Dorothy Parker American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1926

Lost love, love’s fleetingness, heartache, and disappointment, are Parker’s central themes. Romantic clichés, attitudes, and language are satirically attacked as relationships are exposed as self-serving, pretentious, hypocritical, and founded on miscommunication and people’s mistaken perceptions of one another. Society’s rules and codes are also ironically critiqued as enforcing these hypocrisies...

(The entire section contains 1926 words.)

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Lost love, love’s fleetingness, heartache, and disappointment, are Parker’s central themes. Romantic clichés, attitudes, and language are satirically attacked as relationships are exposed as self-serving, pretentious, hypocritical, and founded on miscommunication and people’s mistaken perceptions of one another. Society’s rules and codes are also ironically critiqued as enforcing these hypocrisies and misperceptions and causing alienation. As critic Arthur Kinney puts it, Parker’s women are “self-absorbed snobs, her men philanderers, scoundrels, or subservient husbands.” Injustice, insensitivity, and hollowness—whether in the rich upper class (as in “Arrangement in Black and White”) or in demanding, fickle male lovers who abandon or ignore the women grown dependent on them (as in “Mr. Durant”)—often form the emotional center of the story or poem as it affects the oppressed or rejected woman protagonist. Parker’s sympathies always lie with the outcast figures, those who are marginalized because of gender, race, or class. These same figures, however, are sometimes ironized and satirized as delusional, self-absorbed, and responsible for creating their own problems.

Often the wit, humor, and ludicrousness of a given protagonist or speaker or situation masks an underlying despair, loneliness, isolation, and lack of communication. Sometimes Parker openly uses modernist devices to explore these themes—fragmentation, alienation, divided selves, or inner monologues. Sometimes she twists or parodies a romantic convention or form to undercut it ironically. The debate between the inner and outer voice, private and social identity, fun party girl or “dizzy” dame and the melancholy loner mirrors the breakdown and disintegration of the Jazz Age culture: the “boozing,” sexually liberated flapper on one side of the coin, and the abandoned, discarded housewife or aging lover on the other. The powerful and rich continue their insensitivity to the oppression of such women, or those people of color or of the underclass—and society not only condones but enforces it.

Parker’s poems and stories are marked by their characters’ speech. As Parker once explained to Marion Capron in a 1956 interview for The Paris Review, her stories told themselves “through what people say.” She continued: “I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things.” In her poems the speaker normally sets up a meditative, romantic tone of voice, extremely conventional or cliché, often with highbrow diction, which sets up a parallel pattern of a list of characteristics or items. Then, as a joke in a punch line or an epigram from classical Latin authors, the end stanza will have a twist, a line that will reverse all expectations, drastically alter the tone, often associated with a popular saying, lowbrow diction, or a slangy expression, and thus reveal a second tone of voice antithetical to the first.

Sometimes, as with “One Perfect Rose,” the line is actually a repetition seen in a new context; other times, it will simply be a drastic reversal of tone and reader expectations, as in “Resumé.” The images enumerated usually seem secondary to what the speaker says and how she says it.

In Parker’s fiction, there is often a reliance on dialogue rather than plot, usually the conversation of lovers or a young pair who are miscommunicating (as in “Here We Are”), or else an interior monologue of a distraught or despairing woman agonizing over her romance, failed or failing. Characters are usually types or stereotypes (rich, pretentious socialites, young naïve couples, abandoned lovers), and the sketches depend on a tiny slice of time and a key moment of unraveling. The end of the story normally involves a repetition of an image, line, or scene which suggests a closing of the vicious circle in which the protagonist is trapped, or else an extension or continuation of the same private hell in which the character has already resided. For example, the nameless protagonist in “The Waltz,” after suffering through a dance with a clumsy partner, agrees to another dance with the same man.

In such monologue stories (of which there are many, including Parker’s famous work “A Telephone Call”), there is scarcely any description or setting, and the split between the public, social voice and persona dependent on approval (especially male approval) and the private, personal voice and persona that yearns for independence and escape is the source of the ironic discrepancy and humor. In other stories written from the third-person omniscient perspective, such as “Big Blonde,” the narration is detached, cool, and ironic toward the situations and the protagonist, but the same type of divided self and repetition signaling a vicious circle of hell for the main character is nearly always present. In both types of stories, the protagonists are usually seen as self-destructive, passive, and self-absorbed, yet they simultaneously become the victims of society’s expectations or male desires. The protagonists’ hypocrisy, delusions, and pretentions are ironically exposed, sometimes making them, as with “Big Blonde,” both pathetic and tragic.

“Résumé”

First published: 1926 (collected in Enough Rope, 1926)

Type of work: Poem

The speaker addresses a “you”—either herself or the reader—listing problems with various ways of killing oneself and in the end deciding to live.

This little eight-line poem, rhyming ababcdcd, is one of Parker’s most famous, based on her first experience in attempting suicide when she cut her wrists in 1923. The last line (“You might as well live”) is exactly what her friend Benchley said to her at the time. It serves as the punch line or the reversal “point” of the classical epigram, with a switch to a resigned or unconcerned tone of voice which contrasts with the methodical catalog of suicide methods. Addressing a “you” which may be herself or the reader, the speaker casually lists various methods she has tried in committing suicide.

The list is grammatically parallel, so that with the exception of the fourth line (“And drugs cause cramp”), each method is named first, as a noun. Then the problem or obstacle with each method is given. The catalog, objectively stated, appears to be a summary of the person’s qualifications or achievements—as the title indicates—as if she were applying for a job. The title also puns on the word “resume,” which may underscore the end line as a resigned sense that trying to commit suicide is too much trouble in all these ways already tried, and the speaker might as well “resume” her life. This switch in the last line is also highlighted as different by its shift to a five-syllable line, with an accent on the second and fifth syllable—in contrast to all but one of the other lines, which have four syllables and virtually all with an accent on the beginning word.

“One Perfect Rose”

First published: 1926 (collected in Enough Rope, 1926)

Type of work: Poem

In romantic, flowery language, the speaker describes “one perfect rose” which her lover has sent. She wonders why she has never received “one perfect limosine.”

“One Perfect Rose” is written in three stanzas of four lines each, rhyming abab. The title is also the refrain repeated as the last line of each stanza, having four syllables instead of the iambic pentameter in each of the other lines. The opening two stanzas describe the “one perfect rose” the speaker’s love has sent with all the standard romantic clichés and attitudes: He sent it “tenderly” and is “deep-hearted” and uses the poetic language of the flower shop in its note to express his love. In the context of the last stanza, in which the speaker wonders why she has never received “one perfect limosine” as a token of love, the refrain of “one perfect rose” changes from a thing initially desired—an object or “charm” symbolizing her lover’s heart in a romantic personification and using slightly archaic and formal language (“single flow’r”)—-to an undesirable thing, an impractical, nonmaterial, disdained thing. The sarcasm and sigh (“Ah no, it’s always just my luck”) and the mocking repetition of the “one perfect” formula indicate the switch to the hidden attitude of the last stanza, in direct contrast to that of the opening romantic haze, which is also underscored by the colloquial language (“do you suppose” and “just my luck”).

“Symptom Recital”

First published: 1926 (collected in Enough Rope, 1926)

Type of work: Poem

The speaker lists her unpleasant symptoms, physical, mental, and emotional, culminating in her realization that she is about to fall in love again.

“Symptom Recital” proceeds, again, to list a series of unpleasant traits or characteristics which the speaker is feeling in a parallel grammatical form and in ten couplets rhyming aa, bb, cc, and so on. The rhythm is virtually all iambic tretrameter in four accents per line. The speaker enumerates her bitter mind, her dislike of her legs and hands, her sneering at “simple folks,” and her inability to take jokes or find peace. She sees the world and herself as “tripe” and empty, hates herself, senses her “soul” is crushed, and she “shudders” at the thought of men. At the penultimate line, an ellipsis after “men” indicates the pause before the joke, or “turn,” as she realizes “I’m due to fall in love again.”

Again, the hidden attitude and tone of voice is in conflict with the parade of “symptoms” of disease she recites, which turn out to be those of being in love. Love is not an ecstatic state (the romantic cliché) but a raging disease, a self-torture she will again endure. She is about to go back into hell, a repetition that is also a cycle, a repetition mirrored in the line structures. Each line (with the exception of three that begin with “My” and one with “For”) starts out exactly the same: “I” plus a simple verb that shows her “diseased” symptoms. Her recital is also a public artistic rendering, like a piano recital.

“Big Blonde”

First published: 1929 (collected in Laments for the Living, 1930)

Type of work: Short story

After party girl Hazel Morse marries and shows her melancholy self, she loses her husband, then a series of lovers, until she unsuccessfully commits suicide.

“Big Blonde” is generally considered Parker’s best and most serious story. Unlike her usual comic satire, this story opts for a third-person omniscient narrator, dispassionately yet ironically showing the decline of a “dumb blonde,” a “party girl.” The protagonist’s public persona is that of the fun-loving “good sport,” a big-busted, peroxide blonde who grows dependent on men’s attention. After she marries Herbie, she tries to be her inner melancholy self, crying much of the time. Herbie insists she play the role of the “good sport” and gets her to drink. Eventually Herbie leaves her, toasting her with one last drink, “Here’s mud in your eye.” “Haze” remains in a drunken haze and hooks up with Ed at a neighbor’s house because she feels financially and emotionally dependent. Eventually Ed leaves for Florida because Haze is always sad, and she then enters a series of affairs with a number of men. After her last lover, Art, tells her to cheer up by the time he gets back to town, she takes some sleeping tablets, saying, “Here’s mud in your eye.” The maid Nettie finds her and calls an elevator boy to get a doctor, and Mrs. Morse is saved. She shares a drink with Nettie, repeating, “Here’s mud in your eye.” Nettie tells her to cheer up, and Mrs. Morse replies, “Yeah. . . . Sure.” The last repetition of the toast and the idea of “cheering up” signal that Mrs. Morse will enter her vicious circle of hell again.

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