Lost love, love’s fleetingness, heartache, and disappointment, are Parker’s central themes. Romantic clichés, attitudes, and language are satirically attacked as relationships are exposed as self-serving, pretentious, hypocritical, and founded on miscommunication and people’s mistaken perceptions of one another. Society’s rules and codes are also ironically critiqued as enforcing these hypocrisies and misperceptions and causing alienation. As critic Arthur Kinney puts it, Parker’s women are “self-absorbed snobs, her men philanderers, scoundrels, or subservient husbands.” Injustice, insensitivity, and hollowness—whether in the rich upper class (as in “Arrangement in Black and White”) or in demanding, fickle male lovers who abandon or ignore the women grown dependent on them (as in “Mr. Durant”)—often form the emotional center of the story or poem as it affects the oppressed or rejected woman protagonist. Parker’s sympathies always lie with the outcast figures, those who are marginalized because of gender, race, or class. These same figures, however, are sometimes ironized and satirized as delusional, self-absorbed, and responsible for creating their own problems.
Often the wit, humor, and ludicrousness of a given protagonist or speaker or situation masks an underlying despair, loneliness, isolation, and lack of communication. Sometimes Parker openly uses modernist devices to explore these themes—fragmentation, alienation, divided selves, or inner monologues. Sometimes she twists or parodies a romantic convention or form to undercut it ironically. The debate between the inner and outer voice, private and social identity, fun party girl or “dizzy” dame and the melancholy loner mirrors the breakdown and disintegration of the Jazz Age culture: the “boozing,” sexually liberated flapper on one side of the coin, and the abandoned, discarded housewife or aging lover on the other. The powerful and rich continue their insensitivity to the oppression of such women, or those people of color or of the underclass—and society not only condones but enforces it.
Parker’s poems and stories are marked by their characters’ speech. As Parker once explained to Marion Capron in a 1956 interview for The Paris Review, her stories told themselves “through what people say.” She continued: “I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things.” In her poems the speaker normally sets up a meditative, romantic tone of voice, extremely conventional or cliché, often with highbrow diction, which sets up a parallel pattern of a list of characteristics or items. Then, as a joke in a punch line or an epigram from classical Latin authors, the end stanza will have a twist, a line that will reverse all expectations, drastically alter the tone, often associated with a popular saying, lowbrow diction, or a slangy expression, and thus reveal a second tone of voice antithetical to the first.
Sometimes, as with “One Perfect Rose,” the line is actually a repetition seen in a new context; other times, it will simply be a drastic reversal of tone and reader expectations, as in “Resumé.” The images enumerated usually seem secondary to what the speaker says and how she says it.
In Parker’s fiction, there is often a reliance on dialogue rather than plot, usually the conversation of lovers or a young pair who are miscommunicating (as in “Here We Are”), or else an interior monologue of a distraught or despairing woman agonizing over her romance, failed or failing. Characters are usually types or stereotypes (rich, pretentious socialites, young naïve couples, abandoned lovers), and the sketches depend on a tiny slice of time and a key moment of unraveling. The end of the story normally involves a repetition of an image, line, or scene which suggests a closing of the vicious circle in which the protagonist is trapped, or else an extension or continuation of the same private hell in which the character has already resided. For example, the nameless protagonist in “The Waltz,” after suffering through a dance with a clumsy partner, agrees to another dance with the same man.
In such monologue stories (of which there are many, including Parker’s famous work “A Telephone Call”), there is scarcely any description or setting, and the split between the public, social voice and persona dependent on approval (especially male approval) and the private, personal voice and persona that yearns for independence and escape is the source of the ironic discrepancy and humor. In other stories written from the third-person omniscient perspective, such as “Big Blonde,” the narration is detached, cool, and ironic toward the situations and the...
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