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The Dollmaker
by Harriette Arnow
Back to Bibliography

Harriette Simpson Arnow’s authorial testimony: toward a reading of The Dollmaker
by Haeja K. Chung

full text © Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation, 1995

Harriette Simpson Arnow’s best-known novel, The Dollmaker, has received critical attention from a variety of perspectives—feminist, Marxist, regionalist, and humanist, to name a few. Regardless of their approach, however, most critical readers focus on how the Nevels family from Kentucky disintegrates in industrialized Detroit during World War II, and particularly how Gertie, the central character of the novel, survives the assaults of harsh reality in an alien culture. Critics invariably find her a redeeming character: Gertie is hailed as “Arnow’s most commanding character ... the archetypal pioneer woman” (Hobbs 119); in a TV movie of the novel, Gertie is celebrated as “the most remarkable woman in American literature,” whose “journey into selfhood is the one many women and men will understand” (Fonda); Gertie makes a painful “journey to awareness,” but “the courage, endurance, and love which she illustrates can make possible the transcendence of suffering” (Lee 98). Her departure from Kentucky “constitutes a triumph” because “Gertie redefines her strength and becomes the architect of a world that seems harsher than Kentucky’s” (Edwards 226). It is not surprising, then, that the novel featuring this “heroic” woman (Righey 81; Malpezzi 84; Edwards 235) should be required reading for the feminist intellectual (Dixler 82).

Kathleen Walsh is perhaps the only critic to date who has extensively explored Gertie’s compulsions and how they contribute to her suffering. She writes, “Readers who stress Gertie’s helplessness adopt the character’s own limited view of her situation and fail to appreciate Arnow’s complex treatment of an absorbing and sympathetic character immobilized by self-doubt” (92). Arnow is more pointedly negative toward her famous character. In an unpublished interview, she says “[Gertie] was a coward.” Indeed, Arnow dismisses the critical acclaim of her celebrated novel: “The Dollmaker, when I was writing it, grew to be my unfavorite” (Interview).(1)

Does it matter how a writer feels about her character? Does a textual interpretation need to take an author’s views into account? Indeed, an empirical author and a reader need not entertain identical meaning. Arnow agrees that texts are open to multiple readings: “I long ago, after the letters from readers of my first novel came, decided it is the reader who makes the novel. In some opinions, the doll has been and continues to be a different story for each reader” (Frontiers 147). Thus, in her interview, Arnow avoids presenting herself as an absolute authority or as a repository of meanings. Neither do her comments clearly clash with intentions of the text. The intertextual dialogue between interview and text creates a rich interpretive relationship between reader and text. Arnow’s authorial testimony is thus relevant to a re-reading of The Dollmaker, especially to measuring the complexity of the main character, Gertie, who has often been too narrowly stereotyped as a strong woman.

An interview often proves, as Eco observes, that “the author knows something that the reader will never know and that the text will never say” (706). Arnow’s interview is no exception as it explains her motives for writing as well as her writing process. She grew up surrounded by storytellers, especially her father, whose “‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ scared [her] to death,” and her maternal grandmother, whose sad stories Arnow used to revise in her head. “I wanted to [write] since early childhood,” she says (Interview). Eventually Arnow became a storyteller herself, but a much more sophisticated one. As Eckly says, “Through all of Mrs. Arnow’s fiction, character rather than plot shapes the stories” (124). Near the end of her life, Arnow remarked, “a great novel has to be a book where the reader lives with the characters” (Flynn 248). Her words expose her conscious preoccupation with her characters:

I wish I could turn out short books. I don’t seem able to. It gets longer and longer. I start out with a character and there’s a family or friends, and a community, and they all talk, and this happens ... and oh God. I’d have to write about a person living alone in a cave, I think, to get a short book. (Interview)

Speaking about the genesis of The Dollmaker, Arnow confirms the process by which the characters generate her story:

As a teacher in a one-room school in the back hills, I knew many women—I don’t like the word “back hills,” but they were more than rural people; they lived shut off from the outside world ... I often thought about them—well, in my first book, I wrote a bit about women in the hills, but it wasn’t until World War II and I found myself living in a Detroit housing development and I began to wonder....

