“We have art in order not to die of the truth.” – Friedrich Nietzsche


Mrs. Anderson, one of the protagonist, Gertie Nevel’s, neighbors in the brutal factory town of Merry Hills, Detroit, confesses:

“But sometimes I wonder – why raise children? Why give your life up to them – everything – if – if their lives will be as miserable as your own?…Always I hated it, this alley, the ugliness, the noise – there wasn’t time or quiet in which to paint…there’d be flies buzzing round, and the gray houses and the dirty trash cans, always spilling, and the black steelmill smoke (p. 439-41)…”


She has given up painting, while Gertie continues to carve her block of wood during the midnight hours when she is unable to sleep after the death of her favorite daughter, Cassie. Gertie believes “A body’s got to have somethen all their own.” – thinking of Cassie’s imaginary friend, Callie Lou – but revealing to us the meaning of her “whittling”. No matter how difficult and exhausting her life, she still has her art to fall back on: until the end of the novel, when she sacrifices this one precious ‘somethen all her own’ to become a producer of commodities, The Dollmaker, of the title. Her other sisters deal with “the woman question” in other ways. One simply picks up and leaves her husband.  Another, a barmaid – tired of dealing with the pinches and passes of drunken men – quits her job to take a business school course.  While their Catholic neighbor, Mrs. Daly, seemingly thrives on the chaos of her children- crowded home with her new ninth baby girl. In each case, it is the oppression of working-class women which is the subject of our novel. And Gertie Nevels, of Ballew, Kentucky, proves to be one of the great heroines of modern literature. From the opening scene we realize that this is an extraordinary woman.


Aback an old mule, Dock, she journeys from the hills of southeastern Kentucky: all the way hunched protectively over her sick baby, Amos, in her lap. It is during the early 1940’s and World War II is raging. Young men are being drafted into the army, and into the factories in the north to produce war goods. Gertie’s is one of the countless families involved in the “Great Migration” north. Desperate, she forces the mule into the center of the highway, where a car carrying an officer nearly hits them and swerves off the road. Although the officer – frightened and enraged – insists his business is urgent, Gertie will not back down:


“…You can shoot me now er give me an this youngen a lift to the closest doctor.” And even in the man’s work shoes, the long and shapeless coat, green-tinged with age…she held herself proudly, saying: “You want my name; I’m Gertie Nevels frum Ballew, Kentucky. Now, let me lay my little boy down (p. 11)…”

She assists them with their automobile, and then drafts the two soldiers into helping her perform a tracheotomy on her child. Her “grace under pressure” in saving its life is miraculous to behold:


“…Her eyes were on his neck bowed up above the rock pillow…the older man…took the child’s hands in one of his and put the other about its ankles. The young soldier, gripping the child’s head...until when he looked up there was the long bright knife drawing swiftly away from the swollen neck, leaving behind it a thin line that for an instant seemed no cut at all, hardly a mark, until the blood seeped out…The knife moved again, and in the silence there came a little hissing. A red filmed bubble streaked with pus grew on the red dripping wound, rose higher, burst; the child struggled, gave a hoarse, inhuman whistling cry…The woman wiped the knife blade…She gently but quickly wiped the blood and pus from the gaping hole, whispering to the child as it struggled, giving its little hoarse, inhuman cries: “Save yer breath, honey; thet little ole cut ain’t nothen fer a big boy like you nigh four years old (p. 18)…”


As they drive her and the child to a nearby town to visit the local doctor, we learn about Gertie and her family. She is the mother of five young children, married to a mechanic, Clovis, whose induction into the army has been postponed so he can do war work in a factory in Detroit. She is hardly the Southern belle just off the plantation. When forced to dress for church, her embroidered dress:


“…seemed by its very daintiness to make her own body, brown, big-boned, big-muscled, brier-scratched from the man’s work she did on the farm, even more ugly. Her thighs, that could endure the jolting of a mule’s back or long hours on the iron seat of the iron-wheeled mowing machine, cried to her in church…at their confinement (p. 69)…”


