The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 722 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Gertie Nevels

Gertie Nevels, the dollmaker, a wood-carver and a strong, resilient woman from the mountains of Kentucky. Gertie stashes any extra money she has in the hem of her coat, and with these savings she dreams of buying a farm. When her husband, Clovis, finds work in Detroit and sends for the family, she tries to buy a farm, but the purchase is prevented by her mother, who believes that Gertie’s place is with her husband. Her mountain nature is at odds with the city, but her resourcefulness helps pay the bills when Clovis is laid off and later, after Clovis is forced to hide from the police after killing a man in a labor dispute. With Clovis’ help, she mass-produces wooden toys and other wood carvings, which her children hawk on the street. When her daughter Cassie is killed by a train, Gertie uses her savings to bury the child. Her final surrender occurs when a large order for wooden toys arrives. Unable to buy wood, she splits the large block of cherry wood brought from Kentucky on which she had been carving a bust of Christ.

Clovis Nevels

Clovis Nevels, Gertie’s husband, possibly as gifted with machines as Gertie is with wood. Clovis, although well intentioned, does not provide well for his family. His unhappiness with the mountain life leads him to Detroit, where he finds work, then sends for his family. Through his extravagance, the family goes deeply into debt, and when he is laid off, the burden of providing for the family shifts to Gertie’s shoulders. During a labor dispute, Clovis is beaten by a thug, whom he later kills. Because he is forced to hide from the police and therefore is...

(The entire section is 677 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An important attribute of Arnow's fiction is the strength of her women characters, the most impressive of whom is Gertie Nevels, protagonist...

(The entire section is 342 words.)