Harriette Arnow Arnow, Harriette (Vol. 2) - Essay

Arnow, Harriette (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arnow, Harriette 1908–

A Kentucky-born American novelist, Mrs. Arnow is best known for The Dollmaker. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

This brutal, beautiful novel [The Dollmaker] has a permanent effect upon the reader: long after one has put it aside, he is still in the presence of its people, absorbed in their trivial and tragic dilemma, sorting out their mistakes, rearranging their possibilities, pondering upon the fate that makes certain people live certain lives, suffer certain atrocities, while other people merely read about them. Because Harriette Arnow's people are not articulate, we are anxious to give their confusion a recognizable order, to contribute to their reality, to complete them with language. They are assimilated into us, and we into them. The Dollmaker deals with human beings to whom language is not a means of changing or even expressing reality, but a means of pitifully recording its effect upon the nerves. It is a legitimate tragedy, our most unpretentious American masterpiece….

It is a depressing work, like most extraordinary works. Its power lies in its insistence upon the barrenness of life, even a life lived in intimacy with other human beings, bound together by ties of real love and suffering. Tragedy does not seem to me to be cathartic, but to deepen our sense of the mystery and sanctity of the human predicament. The beauty of The Dollmaker is its author's absolute commitment to a vision of life as cyclical tragedy—as constant struggle….

There is a means of salvation: love, particularly of children. But the children of The Dollmaker are stunted, doomed adults, destroyed either literally by the admonition "Adjust!" or destroyed emotionally, turned into citizens of a demonic factory-world. There is another means: art. But art is luxury, it has no place in the world of intense, daily, bitter struggle, though this world of struggle is itself the main object of art. Living, one cannot be saved; suffering, one cannot express the phenomenon of "suffering."…

Mrs. Arnow writes so well, with so little apparent effort, that critical examination seems almost irrelevant. It is a tribute to her talent that one is convinced, partway through the book, that it is a masterpiece; if everything goes wrong, if an entirely unsuitable ending is tacked on, the book will remain inviolate. The ending of The Dollmaker is by no means a disappointment, however. After months of struggle and a near-succumbing to madness, Gertie questions the basis of her own existence; inarticulate as she is, given to working with her hands, in silence, she is nevertheless lyrically aware of the horror of the world in which she now lives….

Gertie is an "artist," but a primitive, untheorizing, inarticulate artist; she whittles out figures that are dolls or Christs, figures of human beings not quite human, but expressive of old human dreams. She is both an ordinary human being and an extraordinary human being, a memorable creation, so real that one cannot question her existence. There are certainly greater novels than The Dollmaker, but I can think of none that have moved me more, personally, terrifyingly, involving me in the solid fact of life's criminal exploitation of those who live it—not hard, not sentimental, not at all intellectually ambitious, The Dollmaker is one of those excellent American works that have yet to be properly assessed.

Joyce Carol Oates, "Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker" (© 1971 by Crown Publishers, Inc.; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), in Rediscoveries, edited by David Madden, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1971, pp. 57-66.