You see, at that time, all through the sixties and into the seventies, there were heavy migrations from the South and the southern part of the Appalachians, and many rural regions. Because of the Manpower Act, partly, they needed men—and women, too—in the factories to turn out war material of all kinds almost as much as they needed soldiers. And I knew that many of those women, all of them eventually, had followed their husbands to war jobs, and I wondered how women who had never used a telephone or seen or used any appliance run by electricity ... I began to wonder how they would—I use that word I don’t like—“adjust”—in many ways....

And out of all this wondering and thinking, Gertie for some reason was the one I chose. Though I’m sure there were thousands and thousands of women who were happy to go with their husbands and have all the gadgets they could get and get away from the drudgery of living in an electricity-less community, but for some reason I kept thinking of Gertie, who couldn’t learn, partly because she didn’t really want to. (Interview)

Not surprisingly, the author and most readers agree on the central idea of this novel: the adjustment of the dislocated Gertie and her family to an alien culture in Detroit. While Gertie’s husband, Clovis, and three of her children, Clytie, Enoch, and Amos, learn to cope with Detroit, the other two children, Reuben and Cassie Marie, who are closer to Gertie in temperament, do not. The latter part of the novel mostly concerns Gertie’s own way of “adjusting” to the urban setting, which critics often compare to “the city of Hell” (Lee 92) or “the Babylon of old” (Malpezzi 86): in Detroit, Gertie loses everything she has held dear. The same critics also note that, despite her unmitigated suffering, Gertie triumphs in the end because she gains new awareness about her self and the world. Arnow also acknowledges Gertie’s spiritual gain:

Gertie, though it’s hard to realize, felt more kindness to her from the people in the alley than she had ever known at home. She was always a stranger at home, especially with her mother. Not with her father. And she also began to realize that she was only one among the many women who had their troubles and suffered. (Interview)

On the other hand, Arnow seems to challenge the popular perception of her heroine as an admirable character. Many readers feel such compassion for this suffering but enduring woman that they tend to dismiss her weaknesses and the possibility of her complicity in her own losses. Arnow’s comments about Gertie are unflattering and demand a new evaluation of the character.

Reviews were so good that I was shocked.... Who wants to read a book about a big, ugly woman who is almost inarticulate, so she drove me crazy when I was writing about her? I wondered why I ever thought up such a creature, because she couldn’t express herself except through thinking of passages from the Bible, and I had to rely on the Bible and the stars and all manner of things, and she was also secretive; she wouldn’t tell her husband about the money she saved and so on and so forth.

It was a tremendous task. Time and again I wanted to throw Gertie away and think up another character.... Why I dreamed up a woman like Gertie, I never knew. And I thought the reader would get impatient with Gertie as I did at times.

Gertie, she was so inarticulate either in her thoughts or talk, she was difficult to work with. But she seemed so real, and it looked like she had grabbed me and would not let me go. So I stayed with her. (Interview)

While writing The Dollmaker, Arnow was obviously exasperated with her “inarticulate” and “difficult” character. Yet inarticulateness is not the mere idiosyncrasy of a “tongue-tied” mountain woman. It is, instead, the essence of her being that determined the author’s writing strategies. The whole story explores the nature of Gertie’s inarticulateness and its impact on her life; to a great extent, the novel is Arnow’s artistic quarrel with one woman’s verbal ineptitude.

In the carefully crafted opening chapter of the novel, Arnow introduces her main character, pointedly employing the encompassing term, “the woman.” This homely woman with a “big body” displays awesome physical and mental stamina in her valiant effort to get her dying son, Amos, to a doctor: she runs a military car off the road, she retrieves the car from the bluff edge, and, most daring of all, she performs a tracheotomy on her choking son with a pocket knife, a hairpin, and a poplar twig. “A warm look [comes] into her troubled eyes,” however, when she talks about her “whittlen,” especially her desire to carve a face, preferably a “laughing Christ,” out of a block of wild cherry wood and about her dream of possessing her own piece of land, the Tipton Place. She also reveals that “the Bible’s about the only thing” she has ever read (Dollmaker 23). In short, Gertie’s physical and mental stamina, her preoccupations, her dreams, and her education underline the personal capabilities that establish her character as a resourceful, self-reliant mountain woman.(2)

This image of strength, however, is not the limit of Arnow’s portrait of Gertie. Readers are soon shown her weakness. In the last scene of this opening episode, Gertie, who has displayed Herculean stamina in getting to a doctor’s office, hesitates once she reaches her destination. In astonishment, the young driver of the military car blurts out: “Lady, you can’t be afraid of nothing. Just walk in” (28). What does Gertie fear? Her sudden uncertainty undermines initial perceptions of her strength and portends tragedy—she is not as invincible as she first appears.

