The 1920s and early 1930s, also called the Jazz Age, was a time for fun and showing off. Dancing, going to dinner parties, and drinking and smoking with friends became the highlight of the times. The economical world had come to the forefront, placing great importance on commodities. Cars, jewelry, and an attractive partner were regarded as necessities. New promising careers became available to men, such as lawyers and bankers. The typical businessman image had emerged, which is still valued today, nearly sixty years later.
However, womens economic opportunities remained limited, so they were forced to play the game: to find a man who would provide these much wanted possessions and hopefully get married and have a family. Styles drastically changed. Gone were the days of the old-fashioned girl and now was the time of the glamorous and sophisticated flapper. Women were letting their hair down, expressing their sexuality with newfound freedom. The days had come where they could finally be seen somewhere else besides the home, and that place had become on the arm of a man, especially for social gatherings.
Marriage, money, and happiness were the new womans quest, and in most of their eyes the only answer was the opposite sex (Pettit 50). These expected and ambiguous gender roles, particularly the womens role, of the time are interesting to study because they show the shift that had taken place from the Victorian era, and can best be seen in the writings of the 1920s and 30s discourse. Female writers of that time best portray the shift that had taken place from the old identities of the Victorian way of thinking to the new identities of the speakeasies way of thinking.
One of the most well known writers for these times is Dorothy Parker, a sarcastic and witty poet and writer also famous for her position at the Algonquin Round table (Acocella 76). Almost all of her poems and short stories deal with the relationship between men and women and the effect that the Jazz Age had on them, particularly the women in the situation. Acocella explains, We see them at the speakeasy, drunkenly complaining to their friends about neglect, betrayal (80).
The best portrayal of the socially constructed gender roles and the hopelessness of male-female relations of the times is seen in Parkers most famous short story, Big Blonde, which won the O. Henry Prize in 1929 (Acocella 76). Because Parkers own life reflected that of the protagonist, Hazel Morse, of Big Blonde, most recent critics such as Joan Acocella, Nina Miller, and Brendan Gill among many others have taken a biographical approach in analyzing this story.
However, it is also important to look at the historical period and the effect that the shift had made on gender roles, specifically feminine, which would explain the similarities between Parker and the character of Hazel Morse. Rhonda Pettit approaches Big Blonde in this way by comparing two female writers, including Parker and Loos, in their similar portrayal of the material girl in the Jazz Age. Cultural/historical criticism has been another way to approach Parkers story, by examining not only the time period the story was written, but also the practices of the society in that time period.
Ellen Lansky takes this approach, combining it with gender studies, and examines the effects of alcohol, which had become the most popular form of social interaction, on men and women and their relationships. Another cultural critic, Amelia Simpson, analyzes Big Blonde through the black females role in the story. Each approach highlights some crucial aspect of Parkers Big Blonde; however, all of these approaches together serve to effectively analyze Parkers Big Blonde.
I combined the biographical with the historical/cultural/feminist perspectives in my own analysis of the story and found that the female of the 1920s on into the 1930s had been placed into an ambiguous and contradictory socially constructed role, which resulted in harmful behaviors and attitudes. And because Parker was very much a part of the popular culture of the Jazz Age, she herself is an example of the woman playing the good sport, fit to the expectations of society.
The good sport was the woman who accompanied a man on his social outings, which almost always included drinking alcohol, laughing at his every joke, and never ever showing any kind of pathetic or sappy emotion. Hazel Morse, the main character of Big Blonde who had once been a thinner, younger, buxom blonde working as a dress model, was now in her middle thirties playing the good sport role to hurry and find a man whom she could settle down with. Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement.
Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men liked a good sport (Gill 187). This was the role of the female of the Jazz Age. Hazel Morse soon finds herself a husband, Herbie, in the social scene. They get married and stop going out like they used to when they first met. However, she becomes too comfortable after the excitement of the marriage wears down. Herbie no longer wants to stay at home watching her cry at the sympathetic things, kidnapped babies, deserted wives, unemployed men (189), that women cry about.
He wants the old Hazel back who would laugh at his jokes, throw back a drink, and forget about all the worries in life. Hazel tries to save the marriage by returning to the practices of the good old days, and win back Herbies love. As Lansky suggests Hazel had fallen into, alcoholism and the female troubles that they encounter as they try to negotiate a life for themselves in a culture that asks them, as heterosexual women, to subordinate their bodies, desires, and aspirations to their male partners (212). This cultural approach serves as a great way of analyzing Big Blonde because it portrays the new role for the woman of the Jazz Age.
Lansky also shows how alcohol had become a social problem for both women and men of that time, and then how the problem perpetuates itself. Men expected the women to serve as their accomplice in drinking and partying, but at the same time act like a woman with dignity and respect, which was hardly ever met under the influence of alcohol (221). So the women find themselves in contradictory roles, one in which they must support their man in his drinking and fun (the new anything goes woman), and in another by staying responsible but subservient to their man (the old-fashioned good girl).
