing parabolas," he finds success in his performances at the Hippodrome Theatre. One night at home, his wife asks him to bring her a book because she is bored with her confinement; she tells Horace she would write him if she "knew words enough." Yet, after two months of rest, Marcia gives Horace a book she has written in the style of vernacular literature; it is about, Marcia says, "a lot of things that happened to us." As she sleeps, Horace reads her manuscript with "tender pity" for the sprawling writing, the grammar and spelling errors, and the strange punctuation. He begins to ponder his own "half-forgotten dreams." He chuckles ironically as he recalls that early knock at his door.

In part V of the story, Marcia's book attracts attention after it is published. The critic Peter Boyce Wendell describes it as being irresistible in its peculiar vividness, its "haunting undertone of sadness," and its inadequacy of vocabulary. With her residuals, the couple move to Westchester County where Marcia promises Wendell to compose "immortally illiterate literature." Meanwhile Horace receives an offer to go back to Princeton to oversee the gymnasium. As he enters his house, none other than Anton Laurier is there to meet Marcia. He has found her work "a distinct contribution" to American dialect literature, likening it to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Horace reads the magazine clipping that describes Marcia Tarbox, the writer, as the wife of a performer at the Hippodrome:

...the young couple have dubbed themselves "Head and Shoulders," referring doubtless to the fact that Mrs. Tarbox supplies the literary and mental qualities, while the supple and agile shoulders of her husband contribute their share to the family fortunes.

Horace stops at the part about Mrs. Tarbox being a prodigy. Looking oddly at Anton Laurier, Horace says he wants to advise him about raps on the door: "Don't answer them! Let them alone—have a padded door."

Ed. Scott Locklear