In subsequent chapters, Arnow further explores Gertie’s strengths and weaknesses, depicting the possibilities available to her and showing the significance of the choices she makes in crucial moments. In her mountain home, Gertie is “a kind of unconscious Transcendentalist” (Eckly 90). Her first actions at dawn illustrate: Gertie has no need to have starlight to guide her feet on “the craggy path down the ridge side to the spring,” no need to see the pool to drink from the bucket as easily and soundlessly as “from a china cup,” and no need to have a clock to measure her time because her first drink at the spring is “the first step upward in the long stairs of the day; everything before it, was night; everything after, day” (81). At times like this, when Gertie is in complete harmony with nature, she seems to feel whole and content, without any misgivings about herself.

Gertie also finds security and self-fulfillment from the land, as most mountain women do. Gertie serves a family dinner with pride, “for everything, even the meal in the bread, was a product of her farming” (91). She is elated at the thought of buying the Tipton Place with her brother Henley’s cattle money and her life savings from the sale of eggs and molasses. “A student of the Bible,” she often finds biblical parallels to her experiences and compares the happy prospect of owning land to finding “a heaven right here on earth” and to the sighting of “the Promised Land ... for the Israelites” (77, 109). Soon after buying the Tipton Place from Uncle John, the ecstatic Gertie sings at the top of her lungs: “Her foundation was not God but what God had promised Moses—land. And she sang on, ‘Is laid for your faith in His excellent word! What more can He say than to you He that said—’ What more, oh, Lord, what more could a woman ask?” (128).

Gertie’s relationships with the members of her family further define her nature-bound instincts and temperament. Of her five children, Clytie and Enoch are closer to her “tinkerin” husband, Clovis, who longs to work in a city to improve his family’s fortune. Four-year-old Amos is too young to show any preference. But her eldest son, Reuben, and youngest daughter, Cassie, share Gertie’s affinity for nature and the land. Gertie enjoys a special bond with the ebullient Cassie who has an imaginary playmate called Callie Lou, a figure that is comparable to Gertie’s man hidden in the block of wood. Both mother and daughter draw sustenance from the figures of their creation, attempting to fashion order and beauty amid a confusing outer reality. Gertie compares her personal vision of Christ to Cassie’s Callie Lou: “It’s kinda like you a sean Callie Lou,” she says to Cassie. Cassie loves the unfinished cherry wood figure and talks to it as if to Callie Lou, bestowing upon it a female gender. When Cassie “fondles” the wood and begs Gertie to “take her out,” Gertie promises: “... jist you wait an see, we’ll find th time an a face fer him an bring him out a that block” (48). In specifying the masculine pronoun, Gertie hints at the ultimate identity of her creation and the biblically based source of her strength.

Gertie’s relationship with her mother, Mrs. Kendrick, however, magnifies her weaknesses. Gertie takes after her father, who “allus took to oak when somethen bothered him er his leg hurt bad” (35). But Mrs. Kendrick disapproves of Gertie’s favorite activities, including whittling, which she regards as “almost a sin” in a girl; and she constantly berates Gertie for lacking feminine virtues. Mrs. Kendrick intimidates her daughter so much that Gertie feels uncomfortable in her mother’s presence: “You act like you was a stranger” (68), the mother observes. The conflict between their differing religious beliefs becomes the greatest source of Gertie’s grief. Mrs. Kendrick’s Christ does not come “with peace but a sword” and “is a scourgen th world like he scourged th temple”; in contrast, Gertie embraces a humane Christ, “a laughing Christ,” who “loved people” and wore “overalls like a carpenter” (64,77). However hard she tries, she cannot embrace her mother’s God of retribution. She cries silently in “guilt and misery”: “Was she like Judas, foreordained to sin?” (69). Gertie feels like an outcast in her mother’s home and church, and these feelings foster in her tremendous guilt and self-doubt. Arnow says of Gertie,