If these expectations were not met then the woman would be served a punishment by losing the marriage and being left alone (213). This is where Hazel Morse finds herself. Herbie leaves her eventually because they cannot break out of their constructed drinking roles, and she is left once again as a single older woman expected to play the good sport in order to keep the man. Lansky then presents the second female trouble, the panoptic gaze and the woman alcoholic. This is when the woman becomes a prisoner, and never sees the inspector whom is always keeping watch over her in the Panopticon.
The inspector can be anybody from the man, to other women, to the reader in a story such as Big Blonde. She (the prisoner) becomes accustomed to this relationship and then internalizes the panoptic gaze, first by acceptance and then by actually punishing herself (217). As Lansky points out, Hazel Morse must feel enraged about the fact that her marriage, with its promises of economic and emotional security, practically dissolves overnight, but a good sport does not show her rage. She is caught up in a fierce, double panoptic gaze, one that disciplines alcoholism and one that disciplines women, sometimes sequentially, sometimes simultaneously.
In this situation she cannot exhibit appropriate female behaviors, and she is punished by all of the inspectors (222). This leads to the third female trouble of alcoholism and the madwoman, which is a term that emerged out of Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre. The feminists Susan Gilbert and Susan Gubar used this term to explain a social construction that resulted in violence and rage from the woman who was stuck in the Panopticon (223). Hazel Morse is clearly a madwoman by the end of the story where she finally tries to commit suicide by taking a bunch of Veronals.
She is tired of being watched, by men, other women, and even now, herself. It took her a long time to swallow all twenty of them. She stood watching her reflection with deep, impersonal interest, studying the movements of the gulping throat. Once more she spoke aloud. For Gods sake. Try and cheer up by Thursday, will you? she said. Well, you know what he can do. He and the whole lot of them (Gill 205). Her anger and disgust is voiced, and she finally decides to put herself out of her own misery, by killing the madwoman that she has become and cannot escape.
However, Lansky explains the final female trouble, which offers no solutions to her situation, as Hazel Morse continues to live. Nettie, the black maid, finds Hazel passed out in her bed vulnerable and at the same time repulsive, and fetches the male doctor to awake her from her attempted escape (226). Hazel wakes up to a pinch of reality from the doctor and realizes she has become unsuccessful in her trial of suicide, so it is back to the bottle and the perpetual panoptic gaze. Lansky does a great job of showing the effects of alcohol on women in the Jazz Age.
She compares Parkers story Big Blonde to Porters story Ship of Fools, which also portrays a woman alcoholic plagued by the panoptic gaze. Comparative studies are interesting to see, especially when the two writers are of the same time period, such as Parker and Porter. However, the cultural and feminist aspects are central to Big Blonde and took precedence to Ship of Fools in this study because of limited time. The article goes into a bit of detail about Parkers own marriage and alcohol problems, but it is slim in comparison to the explanation of the females problem with the panoptic gaze.
Lansky puts most of the concentration of her study on the role of the women, and some on the role of men in the 1920s-30s culture, but fails to explain the role of black women and men who are a part of Parkers Big Blonde. Another important cultural and historical aspect, which she hardly touched on at all, was the importance of money and material possessions to the men and particularly the women of the Jazz Age. It is most likely this reason that kept the woman within the confines of the role of the good sport.
However, Pettit talks extensively about this aspect in Material Girls in the Jazz Age. She suggests that Parkers Big Blonde is an answer to Anita Loos Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Anita Loos was another female writer who emerged out of the 1920s. The protagonist in her film, Lorelei, is like Parkers protagonist, Hazel, in that she must rely on men to attain the possessions and lifestyle that she desires to have as her own. The typical gift was rent, food, drink, and other necessities (52-53). The material girl of the jazz age received these gifts from men if they were good sports.
Because the times put such importance on these gifts, including the acceptance and admiration from men, women were not about to refuse playing the game. Lorelei is different from Hazel because she relies on her brains (by devious and selfish plotting) rather than her looks to attract her men. Nor does she attempt suicide to escape the role. She keeps playing the game because she enjoys her place within society. Pettit points out that she is unlike Hazel, who forces her feet into snub-nosed, high-heeled slippers of the shortest bearable size, symbolic of the ill-fitting role of good sport (52).
Both Loos movie and Parkers article are criticisms against marriage and show how harmful the ignorance and dependency of the woman on a man can be by staying in these socially constructed roles. Pettit points out that, Both Lorelei and Hazel play the commodities game with their male counterparts, but Hazel, through her physical, mental, and emotional decline, portrays the high price such a game exacts on a vast majority of women who play it. Big Blonde answers Loreleis well executed but glib success by offering a much harsher critique of the commodification of women (Pettit 53).
It is interesting to see a similar treatment of feminist aspects such as stereotypes and the need for independence in Parker and Loos works, and it does prove the cultural influences on writers of the Jazz Age. But Pettit did not mention the black womans role in the economic game, which would be interesting for Big Blonde, because one of the minor black roles was a prostitute, who was actually portrayed more appealing than Hazel. This is an interesting fact, and is explained by Simpson in her article Black on Blonde: The Africanist presence in Dorothy Parkers Big Blonde.
