The Last Question

by Dorothy Parker

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352

Stanza 1
As one might expect from a poem entitled “The Last Question,” this is a poem that poses a number of questions and concludes with one. This poem is very brief, almost epigrammatic. Unlike the epigram, however, which relies for its success on a pithy, witty, concise statement of some interesting or surprising observation, this poem alternates between questions posed and questions answered. Since the poem is only eight lines long, two brief quatrains, the task of summarizing it is relatively easy. It is a poem that seems to be spoken in two voices. One voice asks questions and one answers them. The first two words of the poem are repeated, “New love, new love.” This repetition emphasizes each word. What is important in this poem is the newness of the relationship. “Love” might also be expressed as “lover,” but the word “love” functions as a name. The speaker of the first line is addressing her lover, asking where he will lead her. It is worth noting that in this poem it is the new lover, presumably male, who will do all of the leading. Men lead and women follow according to the old rules of romance. This poem works through hints, through things that can be inferred but that are not stated. Though these hints are quite clear, they accumulate inevitably to produce a mounting tone of anxiety.

Asking where a new love may lead is, one must suppose, generally a pleasant prospect. Yet, in this poem, there is more than a hint of anxiety, an intimation immediately validated by the response. The key terms in the second line are “narrow” and “crooked.” Instead of promising openness in all its manifestations, such as openness of possibility, openness of spirit, openness to growth and change, the respondent emphasizes its opposite, narrowness. Likewise, “crooked” is a synonym for “dishonest” or “deceitful” or “devious.” There is little promise in the opening interchange. The second exchange of question and answer does not bring reassurance. The speaker of the first and third lines, who may safely be inferred to be the poet herself, asks how her new love will “slake” and “feed” her. Clearly, a thirst is slaked by water or other liquid, and hunger is fed through food. Metaphorically, though, the poet is talking about the satisfaction of other desires. What desires might these be? Though one possibility is that these are sexual desires, the poem becomes more poignant if these are understood as representing other desires that the speaker needs to have satisfied. As they are presented in the guise of food and drink, these desires are to be associated with personal or psychological nutrition. The answer to the second question is rather sinister. Instead of promising his beloved all sorts of comfort and nourishment, the new love offers only “bitter yellow berries,” which are unappetizing and perhaps poisonous, and “a sharp new wine” which may, indeed, prove to be intoxicating, but which is not desirable or appetizing. In only four lines, Parker has presented two questions, each of them an appeal for guidance or support, and the replies indicate that this guidance and sustenance will not be forthcoming. At this point in the poem, the questioner seems to have accepted the ideology of romance that literature and culture have presented as appropriate for women. The poem would like to subvert this ideology, but it will ultimately, because of its brevity and fatalism, prove incapable of offering anything to replace it.

Stanza 2
The second stanza marks a subtle shift, one that the casual reader might not notice. It begins as the first stanza does, with “New love, new love.” This parallelism simultaneously emphasizes two seemingly contradictory aspects of the poem. The phrase gives a repetition of form and reiteration of the same kind of question that has been asked already on the one hand, and it also signifies a new beginning, a new approach, or an evolving attitude in the poem. The speaker asks if she will be forsaken. The last word encapsulates all the fears of the previous stanza. It is the fear of being jilted, dumped, dropped, and disregarded that causes the speaker great anxiety. Again, the passivity of female gender roles emerges. Parker wrote in a period in which women might signal their availability to men in a number of indirect ways, but they were forbidden by the mating practices of their time to take the initiative and actually state their desires. Consequently, a woman who was forsaken in love had to pull herself together and wait around for another suitor to find her attractive. Parker’s biographers recount that she was not at all passive in her amorous relationships, that perhaps she was less conventional in her own life than this poem seems to be. If so, this disconnect between biography and poetry may indicate several interesting things. First, it shows the limits to which a reading audience in 1928 could be taken, and the boundaries of good taste that should not be transgressed. Parker’s poems were mildly shocking in their time; moralists sighed and fumed, but there was nothing they could do about these poems except signal their disapproval. Though censorship existed and was sometimes harshly employed, this poem is not at all obscene, and the censors of the time would have had no grounds for action. Second, the contradictions between Parker’s own love life and the more sedate and conventional constructions of the poem worked subversively, rebelliously, to call attention to the insecurity of women in their love affairs. There are two speakers in this poem, a woman and a man, and all the sympathy lies with the woman. Third, any challenge to contemporary sexual mores was implicit. Parker invokes no alternative ideology. But then, this is only an eight-line poem, and it limits itself to expressing anxiety and frustration, so it may be unfair to expect it to do more.

The ambiguities multiply, introducing new possibilities. In response to the plaintive inquiry about being forsaken, the masculine voice of the poem gives a response that, on first glance, seems to be the hardhearted response of a man who is in emotional charge of the relationship, expressing his intention to go on to other conquests while leaving the lady behind. And, indeed, this line, like the second and fourth lines, is italicized, lending further weight to the interpretation that all three are spoken in another voice. But, the question of who will sigh begins to arise with this line. It is not absolutely certain that the man will not be the one to be left behind, and in this uncertainty resides all the woman’s power. In fact, she may be the one to dump him. Such a possibility would have seemed quite daring and exciting to young women of the 1920s.

Finally, the last question indicated by the title is spoken. Interestingly, this is a double question. The last question ambiguously means that it is enjoyable to sleep in the arms of one’s new love, but “slumber” also represents a lack of awareness that may lead to bitterness and pain. Likewise, “awaken” is used both literally and metaphorically. The word represents a growing consciousness of the woman’s power to leave the man if she chooses. The final line brings the poem to an ambiguous and unsettling conclusion. On the one hand, there is clear evidence that the woman will be the one with the broken heart. Many of Parker’s other poems have similar themes. If love freely given outside the bonds of matrimony became fashionable during the 1920s, at least in upper-middle-class East Coast urban centers among educated sophisticates, it also became important for someone like Parker to write knowingly of love’s bruises, and of its power. One of the liberating possibilities is that a strong, thoroughly modern woman might leave the man sobbing in her wake. Perhaps such an outcome is unlikely, but it is at least possible, and this complex blend of self-pity and self-assertion was itself an intoxicating sharp new wine to the reading public of the Roaring Twenties.

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