I haven’t had enough of politics yet. In fact, I spent this morning writing two different posts on just that subject. But I think most of you may have had enough of politics in this blog for now, and so we shall see if either essay ever sees the light of day online. Instead, let’s take a break for some more creative writing—even if it has sociopolitical content questionable for certain forces today, unfortunately.
I never made any money from the essay which follows. I intend to post soon two which did earn some cash. I wrote this as a sample of what we called a “critical essay” while I taught at Andrew, and as I have told a generation of American Literature/Advanced Composition students, the introduction (which I still enjoy) is too long. But I like it. I hope you do too.
The Sexual Politics in Dorothy Parker’s “The Waltz”
When I was in seventh grade and attended Washington Junior High School in Rock Island, Illinois, the school indulged us in a strange (but far from unique) weekly ritual. After school every Friday (or maybe just once a month—our memories do blur over the decades), four or six teachers, an aged school phonograph, and about a hundred and fifty pubescent boys and girls engaged in socially sanctioned co-educational physical encounters—all within the sacrosanct confines of the school gymnasium. The procedure of the event remains vivid: all the boys herded on one side of the gym, the teachers gathered below the wheezing record player on the stage, and the girls demurely assembled along the bleachers on the far side from the boys. A record was cued, the music began scratchily to hiss and boom echoingly through the chamber, and then the boys en masse lumbered across the intervening playing area (and temporary dance floor) in a quick rush toward the same ten or thirty females, who in the midst of the stampede were usually snagged by the most athletic guys (hence the race across the gym?), leaving the rest of us to pick and prod among the remainders, the wallflowers.
My best friend and I were rivals (however little she realized it) for the attentions of one Jeri Atkinson, who had blossomed (ah, the sweet fragrance of euphemism!) interestingly since the elementary-school May before. Only one of us, of course, could have her for any particular dance, reducing the other, the slower, to sit it out alone or else grudgingly select a lesser female. Our hasty crossing of the gym, pushing and shoving as we went, when the music began, enacted in miniature the larger process progressing around us—much as our Friday dances at WJHS were microcosms of social behavior throughout American culture in those days. However, engulfed and drowning in the hormones of the experience itself, even older than thirteen, it can be difficult to see the semantics, psychology and sociology on display. Or to be conscious of the others there.
Nearly every weekend in most communities throughout the United States, public dances are held yet today. The country line dance phenomenon only made that remark more obvious. These gatherings seem to fulfill useful social functions, bringing people together; but as many feminists have observed, dances and parties may actually be merely meat markets where single women feel forced to parade their availability—like it or not. Possibly the most frightening aspect of sexism in such a situation is that the women on display are sadly ignorant of their terrible situation. I know in my youth I was terribly ignorant of what my and my peers’ behavior might be inflicting on those “lesser females.” More recent experiences, in real life and in literature, however, have, I hope, helped to rectify my spiritual blindness. It has helped me to imagine what girls might have been thinking and feeling as I ignorantly pursued my own selfish goals back in seventh grade and later years. Dorothy Parker examines the conflict inside one such woman in her short story “The Waltz.” The narrator expresses internal anguish and anger as, very ladylike, she plays up to the big lunk with whom she must dance.
As a story “The Waltz” is very simple. A wallflower, having been asked by a young man (whom she apparently despises) to dance, agrees, verbally, while her inner thoughts rage against this masculine swine. The story itself simply recounts her thoughts and words during this awful dance, as her partner steps on her, kicks her, frustrates her, and finally offers to pay for an encore (to which she enthusiastically agrees). Her thoughts are presented in standard type while her words appear in italics. The only reality presented to the reader is what this girl thinks and what she says. The story is told entirely from within the nameless protagonistʼs mind—an internal monologue. The reader knows only the tortured dancerʼs thoughts and words as she is whirled through a self-inflicted danse macabre in a 1930s dance hall. She is the only character we are allowed to know. Although we receive her very vivid impressions of the young klutz with whom she is paired, we only know what she thinks of him, and these are thoughts she never allows outside her own head. Externally, she verbalizes only simpering and seductive attraction for her partner. All of her problems actually reside within herself, and that truth is the feminist point of the tale.
