Dorothy Parker was a poet, short story writer, critic and renowned literary wit. I've never read any of her work before choosing her short story, "The Standard of Living" to read this weekend. I'm not sure this short story reading project is such a good thing sometimes. It was only meant to be an occasional dabble into short story reading, but with each successive author I feel like I need to read more of her or his work and my piles have been growing as quickly as I've been reading. Although this story is in 50 Great Short Stories (Dorothy Parker being one of the few women represented, but at least they chose a good one), I happen to have The Portable Dorothy Parker. Why ever did I wait so long to open it up?
To be honest I'm almost more intrigued by Dorothy Parker's life than the story I read. Don't get me wrong, it was wonderful and I'll be reading more of her work, but I admire her style and ability with words.
"Dorothy Parker's reputation as one of the wittiest women of the twentieth century was made on tart quotes and agile one liners. She never quite managed to shed her image as a joker, even though she was a prolific writer of verse, short stories, literary and dramatic criticism, articles, eloquent war reporting, polemical essays, sketches, song lyrics, dramas, and screenplays. Her output, across a half century, was vast".
"Standard of Living" is a satire, written in 1941, the story first appeared in The New Yorker. Annabel and Midge are two young, single women who work as stenographers and live with their families. They spend much of their free time together--Saturday afternoons in a tea room, lunches together every afternoon, and free time walking up Fifth Avenue window shopping--doing all the right things in all the right places. They even have a favorite game they play. (Spoilers ahead).
"Annabel had invented the game; or rather she had evolved it from an old one. Basically, it was no more than the ancient sport of what-would-you-do-if-you-had-a-million dollars? But Annabel had drawn a new set of rules for it, had narrowed it, pointed it, made it stricter. Like all games, it was the more absorbing for being more difficult".
Don't worry, it's not a close relative they kill off, but an anonymous donor who gives them his fortune. And they can spend it only on themselves. Not their families or friends. The player is disqualified when that happens. It's obvious they want to live the life of the high-style jet set, but it's obvious also they're only wishing and pretending despite their fine clothes and would-be fine manners. When Annabel wishes for a silver-fox coat, Midge is appalled and they don't talk for days. Silver-fox being so common! The friendship is mended when Annabel changes her wish to mink.
One day they spot a perfect set of pearls with an emerald clasp in a jewelry store window. A possible purchase for their cool million they must spend. But the cost? A thousand? Ten thousand? In the end they decide to go inside and price the pearls.
"They tendered thanks, icily, to the doorman for ushering them into the shop. It was cool and quiet, a broad, gracious room with paneled walls and soft carpet. But the girls wore expressions of bitter disdain, as if they stood in a sty".
When they discover the pearls cost a quarter of a million dollars they're flabbergasted. "Honestly can you imagine a thing like that?" and "He's got his nerve." Not be be defeated the game starts again.
"Look. Suppose there was this terribly rich person, see? You don't know this person, but this person has seen you somewhere and wants to do something for you. Well, it's a terribly old person, see? And so this person dies, just like going to sleep, and leaves you ten million dollars. Now, what do you think you'd do?"
I found the story to be very humorous. Parker has a very sly wit about her. The women are vain and superficial and what makes this story so great is that much really has changed in the last 60+ years, as the same value system is in place today.