blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On Parker's "The Waltz"

[Currently, "The Waltz" is probably Parker's best known and most frequently anthologized short story. Two female voices, an external compliant one, and an internal critical one, construct the tale of a couple's dance. The story also generates the most critical and scholarly attention -- as well as differences of opinion. Below are brief excerpts from the critical discussion surrounding this story presented chronologically. They are designed to give you not only a taste of the variety of responses to "The Waltz," but a sense of how critical discussion of Parker's work has evolved over time. All of these arguments should be read in full.]

 Mark Van Doren (1934)

". . . the pathos [in "Sentiment," another Parker monologue] . . . represents an improvement in quality upon that of the monologues which preceded it in the same mode. The effect, that is to say, is more complex; Mrs. Parker is learning to play upon a second string; though she returns to one minor note in "The Waltz" and "The Little Hours," the note becoming now a peevish one, petulant against discomfort."

From Mark Van Doren. "Dorothy Parker." The English Journal 23:7 (Sept. 1934): 535-543.

 Emily Toth (1977)

"The Waltz," for instance, is a young woman's cynical thoughts while waltzing with a young man. She's just told him she'd . . . waltz with him, and then we read how she really feels . . . . Grimly, she acknowledges there's no way to say no when a man asks her to dance . . . . [s]o she goes along with the social game . . . .

The double consciousness -- the complete split between what she does and what she thinks, the embracing-denouncing game -- is funny. So is the exaggeration, the way time stretches when you're not having fun. But the young woman really doesn't have an alternative: how can she be rude? She can't say what she considers saying . . . .

Only at the Algonquin Round Table -- and even that had its limits -- could a young woman say exactly what she thought, and be considered witty instead of monstrous. . . . Otherwise, the social rules for women were as Dorothy Parker depicts them in "The Waltz": women were expected to please men. Parker's satirical target, then, is neither the clumsy young man nor the bruised young woman, but the social roles they're locked into -- in short, the affections and hypocrisies of a patriarchal society.

From Emily Toth. "Dorothy Parker, Erica Jong, and New Feminist Humor." Regionalism and the Female Imagination 2:2 (1977): 70-85.

Suzanne Bunkers (1977)

. . . . I began to wonder if "The Waltz" were really as funny as everyone thought. The persona, a young woman, at first seems to be the stereotypical chatterbox until one notices that the bulk of her "chattering" consists of a serious discussion with herself. Even though she speaks politely to the clumsy man with whom she is dancing . . . , her thoughts reveal her distaste for the social role she is expected to fill . . . . [H]er witty and sarcastic thoughts reveal her true inner rage . . . . The pattern of sharply conflicting overt and covert messages in "The Waltz" characterizes the ironic tone of Parker's fiction, a tone also evident in poems such as "Love Song."

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

 By Arthur F. Kinney (1978)

. . . "The Waltz" is so sharply caustic that we forget the stereotyped situation it elaborates (and forget having ourselves been in it). What holds our attention is the ever-fertile imagination of the speaker in thinking of ways to be ironic about herself, so as not to recognize her own joy in the dance.

From Arthur F. Kinney. Dorothy Parker. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

 Paula A. Treichler (1980)

Indeed, for all the obviousness of its formal organization, "The Waltz" presents us with a highly complicated verbal structure that whose ostensible commitments are continually disintegrating. The language cannot finally sustain the clear divisions it has created. The structural boundaries between inner and outer speech dissolve and the two voices, despite their formal and semantic differences, collapse to form a story that is, in the end, talking about itself. . . . Only a language-centered analysis which looks closely at the linguistic features and verbal form can offer a satisfactory account of the story's problems and concerns: any other kind of analysis may actually end up misrepresenting what the story says about women, and about their relationship to men.

[Treichler closely analyzes the various types of language Parker uses in the story, then focuses on the story's conclusion.]

"The Waltz" does not really offer a contrast between the external language of the world and the internal language of the self. Instead it offers a series of verbal redundancies that play upon each other -- a trap. It is a study in self-subversion. . . . the story returns us to its beginning . . . and encloses the speaker in a circle of her own words. The waltz is without end, and, in these last lines, without the accompanying internal monologue that subverts her acquiescence. Her words display her customary compliance, but further, energetically assert her willingness to go on waltzing. She participates in perpetuating the situation which called for what we were made to believe was intolerable hypocrisy. Her compliance demands that we reevaluate our perceptions of that hypocrisy.

The ending of the story reveals that the speaker has been lying to us as much as to her partner. It denies our sense that we have had access to her true feelings. . . .

What are we to make of such complicity? In exercising her narrative authority, Parker abandons her protagonist to the story's language. As we return to the beginning of the story, we see our interpretation of [it] as shallow and duplicitous is not accurate: what seemed to be duplicity is in fact complicity. The language does not mock social realities but affirms them. . . .

Women's literature records the working out of a series of personal, political, and artistic motives in verbal terms. Each move toward rhetorical change is compromised by the prior commitments of the language and by the pressure literary history exerts on the individual use of literary forms. The vision of what might be must struggle with what has been. Thus "The Waltz" simultaneously satirizes ritualized social interaction and embodies it. It is essential that study of women's style acknowledge and document this paradox. . . .

From Paula A. Treichler. "Verbal Subversions in Dorothy Parker: 'Trapped Like a Trap in a Trap.'" Language and Style 13:4 (1980): 46-61.

Lynn Z. Bloom (1982)

"The Waltz" and "A Telephone Call" . . . present typical Parker characters, insecure young women who derive their social and personal acceptance from the approval of men, and who go to extremes, whether sincere or hypocritical, to maintain this approbation. The characters, anonymous and therefore legion, elicit from the readers a mixture of sympathy and ridicule. . . .

