NOTE: My essay on the writing of Dorothy Parker was based on the master's thesis that I completed in 1974 while a graduate student in English at Iowa State University. The essay below is the revised version of my thesis, followed by the "Coda" that I wrote in 2002 and appended to the essay. The entire text will be published in Rhonda Pettit's collection, The Critical Waltz: Responses to the Work of Dorothy Parker (forthcoming from Fairleigh Dickinson Press).
“I Am Outraged Womanhood”:
Dorothy Parker As Feminist and Social Critic
(first published in Regionalism and the Female Imagination, 1978)
Dorothy Parker, who once called herself “a little Jewish girl trying to be cute,” is perhaps best remembered for remarking that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” or for reacting to the news that Coolidge had died with, “How can they tell?” Then too, Parker’s most famous poem, “Résumé,” is often quoted to attest to her matter-of-fact view of life and death:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.1
Occasionally a modern fiction anthology will include a Parker story such as “The Waltz” to typify the witty sarcasm inherent in her work. For the most part, however, Dorothy Parker and her works have been forgotten by both readers and critics. Those who have heard of Parker associate her with the Algonquin Round Table and the New Yorker, but few can remember even the title of her most famous short story, “Big Blonde,” which won the O. Henry Prize in 1929. So little attention has been paid to Dorothy Parker in recent years that, as Brendan Gill comments, most people are surprised to learn that she died as recently as 1967—a woman of seventy-three, alone in a New York hotel room.2
Why unearth Dorothy Parker now, more than ten years after her death and over thirty years since her collected poems and stories were first published? Because her work deserves re-examination. Dorothy Parker was not only a wit but also a chronicler and a harsh critic of 1920s-1930s social roles. Her poems and short stories are not simply “cute” or “funny”; they embody Parker’s use of stereotypical female characters to satirize, more bitterly than playfully, the limited roles available to American women during the 1920’s and1930’s, decades when the predominant image of the American woman was that of the sexually free, even promiscuous, flapper.
In keeping with her purpose as satirist, Parker’s poems and short stories criticize the status quo rather than define new, three-dimensional female roles. As a result, her women characters generally evoke mixed reactions from the reader: they seem pitiable, yet they grate on the reader’s nerves. They appear to be victimized not only by an oppressive society but also by their inability to fight back against that society. It would be easy to conclude that Dorothy Parker is hostile toward the “simpering spinsters” or “rich bitches” she portrays in her poems and stories, but to do so would fail to take into account her satiric purpose and technique. Parker is not satirizing women per se; rather, she uses her pitiable, ridiculous women characters to criticize the society which has created one-dimensional female roles and forced women to fit into them.
My first encounter with Dorothy Parker was in 1965. A high school student competing in the state speech contest, I was assigned “The Waltz” as my humorous declamation speech topic. I learned from others who had previously used “The Waltz” that this perennial favorite was a sure bet for “Superior” ratings from the judges. So I began practicing, first reading aloud to perfect the two opposing tones used by the persona, then memorizing the material, and, finally, learning the waltz step that would accompany the speech. The judges, true to form, laughed themselves into near-exhaustion and awarded me with Superiors. Although happy about the ratings Parker and I had received, I began to wonder if “The Waltz” were really as funny as everyone thought. The persona, a young woman, at first seems to be the stereotypical chatterbox until one notices that the bulk of her “chattering” consists of a serious discussion with herself. Even though she speaks politely to the clumsy man with whom she is dancing (“Why, I’m simply thrilled. I’d love to waltz with you”), her thoughts reveal her distaste for the social roles she is expected to fulfill:
Ah, now why did he have to come around me, with his low requests? Why can’t he let me lead my own life? I ask so little—just to be left alone in my quiet corner of the table, to do my evening brooding over all my sorrows. And he must come, with his bows and his scrapes and his may-I-have-this-ones. And I had to go and tell him that I’d adore to dance with him . . . But what could I do? Everyone else at the table had got up to dance, except him and me. There was I, trapped. Trapped like a trap in a trap.3
As the pair dances, the speaker’s comments to her partner are the usual amenities deemed appropriate to the social situation: “Yes, it’s lovely, isn’t it? It’s simply lovely. It’s the loveliest waltz. Isn’t it? Oh, I think it’s lovely, too.” But her witty and sarcastic thoughts reveal her true inner rage: I wonder what I’d better do—kill him this instant, with my naked hands, or wait and let him drop in his traces. Maybe it’s best not to make a scene. . . .I’ve led no cloistered life, I’ve known dancing partners who have spoiled my slippers and torn my dress; but when it comes to kicking, I am Outraged Womanhood. When you kick me in the shin, smile. (48-49) The pattern of sharply conflicting overt and covert messages in “The Waltz” characterizes the ironic tone of Parker’s fiction, a tone also evident in poems such as “Love Song.” In this poem the persona seems to be the ingenue-in-love, extolling her lover’s virtues; however, she ironically undercuts this glowing admiration in the eighth and final line of each stanza. The tone of this line, playfully sarcastic in the first two stanzas, becomes decidedly bitter in the last stanza:
My love runs by like a day in June,
And he makes no friends of sorrows.
