Miss Lulu Bett

by Zona Gale

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Themes and Meanings

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The subtitle of the published play, An American Comedy of Manners, signals the ironic tone of the work. The term “comedy of manners” implies sparkling drawing-room repartee, but the verbal interactions in this middle-class domestic setting, presumably in Zona’s Gale’s native Wisconsin, achieve their comic effect by means of their utter banality. In the first scene, for example, Dwight puts on patriarchal airs yet harps on the food and the cost of small items and then declares: “The conversation at my table must not deal with domestic matters.” Ina’s frequent (mis)corrections of Dwight’s mispronunciations are an amusing inversion of the sophisticated wordplay in traditional comedies of manners. The first two scenes of act 2 contain sequences of virtually identical dialogue spoken by the same characters, a forceful yet humorous illustration of the smallness of these characters’ lives. Thus, the play might well be described as a satire on small-town American, middle-class life, emphasizing the limited horizons, lack of imagination, self-delusion, excessive concern for what others might think and the selfish pursuit of petty comforts.

Compounding the limitations of this middle-class mentality were some generally conflicted attitudes about the place of women in the changing American social landscape of the early twentieth century. Although women had begun entering the American workforce even before World War I, spinsterhood was viewed as an embarrassing circumstance. Many families in the 1920’s still harbored “maiden aunts” who had never held outside jobs. As a single woman (until she was fifty-three) who supported herself by writing, Zona Gale understood firsthand the social dynamics of spinsterhood. While Miss Lulu Bett’s strength of character and dramatic development ensure that this play will be examined as a portrayal of conditions faced by women in the early twentieth century, one might fold this concern into the larger problem of people whose potential is stifled by various restrictions: the lack of education, having to care for an ailing family member, racial quotas, or economic barriers.

Family relationships are an interesting feature of this play. Well before psychologists had explained certain behaviors, Zona Gale demonstrated them in action. Dwight and Ina make the most basic mistakes of parenting in the inconsistency with which they make and apply rules for their daughters, “performin’ like a pair of weathercocks” in Mrs. Bett’s view. Dwight and Ina do not serve as role models, as their own behavior contradicts the standards they expect of the children. Sibling rivalries are shown, notably between the daughters Di and Monona, but also between brothers Dwight and Ninian and to a lesser extent between Ina and Lulu. Mrs. Bett gives little indication that she is anything other than a dependent, querulous old woman—until she twice releases a brief torrent of pent-up memory that hints at a generation’s hardship that enabled the middle-class comforts available to her remaining children.


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Family Relationships
The play is set within the Deacon family home, where three generations of the Bett-Deacon family live together. Dwight regularly extols the virtues of family life and relationships, speaking often of the solidarity among kin. He remarks that people ‘‘don’t know what living is if they don’t belong in a little family circle,’’ crows of ‘‘the joys of family life as Ina and I live it,’’ and speaks in platitudes such as there is ‘‘no place like home.’’ However, the way the family members treat each other belies his words. For fifteen years, Dwight and Ina have used Lulu like a household drudge. Ina berates her for burning Monona’s toast and Dwight berates her for spending his money—25 cents of it—on fresh...

(This entire section contains 938 words.)

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Dwight also uses the sanctity of the family to make others submit to his will. He orders Lulu not to let the townspeople know that Ninian may be a bigamist because of the disgrace that it will bring upon himself and his family: ‘‘What about my pride?’’ he asks Lulu. ‘‘Do you think I want everyone to know that my brother did a thing like that?’’ Despite this rhetoric, Dwight is convinced that Ninian made up the story about a previous marriage to get free from a life with Lulu. He sanctimoniously explains that he and Ina will stand by Lulu in her time of distress because ‘‘the family bond is the strongest in the world,’’ but he really is pleased to have her back in his kitchen. Lulu easily sees through his talk; she says ‘‘l . . . I know you’d sacrifice Ina, Di, mother, Monona, Ninian— everybody, just to your own idea of who you are.’’

The other members of the household are not immune to the unpleasant family dynamics. Di confesses to Lulu the real reason she wants to elope with Bobby: she does not love him, but ‘‘I could love almost anybody real nice that was nice to me.’’ In act II, scene i, Monona, the sassy child, speaks the voice of truth about the Bett-Deacon household when she announces, ‘‘I hate the whole family,’’ to which Mrs. Bett replies, ‘‘Well, I should think she would.’’

The Oppression of Women
Simonson wrote that Gale ‘‘believed her novella [Miss Lulu Bett] to be an honest portrayal of the duty-bound, domestically enslaved woman of her day’’; she felt the same about the play that derived from that novella. In the play Gale creates a household composed entirely of women, with the exception of the head of the family, Dwight. The women are under Dwight’s control. He controls the purse strings (chastising Lulu for spending money of her own accord), makes the rules (deciding that he will not give Ninian’s address to Lulu, and then forbidding her to open the return letter should it arrive in his absence), and sets the tone for Ina’s shabby treatment of her sister. Offhand comments that Dwight makes also show his denigration of women; for instance, he states on more than one occasion that women cannot generalize. Another time, when Ina sides with Lulu and implores him to write Ninian about the first marriage, he says, ‘‘Isn’t this like a couple of women?’’

It is up to the most oppressed women—Lulu and Mrs. Bett—to rebel against Dwight. Mrs. Bett does so by flagrantly opening Ninian’s letter and thus satisfying her curiosity. She also is the only family member to be supportive of Lulu, both in her belief in Ninian’s love for Lulu, and in her approval of Lulu’s decision to leave the household. For her part, Lulu’s defiance of Dwight comes through her insistence that he write to Ninian despite his threats to throw her out of the house. Even before Ninian returns for her, she announces to Dwight her intention of leaving Dwight’s home ‘‘for good.’’ Lulu eventually learns to speak up for her own rights, and tacitly, those of the other women in the household. She tells Dwight, ‘‘You’re one of the men who can smother a whole family and not even know you’re doing it.’’

Lulu also shows her dissatisfaction with her plight in life, aside from her relationship with Dwight. She speaks to Ninian of her wish for an education and her desire to hold a job where she helps people and where she is appreciated. She despairs to Cornish because all she can do is cook and has no means to earn her own living. Her comprehension of these inadequacies in her own life reflect the domestic trap into which many women of Lulu’s day fell.

Love and Marriage
In Miss Lulu Bett, love hardly seems to be the unifying force in marriage. Dwight and Ina draw together over their mutual satisfaction with their own life and their mutual condescension of others, namely Lulu. While they openly praise one another, they demonstrate little affection based on any genuine appreciation of each other’s good qualities. Lulu and Ninian come together for different reasons. While the play makes it uncertain why Ninian wants to stay married to Lulu, other than to save her from the intolerable situation he observes in the Deacons’ home, Lulu’s reasons are abundantly clear. As she tells Cornish, ‘‘You see Ninian was the first person who was ever kind to me. Nobody ever wanted me, nobody ever even thought of me. Then he came. It might have been somebody else. It might have been you.’’ For Lulu, kindness and regard, from which she has long been deprived, equate to love.