... She was a coward. When it came to her mother and opinions of the neighbors, she would never talk to anyone of her image of Christ because it didn’t go with the fundamentalist—I guess that’s the right name—religion her mother and most of her neighbors had. (Interview)

Gertie’s guilt about her private vision of Christ and resulting self-doubt make her extremely “inarticulate either in her thoughts or talk.” As Arnow explains, “Gertie was so incoherent that she couldn’t always think in words” (Interview). She often refrains from expressing her thoughts, feeling confused and indecisive about her course of action. By calling Gertie “a coward,” Arnow seems to hold Gertie accountable for refusing to speak up and act assertively in critical moments. The dramatic developments of the narrative hinge on such moments when Gertie, being inarticulate, becomes indecisive and meek, in word and in deed.

Her first moment of indecision occurs when Clovis is leaving for his Army physical. Although tempted to tell him “about the money she had, and of how she meant to buy the Tipton Place” (84), Gertie keeps quiet. She may be justified in her misgivings about Clovis, considering his passion for a better truck and a city life. But in some measure, doesn’t her silence precipitate her move to Detroit? Had Clovis possessed all the information, would he have persisted in his family’s moving? After Cassie’s death, Clovis laments the missed opportunity: “Why, if I’d ha knowed you’d ha had all that money, I’d said buy a place an wait fer me” (426). Calling her character “secretive,” Arnow seems to have intended that readers would recognize the huge cost of Gertie’s silence.

“But you never wanted a farm—Mom didn’t want me to—Oh, Lord” (427), Gertie flares briefly. “Mom didn’t want me to.” Arnow seems to ask, Why didn’t Gertie stand up for herself? What follows in the novel hinges on this point at which Gertie fails to assert herself before her mother. Gertie and her children have spent a blissful week getting ready to move into the Tipton Place. She feels that “the war and Henley’s death” have been part of a plan to free her so that she can “live and be beholden to no man, not even to Clovis” (139); she is on the verge of fulfilling her fondest dream by acting as the independent, self-reliant woman she longs to be. But instead, Gertie acquiesces to her righteous, shrieking mother who wages subversive religious manipulation. Mrs. Kendrick insinuates that Gertie has abandoned the virtue of a dutiful wife, citing the Bible: “‘Leave all else an cleave to thy husband.... Wives, be in subjection unto your husbands, as unto th Lord’” (141).

Why does this capable woman, who “can do a man’s work” and who is willing “to be the man in the settlement,” lose her resolve in the face of her invalid mother? Arguably, Gertie has little choice but to abide by the traditional mountain values that her mother represents. After all, confined to “feminine” space, Gertie is one of Arnow’s many hill women trapped by fundamentalist religious and patriarchal codes of conduct. Gertie’s personal aspirations, like the dreams of other women before and after her, are bound to be thwarted by the “contrary instincts” (Walker 236) holding sway within her community. Given that, should not Gertie be exonerated as a victim of external forces? Her son Reuben thinks otherwise:

He looked from his mother to his grandmother, then back to his mother. The trouble grew in his eyes, but still he waited, watching Gertie, hopeful, unwilling to believe she would not speak up for their farm. She continued silent. Gradually the hope in his eyes died. His glance, fixed on his mother’s face, was filled with the contempt of the strong for the weak. (143)

Arnow agrees:

Gertie did lose Reuben. She lost him after she accepted the return of the money for the land. Reuben hated and despised and looked down upon her and realized for the first time she was a coward. (Interview)

On the crowded train to Detroit, Gertie herself has a belated moment of insight:

She was a coward, worse than any of the others. If she could have stood up to her mother and God and Clovis and Old John, she’d have been in her own house this night. Oh, if she were back with the money in her pocket, she’d say No to them all and move to her farm, sin or no. (149)

Gertie is then capable of self-knowledge, but incapable of following through when tested. Having been indoctrinated in a misogynist view of the Bible, she is intimidated by her mother and is unwilling to make even a feeble attempt to explain herself, either to her mother or to her husband. Functionally, she is a woman without a voice. “Speech is an assertive act” (Brownmiller 115) that sadly Gertie cannot accomplish. Arnow insists Gertie is “a coward,” stressing, in the words of Walsh, “the necessity of assertion despite overwhelming odds” (92). She appears to deplore Gertie’s lack of conviction in her private vision of God and the world. Gertie’s voiceless submission, her willingness to acquiesce silently at every critical moment, amounts to the moral ineptitude for which she slowly but ultimately learns she must assume responsibility. Her behavior pattern repeats itself in Detroit until tragic consequences make painful resolution unavoidable.(3)

