Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Harriette Simpson Arnow’s The Dollmaker is a story of the displacement of a Kentucky hill family by the promise of a better life in the industrial, World War II North. Upon learning that he will not be called up for immediate military service, Clovis Nevels decides, without consulting his wife, Gertie, to seek employment in Detroit. When he finds a job, Clovis sends for his family and settles them in Merrie Hill Alley, a ghetto of transplanted industrial workers and their families.

Arnow opens The Dollmaker by introducing the reader to Gertie, the work’s large, rawboned protagonist. In the opening section, Gertie Nevels is riding alone on a mule with only a baby held securely in her arms as a companion. This surreal scene soon assumes meaning when Gertie flags down a car occupied by an Army officer and his driver and forces them to take her and her child into town. The desperate nature of Gertie’s trip becomes apparent when Arnow discloses that Gertie’s child has typhoid and will surely die if medical attention is not soon forthcoming. The strength of Gertie’s convictions and the delicacy in her large hands is demonstrated when, with only a pocket knife, a hairpin, and a poplar twig at her disposal, she performs a tracheotomy on her infant son Amos as the car speeds toward town.

For the next eight chapters, Arnow paints a naturalistic portrait of the Kentucky mountain world into which Gertie has been thrust, a world of hardships and unrecognized dreams. One dream, however, keeps Gertie going: She wants to own a small piece of land to which she and her family can belong. She saves a few cents here and there toward the day that she will be able to buy the land. When her brother Henley is killed in the war, Gertie learns that he has left her nearly three hundred dollars of his “cattle money.” With her newfound wealth, Gertie moves toward making her dream a reality. She buys a piece of land known as the Tipton place from her uncle and begins making her new purchase conform to her expectations.

Gertie’s dream is thwarted and the degree of the actual control she has over her life becomes clear, however, when Clovis sends word that he wants Gertie and his children to join him in Detroit. Instead of supporting Gertie in her quest for a personal identity, Gertie’s mother and uncle insist that she take back the money she gave her uncle for the farm and use it for the move to Detroit. Receiving no encouragement, except for...

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The Dollmaker Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Dollmaker made both a popular and critical splash when it appeared in 1954. The reading public rushed to read of the struggles of Gertie Nevels, and the critical establishment placed its stamp of approval on the novel when it came in second to William Faulkner’s A Fable for the 1955 National Book Award. The Dollmaker differs from other American migration novels, such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and James Still’s River of Earth (1940), by centering its plot and theme upon how such a forced move affected a woman.

Arnow’s intention is to show the second-class status in which many American women found themselves during the first half of the twentieth century. By drawing specific attention to the trials and tribulations of Gertie Nevels, Arnow intensifies her message regarding the greater scope of the work. She depicts a family which belittles the needs and dreams of a female member, much as society as a whole belittled the needs and dreams of the working class.

Arnow’s novel enters the canon of women’s literature alongside other works that show the indifference of society to its population as a whole through the treatment of women. One can discern parallels between The Dollmaker and Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills: Or, The Korl Woman (1861), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) because they all depict the secondary roles that women’s dreams often play in society.

The Dollmaker Literary Techniques

Arnow skillfully organizes Gertie's story around a major symbol, the large block of cherry-wood which she carves during moments of intense...

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The Dollmaker Social Concerns

Harriette Arnow's finest and best-known novel is The Dollmaker (1954), the third volume in a trilogy which, covering the years between...

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The Dollmaker Literary Precedents

The Dollmaker is a unique work of art that can best be appreciated if approached on its own terms, even if it presents affinities with...

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The Dollmaker Related Titles

The first two volumes of Arnow's trilogy about southern hill people are Mountain Path (1936) and Hunter's Horn (1949), both set...

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The Dollmaker Adaptations

As soon as Jane Fonda read The Dollmaker in 1971, she envisioned transforming the novel into a film with herself as Gertie Nevels. In...

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The Dollmaker Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Baer, Barbara L. “Harriette Arnow’s Chronicles of Destruction.” The Nation 222 (January 31, 1976): 117-120. Baer shows how Arnow’s The Dollmaker is an intricate part of what is considered her “Kentucky trilogy.” Argues that although The Dollmaker can be read from the feminist view, it is an excellent example of a work which documents the initiation of American society into the modern, industrial age.

Chung, Haeja K., ed. Harriet Simpson Arnow: Critical Essays on Her Work. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995. An excellent volume with which to begin a detailed study of Arnow’s life and...

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