Social Patriarchy and Professional Womanhood: Occupational Consequences in Dorothy Parker’s “The Waltz”
Dorothy Parker’s short work of 1933, “The Waltz”, despite its comic nature, apparent simplicity, and tedious theme, has warranted analysis repeatedly as time goes by. These analyses – in majority – tend to concern the lovelorn narrator’s social entrapment; the narration’s portrayal of a split personality; themes of gender inequality throughout the text, and investigations into the conflict inherent in the narrator’s often contradictory or emergently complex feelings. Critical discussion of such aspects of Parker’s dialogical narrative is often as divided as the text itself: some interpret the work as promotion for feminist ideologies and protest against a range of patriarchal assertions, while others argue that Parker’s characters demonstrate a shade of masochism through the realization of self-inflicted conflicts; however, analysis of the rhetorical methods by which Parker’s story is so impressionably composed are curiously underrepresented. Of the many rhetorical strategies in play within the work, perhaps the most prevalent, is the pervading motif of cyclic monotony, which “The Waltz” embodies as a symbol of a self-sufficient system of perpetual female suppression that impeded advancement on women’s vocational fronts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The outset of the piece sees the beginning of a seemingly endless cycle of oppression and sets the stage for broader interpretation. The narrator obliges a young man’s request to dance in order to fulfill social expectations and maintain a degree of public functionality, despite her grudging and hypercritical mentality. As a result of her compliance, the narrator finds herself locked in what she refers to as a “trap”. However, as previously indicated, the piece does not describe one revolution of the cycle, beginning to end; rather, it describes an endless cycle, beginning to beginning. To say that the work itself ends is somewhat inaccurate, for in reality, there is no traditional conclusion to the piece, and the reader is impressed with the notion that, as throughout the text, the dancers simply continue to dance indefinitely, as Ken Johnson reasons: “As the story concludes, the speaker will be seen whirling off into her fictional eternity on a dance floor…” (285). The reader, being equipped with no familiarity of the narrator prior to her career as an unenthused dancer, may be justified in viewing the narrator’s known existence as an infinite waltz. In this way, Parker entreats the reader to view the waltz more broadly and identifies the “trap” as an encompassing theme of the narrator’s life, or an omnipotent eddy, strictly defining the path of her affairs.
The analogical waltz is functionally representative of a system of social standards enforced by a strict self-consciousness of decorum. By tracing the narrator’s outward decisions, one can isolate the very pivot upon which the narrator’s world – the female world – is said to revolve, inevitably around the young man himself. Obligation to honor this patriarchal ideology not only forces the narrator to accept her role as dance partner, but additionally compels her to stifle any utterance of discomfort and even to take responsibility for her pain: “No, of course it didn’t hurt. … And it was all my fault” (Parker, 3). In this instance, “all my fault” resonates in the minds of some readers, who choose to view the narrator’s plight as largely self-inflicted without allowing for the social obligations underlying her motives. Many critics still erroneously pose the allegation that Parker’s characters are of an irrational and petulant strain and that their respective obstacles are fabricated by their own masochistic gullibility and petty desires, wherein critique falters under modern theory.
These critics judge the actions of the protagonist against a modernized system of values with which those of the narrator are incompatible and inevitably yield accusations that Parker’s characters are “self-victimized by their own giddiness and lack of perspective” (Yates, 281), despite telltale indicators utilized by Parker in such passages as, “What can you say, when a man asks you to dance with him? … No. There was nothing for me to do, but say I’d adore to” (1). Through statements like this, Parker elaborates on the narrator’s motivations for her actions and the significance of those motivations – that it is impossible to decline a man in the protagonist’s known world. As Emily Toth confirms, “…the social rules for women were as Dorothy Parker depicts them in “The Waltz”: women were expected to please men” (“Dorothy Parker, Erica Jong, and New Feminist Humor” 140). The narrator gives comprehensive hints throughout the text by which her social background can be deduced as a shamelessly patriarchal institution with which she is self-consciously acting in concordance.
Just as “The Waltz” may be considered a critical allegory for women’s unequal social status, one may turn to Parker’s contemporaries for a record of the resulting complications that extend to women’s professions under such a strict social ideal. Virginia Woolf offers a prime demonstration for this concept. Woolf relates this struggle through her 1931 speech, dubbed “Professions for Women”, in which she portrays her own socially-ingrained restraint as an external entity – the “Angel in the House” – acting as a warden for her thoughts and manipulating her work, thereby sacrificing professional objectivity in honor of the preferred sex (par. 4). Woolf’s “Angel in the House” is a personified rendering of woman’s plight against social conscience as described in “The Waltz” and even reflects Parker’s dualistic representation of an individual’s conflicting judgments. In each of these cases, the authors acknowledge the source of their social discontent as an antagonistic force simultaneously external and internal. In Parker’s case, though the narrator as a whole appears fragmented into her inner thoughts and her expressed beliefs, the two are understood to be linked. The dialogical format of the piece does convey the idea that the inner voice has no bearing on the activities of the outer voice but for the inner voice’s recurring explorations into the judgments behind their outward decisions. Meanwhile, Woolf identifies the phantom of her social ideal as a projection of her own innate sense of propriety, which manifests itself in the elusive rustling of skirts, the looming shadow of wings, or a whisper of guidance. From these associations, one may be compelled to view Parker’s “The Waltz” and Woolf’s “Professions for Women” as vessels bearing synonymous meaning.