He’ll tread his galloping rigadoon
In the pathway of the morrows.
He’ll live his days where the sunbeams start,
Nor could storm or wind uproot him.
My own dear love, he is all my heart—
And I wish somebody’d shoot him.4
Here, as in “The Waltz,” a tension exists between the surface and subsurface of Parker’s satire. The lyric quality of “Love Song” is stopped short by the surfacing of the speaker’s suppressed rage. Thus, the eighth line of each stanza conveys the irony of the speaker’s situation as well as her dissatisfaction with social conventions, conventions which Parker mocks by her choice of style and tone in the seven preceding lines.
This conflict between surface convention and the desire to break through it is even more evident in Parker’s short interior monologue, “A Telephone Call.” Here the speaker is torn between her desire to break with convention by phoning the man she loves and her fear of violating this social taboo. She addresses God throughout this sketch, alternately pleading with him to let the phone ring and threatening to step out of her passive role by making the call herself. She views the man’s failure to call her as her own fault, the result of some “sin” she has committed without knowing it; and she begs for God’s forgiveness, promising to atone in a socially acceptable way:
You see, God, if You would just let him telephone me, I wouldn’t have to ask You anything more. I would be sweet to him, I would be gay, I would be just the way I used to be, and then he would love me again. And then I would never have to ask You for anything more.5
But even as the speaker promises to “be better,” her repressed rage begins to surface. First she threatens the telephone: “Damn you, I’ll pull your filthy roots out of the wall. I’ll smash your smug black face in little bits. Damn you to hell.” Then she turns her anger on her lover: “I wish to God I could make him cry. I wish I could make him cry and tread the floor and feel his heart heavy and big and festering in him. I wish I could hurt him like hell.” Yet every time she threatens someone or something, she relents and repents. “A Telephone Call” is a tug-of-war between the speaker’s social self and her inner self, seemingly a light-hearted game but actually a deadly battle. The battle’s tension remains unresolved, however. “A Telephone Call” ends with the speaker still determined to make the all-important call, but still unable to do so.
The tension between social role expectations and the desires of the inner self does seem to be resolved in Parker’s’ eight-line poem, “Observation.” This poem’s structure parallels that of “Love Song”: the first six lines depict the role which the female persona is expected to fulfill, while the last two lines reveal her reaction to this role:
If I don’t drive around the park,
I’m pretty sure to make my mark.
If I’m in bed each night by ten,
I may get back my looks again.
If I abstain from fun and such,
I’ll probably amount to much;
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.6
Once again, the initially buoyant tone becomes more cynical at the poem’s end, a characteristic of many of Parker’s poems, notably “Men”:
They hail you as their morning star
Because you are the way you are.
If you return the sentiment,
They’ll try to make you different;
Any once they have you, safe and sound,
They want to change you all around.
Your moods and ways they put a curse on;
They’d make of you another person.
They cannot let you go your gait;
They influence and educate.
