An Unfinished Woman

by Lillian Hellman
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Masterpieces of Women's Literature An Unfinished Woman Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640

Hellman’s choice to write a memoir rather than an autobiography affects not only the way she presents her politics but also the way she views her writing career. Several reviewers of An Unfinished Woman noted that she said relatively little about her career as a distinguished playwright. What had it meant to write both screenplays and dramas? What were the influences on her writing? These questions are addressed obliquely. She meets Ernest Hemingway in Spain and writes about his hard-boiled personality, but it is not clear whether she recognizes that his style has influenced hers. Similarly, she tells amusing anecdotes about her period in Hollywood and vividly re-creates the flavor of her stay there, but it is not clear what it meant to her to be a screenwriter or how she viewed the extraordinary privilege Samuel Goldwyn gave her of working alone at a time when almost no writer was given the sole responsibility of developing a screenplay. In other areas of her life, Hellman is equally reticent. She mentions her psychiatrist, Gregory Zilboorg, for example, but the reader learns very little about him, why she turned to him, or what place psychoanalysis held in her life.

Hellman is candid and penetrating, however, on the subject of her own irritability. She presents herself as a willful, spoiled only child and realizes that her upbringing gave her tremendous strength but also blinded her, in certain respects, so that she acted before she had thought out her reasons for doing so. She also tends to be dismissive of people she does not like or positions she does not hold. One of her favorite expressions is “to hell with that.” It is no wonder, then, that her literary and political likes and dislikes are the stuff of melodrama but rarely the material for a probing intellectual and emotional self-examination.

An Unfinished Woman concludes very strongly because it deals with Dorothy Parker, Helen, and Dashiell Hammett—the people Hellman loved. The form of the reminiscence—short and tightly controlled—is her forte. Hellman emphasizes that she and Parker were of a different generation, had different kinds of wit, did not like each other on first meeting, and struck up an improbable friendship that lasted to the day of Parker’s death. They tended to avoid certain subjects—such as their writing—and did not like each other’s male companions. Yet they never had a fight, and Hellman treasured Parker as much for her faults as for her virtues. They wanted to amuse each other and evidently did not feel that they were in competition. As they grew older, the friendship became tenuous. Parker continued to drink heavily, and Hellman felt estranged from her friend at such times.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Helen presented in An Unfinished Woman is her ability to handle certain situations better than her employer could. An incident in Hellman’s home with a peculiarly excited young black man proves to Hellman that she does not even glimpse what is immediately apparent to Helen—that the boy is on drugs. Rather than enlisting Hellman’s help, Helen banishes her from the room and deals swiftly and authoritatively with what otherwise might have been an ugly incident. It is one of those moments when Hellman, without saying so, realizes she is out of her depth. In relationships with people she loves, she is able to see her limitations clearly.

The portrait of Hammett that pervades An Unfinished Woman is of Hellman’s male counterpart. He is fierce and uncompromising, loyal to the Communist Party, for all of its faults, because it represents the future to him—a political ideal that will survive the imperfections of its instrument. Although he was a celebrated writer and had many friends, he is presented as a loner, a quintessential American individualist.

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Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces An Unfinished Woman Analysis


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