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On Parker and Humor

Suzanne L. Bunkers

Dorothy Parker was not only a wit also a chronicler and a harsh critic of 1920s-1930s social roles. Her poems and short stories are not simply "cute" or "funny"; they also function as a vehicle for social criticism. Of particular importance is Parker's use of stereotypical female characters to satirize, more bitterly than playfully, the limited roles available to American women during the Twenties and Thirties, decades when the predominant image of the American woman was that of the sexually free, even promiscuous, flapper.

In keeping with her purpose as a satirist, Parker's poems and short stories criticize the status quo rather than define new, three-dimensional female roles. As a result, her women characters generally evoke mixed reactions from the reader: they seem pitiable, yet they grate on the reader's nerves. They appear to be victimized not only by an oppressive society but also be their inability to fight back against that society. It would be easy to conclude that Dorothy Parker is hostile toward the "simpering spinsters" or "rich bitches" she portrays in her poems and stories, but to do so would fail to take into account her satiric purpose and technique. Dorothy Parker is not satirizing women per se; rather, she uses her pitiable, ridiculous women character to criticize the society which ahs created one-dimensional female roles and forced women to fit into them.

From Suzanne L. Bunkers, "'I Am Outraged Womanhood': Dorothy Parker as Feminist and Social Critic." Regionalism and the Female Imagination 4 (1978): 25-35.

Emily Toth

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was, officially, the wittiest woman of the 1920s, and the best example of what I would call the more traditional female humor. Her wit was a weapon . . . . [a]nd she specialized in truths close to home . . . . Some of her witticisms came from her sympathies -- especially with underdogs, human or canine. . . . She was especially expert at the game of embrace-and-denounce. . . . And her barbs were frequently directed at women, and women who lived the kind of independent, emancipated life she did.

I call Dorothy Parker's humor traditional primarily because of its targets. As all satirists do, she attached affectation and hypocrisy, but like such traditional satirists as Juvenal and Swift she often attacked women -- for such stereotyped traits as cattiness, backbiting, and competition. While her short stories do tend to be more sympathetic, her verbal barbs and her poems -- most of them from the 1920s -- were composed for a mostly male audience, the other members of the Algonquin Round Table.

From Emily Toth, "Dorothy Parker, Erica Jong, and New Feminist Humor." Regionalism and the Female Imagination 2, no. 2 (1977): 70-85.

 Nancy A. Walker and Zita Dresner

Dorothy Parker is one of the few female humorists who are frequently included in anthologies and critical studies of American humor, a fact that may have more to do with her participation in the famous Algonquin Round Table during the 1920s than with an actual critical appreciation of her work. In fact, in the foreword to his collection The Best of Modern Humor (1983), Mordecai Richler explains that he has not included Parker's work because he finds it "brittle, short on substance, and . . . no longer very funny." Yet it is precisely the substance of Parker's work -- its bittersweet, serio-comic depiction of the sexual double standard and uneasy relations between men and women -- that has made it relevant to women's experience for the past sixty years. The story of "Mrs. Parker," as she was known to her friends, has particular appeal to Americans: the outwardly witty, self-confident person who is actually despairing enough to attempt suicide more than once. And if it is her legend that has kept her work in print, readers should be grateful for it.

From Nancy A. Walker and Zita Dresner, eds. Redressing the Balance: American Women's Literary Humor from Colonial Times to the 1980s. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. 257.

See also Nancy A. Walker. A Very Serious Thing: Women's Humor and American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

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