TPR Challenge #3 - Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker's "Here We Are" is one of my favorite short stories to teach.  I love that so many kids simply don't get it.  Now, before you think me some evil professor who likes it when her students are confused, let me explain.  This story is accessible on one level, and students understand it fully on that level.  But only some of them can hear the constant undertone of the piece, and only when they do does the story fully come into focus.  "Here We Are" is a genius of multi-vocality, and it is proof enough to me that Parker is a hidden treasure.  Ostensibly, the story is about a newlywed couple traveling by train to the city for their honeymoon.  During the short train trip, they get into numerous petty arguments, and the wife is rather preoccupied with the idea of marriage and divorce, as though she wonders if she has made the right choice.  Many of my students find her infuriating, as do I on a certain level.  How could you not be frustrated by this kind of comment?
I don't suppose I ought to say it about my own sister, but I never saw anybody look as beautiful as Ellie looked to-day.  And always so sweet and unselfish, too.  And you didn't even notice her.  But you never pay attention to Ellie, anyway.  Don't think I haven't noticed it.  It makes me feel just terrible.  It makes me feel just awful, that you don't like my own sister.
When her new husband protests that he does like her sister, she continues unimpressed with his protestations:
It isn't anything to her whether you like her or not.  Don't flatter yourself she cares!  Only, the only thing is, it makes it awfully hard for me you don't like her, that's the only thing.  I keep thinking, when we come back and get in the apartment and everything, it's going to be awfully hard for me that you won't want my own sister to come and see me.  It's going to make it awfully hard for me that you won't ever want my family around.  I know how you feel about my family.  Don't think I haven't seen it.  Only, if you don't ever want to see them, that's your loss.  Not theirs.  Don't flatter yourself!"
How exhausted must this groom have been after only 3 hours of this?  My students can't understand why she would be so difficult.  Why did she marry him if she was just going to argue with him?  What is this all about?

It's not just my students who miss the full picture.  I've read commentary on this story that merely dissects the depressing quality of newlyweds whose marriage is sure to disintegrate.  Such a bleak picture would not be entirely out of character for Parker, but it is not all this story is about.  The story is really about sex - also not outside of Parker's field of expertise.  Where some readers look to the tension of their whole marriage, I choose instead to focus on the tension of the first few hours.  They will presumably consummate their marriage, and at least one of them (although, I think both is more likely) is uncertain how it will all turn out.  Underneath all this young bride's inanity is a terribly insecure young woman who is terrified of her impending wedding night festivities, and in self-defense, she attempts to fight off her aggressor. 

Parker's mastery here is in the dialogue, where everything has a double meaning.  She is able to portray a realistically naive young woman and her enthusiastic but equally naive groom.  Simultaneously, she is able to make you snicker (and perhaps even guffaw) at the repeated reference to "doing it" and the bride's attempts to convince her groom that she will fall right to sleep as soon as her head hits the pillow.  It is terribly funny.  Finally, she is able to shine a light upon post-Victorian mores and how they affect individuals.  The taboo on sex was still mostly in place in the 30s, and this story does an admirable job of reflecting the fear of such an undiscussed topic. This swirling uncertainty is captured best in the final line of the story, coming in the form of a question.  "Here we are, aren't we?"

So, after enjoying this story for several semesters, I was looking forward to continuing my TPR Challenge by reading Parker's collected stories, which is supposedly in our library.  Unfortunately, it is AWOL.  I checked back several days in a row and even initiated a librarian search for it, but to no avail.  Instead, though, I got Arthur Kinney's fairly comprehensive look at her life and work, Dorothy Parker, Revised and one of her early poetry collections, Enough Rope.  I am now fascinated with this woman and am convinced she will remain a companion of mine for some time.

The poems surprised me because they are entirely metered and rhymed verse, many employing significant wit.  Parker is renowned for her wit; in fact, she laments her reputation being built upon her wit rather than her skills as a writer.  Since I read these simultaneously, I learned of her multiple suicide attempts from the Kinney while exploring these terribly dark poems.  It is a strange and strangely satisfactory juxtaposition to have this light rhymed form conveying such heavy material.  Not all are winners (many are too pat, too much a product for magazine consumption), but the ones that sing are amazing. 

Many readers will discount her because of the simplistic rhyme and meter.  Admittedly, it is not my favorite style.  But once you read several in a row, and you begin to allow the meter to really insist itself upon you, it becomes a means by which she is able to say something important.  She takes this wholly traditional form and uses it to convey nontraditional ideas.  She takes the accepted structure and uses it as a mouthpiece for her unacceptable thoughts.  It is a beautiful example of feminism working within the confines of an existing reality.  The real problem is that her contemporaries couldn't see it.  She secured a unshakable public image, and her writing was hardly ever able to permeate that image. 

The Kinney has urged my curiosity on.  Unfortunately, it has also spoiled some of the bits from the TPR interview.  So, what should have been interesting revelation was at times old hat.  But it did reveal a few new items, and it left Parker more exposed than she perhaps realized.  Her last word in the interview?
I'm not being a smartcracker.  You know I'm not when you meet me - don't you, honey?
Clearly, she has not been able to shed the insecurity, the questioning search of her "Here We Are" protagonist.  She, too, needs to be reassured.  Even in 1956 at the age of 63, she still doesn't trust her opinion of herself to match that of her audience.  It is perhaps the most enduring quality of her life.

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