“The Last Question,” published in Dorothy Parker’s 1928 collection Sunset Gun and reprinted in The Portable Dorothy Parker, is a poem that greatly appealed to the sensibility of the 1920s through its complex tone of world-weariness and its almost fatalistic acceptance of the dangers brought on by a new love affair. The poem was almost shocking in its day for its frank acceptance of female sexuality and an unsentimental depiction of a relationship that looks doomed from the outset. Parker used her own celebrity as a writer to become a sort of role model for young women of her time. Though the poem appears fairly conventional in its use of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition, its theme reflected the spirit of the flapper generation that came to womanhood immediately after World War I. This generation exulted in new liberties and the breaking away of old customs. There are costs, however, to throwing off the old certainties, and this poem reflects those costs, showing touches of despair and self-destructiveness. The poem is rebellious without being revolutionary. It tries to subvert the old rules of romance by flouting them; it shows a witty and sardonic woman’s love affair, but it does not propose any specific cure for the dangers of the liaison. It does not suggest that there is any way to remake human relationships in a feminist mold.
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...
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