They’d alter all that they admired.
They make me sick, they make me tired.7
In “Men,” Parker uses clichés such as “safe and sound” and clever rhymes such as “curse on/person” to establish a jaunty tone which she then destroys in the poem’s final line. Despite the poem’s generally light-hearted tone, its message is quite serious. Men put women in an impossible situation, first encouraging them to exhibit certain types of “appropriately feminine” behavior and then punishing them for that behavior by insisting they change.
Poems such as “Love Song” and “Men” belie the low estimation that critics such as Edmund Wilson have made of Parker’s verse: “Her poems do seem a little dated. At their best, they are witty light verse, but when they try to be something more serious, they tend to become a kind of dilution of A. E. Housman and Edna Millay.”8 Dorothy Parker’s poetry ranges from two-line witticisms to serious, technically excellent sonnets. A careful examination of her poems reveals that Parker did not take writing poetry any more lightly than she did writing fiction. In her hands, poetry, like fiction, becomes an effective tool for social criticism.
In addition to first-person monologues such as “The Waltz” and “A Telephone Call,” Parker’s fiction includes longer stories. Many of these are third-person narratives which allow the reader to glimpse several characters from the perspective of an omniscient, somewhat cynical narrator. In these stories, as in her monologues, Parker uses female stereotypes to criticize social norms. In “The Wonderful Old Gentleman,” the long-suffering Griselda figure, Allie Bain, is contrasted with the domineering bitch, Hattie Wittaker. These sisters share a vigil at the deathbed of their father, the “wonderful old gentleman.”9
The reader soon discovers from the sisters’ dialogue that Hattie is a self-assured schemer, quite conscious of appearances: “Mrs. Whittaker always stopped things before they got to the stage where they didn’t look right.” She has arranged for their father to live with the poorer Bains rather than with her husband and herself, and she has persuaded her father to leave her his entire estate. Hattie Whittaker, the stereotypical bitch, dominates everything and everyone around her.
Allie Bain, by contrast, is timid and submissive. Her life has not been happy, but she never complains. In fact, she seems to revel in her sorrows. Her father and sister use her because she allows herself to be used. Although Allie’s situation is wretched, the reader cannot completely pity her, because she is such a Griselda figure. Nor can the reader completely hate the cold and proud Hattie, whose life consists of manipulating others. Despite her bad qualities, Hattie remains a forceful, assertive woman who knows exactly what she wants and exactly how to get it. Both characters evoke mixed reactions from the reader, which indicates that Parker does not merely intend these figures to be ridiculed but that her criticism goes beyond mocking specific satiric types. By satirizing the Griselda and the Bitch, Parker criticizes the American society which has produced these stereotypes and forced women into them. “The Wonderful Old Gentleman” is a serious indictment of American society, not an amusing portrayal of a sado-masochistic relationship between sisters.
In another intriguing story, “Horsie,” the stereotypes used are those of the Old Maid and the Galatea. Miss Wilmarth, an “old maid nurse,” is described in terms of confinement and limitation:
She was tall, pronounced of bone, and erect of carriage; it was somehow impossible to speculate upon her appearance undressed. Her long face was innocent, indeed ignorant, of cosmetics, and its color stayed steady. Confusion, heat, or haste caused her neck to flush crimson. Her mild hair was pinned with loops of nicked black wire into a narrow knot, practical to support her little cap, like a charlotte russe from a bakeshop.10
Parker focuses on the nurse’s facial features in particular to reinforce the image of the unattractive, even grotesque, woman: . . . her face was truly complete with that look of friendly melancholy peculiar to the gentle horse. It was not, of course, Miss Wilmarth’s fault that she looked like a horse. Indeed, there was nowhere to attach any blame. But the resemblance remained. (260)
Miss Wilmarth, “sure and calm and tireless,” has been hired by the wealthy Crugers to care for their infant daughter. The gawky, unattractive nurse stands in sharp contrast to Mrs. Camilla Cruger, the epitome of the sweet, dainty, and mesmerizing American woman: . . .she had always been pale as moonlight and had always worn a delicate disdain, as light as the lace that covered her breast. . . . Motherhood had not brought perfection to Camilla’s loveliness. She had had that before. ( 265)
While Nurse Wilmarth idolizes the Crugers’ seemingly perfect existence, they call her “Horsie” behind her back and joke about her ugliness. She is their workhorse, and they use and abuse her much as they would an animal. Her physical appearance might make Miss Wilmarth seem repulsive, but she is also pitiable because of her social position. Neither married nor independently wealthy, she must work to support herself, her mother and her aunt. She must fit into society as best she can, in the role of the undesirable “old maid” who is grateful for any recognition of her humanity from the rich sophisticates she serves.