The latter part of the novel largely concerns the way in which Gertie comes to grips with self-knowledge. Thinking in biblical terms, as was natural for her, she contemplates the contradicting images of Christ or Judas, emerging in turn from the block of wood. She prefers Christ to Judas because Christ can decisively absolve her of her guilt, imagined or otherwise. To engage in “whittlen foolishness” is Gertie’s nonarticulate means of self-expression—her personal language. When she whittles, Gertie is “involved in work her soul must have. [She is] ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty” (Walker 241). But Gertie’s whittling the block of cherry wood assumes more ethical than aesthetic significance. The vicissitudes of her feelings and thoughts give form to “the man in the wood,” Christ or Judas, thus crystallizing her inner conflict. Gertie needs to make visible what she cannot articulate; her palpable attempt to distinguish between joy and suffering directly correlates with the conflicting self-image she struggles to reconcile. While in Kentucky, especially when the land is within her grasp, she sees a “laughing Christ” emerging from the block of wood because her inner world is not in conflict with outer reality. She is free from self-doubt; she feels fulfilled and ready to receive a blessing from her loving Christ.

But Gertie has long been plagued by a sense of guilt; the repentant Judas she often sees in the wood reflects her need for penance: “all these years ... she could see only Judas in the wood—the Judas she had pitied giving back the silver” (127). “A laughing Christ” is as elusive as the “heaven right here on earth” she thought she would find in the Tipton Place. When she is about to lose the land, her self-doubt returns and she no longer expects to see Christ: “Seemed like all week he’d cried for her knife in the firelight, and now he was gone” (145).

The “laughing Christ” becomes even more elusive when the family leaves Kentucky. Feeling “awkward and foolish” on the train to Detroit, Gertie remembers the block of wood she insisted bringing along in spite of her mother’s scorn: “Judas wood it seemed now. Jesus would never come from it” (150). Indeed, Gertie’s “Jesus” would never emerge in Detroit. Gertie will never clearly see the “laughing Christ” in Merry Hill, a place that she experiences as an inferno for the damned.

More important, the man in the wood changes into Judas, “the Judas giving back the silver,” because the personal tragedies Gertie encounters in Detroit intensify her sense of guilt and need for penance. Gertie feels she has betrayed her two children, Reuben and Cassie, and failed even her husband. She is far from receiving a blessing from the “laughing Christ,” especially when, in her mind, she has sinned against her own family. Every time Gertie chooses to speak and act out of self-denial, disaster follows, intensifying her guilt.

Although she knows Reuben “cain’t hep th way he’s made,” Gertie decides to persuade him “to be like th rest.” Accused by Clovis and others that she is “as much wrong with Reuben as anything” (339), Gertie opts to comply with the community’s demands just as she had in Kentucky, undoubtedly feeling worse than “awkward and foolish.” While awaiting news of Reuben’s whereabouts, Gertie works on Victor’s crucifix but finds no face for Christ. She turns to the Bible to find comfort for her loss but instead finds herself lingering on a passage about the repentant Judas who “betrayed innocent blood” and hanged himself. Her sense of guilt does not abate, because her action, or lack of it, results in disaster—Reuben’s flight back to Kentucky.

Undoubtedly the most crucial moment occurs when Gertie decides to get rid of Callie Lou to avoid “another Reuben.” Instinctively, she mistrusts her decision; nonetheless, she succumbs to the alley’s demand. Again Gertie is not heeding her own voice; pressured by Clovis, Clytie, Mrs. Anderson, and the children calling Cassie “Cuckoo,” she simply gives in to others’ opinions. Because the “killing of Callie Lou” contradicts her inner voice, Gertie cannot produce the desired effects. To speak up, she forces herself to find “anger” in “the ugly hateful feet” she has just carved. When she tries to reason with Cassie, her voice sounds “hoarse and ugly,” frightening poor Cassie. Gertie belatedly sees her “mistake,” but her attempt to revive Callie Lou fails miserably: Cassie meets a horrifying death on a railway track while guarding her exiled playmate, Callie Lou. Arnow comments:

