Tresses in Texts

Five fantastic literary hair moments.

There’s nothing more precious than seeing someone grin or chuckle when reading a book. It makes you want to interrupt their reading, asking, What? What’s so funny? Tell meee.

I set out to accomplish the insurmountable task of selecting the greatest hair scenes in literature, ones that induce those grins and chuckles. At first I looked for moments that perfectly encapsulate the cultural landscape in which they were written (if the word “literature” doesn’t carry highbrow connotations, then what does?). In the end, I went with five hair disasters. My reasoning as to why I was drawn to these scenes can be concluded thusly: 1. They were hella funny and 2. Let’s face it, who doesn’t delight in a little in laughing at another’s misfortune? (What? It’s fiction.)

That’s not to say that these hair disasters existed in their literary contexts purely for the schadenfreude. As your high school English teacher would be all too happy to point out, these scenes of hair gone awry are actually momentous turning points in these characters’ lives. Bad hair days can teach very important life lessons. If it weren’t for these moments, we would never know that even nice domestic girls can get caught up in their looks; that attacking one’s vanity can be a powerful weapon; that Prince Humperdink is a big-time douchebag.

So without further ado, I present to you five of the very best hair scenes in literary history. I realize five is nothing in a sea of stories, so if you have any of your own favourites, please share them in the comments.

Matilda (1988) by Roald Dahl

Matilda is a mostly charming story with some pretty disturbing child abuse thrown in, because Roald Dahl had a twisted mind. Matilda (the character) was a vindictive bookworm with telekinetic powers who lived with awful, idiotic parents. Her dad, Mr. Wormwood, was particularly sadistic. I mean, the man tore up her library copy of The Red Pony in front of her. Pure evil. In retaliation, Matilda set out one morning to ruin his nice mop of black hair. She mixed his “Oil of Violets” hair tonic with her mom’s platinum blonde hair dye and waited for the magic of peroxide to happen:

Mrs. Wormwood looked up. She caught sight of her husband. She stopped dead. Then she let out a scream that seemed to lift her right up into the air and she dropped the plate with a crash and a splash on to the floor. Everyone jumped, including Mr. Wormwood.

“What the heck’s the matter with you, woman?” he shouted. “Look at the mess you’ve made on the carpet!”

“Your hair!” the mother was shrieking, pointing a quivering finger at her husband. “Look at your hair! What’ve you done to your hair?”

“What’s wrong with my hair, for heaven’s sake?” he said.

“Oh my God dad, what’ve you done to your hair?” the son shouted.

A splendid noisy scene was building up nicely in the breakfast room. Matilda said nothing. She simply sat there admiring the wonderful effect of her own handiwork. Mr. Wormwood’s fine crop of black hair was now a dirty silver, the colour this time of a tightrope walker’s tights that had not been washed for the entire circus season.

Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne Shirley would not be Anne Shirley without her red braids. Anne without her signature ‘do would be akin to Bonnie without Clyde, Thelma without Louise, Dumb without Dumber (I’ll stop with the road trip movies). But throughout the series, Anne always struggled to love her locks. In L.M. Montgomery’s first novel, future-dreamboat Gilbert Blythe teases Anne for having red hair by calling her “Carrots.” (Boys are just the worst.) Anne is convinced her red hair is a curse, so she buys a bottle of hair dye from a peddler to turn her hair a bold black. Instead, it turned green (the characters react in horror, but you know Anne would be on trend today). Anne comes homes to her guardian, Marilla, and fesses up to her silly mistake:

“Anne Shirley, what have you done to your hair? Why, it’s GREEN!”

Green it might be called, if it were any earthly colour—a queer, dull, bronzy green, with streaks here and there of the original red to heighten the ghastly effect. Never in all her life had Marilla seen anything so grotesque as Anne’s hair at that moment.

“Yes, it’s green,” moaned Anne. “I thought nothing could be as bad as red hair. But now I know it’s ten times worse to have green hair. Oh, Marilla, you little know how utterly wretched I am.”

The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman
Chances are, you know the movie version of The Princess Bride by heart. Heck, if you’re anything like me, you probably weave the quotes into everyday conversations (You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means). But did you know the movie skipped out on a pretty great hair scene in William Goldman’s novel? Before Buttercup, Prince Humperdink was supposed to marry Princess Noreena of Guilder. At a grand feast, Humberdink is about to propose to Noreena until suddenly, a breeze blows through the castle and Noreena’s hat comes off to reveal that she is—gasp!—bald. A bald princess! Humperdink refuses to marry such an ugly woman and in his true-to-nature assholery style, he threatens to wage a heavy war with her country for the embarrassment it has caused him:

Prince Humperdinck made his angry way to the balcony above the Great Hall and stared down at the chaos. The fires were still in places flaming red, guests were pouring out through the doors and Princess Noreena, hatted and faint, was being carried by her servants far from view.

Queen Bella finally caught up with the Prince, who stormed along the balcony clearly not yet in control. “I do wish you hadn’t been quite so blunt,” Queen Bella said.

The Prince whirled on her. “I’m not marrying any bald princess, and that’s that!”