Ironically, Camilla Cruger, the beautiful little rich girl, is no happier with her state in life than is Miss Wilmarth. In fact, Camilla’s attitude throughout the story is that of boredom: boredom with her husband Gerald, with her baby Diane, and with her life in general. To everyone around her, Camilla represents the Galatean ideal of beauty, grace, and elegance. Yet she is dissatisfied. Her role, although more socially acceptable than Miss Wilmarth's, is just as confining.
The story’s climax reveals how trapped both women are in their roles. As the nurse prepares to leave the Cruger household, Gerald, exuberant at the thought of being alone with his Galatea at last, brings Camilla a bouquet of dainty yellow roses and, as an afterthought, gives Miss Wilmarth a small corsage of gardenias. To the nurse, this gift signifies that Crugers at last view her as a person rather than as an object that has outlived its usefulness. However, her reaction to the gift horrifies Mr. Cruger because it breaks down the formal barrier between them: Her squeaks of thanks made red rise back of his ears. . . . Gerald was in sudden horror that she might bring her head down close to them (the flowers) and toss it back, crying “wuzza, wuzza, wuzza” at them the while. ( 272) Gerald, embarrassed, quickly re-establishes the necessary social distance as he packs Miss Wilmarth, her face “like that of a weary mare,” into a taxi. Then he rushes inside to “get back to the fragrant room and the little yellow roses and Camilla.” The story’s final focus is on the nurse sitting in the taxi—a small, pitiful figure cradling her gift: Miss Wilmarth’s strange resemblance was not apparent, as she looked at her flowers. They were her flowers. A man had given them to her. She had been given flowers. They might not fade for days. And she could keep the box. (275)
On the surface, “Horsie” seems to satirize the egocentric and unfeeling Galatea while holding the long-suffering Old Maid up for sympathy and even pity. Parker’s satire, however, goes deeper. By using the Galatea and Old Maid stereotypes, the author criticizes the self-centeredness and callousness of the society that has created and sustained these two female roles.
Hazel Morse, the principal character in Parker’s short story, “Big Blonde,”differs from the stereotyped female characters already discussed in that she incorporates several stereotypes. Parker describes Hazel as “a large, fair woman of the type that incites some men when they use the word ‘blond’ to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly.” The only relatively small thing about Hazel is her feet, which she jams into “snub-toed, high-heeled slippers of the shortest bearable size.” Since there is no hope for her as an aspiring Galatea, Hazel takes another route toward her hoped-for acceptance by the American male. She becomes a “good sport”:
Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men liked a good sport.11
Terrified at the prospect of not being dainty and marriageable, and aware that the good sport role will ingratiate her with men, Hazel plays this role even though it is unnatural to her. She believes that others expect it of her, and she wants desperately to fulfill their expectations. She soon finds security in a circle of female friends, all of whom are “other substantially built blondes,” thus assuring that she will not have to face competition from petite, fragile beauties. Yet Hazel longs for marriage, and her fear of being an “old maid” increases with the years: She was delighted at the idea of being a bride; coquetted with it, played upon it . . . . She wanted to be married. She was nearing thirty now, and she did not take the years well. She spread and softened, and her darkening hair turned her to inexpert dabblings with peroxide. (188)
The “Big Blonde” is a grotesque version of the Galatea, blonde but bloated, simply too large for the sex goddess mold. At last, Hazel marries Herbie Morse, “thin, attractive, with shifting lines about his shiny, brown eyes and a habit of fiercely biting at the skin around his fingernails.” For the first time in years, she feels she can relax and stop worrying about being a social misfit. She drops the “good sport” role but adopts another stereotypical role, that of the tender and submissive wife: Wedded and relaxed, she poured her tears freely. To her who had laughed so much, crying was delicious. All sorrows became her sorrows; she was Tenderness. She would cry long and softly over newspaper accounts of kidnapped babies, deserted wives, unemployed men, strayed cats, heroic dogs. (189)
