Sunday, December 11, 2005

Dorothy Parker's Complete Stories

Dorothy Parker

Parker is tricky. She seems to be out of style, at the present, and I think it’s because she’s fooled a good many of the present-day audience. A careless, surface reading of her short stories is likely to give one the impression that she’s as shallow as one of her Park Avenue protagonists. A common conflict occurs in “Mrs. Hofstadter on Josephine Street,” in which a young couple (“The Colonel” and the narrator) hire “a man to market, to cook, to clean,” and they want a man specifically because “maids [meaning women] talked a good deal of the time. [...] We must insist [...] that our servant be, before all things, still” (Complete Stories 236). Another story deals with the inner conflict concerning a young woman who is upset over her choice of dance partners. She thinks, “I’m so glad I brought it to his attention that this is a waltz they’re playing. Heaven knows what might have happened if it was something fast; we’d have blown the sides right out of the building” (“The Waltz” 210). Still another depicts an upper class couple who are the envy of all their neighbors, are extremely polite to each other, saying things like, “See my pretty daffy-down-dillies?” but who, we learn from the gossiping neighbors, are getting divorced (“Too Bad” 17). In “The Sexes,” we read of a tiff between lovers, in which the young woman finally says, “Why don’t you go up to Florence Leaming’s? I know she’d love to have you?” (75). So on a surface read, the reader might begin to wonder whether these stories truly offer conflicts worth pondering.

At present, I believe, we have a reverse classism in literature. There’s a certain shame in reading literature that represents the upper classes, especially where I teach (in the introductory College English courses in a community college). The idea is that we want to represent, perhaps, the socioeconomic status of our students somewhat more accurately than do stories that were written for the upper class of New York society of the 1930s. But even among scholars and colleagues who don’t have those same concerns, I believe that Parker has somehow less status than she once did—and unfairly so.

Those who disregard Parker or view her as somehow shallow miss the boat because they don’t read deeply enough to see Parker’s biting satire of the very women she writes of. In part, I’m sure, it’s the first person narrator; so many people can’t get past believing that when the author addresses the audience as “I,” she is speaking as herself, rather than as a character. Furthermore, even among the more sophisticated audience members who understand the nature of the first person narrative, as well as satire are those who believe the 1930s women about whom Parker writes are outdated. At this reading, though, I find myself even more engaged with her characters, if possible. These are the Paris Hiltons, Nicole Richies, the Desperate Housewives, the Botox injectors, the anorexia women. Their behaviors may vary slightly according to the decade in which they live, but essentially, they’re the very empty-headed women about which E! and VH1 spend their entire programming schedule on. In fact, it might make an interesting popular culture paper (Dorothy Parker and the Women of the E! True Hollywood Story)…but there are only so many papers and so little time.

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