General Statements on Parker's Fiction
Arthur F. Kinney
Short fiction is accomplished by restricting either the compass of the subject or the manner or presentation, or both. Parker usually limits her focus to a single scene; the single perspective of an unreliable, innocent, or ignorant narrator; and the insinuation of background detail. As with her poetry, she uses dramatic narration to economize space and maximize effect; she does not identify herself with the narration, however, because she means to tell her stories ironically: her own perception is thus deeper and clearer than the narrator's. Her stories are occasionally dramatic in their unfolding . . . but, more often, they are static -- the change occurs not in character or circumstance but in the reader's awareness of what the author is really signifying. Whether she is writing soliloquy, monologue (this implies a second voice), or narration, she interrupts her narrative with hyperbolic action or remark, repetition, parallelism, cliched diction, and extravagant tone in order to convey to the reader, through that rupture, a meaning somewhat different from that understood by her characters. Her scenes may be scenes of action, but they are more likely to be chains of dialogue that center diachronically upon a trivial detail. Little elements -- a snapped garter, clipping a hedge, false consent -- dovetail into mockery of the mediocre, allowing us to understand and analyze both the subtlety and the acerbity of Parker's fictional portraits. We must learn to distrust the proud or spiteful misjudgments of her characters. Because Parker carefully observes accuracy of nuance and precision of detail, her contracted space is, therefore, perhaps the most misleading thing about her fiction.
From Arthur F. Kinney. Dorothy Parker, Revised. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.
Why is it that many critics seem so intent on defusing the power of Dorothy Parker's writing that she appears more like a terrorist bomb than what she really is: one, solitary, unarmed American writer of great significance? Is it because so many of her critics -- one might hesitate to underscore the obvious: so many of her male critics -- seem to resent, half-consciously, her unwillingness to appease their literary appetites? Is it because Parker did not list among her many talents The Ability to Play Well with Others?
Dorothy Parker wrote strong prose for most of her life, and she wrote a lot of it, remaining relentlessly compassionate regarding, and interested in, the sufferings primarily of those who could not extricate themselves from the emotional tortures of unsuccessful personal relationships. Her stories were personal, yes, but also political and have as their shaping principles the larger issues of her day -- which remain for the most part the larger issues of our own day (with Prohibition mercifully excepted).
Parker depicted the effects of poverty, economic and spiritual, upon women who remained chronically vulnerable because they received little or no education about the real world -- the "real world" being the one outside the fable of love and marriage. But Parker also addressed the ravages of racial discrimination, the effects of war on marriage, the tensions of urban life, and the hollow space between fame and love. Of her domestic portraits one is tempted to say that, for Parker, the words "dysfunctional family" were redundant. She wrote about abortion when you couldn't write the word and wrote aabout chemical and emotional addiction when the concepts were just a gleam in the analysts' collective eye.
Parker approached these subjects with the courage and intelligence of a woman whose wit refused to permit the absurdities of life to continue without comment. Irreverent toward anything held sacred -- from romance or motherhood to literary teas and ethnic stereotypes -- Parker's stories are at once playful, painful, and poignant. Her own characteristic refusal to sit down, shut up, and smile at whoever was footing the bill continues to impress readers who come to her for the first time and delight those who are already familiar with the routine. . . .
Let's clear up this business about narrow topics: Parker concerns herself primarily with the emotional and intellectual landscape of women, the places where a thin overlay of social soil covers the minefields of very personal disaffection, rejection, betrayal, and loss. She manages throughout it all to make her work funny (and that she is funny is one of the most important things about her) while tilling away at this dangerous garden . . . .
If Parker's work can be dismissed as narrow and easy, then so can the work of Austen, Eliot, and Woolf. Now that it's mentioned, their writing was also dismissed as small prose-potatoes for quite some time. Maybe Parker is in good company there in the crowded margins, along with all the other literary paragons of her sex. Aphra Behn didn't get cut much critical slack, either, when she was writing social satire in the 1670s; and like many women writers after her, she was said to have been unencumbered by the necessity of being ladylike. . . . .
From Regina Barreca. Introduction. Complete Stories. By Dorothy Parker. Ed. Colleen Breese. New York: Penguin, 1995.
As with her poetry, Dorothy Parker's fiction has been justly appreciated for its humorous examination of relationships in general and women's lives in particular. Scholars have acknowledged, perhaps too often, its autobiographical component, but there is more to Parker's fiction than the "stories" of her life. Again, thanks to the recovery efforts by feminist scholars regarding nineteenth-century women writers, we can begin to read Parker's fiction as part of an ongoing women's tradition that is influenced by, and responsive to, myriad literary and cultural values.
One of Parker's favorite novels was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair; if the literary allusions in her work tell us anything about what she read, she also knew the novels of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Thus, Parker was well versed in a tradition of literature that sought to comment on and, if possible, improve social conditions. We can see a number of parallels between Parker's fiction and prose of the nineteenth century: use of the sketch form; sense of confinement and smallness; suppression of feeling; Victorian sense of propriety regarding the rules of dating; and an implied but distinctive plea for reform. In Parker's stories about male-female relationships, the desire for reform centers on feminist issues. Race, class, and economic issues either intersect or become the sole focus in other stories: "Arrangement in Black and White," "Big Blonde," "Clothe the Naked," and "The Standard of Living." Significantly, the single recurring criticism of Parker's work (and life) was that she was sentimental. While she somewhat deconstructs this criticism in her story "Sentiment," it likely contributed to her disparaging attitude about her own work.
At the same time, Parker's stories are also distinctly modern. The absence of rhetoric and narration, as well as the concision, economy, and stream-of-consciousness found in her monologues and dialogues places her in the company of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Ernest Hemingway. The lack of closure in her more fully narrated stories (and in the monologues and dialogues) also marks her as a modernist. Some of her earliest, uncollected fiction, ignored as warm-up pieces for her later work, can be considered her most radical in terms of form.
The apparent accessibility of Parker's work can be deceptive. The more readers of Parker know about the traditions she worked from and revised, the better they can understand her role in early twentieth-century modernism.
See Rhonda S. Pettit. A Gendered Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker's Poetry and Fiction. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.
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