Herbie, however, does not like this change in his wife; he wants a “good sport,” not a “crybaby.” The marriage fails and Hazel, single again, reverts to the “good sport” role, the only role she knows. She joins a poker-playing group of drinkers, takes on a series of paunchy lovers, and frequents Jimmy’s, a meeting place for others like her: aging women, wrinkled and fat, no longer able to affect the role of the youthful, buxom woman: They were all big women and stout, broad of shoulder and abundantly breasted, with faces thickly clothed in soft, high-colored flesh. They laughed loud and often, showing opaque and lusterless teeth like squares of crockery. There was about them the health of the big, yet a slight, unwholesome suggestion of stubborn preservation. (198)
Although Hazel’s appearance brands her as somewhat ridiculous, the reader’s sympathy remains with her even when she gives up and attempts suicide. Here, as in all else, Hazel is doomed to failure. Parker’s description of the scene portrays the “Big Blonde” as grotesque yet quite pathetic: The bed covers were pushed down, exposing a deep square of soft neck and a pink nightgown, its fabric worn uneven by many launderings; her great breasts, freed from their tight confiner, sagged beneath her arm-pits. Now and then she made knotted, snoring sounds, and from the corner of her opened mouth to the blurred turn of her jaw ran a line of crusted spittle. (206)
The story of Hazel Morse is Dorothy Parker’s most bitter indictment of 1920’s-1930’s American society and the roles to which it expected women to conform. The “Big Blonde” is defeated before she has begun because there is no suitable role for her. Her attempts to fit into various stereotypical roles fail because each role is too limited and confining for a real human being. Hazel Morse is the victim of a society which has not provided her a reasonable place within it.
What, then, has Dorothy Parker accomplished by using stereotypes of women in her poems and short stories? First, by satirizing certain types, Parker can draw what seems to be playful attention to them while actually making a serious statement about her disenchantment with the roles forced on American women during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Parker’s satire obligates the reader to look beneath the surface of her sarcastic humor to the social criticism, criticism which should not be ignored.
Second, because Parker’s work is decidedly more feminist in its orientation than that of many other writers of the 1920’s and1930’s, Parker uses female stereotypes differently from many writers. For instance, her use of the Bitch and the Galatea stereotypes differs in an important way from Ernest Hemingway’s Bitches, such as Lady Brett Ashley and Mrs. Francis Macomber, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Galateas, such as Judy Jones and Daisy Buchanan. In Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s works, stereotypical women characters are not portrayed as women whose roles have been dictated by society but as women who have chosen their own roles. In contrast, Parker’s women characters are clearly products of their society’s limited visions of acceptable, “proper” female roles. Thus, Parker’s stories are a valuable addition to an accurate historical perspective on women’s roles and the effects of those roles during an important period in American literature.
Finally, Parker’s use of female stereotypes establishes her skills both as a writer and as a social critic. That she was awarded the 1929 O. Henry Prize for “Big Blonde” suggests that her work was receiving some serious attention during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. However, her residual fame has come to rest on her sarcastic quips rather than on her social criticism. A re-examination of Parker’s poems and short stories is in order. Perhaps this study will serve as a part of that re-examination.12
1. Dorothy Parker, “Résumé”, in The Portable Dorothy Parker (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 99.
2. Brendan Gill, introduction to The Portable Dorothy Parker, vii-xxii.
3. Dorothy Parker, “The Waltz,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 47-51. All references to “The Waltz” are to this edition.