Gertie once more showed her cowardice, not that she wanted Cassie to get rid of Callie Lou, but because, Clytie—that’s her older daughter, isn’t it—wanted it done and she was afraid that all the children and everybody would make fun of her. (Interview)

At issue in this drama is not whether her children need to “adjust” to survive in Detroit but how Gertie’s self-image is being tested and formed by her confused actions. Stricken by grief and guilt, Gertie blindly attempts to absolve herself of her complicity in the disaster. “I didn’t send her off to be killed. I didn’t aim to kill her when Mom made me come. It was Mom an—,” she screams, but immediately indicts herself for not speaking up: “No, not her mother, herself, herself—only, she couldn’t say it. She ought to have stood up to them all—” (421-22). In no way can Gertie free herself from her self-blame.

After Cassie’s death, the first thing Gertie seeks is “th wood” (415). She feverishly works on it as if to find a refuge from the tormenting images of Cassie’s last moment, but her unbearable grief manifests itself in “the agony of the bowed head in the block of wood” (444). As Walsh points out (102), Gertie concentrates on a hand: “a hand cupped, but loosely holding ... ” (464). When children ask her, “Wot’s he gonna do?” (482), she answers, “Give it back,” and flees to Victor’s part of the yard as if afraid of her own answer. Whit, Clovis’s union friend, also asks, “Can’t he make up his mind? Will he keep it or give it back?” Gertie’s answer is evasive: “He’s thinken about it” (511). Gertie herself is not reconciled to her losses and is not sure what more to give; she has in effect “nothing left to lose” (417). However guilty she may feel, she is reluctant to see Judas in the wood and thereby openly acknowledges her direct complicity in the tragedy.

“The block of wood” continues, however, to provide a physical form to Gertie’s need for penance, nudging her toward a final resolution. When Clovis is beaten up by an anti-union thug and becomes obsessed with murderous revenge, Gertie is again seized by silent inaction. Again she turns to the wood because “she [feels] clean working on the block of wood” (541), but the figure clearly becomes Judas despite her repeated denials. When the knife, returned with a suspicious blood stain, convinces Gertie of Clovis’s crime, she no longer seeks a “laughing Christ.” Still, she hopes to see a forgiving “man in the wood,” whose eyes “hold no quarreling, no scolding, no questions” (584), but the Judas who did whisper “a bit and keep still” pre-empts that consoling image. Even as Gertie wrestles with the emergence of Judas, Mrs. Anderson appears with an order of dolls for a church bazaar and confirms Gertie’s greatest dread. Only then is Gertie willing to accept the truth: “‘A body cain’t allus give back things.’ Gertie said, filled suddenly with a tired despair; the wood was Judas, after all” (585).

Shortly after this, Gertie realizes that she must chop up the block of wood to fill the order for the dolls. Such a personal sacrifice demands both sympathy and admiration from readers. All her dreams are now completely thwarted: she has lost her dream of owning the land and she has lost the children who most shared that dream with her; now she must give up her last dream of whittling a Christ figure, her Christ of the mountains.

What does this final act mean? Is it correct to simply say, along with some critics, that “Gertie reluctantly prostitutes her art” (Malpazzi 89)?(4) Arnow disputes this view.

Gertie didn’t think of her whittling as art. She scarcely knew—“‘art’ and ‘creative’ are overworked words now, aren’t they? Do you remember when she said to her neighbor who had to give up painting ... Anyway, Gertie says to this woman who thought of her painting as art, ‘Everybody has to have a little foolishness.’ Gertie felt guilty about her work, spending time on it, except after she lost Cassie. And she may have had then, I don’t know, a premonition that with Cassie gone she would also lose the block of wood.” (Interview)

Gertie’s final act is not about art. By discrediting such a notion, Arnow directs our thinking toward something else. Gertie’s final act is the rite of passage she must perform on her way to self-redemption. She can only resolve her internal conflict by splitting the wood. On a practical level, she may have felt no desire to work on it once “the man in the wood” was clearly identified as Judas. By splitting the wood, Gertie may also be exorcising her guilt for betraying her family. Her guilt, by now, is articulated and writ large in “the man in the wood” for everybody, especially herself, to see: no longer the Judas who “kept quiet,” but rather, the Judas who was “giving back the silver.” Gertie goes beyond this image of Judas, however; not one to hang herself out of shame, she accepts responsibility for her “cowardice” out of love.

Externalizing her suffering helps Gertie take the final step. As Arnow says, she has learned that “she was only one among the many women who had their troubles and suffered.” Because Gertie is inarticulate, she needs to objectify her confused thoughts in similar situations, just as she has visualized her guilt in the block of wood. In an unexpected revelation, she sees herself in the weeping Mrs. Anderson who accuses her husband of stealing her “birthright”: “Gertie pondered ... ‘I guess,’ she said, speaking with difficulty, thinking of the Tipton Place with Cassie, ‘we all sell our own—but allus it’s easier to say somebody stole it’” (440). In another parallel, Gertie sees herself in the “cactus woman,” who, evicted from her unit, is concerned only about the loss of her cactus. Gertie is puzzled by the sobbing woman but soon concludes that everybody “make[s] his own Christ in his own image” (303), however trivial it may seem to others. Gertie realizes then that she does not need to single out one face for Christ. She comes home looking as if she has “lost th last friend” she had and spends the whole night working on the wood as if to say a final goodbye to a dear friend. She may have realized that whittling the man in the wood was indeed a “foolishness” she could do without. After all, “it seemed the faceless man was whispering, ‘There’s no money in me’” (499). What the cactus was to the evicted woman is comparable to what Callie Lou was to Cassie. And Gertie painfully concludes that “the man in the wood” is of no more consequence to her than Callie Lou was to Cassie and the cactus was to the woman—an imagined source of strength, a crutch she must surrender. In the morning, as if preparing for a funeral, she combs her hair for a long time and dresses Amos “neat and clean” to make a trip. “Th graveyard?” Amos asks. “Jist th scrap-wood lot,” she slowly responds (596). However painful it may have been, Gertie has finally learned what to give.

Giving up “the man in the wood” becomes easier for Gertie because of a more urgent concrete need: her family’s survival. According to Arnow, economic necessity is what compels Gertie to split the wood.

I felt she was doing it [splitting the wood] in trying to help. No money was coming in, and Clovis was deeply in debt. Do you remember when she was up paying the rent and she saw a woman who couldn’t pay the rent and told her she had so many days to get out? Gertie, well she could imagine things, saw that happening to her own children, and I think that helped, and then having to feed them beef hearts. And Clovis was unable to work even an odd job because of a scar and a beat-up face. And I think all that was the push. (Interview)

Gertie has endured her tragic losses and become again the mainstay of her family, thereby reaffirming her strength as a self-reliant resourceful woman: as Farr states, “though the mountain woman loves the land, she loves her husband and children more” (13). With Clovis out of work, she bears the major financial burden through her carving, washing, and babysitting. In large measure, Gertie emerges from her mourning over Cassie’s death to fulfill the immediate needs of her remaining family members. She resists the temptation to “lose herself” in phenobarbitol because she has “to make money” to pay for Cassie’s marker (445) and she has “work to do, such a deal of work” (459-60). As Walsh says, “Gertie’s choice of her family as her top priority is so consistent and unlabored as to admit no conflict” (101). Like the incompleted hidden face in the wood, however, there is no clear indication that Gertie masters the assertive act of speech.

When asked to respond to Ms magazine’s listing The Dollmaker as a feminist book, Arnow replied,

Had she been a bit braver as a feminist, I don’t think she’d have been afraid of her mother. She was frightened of her mother, apparently more than anything she had read in the Bible. Gertie was not that much of a feminist ... as we use the word today. (Arnow, speech)

Readers may admire Gertie, but they must resist the view of her as the misunderstood female victim or as the “heroic” character that some feminist interpretations offer. In either case, Gertie is not so limited a character. Despite her strengths, Gertie is a woman who loses confidence in her private world; she is a woman whose dreams are shattered largely because she lacks an assertive voice at crucial moments. As Joyce Carol Oates concludes, Gertie is “both an ordinary human being and an extraordinary human being, a memorable creation, so real that one cannot question her existence” (608).

