Exploring the Gender Binary Through the Marriage of Gertie & Clovis in Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker

Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker is a provocative portrayal of gender, class, and family in Appalachia during World War II. Much of the literature on The Dollmaker is focused narrowly on Arnow’s stark portrayal of gender in the novel. Prominent voices on womanhood and Appalachia in The Dollmaker, for instance, include Charlotte Goodman (who examines the “community of women” in The Dollmaker), Barbara Rigney, Kristina Groover, and Heather Houser. Building on this existing literature, I rely upon the critical theory and feminist work of Susan Bordo, Kate Millett, Judith Butler, and J.K. Gibson-Graham to deconstruct the gender binary and to consider how gender intersects with modernity, particularly urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism in Appalachia and the United States as a whole.

I examine masculinity and femininity, individually and relationally, through Gertie and Clovis in The Dollmaker. In the early pages of the novel, Gertie is masculine, powerful, and at times the head of the household. In contrast, Clovis is portrayed as weak and ineffectual, unable to provide for his family in Kentucky. Once they move to Detroit, though, the two seem to reverse to more traditionally defined gender roles. I explore the gendered dynamics of their marriage, as well as the gendered relationship that Arnow—using Gertie and Clovis as a model—creates between the rural and the urban, craftsmanship and machinery, and community and violence. These dichotomies, I argue, reveal the construction of gender in our society and make clear the ways in which capitalism, industrialization, and urbanization alter and reinforce gender norms both in Appalachia and in the United States.