Themes and Meanings
As stated earlier, The Dollmaker is a damning but onesided critique of the American industrial order (depicted in the novel as a vast, perverted system based on the machine), a monstrosity that consumes human beings by the millions. People must fit themselves to serve the machine, living within its inhuman environs and serving at the times of its bidding; what is extraneous to this purpose, such as aesthetic and spiritual values, must be stripped away. What is stripped away can then be replaced with commercial values, which create artificial needs for those shoddy, expensive products of the machine. The industrial order thus becomes a mindless parody of its utilitarian beginnings (presumably, it was created to serve human needs); even worse, it becomes a paradigm for political and social order: Little children are told in school to “adjust” to the American way, and the family is structured after a factory model. This erosion of American values—artistic, religious, familial, and democratic—benefits only a few people who live at the top of the pyramid: those who live (and the name is significant) in Grosse Pointe.
This “death” society, as D. H. Lawrence termed it, especially suffers in comparison with the older, Jeffersonian version of America which the Nevelses leave behind in Appalachian Kentucky. In the Cumberlands, the Nevelses, though mere tenant farmers, have plenty to eat and the freedom of the mountains. They “belong” to a culture and a community in a much different way than they do in Detroit. The structure of The Dollmaker relentlessly drives home the contrast, with the earlier chapters establishing the Appalachian ethos and later chapters recalling it through Gertie’s reveries. Autumn on the land is contrasted to autumn in Detroit with a strike on and winter coming on. Most powerfully, the Appalachian ethos is embodied in Gertie’s perspective, where the critique of American society becomes not an abstract theme but a personal cry from the heart.