Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1481
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 theater. While Hellman earned enormous amounts of money, she spent most of it and implies that her life lacked stability until she purchased a farm in Westchester County, New York, with the profits from her play The Little Foxes (1939).
The center of the memoir, chapters 8 through 14, contains Hellman’s memories and diary entries from trips to Spain (1937), the Soviet Union (1937, 1944, and 1967), and Eastern Europe (1967). Although she does not provide much historical background, Hellman suggests that she was part of a generation of writers who were staunchly anti-Fascist and pro-Soviet. It seemed in the early 1930’s that the Soviet Union was building a new, more democratic world. Hellman went to Spain because she hoped it would be the place where Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would be halted in their drive to dominate Europe. She makes no great claims for herself as a political thinker, but she does excuse her naivete by evoking the sense of solidarity everyone who visited Spain felt. Here writers, workers, people from all walks of life and from all parts of Europe and the United States had come to fight for the Spanish republic, which had been invaded by Francisco Franco’s Fascist-backed forces.
Hellman was in Spain for only a few weeks. Her diary entries are an effective way of presenting how difficult it was for her to grasp the meaning of events, to make sense of the conflicting arguments she heard. Hellman knows she could not be much more than a tourist at a war and that, next to the suffering Spanish people, her own preoccupations are silly and out of place. Her diary entries reveal her efforts to understand her motivations and to rid herself of cant:Last night I packed a jewelry case—what a ridiculous thing to have brought to Spain. . . . I have twice put off my departure: each day I tell myself that I will stay until the war is over and be of some use, but at night, when I don’t feel well, dizzy and weak, I want very much to leave.
In the Soviet Union, Hellman was lionized as a great figure of the theater. She admits that she was blind to much that was happening—for example, Stalin’s purges of Communist Party members in the so-called show trials were taking place during her first trip there. Her excuse is that the diplomats in the American embassy were so biased against the Soviet Union, so mean-spirited in their observations about Russian life, that she could not believe them.
Hellman’s 1967 trip to the Soviet Union is presented as her opportunity to reflect on the wartime years when she was a guest in the American embassy. She has a reunion with her translator, who took her to the front in 1944. She hears stories about Stalin’s evil but still cannot quite fathom what has happened to Soviet society. The shabbiness of Moscow in the late 1960’s bothers her, and it is clear that she misses the camaraderie she experienced during the war. In 1979, in the collected edition of her memoirs, Hellman added an italicized section on her attitude toward Stalinism and took the issue up at greater length in Scoundrel Time (1976).
An Unfinished Woman closes strongly, with three powerful portraits. Their strength derives from the fact that Hellman has only to deal with her personal attitudes toward these people she knew quite well. In contrast to the sections on Spain and the Soviet Union, the chapter on Dorothy Parker is full of wonderfully concrete metaphors that summarize Hellman’s reading of human character. Parker “was, more than usual, a tangled fishnet of contradictions: she liked the rich because she liked the way they looked, their clothes, the things in their houses, and she disliked them with an open and baiting contempt.” Parker was a socialist who could not abide “the sight of a working radical”; her sense of style, in other words, attracted her to the people she opposed on principle while it repelled her from the people she was supposed to support. Similarly, Helen Jackson, a black woman, reminds her of Sophronia, who had a very human, very contradictory nature, including a “real-pretend love for white people.”
Hellman’s paradoxical uses of words, her reliance on hyphenated expressions, is a stylistic trait suggestive of her belief that human character is something less than complete and often conflicted. Hammett is the epitome of the conflicted human character—the “sinner-saint” Hellman simultaneously adores and condemns. No man treated her affection with less loyalty (Hammett always had other women in his life), but no man was more devoted to her writing (he insisted that she write the very best she could and kept sending her back to write draft after draft of her plays until they were right).
It is clear from An Unfinished Woman that neither her life nor her career gave Lillian Hellman a sense of completeness. She ends her memoir lamenting the fact that she never made sense of her experiences. The last word of her memoir is “however,” an ambiguous ending that implies that more could be said. Thus, An Unfinished Woman, true to itself, ends with an unfinished thought.
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