Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1392
Dorothy Parker’s best-known stories are “The Waltz,” “A Telephone Call,” and her masterpiece, “Big Blonde,” winner of the O. Henry Memorial Prize for the best short story of 1929.
“The Waltz” and “A Telephone Call,” both dramatic monologues, present typical Parker characters, insecure young women who derive their social and personal acceptance from the approval of men and who go to extremes, whether sincere or hypocritical, to maintain this approbation. The characters, anonymous and therefore legion, elicit from the readers a mixture of sympathy and ridicule. They evoke sympathy because each is agonizing in an uncomfortable situation which she believes herself powerless to control. The waltzer is stuck with a bad, boorish dancer—“two stumbles, slip, and a twenty-yard dash.” The other woman is longing for a telephone call from a man she loves who does not reciprocate her concern: “Please, God, let him telephone me now, Dear God, let him call me now. I won’t ask anything else of You. ”
These predicaments are largely self-imposed as well as trivial and so they are ludicrous, unwittingly burlesqued through the narrators’ hyperbolic perspectives. Both women are trapped in situations they have permitted to occur but from which they lack the resourcefulness or assertiveness to extricate themselves. The waltzer not only accepts the invitation to dance but also hypocritically flatters her partner: “Oh, they’re going to play another encore. Oh, goody. Oh, that’s lovely. Tired? I should say I’m not tired. I’d like to go on like this forever.” These cloying words mask the truth, which she utters only to herself and to the eavesdropping audience: “I should say I’m not tired. I’m dead, that’s all I am. Dead and the music is never going to stop playing. ” Enslaved by an exaggerated code of politeness, therefore, she catches herself in the network of her own lies: “Oh, they’ve stopped, the mean things. They’re not going to play any more. Oh, darn.” Then she sets herself up for yet another round of hypocritical self-torture: “Do you really think so, if you gave them twenty dollars? Do tell them to play this same thing. I’d simply adore to go on waltzing.”
“A Telephone Call”
Like the waltzer, the narrator in “A Telephone Call” is her own worst enemy. Suffering from too much time on her hands—she is evidently not occupied with a job or responsibility for anyone but herself—she can afford the self-indulgence to spend hours focused exclusively on the dubious prospect of a phone call. She plays games with God; her catechism is a parody: “You see, God, if You would just let him telephone me, I wouldn’t have to ask You for anything more.” She plays games with herself: “Maybe if I counted five hundred by fives, it might ring by that time. I’ll count slowly. I won’t cheat.” She is totally preoccupied with herself and her futile efforts to fan the embers of a dying love; having violated the social code by phoning her former admirer at his office, by the monologue’s end she is desperately preparing to violate it again by calling him at home. Nevertheless, she is ludicrous rather than pathetic because her concern is so superficial (although her concentration on the anticipated phone call is also a barrier against the more serious reality of the estrangement); her calculations so trivial (“I’ll count five hundred by fives, and if he hasn’t called me then, I will know God isn’t going to help me, ever again”); and the stakes for which she prays so low (attempting to manipulate God’s will in such a minor matter). She, like the waltzer, envisions a simplistic fairy-tale solution dependent on the agency of another.
Thus the plots of these slight stories are as slender as the resources of the monologist narrators, for whom formulaic prayers or serial wisecracks (“I’d like to [dance] awfully, but I’m having labor pains. It’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t a scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri”) are inadequate to alter their situations. Such narratives, with their fixed perspectives, exploitation of a single, petty issue, and simple characters, have to be short. To be any longer would be to add redundance without complexity, to bore rather than to amuse with verbal pyrotechnics.
Although “Big Blonde” shares some of the features of the monologues, it is far more complex in narrative mode and in characterization. Rather than anatomizing a moment in time, as do the monologues, “Big Blonde” covers an indefinite span of years, perhaps a dozen. The story moves from comedy into pathos as its protagonist, Hazel Morse, moves from genuine gaiety to forced conviviality, undergirded by the hazy remorse that her name connotes.
Hazel, “a large, fair,” unreflective, voluptuous blonde, has been, in her twenties, by day a “model in a wholesale dress establishment,” and for “a couple of thousand evenings a good sport among her [numerous] male acquaintances.” Having “come to be more conscientious than spontaneous” about her enjoyment of men’s jokes and drunken antics, she escapes into what she unthinkingly assumes will be a stereotype of marriage, isolation from the outer world à deux, but what instead becomes a travesty. She revels in honesty—the freedom to stop being incessantly cheerful and to indulge in the other side of the conventional feminine role that is her life’s allotment, the freedom to weep sentimental tears over various manifestations, large and small, of “all the sadness there is in the world.”
Her husband, Herbie, is “not amused” at her tears and impersonal sorrows: “crab, crab, crab, that was all she ever did.” To transform her from “a lousy sport” into her former jocular self he encourages her to drink, “Atta girl! Let’s see you get boiled, baby.” Having neither the intellectual, imaginative, nor domestic resources to hold her marriage together any other way, Hazel acquiesces, even though she hates “the taste of liquor,” and soon begins to drink steadily. Herbie, however, is as barren of human resources as is his wife, and alcohol only ignites their smoldering anger, despite Hazel’s “thin and wordless idea that, maybe, this night, things would begin to be all right.” They are not; Herbie fades out of Hazel’s alcohol-blurred existence as Ed merges into it. He, too, insists “upon gaiety” and will not “listen to admissions of aches or weariness.” Nor will Ed’s successors, Charley, Sydney, Fred, Billy, and others, to whom Hazel responds with forced cordiality through her alcoholic haze in which the days and year lose “their individuality.”
By now perpetually “tired and blue,” she becomes frightened when her “old friend” whiskey fails her, and she decides, having no ties, no talents, and no purpose in living, to commit suicide by taking twenty sleeping pills—“Well, here’s mud in your eye.” In her customary vagueness she fails again, however, causing the impersonal attendants, a reluctant doctor and housemaid, more annoyance than concern. She concludes that she might as well live, but with a paradoxical prayer of diabolic self-destructiveness: “Oh, please, please, let her be able to get drunk, please keep her always drunk.”
Although in both “Big Blonde” and the monologues Parker satirizes vapid, unassertive women with empty lives, her work carries with it satire’s inevitable message of dissatisfaction with the status quo and an implicit plea for reform. For in subtle ways Parker makes a feminist plea even through her most passive, vacuous characters. Women ought to be open, assertive, independent; they should think for themselves and act on their own behalf, because men cannot be counted on to do it for them. They should be their own persons, like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, “wel at ease,” instead of allowing their happiness to depend on the waxing and waning affections and attentions of inconstant men.
To the extent that Dorothy Parker was a satirist she was also a moralist. In satirizing aimless, frivolous, or social-climbing lives, she implied a purposeful ideal. In ridiculing self-deception, hypocrisy, obsequiousness, and flattery, she advocated honesty in behavior and communication. In her epigrams, the moralist’s rapiers, she could hone a razor-edge with the best. In her portraits, cameos etched in acid, the touchstone of truth shines clear.