Many critics note Parker’s value to feminism comes partly at the price of her social reputation among her counterparts, both female and otherwise. Though by the 1930s, women were attaining feats outside their predetermined social role and writing was no longer inconceivable as a respectable profession for women, restrictions lingered to regulate the nature of their work. These restrictions not only preserved masculine dominance but charged women writers to pay due service to men through their work – a service that was impossible to honor in conjunction with vocational integrity. Woolf speaks of discovering this principle also, “[The Angel in the House] slipped behind me and whispered: My dear, you are a young woman.
You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all of the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own” (par. 4). Here, Woolf outlines the social expectations that challenge her liberty to exercise objective criticism, but also accurately profiles the outward manner of Parker’s protagonist. By comparing Woolf’s excerpt with a portion of the protagonist’s monologue, a congruency between them becomes notable: “Oh, did you work it up yourself? You really did? Well, aren’t you amazing! Oh, now I think I’ve got it. Oh, I think it’s lovely” (Parker, 3).
The narrator communicates and performs in agreement with Woolf’s prophecy and confines all creative thought, negativity and opinion to her cynical and comparatively intellectual covert monologue. Parker herself, however, does not reflect the moral of Woolf’s “Angel”, for hence comes her renown. As presented by Toth, “Dorothy Parker was not [a lady] … [She] emancipated women writers from the need to be nice, to hide their anger. Though her wit was often at her own expense, she nevertheless said what she thought” (“A Laughter of Their Own: Women’s Humor in the United States” 286-287). Parker’s caustic wit, blunt sarcasm, and bleak comedy was more than sufficient to estrange her from the well-defined framework of what was esteemed as contemporarily decent and proper.
Parker’s stance on the relationship between professionalism and the lingering social prejudices enveloping the perception of gender in the 1930s is evident throughout “The Waltz”. The narrator, in her efforts to exemplify a model of social decorum and perform her feminine duties, achieves nothing through her cooperation but finds herself submitting and resubmitting herself to the dances she finds unenjoyable, praising the young man despite her perception that he is unintelligent, and being buffeted for what seems eternity by the young man’s recurring clumsiness – utterly without recompense. Regarding the narrator’s role in the dance as her professional station, the resulting impression of women’s occupations is not encouraging. Parker asserts it is impossible to balance ethics with submission to such discriminatory conventions without condemning women’s professional undertakings to a figurehead.
Dorothy’s Parker’s short work “The Waltz” utilizes themes of repetition and entrapment to symbolize the restrictions imposed on women by patriarchal notions of a prejudiced society. These themes aid associations between the text and the shared conflicts among the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ women in society. Parker’s work may be interpreted in conjunction with selections from her contemporaries to represent the comprehensive nature of that conflict and demonstrate the pervasiveness of social restrictions within the lives of women as social victims, as well as women’s overall perception of those restrictions. This practice supports the supposition that an inveterate system of extreme social patriarchy inhibits fundamental professional liberties such as integrity and independent expression, thereby hindering basic vocational necessities and limiting the extent to which women’s work could be critically significant under these conditions.
Johnson, Ken. “Dorothy Parker’s Perpetual Motion.” Short Story Criticism, Vol. 101. Thomson Gale. 1995. 280-286.
Parker, Dorothy. “The Waltz.” The Viking Portable Library. Dickatlee.com 1933. n.p. dickatlee.com/poetry/pdfs/waltz_dorothy_parker.pdf Accessed Oct 16, 2016.
Toth, Emily. “A Laughter of Their Own: Women’s Humor in the United States.” Short Story Criticism, Vol 2. Gale Research, Inc. 1984. 286-287.
“Dorothy Parker, Erica Jong, and New Feminist Humor.” The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker. 1977. 137-151. books.google.com/books/about/The_Critical_Waltz.html?id=25AWQogcLScC Accessed Oct. 16, 2016.
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women.” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. The University of Adelaide. sfu.ca/~scheel/english338/Professions.htm Accessed Oct. 16, 2016.
Yates, Norris. “Dorothy Parker’s Idle Men and Women.” Short Story Criticism, Vol 2. 1964. Gale Research, Inc. 280-282.