The Dollmaker is a woman’s story, expressing a feminist outlook in the days before feminism, with Gertie as the prototypical feminist heroine. Her heroic credentials are established in dramatic fashion in the very first chapter, where, riding her prancing mule, Gertie waylays a military car to take her choking baby to a doctor. The officer protests and threatens to draw his revolver, but he faints away when Gertie draws her knife and performs a little surgery on Amos’s throat, letting out the pus. Gertie continues to show the same indomitable spirit throughout the novel, yet she is also a victim in a man’s world, particularly of the notions that a wife must quietly obey and must sacrifice her dreams for her husband’s.
Using a limited omniscient point of view, Harriette Arnow tells the story from Gertie’s perspective. Drawn into this perspective, the reader is encouraged to identify with Gertie and to share her opinions. The point of view allows a close study of Gertie and gives the novel a powerful emotional unity, but it might also be the novel’s main flaw. Gertie and her observations dominate the story: The cards seem stacked against Clovis, Detroit, the military-industrial complex, and established religion.
Clovis is depicted as Gertie’s foil, a well-meaning but basically no-account man: He cannot do anything right. Mechanically inclined rather than a farmer, he lets Gertie and the children struggle with the farm work in Kentucky while he occupies himself with what Gertie calls “tinkering.” She cannot tell him about the money she has saved, or he would spend it on his truck. On top of this, he is a petty complainer, complaining about the food that she puts on the table and about almost everything else that she...
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