Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces An Unfinished Woman Analysis

The first two chapters of An Unfinished Woman describe the first seventeen years of Hellman’s life. They convey a wonderful sense of her years in New Orleans and New York. An only child who was spoiled by her parents and who experienced wildly divided feelings about her mother’s rich relatives (the Newhouses) and her father’s poor ones, Hellman swings from absolute identification with her handsome lady-killing father, Max Hellman, a charming salesman, to fascination with her mother’s powerful, ruthless kin. Julia Newhouse Hellman is presented as a rather weak figure, taken care of by her husband’s two sisters, Hannah and Jenny, who are deeply devoted to her husband.

Hellman is especially good at dramatizing the intensely private, egocentric world of an only child. She speaks lovingly of her retreat to her favorite tree, where she would spend many hours reading, sometimes skipping school, and living in the world of her imagination. It is from her cherished fig tree that Hellman throws herself when she learns of her father’s infidelity. She catches a glimpse of him out on the town with his girlfriend, one of the boarders in the house run by Hannah and Jenny. In a murderous mood, Hellman impulsively inflicts punishment on herself rather than on her father and his lover. She breaks her nose in the fall from the fig tree and goes to her beloved black nurse, Sophronia, for comfort. Sophronia admonishes her never to talk about what she has seen, never to go around making “bad trouble” for others.

This early scene in An Unfinished Woman sets the tone for all Hellman’s memoirs. The fig tree has been her source of comfort. She describes it as a kind of Eden of her own making, with the tree’s limbs almost literally embracing her. When she falls from the tree, she is shattering her paradise and entering the world of sin and corruption. Her broken nose is her badge of courage; it leads to the lesson that she should never betray a confidence, never violate a friendship. She learns, at a very early age, what it means to have a conscience and to act in accord with it. The fig tree scene also expresses Hellman’s great anger. Throughout her life she will lash out at others and at herself when she is displeased. Hammett will replace her father as her unfaithful hero. Like her father, Hammett will teach her much—about politics, about integrity, and about writing. She will remain loyal to his memory even as she rails against him for turning to other women.

Chapters 3 through 6 briskly cover Hellman’s early career: a marriage to Arthur Kober (writer and publicity agent), various odd jobs working for New York and Hollywood producers and publishers, fitful attempts to write fiction, and travel to Europe. Hellman presents herself as an intelligent, rebellious woman who has not yet developed the talent to write. Not until she meets Dashiell Hammett in Hollywood in 1930 does she begin to submit to the discipline of a creative mind. She lives with Hammett, watches him write, listens to his stories about being a Pinkerton detective, and follows his advice on adapting a historical event to the stage. The resulting play, The Children’s Hour (1934), is a huge success on Broadway and leads to a lucrative screenwriting contract with Samuel Goldwyn.

Hellman portrays her years in the 1930’s as energetic, creative, and dissolute. Drinking for both her and Hammett was an enormous problem but also part of the glamour of the times. Striking vignettes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway suggest the milieus in which she traveled as a major figure in the...

(The entire section is 1481 words.)