Queer, a word first used by the Scottish in 1508 to mean strange, peculiar, or eccentric, has evolved into a critical theory signifying resistance to the traditional views on gender and sexuality since the early 1990s. An Italian author and professor, Teresa de Lauretis coined the term “Queer Theory” during a conference on conjecturing gay and lesbian sexualities held at the University of California. Heavily influenced by deconstruction, post-structuralism, and feminism, queer theory challenges the practice of assigning people to different categories based on a person’s description. Queer theory constructs itself around the concept that identities are not fixed and therefore queer theorists “object to statements that would construct boundaries” (Kirsch 34). As various aspects and components contribute to a person’s identity, it is incorrect to limit human beings into a single group. Instead, queer theory broadens the discussion on individual identity, forming critiques on how factors such as gender and societal influences contribute to the way in which a person creates, maintains, and or changes his or her own identity. Hence, queer theorists distrust the legitimacy of “straight” ideology or heteronormativity, which holds that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation. Therefore “[looking] beyond an exclusive and fixed sexuality” (Dyer 4) and widening the interpretation of literary texts to include deviant types of sexual references and identities has become one of the major tasks of queer theorists. Attempting to resist the accustomed outlook that marriage and sexual relationships are only appropriate between a male and female, queer theory directs its main focus toward analyzing both the subtle and apparent non-normative sexual practices imbedded in works of literature.
Judith Butler, a major proponent of queer theory, “is against the identification of herself or others with categories of being” (Kirsch 81). Butler conveys that heterosexuality and homosexuality are not fixed classifications, believing that people are only in the condition of doing queerness or doing straightness. Through her theory of performativity, “which asserts that because all categories and identities only exist in the ideal, all attempts to reconcile the ideal with the real result in performance” (Kirsch 86), Butler explains how gender is “an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing” (1). The act of gender, similar to a script, once rehearsed, constitutes into reality as human actions perform the “script” daily. Butler infers that sexuality, like gender, is on a continuum and therefore concludes that there is not one or the other. Skeptical of the normative perceptions on sexuality people embody and concerned with the pressures society construes on those deemed non-normative, Judith Butler expresses how: Sometimes norms function both ways at once, and sometimes they function one way for a given group, and another way for another group. What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is livable only for some, and…to refrain from proscribing for all lives what is unlivable for some.
Another primary scholar of queer theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, compels readers to be “more alert to the potential queer nuances” (Edwards 59) illustrated in literary texts. Encompassing the idea that existing words and phrases in a piece of literature consist of different meanings that could be interpreted as queer, Sedgwick encourages readers:
To seek out and cherish potentially queer styles, characters, authors, texts and relationships; to develop a taste for queer bodies and smells; to look out for queer glances, gestures, activities, words, phrases, idioms, images, signs, scenes and symbols; to listen out for the precise qualities and meanings of silences and to be able to feel…the queer rhythms and structures of clauses, sentences, paragraphs, arguments and genres. (Edwards 61)
The struggle for power between men and women in this story is mainly witnessed through interactions in which the female is not living up to what the men want. This makes women, like Hazel, easily replaceable in the lives of men. Women only control the power when they are agreeable therefore Parker creates women who are tapped with no plausible way to obtain power, other than being agreeable and well liked.
The reader sees how detached Hazel appears to be from other women in this story. She can’t understand why they are allowed to be sad but when she appears sad she’s told to smile and how nobody wants to hear about other’s troubles. In fact there are only three women who Hazel holds conversations with at all in the story. The first is her neighbor who lives across the hall while she is married to Herbie.
In Mrs. Martin she finds herself an escape from her trapped and unfulfilling life. They drink and play cards with a group of men referred to as “the boys.” This appears to be the only real friend she has through the entire story although they have a falling out based on the men in their life. The next woman is Mrs. Miller whom upon an exchange in the bathroom leads Hazel to the pills she will use in her suicide attempt. The final character is Nettie the colored maid who nurses Hazel back to life after she tries to take her own life. This appears to be a way for the author to explain the tension among women at this time. All the women in Parker’s story are trying to maintain the appearance that society has allotted them. Were some might think this would draw women together in fact made them further separated because they were all afraid of showing the crack in their own “good sport” personalities.