Although many forms of conflict are present in the narrative—including social pressure, physical pain and personal rivalry—our protagonist is the source and focus of all the problems. She chose to be at this dance she appears to hate (why not stay home with a good book instead?), lingering like a wallflower on the sidelines (“left alone in my quiet corner of the table, to do my evening brooding over all my sorrows. Everyone else at the table had got up to dance, except him and me” [Parker 56]). Initially, she has already accepted the offer to dance—“Why, thank you so much. Iʼd adore to”—which internally she immediately regrets: “I donʼt want to dance with him. I donʼt want to dance with anybody” (Parker 56). But she especially loathes this man, ridiculing his dance technique and coordination (56-8), his personal hygiene and social breeding—calling him “Jukes” (56), and his intelligence: “Look at him—what could you say to a thing like that” (Parker 58). Regardless she dances with him, externally caressing his vanity with her statements and twice agreeing to continue dancing when opportunity for escape presents itself (58). She even begins at one point to consider him internally as potential husband material: “Oh. Oh dear. Oh, he’s all right, thanks goodness. For a while I thought theyʼd have to carry him off the field. Ah, I couldnʼt bear to have anything happen to him. I love him. I love him better than anybody in the world” (57). There may be debate about how sarcastically she is thinking that romantic thought, but that note of litotes is certainly different from her normal outrage to which she reverts in just two sentences: “Get off my instep, you hulking peasant” (57). Our narrator just canʼt seem to make up her mind. (Please, I did not hear someone saying how like a woman?) In many ways it is her own fault she is trapped with him stomping on her feet. She could, after all, have turned him down. Or could she?
The disaster begins with her acceptance of his proposal to dance. It is her free choice—maybe—and all the rest of her problems result from this decision. She realizes inside that dancing with him will be bad (she has been watching his previous terpsichorean escapades), but the situation only grows worse, physically painful, when he kicks her and then treads on her foot (57). Even before the song ends, then, she could have used this accident to excuse any further dancing, but, no, instead she gushes, “It didnʼt hurt the least little bit. It was my fault. Really it was” (57). She cannot evidently shirk his loathsome embrace. Does she despise him as she thinks inside or adore him as her word express? Even she is confused, I think, because now her sarcastic interior observations about his charm and grace seem to become momentarily sincere. Maybe, she wonders, she really does feel drawn to the “hulking peasant.” He decides the matter for her by tromping heavily on her foot, reviving her internal revulsion, while outwardly she persists in expressing submissive adoration and effuses, “No, of course it didnʼt hurt. Why, it didn’t a bit. Honestly. And it was my fault” (57). Her outward behavior remains persistently subservient.
The awful dance reaches a climax when the band finishes one song and begins an encore. The internal woman wants nothing more than to escape, but aloud she simpers, “Oh, theyʼre going to play an encore. Oh, goody. Oh, thatʼs lovely. Tired? I should say Iʼm not tired. Iʼd like to go on like this forever” (58). What compulsion forces these asinine words from her mouth, imprisoning her in yet another dire waltz? As they continue dancing, her internal feelings remain eloquently unaltered, but in the conclusion she lets him pay the band twenty dollars to keep playing (58). What is responsible for this split within her?
The woman is intelligent, witty, and within quite self-possessed. Her internal remarks on her dance partner express an incisive and daunting intellect and personality. Yet she presents a dim, gushy and submissive character in her spoken words. The manner of Parkerʼs narration emphasizes and reiterates the intense conflict between her strong inner feelings and her silly exterior. Visually this separation is clarified through the use of italics for her spoken words and regular type to distinguish her thoughts. The very appearance of the story on the page enacts the conflict underway in her mind and heart.
