A Gendered Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker's Poetry and Fiction

By Rhonda S. Pettit | Go to book overview

5

Neither Cloister Nor Hearth:
Dorothy Parker's Conflict with the
Sentimental Tradition

In 1865, James Abbot McNeill Whistler painted The Little White Girl, a painting whose line of literary descendents runs from Algernon Charles Swinburne, through the decadents, and into twentieth-century modernism. The paindng depicts a young woman in a white dress leaning against a mantel, whose troubled face is reflected in the mirror above the mantel. This image of a divided and conflicted self, which became so prevalent in the 1880s and 1890s, can serve to some extent as a paradigm for the aesthedc conflict we see in Dorothy Parker's work. While her conventional poedc forms, linear and realistic narrative, and impetus toward reform link her with nineteenthcentury sentimentalism, certain elements in her work—decadent themes and images, and the feminist strategies of anti-domesticity and revisionist myth-making—can be read as rejections of the sentimental. And yet, the relationship between Parker's sentimentalism and her decadence is more complex than this one-on-one opposition suggests. At times, her decadent techniques and strategies serve an anti-sentimental project; at other times they overlap with sentimental tendencies.

To argue that Parker's decadence is a move away from nineteenthcentury values poses some problems aside from the obvious issue of dating. First, the relationship of literary modernism to literary decadence has been subject to some debate. W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf considered decadence a Victorian influence that needed to be discarded, a move Linda Dowling calls an example of “the avant garde disavowing its past in order to regenerate itself and gain creative space.” Dowling, along with Ian Fletcher, Karl

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