Although the story takes place when prohibition was still in effect, New York’s nightlife still exist with alcohol readily available. Alcohol in this story is seen as a way to escape from all the fears to fit into the tiny box that women were assigned to or as a way to maintain the act that one was being a “good sport.” After the dissolvent of her marriage everything in Hazel’s life becomes very much like her name, a haze, were days and years bled together thanks to the numbing effects alcohol provides her with. Parker’s protagonist begins drinking as a way to cope with her unstable marriage but even after that dissolves she continues to drink to numb herself from the sadness and sorrow she feels about her life. This idea still rings true in today’s society.
Here we see a prime example of a person self medicating as a way to deal with depression. Parker was painting a picture of the struggles a person faces with no notable identity and how that can lead to drinking. “She was never noticeably drunk and seldom nearly sober. It required a larger daily allowance to keep her misty-minded. Too little, and she was achingly melancholy.” (Parker 197)
When alcohol can no longer satisfy the empty hole growing in the protagonists chest she beings to fanaticize about ending her life. The text states “she dreamed by day of never again putting on tight shoes, of never having to laugh and listen and admire, of never more being a good sport.” (Parker 201) Self-killings as Parker call’s them are still very much an issue in today’s world as they were in the 1920’s when this story was published. As a women who was made to feel as if she had no choice but to be happy it is easy to understand how Hazel reached the conclusion that killing herself would be a relief to the entrapment she felt in her own life. However Parker did not leave us in a story where someone simply discovers Hazel’s dead body. Instead she brings her out of a two day sleeping coma with the help of her colored maid Nettie. In Amelia Simpson’s article she explains how that if Nettie had not intervened the story would end with the protagonist asleep, cheating not only herself but the readers out of coming full circle in her misery.
In Hazel’s story two ideas ring common throughout; the need for her to be a “good sport” and the idea that her troubles mean little because everyone has their own problems. The irony in this is after her failed suicide attempt she hears very similar statements from her maid Nettie. Nettie cannot understand Morse’s need to end her life and instead scold the character for her thoughtlessness. In this way the maid could be seen as the final reinforcement of the society that both created and nearly destroyed Hazel. Nettie herself pushes Mrs. Morse to cheer up because that is what she needs to do. This act brings Hazel to understand her place in the world and for the first time she agrees with the advice that has been given to her for years. The story concludes with a toast while the maid encouraging Hazel to continue cheering up and she replies with a yeah, sure. The significance of this moment was also noted by Simpson as being the moment of recognition “[hazel] has emerged finally from a verbal world of formula—where small talk is all the talk there is.” (Simpson)
By attempting to break out of the role society has given her Hazel goes against social norms but upon her reawakening she is reminded of her place in this world. Her job is to only exist in the realm of small talk and smiles. Hazel seems to by the end of the story have an epiphany to this idea. She realizes that her life will continue to pass the same way it has been going for years, this idea hardens her as she accepts that this is the life she will continue to lead. This is Parker’s way of explain that for women in this life style there is no escape. They are destined to lead lives that do not sustain them because the only alternative is to cease existing at all.
Many literary critics draw on the parallels between Hazel Morse and the author herself Dorothy Parker. Both Parker and Mrs. Morse found comfort in alcohol. The two also shared a common thread of failed relationships and suicide attempts. But was Parker’s intention to write a short story to read as an almost autobiography? Amelia Simpson stated in her article “The story is frequently read as a kind of “autobiographical fiction,” and it contains many echoes of the author’s own failed relationships with men, her drinking problem and her loneliness and suicide attempts.” (Simpson) Simpsons points ring true to the shared experience between the author and her protagonist in this short story however it seem to have over looked the idea that authors draw from personal experience and emotions they themselves have faced. I do believe that there are enough commonalties between the two to agree that there is a certain level of autobiographic to this story. However I feel it is an overstatement to claim that the story it’s self is an accurate depiction of Parker’s life, even with the similarities.
In conclusion Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde” demonstrated the ideals that women of the time were held to. Instead of focusing on the power women felt after winning the vote she demonstrated how helpless some women still felt in their lives. She painted a clear picture of the struggles a woman would feel being trapped in the position of being happy all the time. How feelings like that can lead to emptiness, alcoholism, and suicide attempts. Dorothy Parker was a woman before her time and left us even today revealing in the ideas and statements she made.
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