Literary Techniques

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In an interior monologue, an author must create a character through voice alone. Parker uses humor, sarcasm, and exaggeration in the internal voice of "The Waltz" to illustrate the wit, intelligence, and expectations of the narrator. The strength of this voice helps to set up the story's surprise ending—her willingness to go on dancing—which in turn recalls the old adage, "actions speak louder than words." If that were all the story had to offer, we would consider it clever, but not important. Other elements raise this story to the level of allegory.

Setting is particularly significant. The setting is much narrower than the room in which the dance takes place. The dance itself, the embrace of the two partners, is the setting. Both constraint and movement are present, for the partners are "locked" together as they dance their routine pattern. This mirrors the movement of the story as a whole. We move through the story's pattern of inner complaint and outer denial, expecting to be released in the end. Instead, the story's closing statement, "I'd simply adore to go on waltzing," returns us to the story's beginning, where the narrator agrees to dance: "Why, thank you so much. I'd adore to." The story's signature phrase, "There was I, trapped. Trapped like a trap in a trap," emphasizes not only the narrator's entrapment, but the reader's as well. This is a "dance" that will never end.

The image of an ongoing dance invites us to read the story allegorically. Parker's social occasion becomes a symbol for love, or more specifically, for a marriage. The continual kicking by the male partner, the repeated allusions to suffering and death, and the refusal to complain or stop the dance—"Maybe it's best not to make a scene"—all take on a more problematic meaning in light of the "thirty-five years this waltz has lasted." Parker, who knew the metaphysical poets well, was familiar with conceits, extended metaphors, and the power of symbols. She applies these traditional techniques to modern psychological fiction to produce a timeless and troublesome tale of romantic love.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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As short as it is, "The Waltz" offers much room for discussion, in part because of the strength of the narrative voice and the plot reversal.

1. Which of the two voices—external and internal—do you believe and why?

2. How would you characterize the language of the two voices?

3. How would you retell this story from the male partner's point of view? Remember, he does not know what his female partner is thinking, only what she says and does.

4. How fair or accurate is Parker's portrayal of male-female behavior? Of social convention and rules?

5. Would this story be more or less effective if it were told from a third-person point of view?

6. At one point in the story, the narrator tells herself she loves her dance partner. Should we believe her? Why or why not?

7. Is the male partner the real "villain" in this story? Why or why not?

8. Why does the narrator agree to continue dancing with her partner?

Social Concerns

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On the surface, "The Waltz" appears to be merely a woman's complaint against an inept dancing partner who moves too fast and kicks her shins. Read allegorically, the story offers a stinging assessment of marriage. Parker achieves this by setting an external voice that agrees to dance against an internal voice that complains about the experience. While the external voice is one of compliance, the internal voice is characterized by exaggeration: "I guess I'm as well off here," she tells herself of her waltzing. "As well off as if I were...

(This entire section contains 485 words.)

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in a cement mixer in full action." Yet the waltz does not last for "one-hundred years" or for "one-thousand years," but for a significantly specific number: "And here I've been locked in his noxious embrace for the thirty-five years this waltz has lasted." Parker was thirty-five years old when she divorced her first husband in 1928, but given the dance's symbolic representation of sexual encounters, the number more likely refers to the length of a marriage.

This marriage, however, is not limited to one specific couple. Parker uses nameless characters to extend her critique to marriage overall. It is an institution in trouble, characterized by miscommunication, male insensitivity, sexual dissatisfaction, and physical abuse. The female partner feels obligated to say yes to her partner's request, refusing to tell him how she really feels. She feels "trapped" by her setting and by social expectations for women to pair off. "But what could I do? Everyone else at the table had got up to dance, except him and me." His "dance," however, is too fast; the woman can never feel comfortable or satisfied. "Why can't we stay in one place just long enough to get acclimated?"

This complaint is interrupted by repeated incidents of violence and denial. The male partner kicks the narrator's shins; her external response is to grin and bear it. Internally, however, the assault takes on a larger meaning. "I don't want to be of the oversensitive type, but you can't tell me that kick was unpremeditated. Freud says there are no accidents. I've led no cloistered life, I've known dancing partners who have spoiled my slippers and torn my dress; but when it comes to kicking, I am Outraged Womanhood." Severer allusions to violence appear: "plaster cast," "splintering bones," "dead," and "I'm past all feeling now." Collectively, Parker's literal exaggerations take on allegorical power.

Parker's stinging critique of marriage and of male-female relationships points to one of the paradoxes embedded in the so-called Roaring Twenties, or Jazz Age. The social and sexual freedom women experienced often backfired due to lingering, neo-Victorian values regarding sex. Liberated women were still expected to be "ladies" (at least in appearance) while there was little expectation that Jazz Age gents would remain gentlemen. The resulting tension contributed to rising divorce rates. The physical violence occurring between Parker's waltzing couple eerily forecasts the spouse abuse prevalent in the 1990s.

Literary Precedents

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The narrator in "The Waltz" fits the literary precedent of the witty, complaining female found in Chaucer's "Wife of Bath" (in The Canterbury Tales, c. 1387- 1400). The use of humor to critique male-female relationships, however, has a more recent tradition among American women writers. The nineteenth century saw the rise of Fanny Fern, Francis Miriam Berry Whitcher, and Marietta Holley, writers who offered sharp commentaries on the sexes through the protective device of humor.

An interesting comparison can be made with a turn-of-the-century regional story, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun." Although set in a different time and among different circumstances, Louisa Ellis finds a way to say 'no' to a man's offering.

"The Waltz" is also in keeping with works of fiction by Parker's contemporaries. Although better known for her poetry, Edna St. Vincent Millay's book of satiric sketches, Distressing Dialogues (1924), humorously illustrates a number of difficulties between the sexes. In terms of its psychological exploration and sexual tension, "The Waltz" can be usefully compared with "Bliss" (1918; see separate entry) by Katherine Mansfield, a writer Parker admired. The stream-of-consciousness nature of Parker's interior monologue also aligns "The Waltz" with the fiction of James Joyce, and especially of Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall" (1917; see separate entry). For the images of women Parker was rebelling against, see any of the stories or novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald