The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn Critical Essays

Martha Gellhorn


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As a reporter, and perhaps as a woman, Gellhorn has been especially attuned to the way in which her characters dress and carry themselves. In “Mrs. Maddison, ” one of four novellas about her Depression-era work, she evokes not merely a character but a way of life and an age in painstaking and lively detail. Mrs. Maddison stands before her mirror trying on her hat, tilting it toward her right eye, then toward her left. Her face appears confused in the cracked mirror. This cheap, white straw hat shaped like a pot has been trimmed by Mrs. Maddison herself with a “noisily pink starchy rose, in the centre front, like a miner’s lamp.” When she walks outside, the flower (pinned to her hat) nods as she walks, bows before she does, and sometimes blows “from side to side, petulantly.” This is her best hat, the one she wears when she goes to pick up her relief check. It is important to Mrs. Maddison that no one should suppose that she needs things. She will get what is coming to her, but no one is going to think that she should be pitied.

Without commentary, the author conveys Mrs. Maddison’s dignity, her effort to achieve balance in her life by setting her hat on her head just so. Mrs. Maddison has a sense of style. Accepting relief is a blow to her pride, but she will find an honorable way to deal with it. Only a writer who had lived with someone such as Mrs. Maddison could describe her most characteristic features in such precise and evocative prose, or would think to include the detail about the safety pin in the hat that rubs against her forehead. The enormous care that the character takes with her own person is paralleled by the author’s concern to find exactly the right words to describe her.

By contrast, “For Richer for Poorer,” one of the four novellas in Two by Two, portrays an entirely different culture and class of people and reveals...

(The entire section is 773 words.)