Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker, 1930

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by Dorothy Parker, 1930

Dorothy Parker first attracted attention as a flippant, bittersweet poet and an irreverent, acerbic satirist whose aim at the shallow social customs and social climbers often turned on a bon mot, a turn of phrase or perspective or a pun considered both striking and memorable. Closer attention to her work, however, shows a talented and dedicated artist whose persistent concern with spare, economical, pure language—even when clichéd and colloquial (often used for effect)—drew both on her classical education at Dana's School in Morristown, New Jersey, a private secondary school where she took several years of Latin, and her less formal teachers, especially Ernest Hemingway. Like him, she learned to foreshorten time and place in her short stories so that the central characters and events were always prominently in focus. She learned to rely more on monologue or dialogue than on description. She sought the typical that was also archetypal. Thus however a "slice-of-life" her fiction might seem, the real emphasis often resembles that of James Joyce, whom she also admired. Whether acts and the people who perceive them are substantial or trivial, her stories deal with epiphanic moments of self-awareness or self-exposure (leading to the reader's new judgment and awareness). She frequently spoke of Hemingway as a model and convinced the New Yorker to pay her sea voyage to Paris so that she could interview him there, producing the first profile in that magazine ("The Artist's Reward," 30 November 1929). But she also praised F. Scott Fitzgerald, from whom she learned the value of particular, selected objects as symbols of broader social significance; and Ring Lardner, who taught her how to use colloquial dialogue.

The strategy for her fiction—both the early, obvious satires and the later, more sophisticated ones—is often the same: the energy and significance reside in irony, where one shallow person condemns another or is in turn exposed. Nearly all her short stories chart the same course: they affect sophistication while nevertheless displaying the manners of an ignorant "bambosie." But if some of their customs and behavior seem obvious or transparent now, such revealing stories in the 1920s and 1930s had significant power. The bohemian style following World War I, affected and derivative, fit awkwardly with the Puritan values that were still prevalent among Parker's readers, and a considerable part of her strength and importance as a writer lies in her awareness that both strains together constituted American culture—and both strains had their serious weaknesses. Her fiction thus constantly turns to the disjunction between intention and performance, pretended knowledge and real ignorance, feigned concern and real pride and greed. In her short stories the barbed and acid criticism of her satirical verse is still central, but it is both more incisive and more subtle. Gilbert Seldes's praise of Lardner fits her equally well: "the swift, destructive, and tremendously funny turn of phrase, the hard and resistant mind, the gaiety of spirit," but compounded in Parker's case with great labor and care. "It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence," she once told Marion Capron in an interview. "I can't write five words but that I change seven." This caution, purchased at such cost, was also necessary to keep guard over Parker's more sentimental, sympathetic side, the kind of emotion she could show in public but ruthlessly exempted from her writing.

The best example of all her qualities is seen in her most successful, most anthologized, and most enduring story, "Big Blonde" (first published in 1929 and collected in 1930 in Laments for the Living). It is also her most daring story, for it recounts unflinchingly her own alcoholic depressions and attempts at suicide in the years immediately preceding its composition. Like Parker, the story's protagonist, Hazel Morse, is terrified of loneliness and despair, even when she is thought by her friends to be a party girl, a barrel of laughs, always ready for a carefree time. While the stark and unrelieved tragedy of Hazel was new for Parker (a risk that seriously challenged her popular reputation as a wit, on which her career had relied so completely), the story of "Big Blonde" is masterfully rendered, told with astonishing power and technique. Parker reduces the long and despairing years of a woman's life into short panels and compresses an entire autobiography into the strictly limited range of the short story. It is both startlingly panoramic and severely concentrated. In its portrait of the birth and growth of alcoholism and suicidal despair and in its clinical analysis, painfully detailed and piercingly accurate, it is an unrelenting study of the possibility of the brutality of life—the brutality of an uncaring society and of an uncaring self, one lacking self-esteem. The close and steady focus on Hazel Morse's decline and fall is Parker's searing attempt to record society's victimization of its more vulnerable members and the self-victimization of those who cannot earn achieve self-respect.

From the start Hazel finds no advantage in living. She never knew the pleasure of family; her later popularity is artificial. But she has no distorted sense of herself. She is willing to settle for the nearly worthless Herbie Morse to gain some security and stability. Herbie leads Hazel to alcohol, which in turn produces tenderness, self-pity, "misty melancholies." Herbie finally leaves her, despising himself, despising him in her, and she becomes a party girl, seeking favors from anyone willing to give them to her, however temporarily.

Hazel is mirrored in her husband, the speakeasies, her lovers, and finally, the maid, yet all these painful doublings are not nearly so pathetic as the comparison Parker makes between Hazel and a wretched horse, nor as tragic as Hazel looking at herself in a mirror while taking what she thinks is a fatal dose of Veronal. Here, at the moment of suicide, the best she can manage is a bad joke: "Gee, I'm nearly dead…. That's a hot one!"

But that is not the end of Hazel Morse. As she survived desertion by her husband and by a string of anonymous lovers, so she survives the deadly poison: her punishment is to remain alive amid the squalor of the poor and unfortunate yearning to breathe free. Yet what survives is at best what we see when Hazel, drugged, is at greatest peace with herself:

Mrs. Morse lay on her back, one flabby, white arm flung up, the wrist against her forehead. Her stiff hair hung tenderly along her face. The bed covers were pushed down, exposing a deep square of soft neck and a pink nightgown, its fabric worn uneven by many launderings; her great breasts, freed from their tight confiner, sagged beneath her arm-pits. Now and then she made knotted, snorting sounds, and from the corner of her opened mouth to the blurred turn of her jaw ran a lane of crusted spittle.

The spittle doubtless descends from that of her literary prototype, Flaubert's suicide Emma Bovary, from whose mouth at death trickles black bile. But Emma leaves a respectable husband, a doctor, and their daughter. Hazel lives rather than dies, and still she has no one. She remains at the close of the story symbolically limp and weakened in bed, a bottle close to her hand—but no more pills.

From more than 2, 000 entries in 1929, the unrelenting story of the "Big Blonde," the good-time girl, was awarded the eleventh annual first prize of $500 in the O. Henry Memorial Prizes for the best short story appearing in an American magazine for that year. It was instantly a classic. From as far away as Cannes, Fitzgerald himself was elated. He urged his agent to take up Parker as a client: "Just now she's at a high point as a producer and as to reputation," he wrote Max Perkins, "I wouldn't lose any time about this if it interests you." For him as for many later critics, this was masterful storytelling. However closely it scraped along the bones of Park-er's own life, they were bones with the beauty of artifice stripped bare and a detail clean with truth. But like Hazel Morse, alone at the end, feeling unwanted and unsuccessful, there is no record that Parker ever knew what her model Fitzgerald thought of the story or what he said of it.

—Arthur F. Kinney