Analytical Review of "The Other Woman"

by Don Rey




     The nineteen-twenties and the years leading into this time period impacted literature in America greatly, even to the point of shaping some authors’ writing. The Modernist Period in American Literature is possibly the most apparent evidence of this impact. A topic that will be explained in greater detail later, Modernism began its sweep through America about the year 1914 (Harmon 326). It was a vastly new style of literature that encouraged writers to take more liberties in their writing styles. World War I ended in 1918, and although tragic and damaging, had a positive effect on literature. The late teens and the early twenties brought a significant economic boom following the war, which contributed to an increase in talent and an experimenting with these new writing styles (Harmon 326). Stream-of-consciousness became a technique accepted, and soon widely used in the Modernist Period. Different variations of this method became popular in the twenties and throughout the Modernist Period. In addition, women’s’ rights activists were many in number, and their fight grew rapidly stronger during this time. August of 1920 brought in effect the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote (Samuel 1). The time period leading up to and surrounding the 1920 short story "The Other Woman," by Sherwood Anderson, shaped the style of writing Anderson uses, with strong influences from Modernism, the stream-of-consciousness technique, and the feminist movement.

     Modernism began to take its hold on twentieth century writers with the beginning of the Great War in 1914. The new styles spread from Europe to America faster than the outbreak of war did. America entered the war in 1917, and reached peace with Germany in late 1918. As is typical of wars, it caused a great boost in production and consequently in the stock market and the economy. Because of this and a drop in unemployment, it became easier to make a living in America during these times. Overall, time and money were in surplus so more writers could afford to experiment with different styles of literature. Fiction became more and more popular. Many authors began to favor the novel and the short story as their means of expression. The experimental (and rather successful) style present in Anderson’s "The Other Woman" is typical of Modernist Period writings. To begin with, it is a fictional work. Following the definition of fiction, the short story is a narrative based on the imagination of the author rather than a historical event (Harmon 212). There may be much truth to the story, but Anderson does not write an objective, accurate account.

     Part of the Modernist movement towards fiction included a closer look at one’s inner self, and one’s feelings, thoughts, and reactions. Anderson begins his work by trying to explain and reason with the thoughts going through the mind of the protagonist of whom he writes. Within the extensive quotations, the main character tells a painstakingly complete explanation of his thoughts and feelings while examining them and learning for himself why he felt that way, and what to make of it. The short story is in whole, an exploration of the powerful thoughts a man experiences in a week’s time. During this period in his life, he goes through great change. The man has recently been appointed to a government position, he was selected as a top poet of the time by several magazines, and he was due to be married in a week’s time. These changes in his life begin to affect his pride and his ego. He works hard to control this, but also begins to think unfaithful thoughts about a married woman. These are the types of events and thoughts that are experienced by the typical man or woman. They make up a part of the developing Modernist Period.

     A large and radical part of the Modernist movement is the integration of stream of consciousness into literature. Stream of consciousness is defined as "a mixture of all the levels of awareness, an unending flow of sensations, thoughts, memories, associations, and reflections" (Harmon 497). The stream-of-consciousness technique in literature toys with assigning verbal articulation to the unorganized flow of the human mind.

     This lack of organization is the most apparent aspect of this technique in Modernist works that use it. In "The Other Woman," Anderson uses this technique in a unique way as his main character narrates through the author who is also a narrator. When Anderson begins the large section of quotations by the main character, he begins the stream-of-consciousness technique in its entirety. The main character wrestles with his explanation and his exploration of himself openly. He passes his awareness on to the reader through his unorganized thought pattern. He often realizes that it may sound like he is contradicting himself, but insists that he is not, and explains himself. A reader may say that he has a dizzying intellect because he does not present his thoughts and actions in an organized fashion, as are works from previous periods of literature. This is very evident in the following passage, as the narrator quotes the main character,

‘The Woman did come to my apartment at seven. That morning she did not say anything at all. For a minute perhaps we stood looking at each other. I had forgotten everything in the world, but just her. Then she nodded her head and I went away. Now that I think of it I cannot remember a word I ever heard her say. She came to my apartment at seven and it was dark. You must understand that this was in the month of October. I had not lighted a light and I had sent my servant away’ (Anderson 41).

The protagonist first assures the friend about the future, in that the woman carries out his proposal, and then he backtracks to the morning and tells of her agreement to the proposal. He then recognizes that he has just now realized he does not remember ever hearing her speak. Next he returns to the time she appears at his apartment, in lieu of his proposal. Following this passage, he then backtracks again to his day at work after talking to the woman. This method of writing is a difficult one to follow in the first reading. But it is one that is easy to understand when studied a second time, because it follows similar lack of organization that a reader’s mind does.

     Another aspect of the stream-of-consciousness technique is the removal of punctuation such as hyphens, commas, and similar signals. These omissions move the text closer to spoken language. The idea of this is to appeal more to the listening ear than to the reading eye (Harmon 497). Anderson does this when quoting his main character. The text spoken by the main character is not formatted in a way that is to be seen, but instead is left mostly unformatted in a way that is to be heard. These aspects of the stream-of-consciousness technique make up much of the short story and are a major part of Anderson’s style in this work.

     Also evident in "The Other Woman" is the feminist movement that was taking place in the period the short story was written. The nineteenth amendment to The Constitution took effect in August of 1920. In the years leading up to this, there was great movement in women’s rights (Samuel 1). The influence on Anderson in relation to this story would have taken place in the few years before he wrote it. Since then however, women’s rights have come a very long way. In today’s society a man can be punished for referring to women as intellectually (or even physically) inferior to men. Throughout the short story, Anderson’s main character refers to women as if they are inferior to him. As a noble and honest person, he does not do this in an especially degrading way, but it is done nonetheless. The tobacconist’s wife responds by accepting this idea of inferiority. When the main character tells her to come to his apartment later on that day, she accepts this without verbal question. His wife, in contrast, is a feminist. She is a conservative feminist, meaning she maintains ideals of feminism but is not liberal about them, but she does somewhat debate her inferiority to her fiancée. In her letter, she says they will no longer think of themselves as man and woman, but as two human beings. She expects her fiancée to see her as equal to him in some respects. However, she also recognizes the common feeling of the time that women know less than men do and are to learn from their husbands about life. She accepts the 1920s understanding that she is an awakening woman, ignorant but learning and maturing, who needs a man to help her in the process. As is displayed by these three characters, the feminist movement is a very evident factor in Anderson’s short story.

     The time in which the work is written encompasses all the aspects described. Modernism and stream-of-consciousness become part of the style of writing in the nineteen-teens and the nineteen-twenties. Feminism becomes an important movement, making its way up to the most important government document; the Constitution of the United States. All have a great impact on literature of the time, and work to shape Anderson’s short story, "The Other Woman."



Works Cited:

Anderson, Sherwood. "The Other Woman." Best American Short Stories. Ed. John Updike. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. 38-44

Harmon, William and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Samual, Tim. Twenties Reconstruction Society. "The Big Timeline." Online, Feb 2001.


Essay written for Mr. K. Jahi Adisa - English 109 - University of Connecticut - Spring 2001

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