What is her problem? Clearly, this internal conflict is the core of the story. Just as clearly, although she despises herself for her external words and actions, she cannot devise or assert any escape from this three-four trap. She is boxed in, “trapped like a trap in a trap” (56). The story itself is caught, wrapped up entirely in her and the dichotomy between her thoughts and her words. And that trap, of course—since style and meaning should be the same (or as similar as language allows) in any artistically crafted piece of literature—is the point of the story.
The struggle between her overly affectionate and simple-minded outward behavior and her thoughtfully eloquent internal feelings of rage and impotence make a keen statement of feminist values. It is true that she chose her way into the situation; she elected to be present at the dance, she decided to accept his invitation, she continues to dance with him when she could find reason to escape. She relocks the fetters on herself. However, she has not been free to make any of these choices. She is a victim of the social expectations under which she was raised and which she continues to enact. As any girl who has attended a dance will attest (and I have asked twenty years of sophomore or junior classes to verify this situation), one simply cannot refuse the boyʼs request. It is not done, it is impolite. So she really has no choice but to accept when he asks. She is driven by social pressure into conformity.
And conform the woman in our story does. She simpers and giggles and feeds his loutish (animalistic) male ego in properly feminine manner. Society dictates the rules of polite behavior and dictates the differences between menʼs and womenʼs roles; she confusedly accepts societyʼs dictates—on the outside. Even as she admires his “awfully effective,” actually awkward waltz-step aloud, she seethes inside at his stupidity. But she cannot shake the yoke of her expected behavior, no matter what torments rage within.
Although she never puts the notion into words, her internal feelings exemplify the terrible cost of male dominance. She is intelligent, but she must repress her brains—smarts aren’t ladylike. She is better than he is in every imaginable way (certainly more polite), but she must submit to and emotionally massage him (and sheʼs certainly more aware and sensitive of his feelings than he is of hers). She resents and loathes the dance; but she is a single person, and good girls get married—a rule which explains her inner feelings of almost-attraction (even through the veil of sarcasm) until he tramples her foot. Her personality is split and tormented from her acceptance of her social role, from the unspoken but deeply felt pressure to conform, to behave in correctly feminine ways.
All the other conflicts converge in her “split personality”—the one great struggle she never can solve, not within the parameters she experiences. She is caught in conflict with this man, forced outwardly to adore, forced inwardly to despise. She is condemned by social pressure to go on display weekly at such dances and to acquiesce to male desires when asked out on the rug. She remains docile, never actually questioning internally the silent, faceless forces that dictate what she should be. She remains a tortured victim of a sexist world that constrains, compels women to be inferiors. A better (wittier, more intelligent, more accomplished) person than the clod with whom she struggles out this waltz, she must contain within herself all her abilities, expressing only the most empty-headed platitudes. No one knows what she could really be or become; not even she knows, not clearly. And that internal ignorance of both her own potential and her own self-slavery is possibly the most terrifying result of a chauvinist society.
Parker, Dorothy. “The Waltz.” American Literature. New York: Ginn and Company, 1984. 56-58.
So there it is. WordPress’s grammar checker doesn’t like all the passive voice used here; neither do I, but I will remain honest to the pseudo-academic style I chose. There really was a Jeri Atkinson (and if necessary, my apologies for using her actual maiden name), and the situation described about Washington Junior High School in Rock Island, Illinois, did happen as described (or as closely as memory permits nearly a half century later). I wish I knew then what I know now…
But Time is as powerful a prison as social forces, and little John of seventh grade remains distinct from all of us later versions. Futhermore, I don’t raise the issue that the story was about contemporary life when it was written—the Thirties. Surely life has changed since. (I wanted the students to consider for themselves if the situation fit their experiences.)
We used Parker’s story for speech contest frequently during my teaching career—as an acting selection (should it have been humorous or dramatic back when they made that distinction in Iowa?), as Prose, and I think once even as part of a Literary Program. I had ample opportunity to think about the tale, and this was the result.