Gertie is not, however, what many readers insist is a figure from real life. Arnow often complained that readers and editors didn’t give her enough credit for her imagination:

It worried me when a Macmillan editor came out to see me ... and said, “Oh, I thought you would be a big woman.” He apparently thought that I was Gertie.... The only trouble is some readers, judging from the letters ... never give me credit for my imagination. They think all these are real people, and that I was Gertie. (Interview)

Because the textual evidence in The Dollmaker convincingly supports what Arnow claims, readers should not ignore Arnow’s authorial testimony. She confirms the intentions of the text that are dictated by the key weakness, rather than the strength of the main character: her inarticulateness. Arnow is true to her vision of Gertie, a mountain woman, both damned and saved in her struggle to survive in an alien culture. By Arnow’s definition, The Dollmaker is “a great novel ... where the reader lives with the characters.” Arnow herself seems to have lived with Gertie until the end of her life. Expecting to find her, she mused, “No ... I often look for a woman like Gertie” (Interview).

—Michigan State University


  1. I talked with Arnow in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in August 1983.

  2. Regionalists note this point. For example, Cratis Williams in his pioneering study, The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction, writes: “Mrs. Arnow recognizes the woman as the bulwark of mountain society. The symbol of its continuity and the pillar of its support, the woman with her silent suffering, unending toil, enormous strength, and boundless resourcefulness is presented with such strokes of true genius that it is safe to say that no writer of fiction before Mrs. Arnow had ever understood so well the genuine depths of the mountain woman’s character nor come so close to rendering a true account of her position at the center of the retarded social order, the burden of which she bears” (386).

  3. In her book, Female Pastoral, Elizabeth Harrison treats Gertie’s departure from Kentucky as the author’s artistic decision. She argues that Arnow denies Gertie “rural independence” to experiment with genre—the traditional mountain story—and to establish the novel “in the Kunstlerroman tradition in which the artist must leave her or his homeland in order to find identity” (89, 94).

  4. In spite of Arnow’s protestations, most critics treat Gertie’s “whittlen” as art. For example, Glenda Hobbs discusses Gertie’s dilemma as that of an artist-mother in her essay, “A Portrait of the Artist as Mother.”


Arnow, Harriette. The Dollmaker. New York: Avon Books, 1972.

-----. “Letter to Barbara Rigney.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 1.2 (1976): 147.

-----. Speech at the Lansing Public Library. Lansing, Michigan, 6 Dec. 1984.

-----. Taped personal interview. 27 Aug. 1983.

Brownmiller, Susan. Femininity. New York: Simon, 1984.

Dixler, Elsa. “Wanna Be a Feminist Intellectual?” Ms. Oct. 1983: 82-83.

Eckly, Wilton. Harriette Arnow. New York: Twayne’s United States Authors Series (#245), 1974.

Eco, Umberto. “Some Paranoid Readings.” Times Literary Supplement. 29 June-5 July (1990): 694 & 706.

Edwards, Lee R. Psyche as Hero, Female Heroism and Fictional Form. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1984.

Farr, Sidney Saylor. “Appalachian Women in Literature.” Appalachian Heritage 9 (Summer 1981): 10-18.

Flynn, John. “A Journey with Harriette Simpson Arnow.” Michigan Quarterly Review 29 (Spring 1990): 240-60.

Fonda, Jane. Phone interview. 7 July 1983.

Harrison, Elizabeth Jane. Female Pastoral. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991.

Hobbs, Glenda. Harriette Arnow’s Literary Journey: From the Parish to the World. Diss. Harvard U, 1975.

-----. “A Portrait of the Artist as Mother: Harriette Arnow and The Dollmaker.” Georgia Review 33 (Winter 1979): 851-67.

Lee, Dorothy H. “Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker. A Journey to Awareness.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 20 (1978):92-8.

Malpezzi, Frances M. “Silence and Captivity in Babylon: Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker.” Southern Studies 20 (Spring 1981): 84-90.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “An American Tragedy.” New York Times Book Review 24 Jan. 1971. Rpt. as Afterword, The Dollmaker. New York: Avon, 1972: 601-98.

Rigney, Barbara. “Heroism in Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 1.1 (1975): 81-85.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. New York: Harcourt, 1983.

Walsh, Kathleen. “Free Will and Determinism in Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker.” South Atlantic Review 49 (Nov. 1984): 91-106.

Williams, Cratis. “Unto the Hills and Beyond. The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction.” Ed. Martha H. Pipes. Appalachian Journal 3 (Summer 1976): 379-92.

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