[The characters'] predicaments are largely self-imposed as well as trivial and so they are ludicrous, unwittingly burlesqued through the narrators' hyperbolic perspectives. Both women are trapped in situations they have permitted to occur but from which they lack the resourcefulness or assertiveness to extricate themselves. . . .

Thus the plots of these slight stories are as slender as the resources of the monologist narrators, for whom formulaic prayers or serial wisecracks . . . are inadequate to alter their situations. Such narratives, with their fixed perspectives, exploitation of a single petty issue, and simple characters, have to be short. To be any longer would be to add redundance without complexity, to bore rather than to amuse with verbal pyrotechnics. . .

Although . . . Parker satirizes vapid unassertive women with empty lives, her satire carries with it satire's inevitable message of dissatisfaction with the status quo and an implicit plea for reform. For in subtle ways Parker makes a feminist plea even through her most passive, vacuous characters. . . . To the extent that Parker was a satirist was also a moralist.

From Lynn Z. Bloom. "Dorothy Parker." Critical Survey of Fiction Vol 5. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1982.

 Nancy A. Walker (1988)

Speaking primarily to female readers about the conditions of the lives they share, female humorists have on the surface seemed to accept and even condone the trivializing routines of women's lives and the unflattering stereotypes of women commonly used in humor. From the early nineteenth century to the present, the sketches, stories, and light verse that constitute this tradition are filled with female figures who are concerned with their appearance, afraid of technology, competitive with each other, and dependent upon men. The familiar stereotypes of the nag, the scold, the "clinging vine," and the gold-digger are present in women's humor just as they are in the humor of men.

But beneath the surface runs a text that directly counters these images and seeks to deny them. By presenting the results of women's cultural conditioning and subordination, America's female humorists implicitly address the sources of women's self-doubt, dependence, and isolation from the mainstream of American life. . . . [M]ost of the personae in women's humor are less aware than their creators of the reasons for the inherent craziness of their lives. . . .

Dorothy Parker employs a more obvious method of presenting "official" and "unofficial" responses in her monologue "The Waltz." Here the speaker uses two voices, one to speak aloud to the man who asks her to dance and the other to provide the reader with her actual responses to the experience. The contrast between her polite "public" voice and her witty and angry "private" voice is both the source of humor and a clear statement of woman's outward conformity and inward rebellion. . . .

"The Waltz" ultimately becomes metaphoric of man's brutality and woman's powerlessness. . . . The sketch ends with the speaker encouraging the man who she has privately identified as a "creature" to pay the band to keep on playing. The hyperbolic language that Parker uses in both the public and private utterances of her persona is at once an example of comic incongruity and a clear indication that the "waltz" of the title is emblematic of a continuing cycle of male domination and female submissiveness. The speaker in Parker's sketch is able to articulate her dilemma, but is doomed to go on repeating it.

From Nancy A. Walker. A Very Serious Thing: Women's Humor and American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988. 30-35.

Arthur F. Kinney (1998)

. . . "The Waltz" . . . is ostensibly about the luckless narrator's denigration of her dancing partner, blaming him for her own failure to attract a suitable mate. The story of self-admonition also brings self-condemnation. Thus the outer voicings work dialogically with the interior thought, the bifocalism of her hypocrisy tellingly demonstrating the slow submergence of her individual will into the will of social custom, her interior defeat dictated by her need for public success. It results, ironically, in public exposure.

From Arthur F. Kinney. Dorothy Parker, Revised. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

 Rhonda Pettit (1999)

One of Dorothy Parker's most frequently anthologized short stories is "The Waltz." Published in 1933 in the New Yorker, "The Waltz" is an interior monologue that also contains seven instances -- forty-nine sentences in all -- of the female narrator's external or speaking voice. The two voices, at odds with each other over the quality of both the dance and dancer the narrator experiences, provide the comic frame of the story: the internal voice wants to throttle the male dance partner, while the external voice wants to continue dancing. Humor, however, is not the story's only or even primary intent. Rich in language styles and symbols, "The Waltz" can be read as an allegory for heterosexual marriage, though there is no absolute agreement on what Parker is claiming about the institution. Feminist critics such as Nancy Walker, Emily Toth, and Suzanne Bunkers consider the story's humor as a form of social protest against conventional marriage and social customs that place restrictions on women's autonomy. In contrast, Paula Treichler argues that the story's values are complicit with patriarchy.

We should not be surprised by the multiple readings "The Waltz" invites because the story itself, in both form and content, is characterized by imbalance and ambivalence. Given its external speaking voice, "The Waltz" is not a pure interior monologue. We hear more from the female narrator/dancer than we do from the male partner; anything from the male partner must be inferred from the narrator's comments. As her frequent internal putdowns indicate, she clearly sees herself above her inept partner. And yet, despite his fast and sloppy waltzing, the male dance partner "wins" in the end since the narrator agrees to dance with him again. I want to . . . offer another symbolic reading. For purposes of this discussion, I read Parker's waltz as symbolic of the sloppy dance between serious art and popular culture -- or between "high" and "low" modernisms -- in the 1920s. I refer here to the sloppy exchange between advertising and art (both visual and verbal), between popular song lyrics and fiction, and between "little" and mass circulation magazines. Reading modernism this way is certainly not a new idea, but when we apply this critical frame to Parker's work we can more clearly see the role she plays in early twentieth-century modernism.

From Rhonda Pettit. "Lo(w)cations for 'High' Modernism: Dorothy Parker and Early Twentieth-Century Literature." Presented at the 41st Annual Convention of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nov. 6, 1999.

Return to Dorothy Parker