Arnow’s intention in The Dollmaker is to show how an individual’s dreams and aspirations can be ignored and how those of a woman often take a backseat to the wishes of her husband. The realism of Arnow’s work is built upon a series of motifs, the most dominant of which are the quest and the Earth Mother. Such recurring concepts provide the novel’s artistic and structural foundation.
In the classical sense, Gertie Nevels’ story is the story of a quest—in her case, the quest for an identity. To be herself, Gertie knows that she must have an identity other than that of the wife of Clovis Nevels or the mother of Reuben and Cassie Nevels. All of Gertie’s life is spent in this quest. By scrimping and saving every spare cent that comes her way, Gertie takes the first step toward achieving an identity—owning a piece of land to call her own. When she receives money upon the death of her brother, Gertie’s dream is at hand. The time that she spends readying the Tipton place for habitation is the first real example of Gertie’s ability to create a world of her own. As is the case in classical quest stories, however, obstacles are thrown in Gertie’s way. Gertie’s husband accepts a job in a factory in Detroit and demands that his family join him, negating Gertie’s dreams. Her mother and uncle stand staunchly against her and demand that she give in to the wishes of her husband.
Arnow complicates Gertie’s underlying quest by having her serve as an Earth Mother figure with a need to create. As with her ownership of the land, Gertie’s need to create is thwarted by social conditions and demands. The act of wood carving that gives Gertie so many hours of pleasure and hope is transformed into an impersonal, mass-production of ornaments and tidbits to be bartered and sold to supplement Clovis’ meager salary. The soul is taken out of Gertie’s work, much as it is from her, a reality that Arnow illustrates when Gertie destroys the cherry wood.