Dorothy Parker’s short story, “Horsie” is commonly read as a critique of social bias for the beautiful and prejudice against the unattractive. Heroin, Miss Wilmarth, is an unsightly nurse employed by Gerald and Camilla Cruger. The Crugers constantly compare her physical features to that of a horse, and Miss Wilmarth is completely and innocently oblivious to this dehumanization. And, while much can be exploited in the comparison of exterior and interior beauty, Parker is more concerned with upsetting, or critiquing the social conventions of beauty and class through Miss Wilmarth’s undeniable honesty and sincerity.
Parker emphasizes the propriety and role Miss Wilmarth has in the house and uses the different inhabitants of the house as pawns in a greater critique of social hierarchy. Mr. Cruger has a well-paying job that allows him to afford hired help such as Mary, a waitress, a cook, a driver, and Nana, a servant. Because of Mr. Cruger’s well-off position, Camilla does not have to work and can lie on a chaise-lounge for literally months while hired help takes care of her house and her child, Diane. The Crugers also entertain guests such as Mr. Minot and Mr. Forster, friends of Gerald. Together, the two guests and the two Crugers drink, laugh and socialize without major concern for little else but gaiety. The affluent Crugers are the owners of the house and Parker makes the reader privy to their inner most thoughts, such as resentment towards Miss Wilmarth and fear of losing their beauty. Parker differs between the social classes by giving names and speaking roles to the wealthiest characters, while purposely refraining from emphasizing the roles of the lower class characters. The lower class servants Mary, and the cook, are direct foils to the Crugers. Obviously, they have little wealth and are likely not educated. Both eat meals alone and never socialize with the Crugers. Though it is not explicitly said, it is inferred that they sleep and eat in servant’s quarters located in the lower reaches of the house. Mary, the cook, the driver, and Nana are never given speaking roles and the reader is never made privy to their thoughts.
The aforementioned roles represent that of a standard, or familiar, house for a wealthy family. Parker uses Miss Wilmarth to disrupt this accepted convention. She is hired help but shares little similarities with the lower class characters in the story. Miss Wilmarth is given her own room and does not eat with the servants; rather she dines with Mr. Cruger every night. She is even allowed to be late to dinner, which she is on numerous occasions. During these dinners the two converse as if equals. Mr. Cruger even devises a list of potential conversation topics to have with Miss Wilmarth called “Cruger’s Compulsory Conversations”(171). He even confides in Camilla that he wishes for Miss Wilmarth to be more conversational, asking ‘“Doesn’t that woman ever go out?”’(173). What’s more the Crugers, at times, even treat her as a guest. When Mr. Cruger entertains his two friends, Mr. Forster and Mr. Minot, he offers Miss Wilmarth an alcoholic drink and invites her to join the three for dinner. Furthermore, the Crugers give her a gift in the form of flowers at the end of the story. Even though this is intended to be a cruel joke, Miss Wilmarth interprets it as a sincere gesture. This further separates her from the likes of Mary, the cook, and the other servants.
Miss Wilmarth’s role is even more atypical because of her intimate relationship with the baby, Diane. She is so close to Diane the Parker portrays her as more of a parent than either of the Crugers. Miss Wilmarth spends the majority of the time in the nursery with the child and knows its daily weight, which she tells Gerald at dinner. She is also the only person in the story who actually holds the baby. The physical act of touching is critical to the well being of a newborn. Miss Wilmarth brings it [Diane] over to Camilla, but only [she] looks at it (175). Gerald never holds it either. Neither of the paternal parents talks to the child in baby-speak, nor talk to it at all. In fact, Gerald detests this form of communication, even if it is with an infant, and says ‘“If that brat ever calls you ‘Mummy…I’ll turn her out in the snow”’(175). While not wanting to talk like a baby is understandable, calling an infant a brat is incomprehensible. How could a parent call an infant a brat? This is not the only time either parent degrades their infant. Camilla calls the child “useless”(175), and Gerald curses it for restricting his wife to a bed for so long. As punishment he reveals that she will be an only child (173). It could easily be inferred that the Crugers do not even love the child. Certainly Diane must identify more with Miss Wilmarth than with Gerald or Camilla.
Just as the actions of the Cruger’s portray unfit parents, the physical differences imply that Miss Wilmarth is more motherly than either of them. This is first exemplified in the comparison of physical descriptions of the foiled characters, Miss Wilmarth and Camilla, specifically through a close examination of their hands. Miss Wilmarth’s hands are “big, trustworthy hands, scrubbed and dry, with nails cut short”(170). This description of Miss Wilmarth’s hands is a stark contrast to that of Camilla’s, which are “like heavy lilies in a languid breeze”(174). Miss Wilmarth is sturdy, dependable, and trustworthy; these are the preferred qualities of a quintessential mother. Miss Wilmarth’s hands are big, trustworthy, and scrubbed clean because she labors over Camilla and the baby, Diane, all day. Gerald Cruger even remarks that, “she was so skilled and rhythmic in her work…”(171). Conversely, Camilla is weak, flimsy, and lazy. She “had never done anything quickly in her life”(174) and had never worked. She had the “same far brightness that had always lain there”(174). Thus, it is implied that Camilla has spent most of her life resting on white satin sofas, accepting flowers, and receiving apologetic kisses up and down her fingers (174). Clearly, Miss Wilmarth is more apt for motherhood. One could even ask if Diane is Camilla’s child, since she exhibits no affection at any time during the story. While Camilla’s physical qualities are beautiful, Parker begs the reader to ask the question: are not the motherly qualities Miss Wilmarth exhibits more important?
