Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Dorothy Parker’s style is direct, lively, and fast-paced. The third-person narration holds the characters at a distance: Mrs. Morse is an admonitory example, and while readers of the story may pity her, they are not invited to identify with her.
Dialogue is natural, quick, and immediate, though used sparingly. Much of the story is given to exposition, in the historical past, again enforcing a certain detachment. Parker offers few if any closeups of love scenes or hate scenes, or highly dramatic moments. Although the circumstances of the protagonist change, she does not undergo significant development; that is not the author’s intention. Rather, Parker anatomizes a character type.
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In 1920 the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed, giving women the right to vote for the first time. This legal change for the most part ended the first wave of American feminism, which was based on the long, politically organized struggle for Suffrage. It ushered in a decade that brought about many more subtle changes in cultural attitudes relating to sex and gender. Having gained the legal landmark of the right to vote, women became less politically oriented and made more changes in the social arena. They demanded that the Victorian strictures of dress and behavior of their mothers’ generation be loosened. Men and women mixed freely socially, and sexual banter and premarital sex became far more tolerated. Women drank, smoked, and drove. They entered the workforce in greater numbers than ever before, with a smaller proportion of these working in traditional domestic jobs. The 1920s are sometimes considered an era dominated by women, as men returned from World War I bitter and disillusioned, while the image of women was young, flamboyant, energetic, and hopeful.
Beauty and Femininity in the 1920s
An indication of these changes in women’s status was the new standard of beauty and fashion of the 1920s. In the 1910s the ‘‘Gibson Girl’’ represented the feminine ideal. She had long hair and a voluptuous hourglass figure. She wore floor length skirts and had the demure, wholesome, modest manner...
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‘‘Big Blonde’’ is set in New York City during the 1920s. The story reflects certain conflicts in this moment in cultural history, particularly those concerning sex roles and sexual mores. The 1920s were an era of growing legal rights for women and loosening strictures against sexuality. The story examines, however, how these changes may not benefit a woman who thinks of her identity and her self-worth in terms of fulfilling men’s desires. Relaxed social strictures against divorce, drinking, socializing, and sex lead to Mrs. Morse’s entrapment and despair rather than her liberation. The story does not include very much concrete or detailed description of physical settings, contributing to an atmosphere of haziness, malaise, and passivity that stands in contrast to the idea of 1920s New York as vital and stimulating. Though the world in which she lives is the dynamic one of the ‘‘roaring twenties,’’ composed of poker games and nights out on the town, Mrs. Morse remains inert.
The story is told through omniscient third person narration. This means that a narrator who is not a character in the story describes Mrs. Morse’s life, and that this narrator has access to her inner thoughts and feelings. This form of narration is critical to the story, since how Mrs. Morse appears to those around her is so very different from how the omniscient narrator shows her to be internally. Through this gap or...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: Forty-seven percent of American college students are female, signaling gender parity in higher education for the first time. Eight million American women are employed, a far higher number than ever before. Of these, 1.9 million are married. Architects design middle-class houses for families who use modern appliances instead of servants. Thirty percent of bread is baked at home, down from 70% at the turn of the century. 1990s: Most working- and middle-class families need two incomes to meet their costs, and the majority of women are employed. Women are prominent in most professions. In 1990, however, women make only 67 cents for every dollar earned by a man in an equivalent position, up from 59 cents in the 1970s. Studies show that even women who work full-time spend signifi- cantly more time on housework and childcare than do their husbands.
1920s: Sigmund Freud’s psychological theories— drawing heavily upon early childhood sex roles and sexual desire—are in vogue among sophisticated urbanites, and his method of therapy, called psychoanalysis or the ‘‘talking cure,’’ is the preferred treatment for depression. Depression is far more common among women than men. 1990s: Freud’s theories have been largely discredited. Psycho-pharmaceuticals, based on brain chemistry, are the new wave in the treatment of depression and other psychological disorders. Far more people than ever before are diagnosed and treated. Approximately...
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Topics for Further Study
None of the characters in the story seems to understand why Mrs. Morse is so sad. Contemporary psychology and medicine might explain her sadness as related to the diseases of alcoholism and depression. Learn as much as you can about the causes and symptoms of alcoholism or depression and then try to apply this knowledge to the story. Does thinking of her as having an illness help you to understand Mrs. Morse better?
Another approach to the question of why Mrs. Morse is so sad is to consider the relationships between men and women in the story. List some ways that Mrs. Morse is powerful and some ways that the different men in the story are powerful. What can you conclude about the power dynamic between the sexes as Parker describes it? Does this help you better understand Mrs. Morse’s despair?
As the story’s title makes clear, Mrs. Morse is defined in terms of her physical appearance. What are some of the personal and social qualities attributed to a ‘‘big blonde’’ in the story? Does this role or type still exist today? If not, what are some other labels used to define people in terms of their appearance? Can you draw some general conclusions about how ideas of physical attractiveness are used to categorize people?
Research the social roles of women in the 1920s. How are they similar to those for today’s women? How are they different? Do you think that women like Mrs. Morse still exist today? How much of Mrs. Morse’s...
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What Do I Read Next?
The Complete Stories (1995) edited by Breese, Breese, and Berecca, compiles all of Dorothy Parker’s narrative writings, including classics such as ‘‘Big Blonde’’ and many little-known stories.
Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker (1996), a new collection edited by Stuart Silverstein, offers readers access to Parker’s previously unpublished poetry, which takes up themes of femininity, sexuality, and depression.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), a novel by Anita Loos, is better known in its form as a film adaptation of the same name starring Marilyn Monroe. Loos was a contemporary of Parker’s and in this novel takes up similar questions of ‘‘the blonde’’ as an icon of female sexuality, but with a more comic approach.
The Company She Keeps (1942), the first novel by Mary McCarthy, is a frank, loosely autobiographical account of a young, modern woman struggling with love, sex, and politics as she flaunts convention in the New York of the 1920s and 30s.
The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, explores the freedoms and failures of a modern marriage of the 1920s, illustrating how changing social mores and gender relations affect a hard-drinking, upper-class young couple.
Portrait of a Lady (1881), a classic by Henry James, portrays the devastating effects of one headstrong young woman’s...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Douglas, George H. Women of the Twenties. Dallas, TX: Saybrook, 1986.
Maugham, W. Somerset. ‘‘Variations on a Theme,’’ in Dorothy Parker, Viking Press, 1944, pp. 11-18.
McKenney, Ruth. ‘‘Satire and Tragedy,’’ in The Saturday Review of Books, Vol. 20, No. 1, April 29, 1939, p. 7.
Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?, New York: Villard Books, 1988.
Gaines, James R. Wit’s End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. An approachable glimpse into Parker’s immediate social milieu, this well-illustrated history covers biographical information about the various colorful figures in Parker’s set, as well as offering some basic cultural and historical context.
Horn, Pamela. Women in the 1920s, Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: A. Sutton, 1995. A social history of women in the rapidly changing cultural climate of the ‘‘roaring twenties,’’ this study fleshes out what life was like for women of different classes, races, and regions during the era with which Parker is most closely associated.
Nolan-Hoeksema, Susan. Sex Differences in Depression, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990. A psychological study presenting evidence that women are twice as likely as men to experience clinical depression, and offering...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Calhoun, Randall. Dorothy Parker: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Gill, Brendan. Introduction to The Portable Dorothy Parker, by Dorothy Parker. New York: Viking Press, 1973.
Kinney, Arthur. Dorothy Parker. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Meade, Marion. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? New York: Villard Books, 1988.
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