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What Is Wrong With This Person?

By Professor Tom Donahue

In the novel "Dodsworth," Sinclair Lewis presents a picture of a dissolving marriage. Fran Voelker Dodsworth and her husband Sam have left Zenith, a Minneapolis-like American city and are touring Europe just after Sam took an early retirement from his position as president of the Revelation automobile company. Fran, whose father was a brewer, has a moneyed background and an eastern "finishing-school" education; Sam graduated from Yale, studied engineering at MIT, and starting as a middle-class young man he quickly worked his way into wealth and respect at the auto firm.

Fran's Gift

Lewis tells us early in the story that Fran, 41, has an extremely high verbal intelligence and an impulsively aggressive attitude toward Sam, who is 51:
"She had a high art of deflating him, of enfeebling him, with one quick, innocent-sounding phrase. By the most careless comment on his bulky new overcoat she could make him feel like a lout in it; by crisply suggesting that he "try for once to talk about something besides motors and stocks," while they rode to a formidable dinner to an elocutionary senator, she could make him feel so unintelligent that he would be silent all evening. the easy self-confidence which weeks of industrial triumphs had built up in him she could flatten in five seconds. She was, in fact, a genius at planting in him an assurance of his inferiority (p. 23)."

Later we see that as they dance,
"When he danced with Fran and she dutifully pointed out his roughness, he laughed. Always she had a genius for keeping herself superior to him by just the right comment on his clumsiness, the most delicate and needle-pointed comparison of him with defter men (p. 46)."

That Verbal Facility In Arguments

In the novel Lewis frequently reports arguments between Fran and Sam in a variety of physical settings and emotional contexts. Very early we see Fran's tone with Sam:
"I do think you might have remembered to send that wireless, considering that you had absolutely nothing else to do aboard - except drink! When I did all the packing and - Sam do you realize that it really wouldn't injure your titanic industrial mind if you were occasionally just the least bit thoughtful toward me, if you didn't leave absolutely everything about the house and traveling for me to do? (p. 50)"

Later, as Sam asks to leave a party early, we hear:
"Are you going to demand that we take Zenith with us every place we go? Are you going to refuse to like anything that's the least bit different from a poker party at Tub Pearson's? And are you going to insist that I be scared and old, too, and not reach out for the great life that I can learn to master - oh, I can, I can! I'm doing it! (p. 79)"

When Sam objects to Fran's manner toward him in public, she responds:
"I have never nagged you! I have never said anything to embarrass you! I think even you will admit that in some things I have slightly more tact and patience than you have! And then out of pure friendliness, entirely for your own sake, I try to help you to understand people that you've misjudged, and you say I've bullied you! Oh, it's perfectly beastly of you! And idiotic! (p. 105)"

Then she generalizes:
"I'm neither 'panning' you, as you so elegantly put it, nor am I trying to mother you. I'm always willing to listen to your opinions on golf and how to invest my money. I merely expect you to admit that there may be a few things in which the poor ignorant female may know a little bit more than you do! Oh, you're like all the other American men! You speak no known language. (p. 106)"

One of the larger quarrels between the two concerns Sam's suspicions that Fran's new-found friends in Paris are sponging on her:
"Well, I'm sick and tired of having to apologize, yes to apologize, for the crime of having introduced you to some of the nicest and most amusing people in Paris, and for having backed you up when they were offended by your boorishness!"

She continues almost immediately:
"- yet possibly I may be a little better equipped to understand really smart, cosmopolitan people than you are! Kindly let me remind you that Renee de Penable is the intimate friend of the most exclusive aristocracy of the ancien regime here -"

Sam interrupts:
"But is she? And what of it?"

Fran counters:
"Will you kindly stop sneering? You that are so fond of accusing me of sneering! And, my dear Samuel, you really don't do it so very well! Delicate irony isn't your long suit, my dear good man! (p. 146)"

Later, when Sam questions Fran about her relationship with another man, she responds:
"And have you any idea of how angry I'm going to be if you continue to act like a barroom bully - which is what you are, essentially! I've concealed it from myself, for years, but I knew all the time - The great Sam Dodsworth, the football player, the celebrated bruiser, the renowned bully! Why, you belong in the kitchen, with the corner policeman, not among civilized - (p. 210)"

Lastly, toward the end of the novel, we find that Fran's capacity for sharp-tongued outrage has not diminished:
"Just because I did like one man besides your high and mighty and sacred self, I can see that you're going to have the pleasure forever more of throwing it up to me, and of hinting the most outrageous things if I so much as have a polite talk with a man! (p.262)"

A Sociolinguistics Perspective

Most appearances to the contrary, Fran actually has been socialized to be submissive with, subordinate to, and supportive of the principle man in her life. It just so happens that during twenty years of marriage to Sam, Fran has been unable to reveal that Sam is not that particular man, and that she hopes to meet Mr. Right on this trip to Europe. Fran realizes that she is in a highly suspect moral position, and she behaves in an essentially defensive way. Yet in her rhetoric, Fran inverts a value based on a sports metaphor that most men learn during youth: with her, the best defense is a good offense. To assert her personal needs and her private values, she shows an aggressive use of what are essentially passive modes in the women's dialect: hypercorrectness and hyperpoliteness. With Sam, she converts rhetorical device to underlying attitude: as we see in the quoted material above, she speaks to him as if he were an incompetent who needs frequent correction, and in her better moods she places him at a polite distance, using a cold and emotionally uninvolved manner.

In addition, Fran seems victimized by problems stemming from her lower-upper class upbringing: in her marriage to Sam, who has a highly achieved status in his career as an auto executive, Fran can only show a status by ascription. For all her life she has been either a rich man's wife or a rich man's daughter, and her own potential for personal accomplishments has not been nurtured, and has been encouraged in only a spotty fashion. A good portion of her life has been spent in a frustrating search for the kind of respect and renown which Sam has enjoyed, and throughout this novel we see that by temperament, Fran is unable to bear her frustrations lightly.

Sinclair Lewis' Perspective

Most readers of this quite modern novel have understood from 1929 forward that Lewis wished to say something about the extremely slow way in which lower-upper class women mature in American life. Fran is often represented as a petulant child; she has matured physically and socially into adulthood, but in her emotional life she cherishes a belief that her life will improve spectacularly if she can just grow beyond her current phase. She is represented as a case of stunted development: she is certain that some near-future time beyond her current marriage holds the promise of romance and adulation, and yet she is worried that she will age physically in a way that will keep that promise from becoming real. Her frustrations over the fact that her age may get in the way of her expectations of glamour and adoration have forced her to hide what Lewis calls her romantic "essential self" (p, 56) from Sam, and the thought that something may thwart the pleasures owed to that essential self has made her bitter, angry, and abusive.

A Reader's Perspective: What Is Wrong With This Person?

If we choose to move beyond the character qualities discussed so far, we see that Fran is a prisoner of her daydreams. Her hopes for praise and personal distinction are developed in an imagined realm far different from her day-to-day experiences with ease and affluence in Zenith, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere; she instead positions most of her emotional life in a place quite different from the here and now. Fran is that curious sort of sane person whose daydreams have a more compelling reality than the actual world around her, with the result that she places at high risk all that she knows and has in her present world. By any measure, she has allowed social values to frame her psychological needs in a way she personally cannot admit or understand, and throughout the novel she remains oblivious to the damage those values can bring to her and to other people as well.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008