Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Long Loneliness Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944

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The Long Loneliness reinterprets and updates Dorothy Day’s life story as related in the fictionalized work The Eleventh Virgin (1924) and From Union Square to Rome (1938), the first account of her conversion. The Eleventh Virgin, even with its probable embellishment of details, reconstructed dialogues, and name changes, enriches study of Day’s life, revealing her attitudes a few years before her religious conversion. The novel’s authenticity is confirmed by Day’s credo of writing from experience, its obvious parallels to the subsequent autobiographies, and her own remarks to her biographer, William D. Miller. Embarrassed by its mildly racy plot, breathless style, and moral immaturity, Day disavowed the “very bad book,” to the point of buying and destroying copies.

Favoring plot over psychological analysis and a contrived ending over reality, the book makes a bid to rejoin the heroine June (Dorothy Day) and her feckless companion Dick (Lionel Moise). June rejects the traditional domesticity of her mother to relish the excitement of a career and radical activism, while she samples the sexual freedom of “new womanhood.” Disappointed in love and career, in an amazing turnaround, June resolves to marry her unreliable paramour and have babies. Day’s personal agenda at the time is reflected in this jejune ending. The work documents Day’s gender-role discomfort well before her religious conversion, and the unlikely scenario underscores Day’s inability to envision an alternative to traditional female domesticity or its contemporary opposite, new womanhood.

The puzzling title The Eleventh Virgin, may refer to a biblical parable about salvation in which five virgins with oil lamps join a wedding feast and five others, who are unprepared, are turned away. Among neither the saved nor the damned, the solitary eleventh virgin ends her alienation by dreaming of marriage to the unworthy lover and motherhood—unlikely developments, despite her cheery optimism.

From Union Square to Rome revisits many events covered in the fictionalized autobiography. Addressed to Day’s communist brother (although initially published in an obscure Catholic magazine), the narrative links Day’s radical social conscience to her conversion. Day explains her position on communism in two apologetic chapters, which sort out her reservations concerning the secular political movement and communist elements in Christianity. Oddly, the work concludes without mention of her syntheses of radicalism and religion, the Catholic Worker movement. The title of the autobiography focuses on place names, suggesting movement from New York’s Union Square (radicalism) to Rome (Catholicism) without conveying the persistence of radicalism after Day’s conversion.

In terms of the emergence of Day’s mature spiritual identity, The Long Loneliness supersedes the earlier books. It is as much the autobiography of the Catholic Worker movement as it is Day’s spiritual story. By shifting the focus to the movement, Day underscores the value of community in shaping ego. Self-abnegation, a typical ingredient in female religious narratives, enables her to focus on the work of the movement rather than on her personality. Using the story of the movement to advance the narrative, Day illustrates how the Catholic Worker blends two aspects of her identity: American radicalism and Catholicism. Founded on the Christian teaching to love God and neighbor, the movement criticizes the capitalist profit motive as political radicalism does, but advocates only nonviolent methods to advance a new social order based on cooperation and individual responsibility. These methods include picketing and socially conscious journalism as well as traditional pious practices (prayer and fasting) combined with effective nonviolent direct action in support of revolutionary change. Day extends the logic of nonviolence to exclude the legitimacy of war, by elevating absolute pacifism to a key principle of the Catholic Worker movement. For Day and her movement, this new synthesis demonstrates that atheism is not intrinsic to radicalism and that Catholicism is not incompatible with social activism and radicalism. Day’s radicalism pushes her movement beyond the limits of Jane Addams’ settlement houses. The religiously motivated activism of the Catholic Worker distinguishes Day’s autobiography from those of her reformist or radical contemporaries: Addams, Emma Goldman, or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

The Long Loneliness, when read with Day’s other autobiographies, presents the most comprehensive source on her attitudes toward gender and identity. Between college and her conversion, Day’s life choices parallel the “new woman” ideal of the World War I era, involving career, radical social activism, and nonmarital sexuality. Although Day is gradually drawn to Catholicism, her view of women’s roles is influenced by biological determinism and religious celibacy, although ambivalence toward new womanhood predates her conversion. During World War I, Day opposes women’s suffrage on political grounds. Her left-wing socialism prefers the direct action of the masses to parliamentary maneuver and compromise. Preoccupation with domesticity and motherhood conclude her preconversion novel. Although church teaching forbids her nonmarital domestic partnership, it opens the way for celibacy and religious community, which empowers her to lead the Catholic Worker movement. Built on the strength of Day’s journalistic talents, the soundness of her spirituality, and her willingness to live according to her principles, the movement prospers in New York and spreads throughout the country and abroad.

Although The Long Loneliness expands the conversion story, by Day’s admission, even this version is incomplete. William D. Miller’s Dorothy Day: A Biography (1982) covers certain events of the period from 1918 through 1923—an affair, a botched abortion, an opportunistic marriage, and a divorce—that Day found too painful to include even thirty years afterward.

In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day perfects the literary realism in which she schooled herself since youth. Direct, clear prose and an informal, anecdotal style invites each reader to experience Day’s spiritual rebirth personally.

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