Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Lillian Hellman was sixty-four years old when An Unfinished Woman was published. She had had twelve plays produced and published, most of which had been highly successful. The plays had long runs on Broadway, and Hellman was viewed as one of the most important American dramatists. Her last play, however, had been a failure, and she was inclined to think that her playwriting career was over. She had also been a very successful screenwriter in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but that career had been suspended when she was blacklisted in the 1950’s. In addition, her last screenplay, written in the early 1960’s, had not been well received.

As she turned to teaching college classes, Hellman began to think of writing nonfiction. She was not attracted to the form of autobiography, having no wish—as she says in An Unfinished Woman—to be the “bookkeeper” of her life. She did not have the memory or the interest to chronicle her existence from its beginning—but the memoir form was appealing. She could concentrate on the dramatic incidents of her life and narrate her experiences in story form. Early in her career she had tried writing novels and short stories, without success. Memoir writing provided a fresh approach to the narrative prose she had always wanted to write.

Because of her public prominence as a playwright and her participation in politics, Hellman had written a significant amount of journalism. Her first thought...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

An Unfinished Woman is a memoir, not an autobiography. In Hellman’s case, the distinction is important because she is not claiming to present an orderly, elaborated, and chronological account of her life. Instead, she is remembering those events that shaped her character; sometimes they are presented in chronological fashion, but just as often she is apt to skip ahead in time or shift backward to a number of different incidents in her past. She does include a number of the elements of a traditional autobiography—including a description of her family background and history—but she refuses to be consistent. Parts of An Unfinished Woman are interrupted by extracts from diaries she kept many years before she began to compose her memoir, so that the book is not even a consistent narrative; on the contrary, it insists on the disjointed aspects of Hellman’s life.

Although the title of Hellman’s work mentions her sex, her memoir is not an overtly feminist work. She does not dwell on her character as a woman per se, although she certainly gives evidence of what it is like to be a woman in professions (playwriting and screenwriting) dominated by male producers and corporation executives. In her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, she dramatizes (without much comment) the problematic nature of loving a man who encourages her work but who also is unfaithful to her and is unwilling, at times, to treat her as an equal.

The title emphasizes incompleteness and fragmentation and makes a virtue of it. To Hellman, it seems more honest to have gaps—to leap, for example, from Russia in 1944 to Russia in 1966. That is how memory works. The grain, the feel of experience recalled is...

(The entire section is 699 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Hellman’s first two volumes of memoirs, An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, were an enormous success, garnering for her the best reviews of her life. She became a cult figure lionized by young people, especially women, who saw in her a role model who had held her own in a man’s world while remaining feminine. There was criticism of her long-term relationship with Hammett—some women viewed Hellman as the subordinate partner—but on the whole she was praised for confronting the temper of her times with magnificent courage and candor.

Hellman’s life and work represent a challenge and an inspiration to women’s studies. On the one hand, she was a product of her time—especially of the 1930’s—when her works reflected the need of many writers to take part in some form of political engagement. She chose to pursue the hard-boiled creed of her mentor, Dashiell Hammett, never excusing or rationalizing her actions. On the other hand, her memoirs and plays provide ample criticism not merely of male chauvinism but also of her characters and of herself. She knew that she was “unfinished” and that many of her actions were contradictory. The very terms she used—such as “pentimento”—suggest that she recognized that human identity entailed constant revision and remaking—like the artist’s repenting, or changing and painting over, of his or her work. This dynamic process of self-creation is what accounted for the tremendous...

(The entire section is 465 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Gellhorn, Martha. “On Apocryphism.” Paris Review 23 (Spring, 1981): 280-301. An influential, highly critical view of An Unfinished Woman that contests the book’s veracity.

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A sound introductory study that includes a chapter on Hellman’s biography, discussions of her major plays and memoirs, notes, a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Contains a searching and highly critical discussion of Hellman’s memoirs.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. A full-length biography concentrating on Hellman’s life. Wright is less concerned with her plays and memoirs than with her politics, which he treats in a fairly objective manner. Includes notes, and an index.