4. Dorothy Parker, “Love Song,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 106.
5. Dorothy Parker, “A Telephone Call,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 119-124. All references to “A Telephone Call” are to this edition.
6. Dorothy Parker, “Observation,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 112.
7. Dorothy Parker, “Men,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 109.
8. Edmund Wilson, “A Toast and A Tear for Dorothy Parker,” New Yorker, 20 May 1944, 75-76.
9. Dorothy Parker, “The Wonderful Old Gentleman,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 52-64. All further references will be to this edition.
10. Dorothy Parker, “Horsie,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 260-275. All further references will be to this edition.
11. Dorothy Parker, “Big Blonde,” in The Portable Dorothy Parker, 187-210. All further references will be to this edition.
12. Besides this article, the only recent academic work on Parker is Emily Toth’s “Dorothy Parker, Erica Jong, and New Feminist Humor,” Regionalism and the Female Imagination 3, (1977-1978), 70-85.
Coda: A Look Back (2002)
I first encountered the works of Dorothy Parker in 1973, when I was a young graduate student at Iowa State University. I had enrolled in a course on satire, taught by Professor Leonard Feinberg; as I recall, Dorothy Parker was the only woman whose works we studied in that course. Effusive in his praise of Parker’s writing, Professor Feinberg encouraged me to write a short paper on satire in her works; and my interest in Parker’s short stories, poetry, and reviews continued after the course had concluded.
The following year, I chose Dorothy Parker as the subject of my master’s thesis, “The Tragic Grotesque: Dorothy Parker’s Women.” In my thesis, I drew on Norris Yates’s analysis of Dorothy Parker in The American Humorist; Yates identifies Parker’s general character type as “the self-absorbed female snob,” a species that Parker knew best “in its middle-class manifestation.”1 Parker’s purpose, as I identified it then, “becomes social satire of the hypocrisy and hauteur characterizing ‘ladies’ of the Twenties and Thirties.”2
Drawing on Yates’ and Feinberg’s analyses, I set out to explore two varieties of the female snob evident in Parker’s work: the ingenue and the sophisticate. Feinberg defines the ingenue as “a naive, well-meaning person who travels through the world without understanding the hypocrisy, duplicity, and exploitation which [she] observes” (239). Central to this definition of the ingenue is the satisfaction the reader achieves from feeling superior to this character and from “evading the censor by inferring what the satirist’s critical intention is.”3
Feinberg defines the second character type, the ironic sophisticate, as one who “shares with [the reader] the detached, disillusioned view of a ludicrous spectacle.”4 The reader laughs with the ironic sophisticate rather than at her; however, because the ironic sophisticate does not function as an ironic commentator on the action, the reader feels no sympathy for her. In adapting Feinberg’s definition of this character type to my analysis of Parker’s short stories, I noted, “Parker’s sophisticate, like her ingenue, is a figure for the reader’s derision, and Parker’s satire relies upon the reader’s feeling of superiority to both types. Although both the ingenue and the sophisticate may appear as ‘aggressive’ snobs, neither seems ‘pathetic’ because both are presented as selfish and hypocritical.”5
The ingenue figures in such Parker stories as “The Standard of Living” (1941), in which the author satirizes the lifestyle and attitudes of the young working girl who fancies herself a glamourous beauty. Two rather vacuous young women, Annabel and Midge, are at the center of this story; they are perceived as ludicrous by the already established glamour set. By the story’s conclusion, readers, too, are laughing – not only at the ingenues’ vanity but also at the value system that encourages them to cultivate this vanity.
