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.
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?
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