Dorothy Parker had a way of saying things that was metaphorically clear, and like a slap in the face. Her brutal satire was a reflection of her personal unhappiness, and her expression was absolutely brilliant. Some of my favorite expressions from her include, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice,” “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to,” and “I require three things in a man; he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.”
“The Standard of Living” is a Parker short-story that focuses on two stenographers, Annabel and Midge. (Does anyone do stenography anymore?) Her description of their tea room lunch leaves one feeling ill: “Usually they ate sandwiches of spongy new white bread greased with butter and mayonnaise; they ate thick wedges of cake lying wet beneath ice cream and whipped cream and melted chocolate gritty with nuts.” It sounds almost pornographic, and incredibly unappetizing, like someone describing sex as it actually is, and not as it is in romance novels.
The two girls are best friends, and are portrayed as an incredibly shallow couple of floozies. “They looked conspicuous, cheap, and charming.” The core of their friendship is around a game that involves deciding what they would buy if they inherited a million dollars, and couldn’t spend it on anything for anyone else. They had gotten into quarrels over speculative purchases. One day they are walking down Fifth Avenue, and decide to go into a high-class jewelry store and ask the price on an emerald necklace. They find out it is $250,000. They leave in a huff, and the two of them are now disjointed and discombobulated as they walk down the street. Annabel then proposes a new game, where the ante is upped from a million dollars to ten million dollars.
The relationship of the girls is entirely material and superficial. There is no basis for the friendship except shopping, and coveting expensive clothes and jewelry. In her usual way, Parker cuts right to the heart of stereotypical female friendships; everything is about appearance and conspicuous consumption. There are no discussions of thoughts, feelings, or anything at all that relates to the world beyond that. The men in their lives are accessories; they are dating different ones every night, though Parker notes that “there really wasn’t much difference” in the different men.
I reflected on the time period in which Parker was writing; this piece was published in the New Yorker in 1941. When I think about the prevalence of things like “charm schools” at that time, there is an implicit criticism of women as living dolls, to be dressed up and looked at. Like children, they are to be seen, and not heard, and should have nothing of any consequence to say.
I could not imagine someone with Parker’s personality fitting into this milieu of women. I fully sympathize with her on this point, as I find myself with little to say to women (or men) who make exclusively superficial conversation. The equivalent, perhaps, is the man you meet in the bar who brags about his car and his stock portfolio. It says nothing, and means nothing.
Most people seem to find Parker either hilarious or offensive, and I would suggest that she is a bit of both. Satire is a bittersweet medicine that is necessary for us to see the absurdity of the “normal”.