Although there are only three minor black characters within Big Blonde, They serve as important figures central to the themes of enprisonment and slavery of the female. Simpson explains, These figures bear the heavy body of the sleeping Morse across the narrative bridge back to speech. They rescue her and do more. They illuminate Morses condition, and they complicate the narrative. They engage the story of the blonde in a deeper dialogue with her keepers (106-107). The negative connotations that are linked to blackness become reflected upon Morse and her powerlessness in the situation.
Nettie, the colored maid, is the one who finds Morse almost dead after taking the handful of Veronals, and it is she who fetches the male doctor who brings Hazel back to reality of the situation. Simpson states that, The maid facilitates an arrangement that deepens Morses isolation and renders increasingly conditional her apparent freedom. Nettie gives coherence to a domain explicitly framed to serve male interests (108). A shared identity is formed between Nettie and Hazel as imprisoned females within societys constraints.
This is portrayed in their discussion about Hazels miserable condition after Nettie comes to her rescue and they both have a drink of scotch. Nettie helped not only Hazel, but also the reader in a discovery that would have been lost if Hazel had been successful at her attempt at killing herself (the madwoman). Simpson notes that, A rescued Morse, on the other hand, is a woman without the blinds, finally and fully aware. The character that saves Morse assumes the ungenerous, dismissive, inhuman qualities of all the blondes keepers. Nettie becomes, in effect, the punishing voice of the social body that creates and destroys Morse (109).
Another important black character in Big Blonde is the dark girl who is more than likely a prostitute who is entertaining the doctor before Nettie call upon him to help Hazel. The prostitute is portrayed as a sexually desirable female worthy of a mans affections. She does not rely on the man for the commodities of the times; she takes the responsibility on herself and becomes the embodiment of independence and blatant sexuality. Simpson points out that, Morse and her crowd represent a marketplace where men pay and women are kept, but the commercial nature of the transaction is masked by a logic of social alliances.
Racial difference undercuts that logic to expose a politics behind Morses abandonment of her own body. She is depicted as sexually indifferent, neutral to the advances of her menThe expression of sexual awareness, desire, and agency is displaced onto the Africanist figures of the elevator attendant and the prostitute (107). Simpsons analysis of Big Blonde is very good in highlighting the cultural aspect that deals with minority. It is a fresh approach and it effectively portrays not only the black and white females role, but also the society who places them within these constraints.
The only aspect Simpson left out was Parkers role in the story, which many other critics have been quick to do. Brendan Gill and Acocella give the best biographical information about Parkers life. Gill tells us in his introduction to The Portable Dorothy Parker, that she was born in 1893 and began writing short stories and love poems highlighting the relationships between men and women, in her early twenties. Her childhood had been particularly rough since she lost her mother at an early age and acquired a hated stepmother (Acocella 76).
After her father died, Parker moved away from New Jersey to her beloved and favorite city of New York, where she worked for Vanity Fair. Her column Modern Love, which commented and explored the themes of heterosexuality, heterosociality, and marriage, was a huge success and was loved by both women and men of the times (Miller 764-765). It was in this time that she was working for Vanity Fair, in which she met her closest friends whom were mostly men, including other writers such as Robert Benchley, Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Robert Sherwood, and became associated with the celebrated Algonquin Round Table (Acocella 76).
The cultural period of the Jazz Age was surrounded by the ideas of social interacting at parties, where drinking, dancing, and gossiping took place among friends. Parker was one of the favorites and became known for her quick wit and sarcastic humor (Acocella 76). Since Parker was the only female of the group, there was immense pressure on her to play the sport. It is perhaps this very reason why so many of her short stories and poems reflect this relationship between men and women.
But Acocella notes, the success that came from the publication of these many celebrated stories, including the award winning Big Blonde, did not bring her happiness. So she tried to fill this void by having promiscuous love affairs and eventually got married to Alan Campbell, an actor and a raging alcoholic (Acocella 78). She became his drinking partner and was soon struggling with bouts of depression because of her failed marriages. It is here where so many critics like Acocella and Gill, compare Parker to her main protagonist, Hazel Morse. Both were wearing shoes that fit too tight, and were bitter and miserable at playing the sport.
Like Hazel, Parker attempted suicide a few times by taking handfuls of Veronals (Acocell 78). But the critics imply that Parker was all talk when it came to death, because she did not die until 1967 of a heart attack. Parker had disappeared from the writing scene any years before this death and the public was surprised when they heard of her death, for they though that it had happened years ago (Gill xiv). Alcohol had been the ending to her demise, just as Hazels had been in Big Blonde. This is beyond a point of significance. Parker and Hazel are, in almost every aspect, the same person.
However, the difference is that Parker had the power as a successful woman writer and didnt realize it. She didnt need to rely on a man like Hazel did for the commodities that were so essential to the time. But because the pressure was so demanding on women in the social scene to be a sport, to make the men laugh, to be the desirable female that was worthy of a husband, Parker fell into the socially devastating role. All these approaches that have been presented can be combined together to make a critical social statement about the society in which Parker, and other women of the 1920s were living.