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You Are Here: Home > Essay Topics > Literature Essays and Research Papers > American Literature  > Essay on The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

  American Literature

Essay on The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

Preceded by Mountain Path (1936) and Hunter's Horn (1949), The Dollmaker is the final novel in Arnow's Kentucky Trilogy. It remained on the best-seller list for 31 weeks, edging out William Faulkner's A Fable and Eudora Welty's The Ponder Heart to tie for best novel of the year in the Saturday Review's national critics' poll, and was runner-up to A Fable for the National Book Award. Nearly 15 years later, novelist and critic Joyce Carol Oates was so moved by The Dollmaker that she stated in the New York Times that "criticism seems almost irrelevant" for such a "masterpiece" (Oates, 57). The novel details the journey of Gertie Nevels and her family from their hardscrabble existence in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky to the defense plants in Detroit during World War II. The Detroit scenes of the novel suggest an affinity between Arnow and such earlier writers as Rebecca Harding Davis, Upton Sinclair, and Tillie Olsen, all of whom wrote about the horrendous plight of urban workers. As numerous critics point out, Arnow's portrait of Gertie, a woman of Amazonian proportions with the accompanying physical and psychological strength, reached the American public in an era when strong images of women were almost nonexistent.

In the opening chapters of the novel, set in Kentucky, Gertie's uncommon courage and character are immediately apparent: Since her husband is absent and her infant son Amos is in danger of dying from diphtheria, Gertie sets out to carry the baby 15 or 20 miles over muddy and mountainous terrain to reach a doctor. When she sees a car carrying an army officer and enlisted man, she stops it, pleads with them to take her, hurls herself and Amos into the backseat, pulls out a knife, and performs a crude tracheotomy on the child. The boy lives. The difference between Gertie and her husband Clovis becomes apparent later in the novel when he cannot bring himself to look at the awful wound on Amos's throat. In these chapters, too, we learn that Gertie has her own version of the American dream: longing for her own land, she wants the Tipton Place, a farm that she is able to buy when her brother Henley is killed in battle. The money he leaves her, coupled with the money she has hoarded for years, gives her enough to realize her dream. At the Tipton Place, Gertie will be able to raise her children, make a living, remain close to her father, and commune with nature, which she also loves in an almost transcendentalist way (Eckley, 90). Gertie has nothing to do with organized religion, but derives spiritual strength from gazing at the stars or drinking fresh spring water, "cold with faint tastes of earth and iron and moss and the roots of trees" (76-77).

Gertie's happiness and self-sufficiency in the absence of her husband Clovis, who she believes has been drafted into the army, is evident in her statement to the storekeeper, Mrs. Hull: "I reckon I'll have to be the man in this settlement" (97). She easily swings a 100-pound sack of feed across her shoulders. Unfortunately, the dreams of this thoughtful, intelligent, and talented woman are doomed. She learns that Clovis's induction into the army has been delayed, and that he has moved to Detroit where he has long hoped to find work in a munitions plant. The weak and self-centered Clovis is very much like Gertie's unloved mother, but Gertie sees no recourse. She sells the Tipton Place and takes the children to Detroit.

Detroit, as nearly every reader and critic of this novel has noted, is Arnow's version of hell; moreover, it closely resembles the fiery pit about which Gertie's narrowly religious mother and her friend, the preacher Battle John Brand, keep warning Gertie. Clovis, Gertie, and the five children settle into the tiny three-bedroom tenement apartment on Detroit's ironically named Merry Hill and, like other literary families before them--John Steinbeck's Joads, for instance--realize that Detroit is not the Promised Land. Three of the children--Clytie, Enoch, and even little Amos--adjust to city living, meaning that they become corrupted. Clytie listens to soap operas and becomes sexually aware at a young age, and Enoch becomes a cynical, streetwise urchin who enjoys getting into fights. Reuben, on the other hand, is so miserable that he finally runs away from home, returning to Kentucky where, as his mother acknowledges to herself, he can at least maintain his individuality.

The saddest and most emotionally moving scene in the novel regards Cassie, whose imaginary friend Callie Lou is her counterpart to her mother's carving of dolls. Callie Lou has prevented Cassie from feeling lonely and has provided the companionship without which she might not have survived the move to the city. In a weak moment, however, Gertie tells Cassie that Callie Lou really does not exist. Too late, she realizes her mistake: in seeking a private place for herself and Callie Lou, Cassie, while playing on the train tracks, is violently killed by a railroad boxcar and dies in her mother's arms.

In the final chapters, after the death of her daughter, Cassie, Gertie shows herself capable of adapting (Lee 98), unpleasant as the process proves to be. She adds to the family income by using her wood-carving talent to create and sell dolls. After her husband uses her whittling knife to kill a man in a brawl (the wrong man, as it transpires, not the man who had insulted and beaten him), Gertie adapts an automated tool, a jigsaw, to mass-produce her dolls. Even though she knows she will never realize her dream, which was to carve the face of Christ on the fine Kentucky cherry that she brought with her, or return to Tipton Place, Gertie learns that in the midst of the noise and the grime and the poverty of the factories and the tenements, in the midst of the name-calling and religious prejudices, there exist those who exude goodness and generosity. Critics disagree over the meaning of the scene in which Gertie finally and symbolically splits her piece of cherry wood: does her action signify capitulation or adaptation? In critic Wilton Eckley's view, "she does not destroy her Christ, but brings him alive--for he cannot be abstracted or fixed; He must live in people" (Eckley, 100). Woven into Arnow's unflinching realism is the human sense of continued possibility and hope.

 

References:

Arnow, Harriette. The Dollmaker. New York: Macmillan, 1954.

Chung, Haeja K., ed. Harriette Simpson Arnow: Critical Essays on Her Work. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995.

Eckley, Wilton. Harriette Arnow. Boston: Twayne, 1974.

Green, Amy. "Harriette Simpson Arnow: Overview." In Feminist Writers, edited by Pamela Kester-Shelton. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1996.

Lee, Dorothy. "Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker: A Journey to Awareness," Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 20, no. 2 (1978): 92-98.

Oates, Joyce Carol. "Joyce Carol Oates on Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker." In Rediscoveries, edited by David Madden, 57-67. New York: Crown, 1971.

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