Parker’s story, “The Custard Heart” (1939) portrays the sophisticated, unfeeling female snob, as embodied in the character of Mrs. Lanier, whose special sorrow is her inability to bear a child. Mrs. Lanier bears her sorrow through her manipulation of the young men who visit her drawing room and through her disdain for the plight of her pregnant and unmarried maid, Gwennie. I concluded my analysis by stating, “Just as Mrs. Lanier extends no sympathy to Gwennie, the reader lavishes no sympathy upon the sophisticate. Mrs. Lanier is mockable, despicable, but not pitiable. Parker’s satiric glimpse of the self-centered society matron sketches for the reader an outline of the empty values of the society in which Mrs. Lanier lives, values in large part responsible for the indifference which the lady shows to everything not directly associated with herself.”6
In the next section of my thesis, I turned my attention to an exploration of certain of Parker’s short stories that appear to pity rather than mock women character types. Drawing on Mark Van Doren’s characterization of the “tragic and grotesque” female in Dorothy Parker’s works,7 I focused on women characters who intrigued me far more than either the ingenue or the female snob. I referred to this more complex character type as the “tragic grotesque” – the “self-victimized and socially unacceptable woman.”8 By performing a detailed close reading of the text, combined with a feminist critical analysis, I explored Parker’s portrayals of Hazel Morse in “Big Blonde,” Nurse Wilmarth in “Horsie,” Allie Bain in “The Wonderful Old Gentleman,” and Mary Nicholl in “The Bolt Behind the Blue.”
My thesis concluded with my observations on what I viewed as Dorothy Parker’s contribution to American literature through her portrayal of the “tragic grotesque.” Although Parker did not refer to herself as a feminist satirist, her portrayals of American women of the 1920s and 1930s foreshadowed those of Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar (1963) and Alix Kates Shulman in Memories of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972). In both novels, the principal character is a young woman unable to play the “vacuous career-girl or the submissive wife-and-mother” (32). I outlined one essential difference between Dorothy Parker’s “tragic grotesque” and the women portrayed in these two novels, written three to four decades later: “Plath’s and Shulman’s characters reach a point where they will no longer ‘play the game’ and where they openly rebel against American role expectations (or, perhaps, against a lack of what they see as meaningful role expectation) for females.”9
Four years later, in 1978, while I was working on my doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my interest in Dorothy Parker’s works was revived when I was invited to participate in a MLA session focusing on women’s humor. Professor Emily Toth, who coordinated this MLA special session, was the only other scholar who I knew was studying Dorothy Parker’s work. Dr. Toth encouraged my research on Parker, eventually including my essay (based on my MLA paper and now reprinted above) in an issue of her journal, Regionalism and the Female Imagination, which was printed in offset and distributed by the University of Pennsylvania’s English Department. In 1994, my article on Dorothy Parker was reprinted in Linda A. Morris’s edited collection, American Women Humorists: Critical Essays.10
Thirty years have passed since my initial foray into the work (and world) of Dorothy Parker. Now, as then, I am convinced that Parker’s satiric commentary on the status of American women during the Twenties and Thirties not only establishes her skills as a short story writer and as a social critic; it adds significantly to a historical perspective on middle-class, white women’s roles during an era which offered few alternatives for women who did not (or who chose not to) fit into so-called “proper” female roles of the day. Interest in Dorothy Parker’s work has burgeoned since the early 1970s, when Emily Toth and I were doing what was then referred to as “spadework” feminist criticism; i.e., “digging up” the work of Parker and bringing it to the attention of a contemporary readership. Since I completed my doctorate in 1980, my research has turned toward an exploration of forms of women’s autobiography. I remain a Dorothy Parker fan and, whenever possible, I introduce her wry social commentary to my students. I am convinced that the critiques included in this collection will add much more nuance and complexity to our study of this fine American writer.
1. Norris W. Yates, The American Humorist (New York: The Citadel Press, 1965), 266.
2. Suzanne L. Bunkers, “The Tragic Grotesque”: Dorothy Parker’s Women (M.A. thesis, Iowa State University, 1974), 1.
3. Leonard Feinberg, Introduction to Satire (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1967), 239.
4. Feinberg, 239.
5. Bunkers, 2.
6. Bunkers, 5.
7. Mark Van Doren, “Dorothy Parker,” The English Journal 23.7 (September 1934): 535-43.
8. Bunkers, 7.
9. Bunkers, 32.
10. Linda A. Morris, ed., American Women Humorists: Critical Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994).