Investigating the Hillbilly Woman’s Linguistic Resistance and Cultural Preservation in Harriette Simpson Arnow’s The Dollmaker

Met with critical acclaim almost immediately following its 1954 publication, Harriette Simpson Arnow’s harrowing novel, The Dollmaker, enters the twenty-first century as an iconic piece of Appalachian literature. Over the past half-century, scholars have focused on the Biblical allusions of the text’s plot, the novel’s evolution as a Künstlerroman, and several articles have argued about many different aspects through a feminist lens. At present, no scholarship focuses on the specific hillbilly vernacular the novel’s protagonist, Gertie Nevels, uses, nor are there current articles that argue the failure to change her language is an act of resistance from assimilating to industrialized urban American values.

However, this paper investigates the role of language in the novel, particularly as it is used as a preserver of culture. Specifically, I will demonstrate that Gertie maintains her hillbilly vernacular in the city of Detroit when others around her assimilate to the standard American English expected of them. To that end, my analysis will complicate the role women play in Appalachian communities, where they are simultaneously protectors of heritage and victims of its oppression. Finally, this essay demonstrates how the depiction of Gertie as an uncommon woman—one who subverts the traditional patriarchal role as the family’s most consistent provider— in society metaphorizes the plight of the hillbilly in the post-World War II rise of American industrialism.