“No one would know,” Queen Bella explained. “She has hats even for sleeping.”

“I would know,” cried the Prince. “Did you see the candlelight reflecting off her skull?”

The Outsiders (1967) by S. E. Hinton
Confession: Ponyboy Curtis stole my heart in the eighth grade. He digged sunsets, cited poems by Robert Frost, and his association with fellow Greasers gave him brooding undertones of danger. Could you blame me? I would have run from the law with him, curfew be damned. In all seriousness, if you look past the dreamy boys and the fights, you’ll find that hair played a crucial role in The Outsiders. After the incident with the Socs (no spoilers here), Ponyboy and Johnny attempt to disguise themselves. Ponyboy gets his hair bleached, while Johnny gets his greasy hair cut off. The hair change was symbolic of their new identities as fugitives and no longer that of Greasers. After it happens, Ponyboy bemoans the loss of his greaser hair:

“It was my pride. It was long and silky, just like Soda’s, only a little redder. Our hair was tough—we didn’t have to use much grease on it. Our hair labeled us greasers, too—it was our trademark. The one thing we were proud of. Maybe we couldn’t have Corvairs or madras shirts, but we could have hair.”

Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott
I re-read the classic tale this year and was reminded of a darling scene when Jo March, second eldest sister-slash-writer-slash-rebel (she was portrayed by both Katharine Hepburn AND Winona Ryder onscreen), convinces a barber to buy her hair for $25 so dear Marmee can take the train to see an injured Papa. When Jo comes home, she removes her bonnet and to the horror of the sisters, reveals her newly-cropped hair. Jo is so proud of her boyish ’do and gloats that it will be good for her vanity. Later that night, she sobs herself to sleep and confesses to big sis that vanity isn’t so easy to chop off:

“Jo, dear, what is it? Are you crying about father?” says Meg.

“No, not now,” says Jo.

“What then?”

“My… My hair!” burst out poor Jo, trying vainly not to smother her emotion in the pillow.

It did not seem at all comical to Meg, who kissed and caressed the afflicted heroine in the tenderest manner.

“I’m not sorry,” protested Jo, with a choke. “I’d do it again tomorrow, if I could. It’s only the vain part of me that goes and cries in this silly way. Don’t tell anyone, it’s all over now. I thought you were asleep, so I just made a little private moan for my one beauty.”


illustration //
Jenn Woodall

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Braids: A Tale of Love and Hate

In my earliest memory of having my hair braided, I am maybe four or five, sitting in the living room in a tiny pink kiddie chair. I am getting ready for a Ukrainian dance performance, two very tight French braids being the necessary hairstyle for that sort of thing. My mom kneels behind me, getting organized, and although she hasn’t touched me yet her methodical movements send a shiver of uneasy anticipation up my neck. She picks up a spray bottle full of water and wets my hair, and then draws the tail of a comb slowly and carefully down the centre of my scalp, parting my hair in half. Her long fingernails separate first the teeniest, tiniest hairs at my temples. A chill runs down my spine as I feel the first tug of what I know will be a long, torturous series of hair pulls. I am terrified. My lip quivers. Braiding time inevitably becomes crying time.

I hated braids first because, being little and a wimp, they hurt my head. But dancing required that I endure the torture of French braids often enough that eventually I learned to keep my loathing to myself. Later still, I had to learn to braid my own hair, which was another kind of tragedy entirely because, when you’re 10, French braiding your own hair is hard. Your arms get tired and your braids get lumpy in funny places and nothing ever looks as smooth and neat as it did when your mom was doing it for you. Braids went from frightening to frustrating, and I didn’t much like either.

Even when braiding my own hair got easier, I didn’t ever do it unless dancing required it. The idea of wearing them for fun, because they looked nice, did not occur to me – I had no love for them at all.

Then, one evening about four years ago, I came across the 1949 version of Little Women on television. Throughout the movie, Meg (played by Janet Leigh), wears half of her hair in a thick braid wrapped around her head like a headband. The rest of her hair hangs in loose curls at her shoulders. To me it looked so elegant, and so unlike the tight-enough-to-give-you-a-facelift French braids I have always known and mostly hated. Braids could be pretty. The next day I fought with my hair until I had a Meg March hairstyle of my own.

I’ve loved braids ever since. Meg March, it turns out, was just the first in a long line of characters that wearing braids allowed me to pretend to be. Braiding my hair has become my own secret game of dress-up, allowing me to feel like someone else when I am otherwise bored with regular old me. I can be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. I can be Heidi, or one of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet sisters, or any number of romantic and princess-like characters from centuries past. I’m not sure what it is about braids that make them feel so transformative. It might be that their first job in my life was as part of a performance, or that they seem to pull so strongly from history, appearing over and over again in different ways from century to century.

It’s true that in the past few years, braids of all styles have become very popular, and maybe even trendy – but I am okay with that. To me they seem timeless, and are so versatile that it is hard for me to find them boring. Maybe they are especially “in style” lately, but I don’t know if they’ve ever really been out – and either way, despite our troubled past, we have managed to become very good friends.

-Hailey Siracky