Parker characterizes Miss Wilmarth with even more favorable qualities than simply those of a mother; she is honest and sincere. These are qualities that the Crugers clearly do not possess. During the story’s final moments Miss Wilmarth expresses great sadness in leaving the Cruger household. Her sentiments are heartfelt and genuine. She tells Gerald and Camilla that she ‘“has never been on a pleasanter case. I’ve just had the time of my life, all the time I was here”’(180). She further expresses desire to come back and see the baby. As a final act of good-bye she even holds out her hand to Mr. Cruger and says ‘“I’m the one that ought to thank you”’(182). But some may argue that Miss Wilmarth might simply be taking a moral high ground at this moment in the story. This is possible, but incredibly unlikely. During the dinner scene with Mr. Cruger, Mr. Forster, and Mr. Minot, Miss Wilmarth cries, ‘“Here’s a health, everybody”’(177). Why would she make a toast for the better health of these people if she were not genuine? She could have simply remained silent.
Still, it is odd that Miss Wilmarth is so genuine in her appreciation of the Crugers. There is no evidence to suggest that they have been anything short of dehumanizing. They make blatant comparisons between her and a horse throughout the entire story. In this regard, she is almost blessed with the beauty of ignorance. In many instances the horse comments occur in privacy between Gerald and Camilla, but there is a specific moment in which Miss Wilmarth hears Mr. Cruger say, ‘“Wait till you see Seabiscuit”’(175). Seabiscuit, of course is a famous racehorse. “She [Miss Wilmarth] could distinguish Gerald’s words as he called back from the threshold’ they hand no meaning to her”(175). They had no meaning to her. Miss Wilmarth is not simply taking a moral high ground over Mr. Cruger; she was born with the beautiful quality of only seeing the good in people. This is most telling in the story’s ending. Mr. Cruger presents Miss Wilmarth with gardenias as a cruel joke. Gardenias are flowers commonly given to winning racehorses. Wile Mr. and Mrs. Cruger revel in this joke, Miss Wilmarth is unmistakably sincere in her appreciation.
Parker introduces this biased viewpoint through a lengthy description of Miss Wilmarth. Her face is “ignorant of cosmetics” and it is “impossible to speculate upon her appearance undressed”(170). She has no sense or understanding of beauty products such as make-up, thus rendering her so ugly, that men cannot or will not imagine her naked. Later in the story Parker devotes a paragraph to Camilla, who proves to be a foil for Miss Wilmarth in many ways. While Miss Wilmarth is void of frills, and products, Camilla is shrouded in lace, and propped like a trophy on an “apricot satin chaise-lounge”(174). Furthermore, much is made of “how white she was and how lifted above other people; they [admiring men] forgot that she had always been pale as moonlight and had always worn a delicate disdain, as light as the lace that covered her breast”(174). Here Camilla is described as light, airy, and white as the moon. These are descriptions of an incredibly beautiful woman in the 1920’s and very early 1930’s, which is when this story was published. The most critical insight to Gerald Cruger’s view of women is seen following the description of Miss Wilmarth. “For him, women who were not softly lovely were simply not women”(170). Can a more degrading statement be made regarding those who are not beautiful?
The societal value system at play in this story is largely rooted in the male gaze, or the way in which Gerald Cruger views women. Mr. Cruger values women only for their looks, even though Miss Wilmarth possess much more lasting characteristics. Overall, society fails to value these qualities. It focuses only on beauty. This is evident in the abundance of flowers men send Camilla. Both of the Crugers are blessed with exterior beauty, but certainly not any meaningful, inner beauty.
Mr. Cruger, however, is not made aware of this value system until the story’s inciting incident when Miss Wilmarth comments on the beauty of his daughter, Diane. She says that Diane will be, ‘“a heart-breaker if ever I [she] saw one’’’(173). Diane cannot control her beauty and, since her mother and father are good-looking, will likely be beautiful. This makes Mr. Cruger “uncomfortable, [and] somehow embarrassed him to hear Miss Wilmarth banter of swains and conquest”(173). He is forced to confront the fact that his daughter could grow up to be coveted by men under the very same superficial value system he lives by.
Parker, Dorothy. Horsie. 1932. 170-183. Print.
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