She has recently lost her only brother in the war, and had hoped to use the money he left her to buy her own farm. Finally, she would have been able to produce all she needed for herself and her children without being “beholden to no man”. But her husband has to take the factory job in the north, so she and their children must follow. The war has all but emptied her former hometown of men: killed in action; prisoners of war; fighting overseas; or working in life-threatening factories. All the town’s women wait daily at the town’s general store for the postman to come with news of their menfolk. As she tells the officer, their main crop has become “Youngens fer th wars an them factories (p. 5)…” She and her working-class sisters are the ‘baby factories’ that produce ‘labor-power’ for the real factories and the war.


Arriving in the factory town of Merry Hills, Detroit, she stands in the kitchen of her new home:

“…it seemed more like a large closet with rows of uncurtained shelves above a sink, and smotheringly crowded with curious contrivances…She opened the inner door…saw across a narrow strip of soot-blackened snow another building exactly like her own, telephone wires and poles, smoke, steel-mill light, and steam…through the steam and the smoke, and far away on the other side of the railroad fence…a great pile of coal (p. 171)…”


Throughout the novel there is the harsh contrast between her memory of the Tipton farm in the hill country she hoped to buy for her family and the ugliness of industrial Detroit. Here, there is:

“…The steamy, nasty smell of the drying, half-rotten re-used wood mingled with the gas smell, the chlorine water smell, the supper-getting smell, and became one smell, a stink telling her it was the time of day she had learned to hate the most. The time she had loved back home (p. 264, 65)…”


There, she remembered the forests, fresh air and flowing streams:

“…her hands remembered the warm feel of a cow’s teats or the hardness of a churn handle, or better beyond all things, the early-morning trip in starlight, moonlight, rain or snow, to the spring – the taste of spring water, the smell of good air, clean air, earth under her feet (p. 209)…”

 Here, she steps outside, walks down the street through the blaring noise of traffic, and sees railroad tracks and a train grinding towards her:


“…The cars, loaded mostly with rusty scrap iron, moved ever more slowly past…the train stood there puffing like some great iron beast with no skin to hurt in the cold (p. 195)…”


Not only is the physical environs harsh in Merry Hills, but so are the attitudes of some of its inhabitants. Gertie soon meets her neighbors, mostly the wives of factory workers. Among a few of them, racism, anti-Semitism and anti-communism are rife. In a powerful scene, Gertie and her neighbor, Mrs. Anderson, protect a gospel woman distributing religious tracts from their Catholic neighbor, Mrs. Daly. Short, faded and dumpy, she is mopping up her steps:


“…“Could I leave some of our literature with you as a gift?”…

The little woman soused her broom up and down in the bucket, giving the other an angry, suspicious glance as she did so…“Would you be interested in – ” The gospel woman’s words were broken off by a spattering of dirty water, some of which must have gone into her face. Still she advanced to the second step, and her voice continued pleasant, “In this book are many of Christ’s teachings that will help you through these tr—”

A broomful of scrub water well aimed, with no pretense of accident, flew about the brown shoulders and the dull scarf…‘Do unto others as –’ ”


The Bible verse was cut in two by the pail of dirty water flung over her shoulders and head…The other cried with a furious shaking of the bucket: “And if…good people like Father Moneyhan had th say-so in this country, yu’d git worse’n scrub water. Hitler knows how t’handle u likes a youse along wit u Jews.”

“Yes,” the woman said, still rubbing her eyes as she turned back to the other, “…All over the earth we are persecuted. Hitler kills us, but here we are only beaten by mobs and put into jail.”


Mrs. Daly flourished the broom. “…I’ll call a cops; da red squad…I’m a good patriotic Christian American. See? No nigger-loven, Jew-loven, communist’s gonna stand on mu steps and tell me wot I gotta do…(p. 222-24)…”


And when Gertie steps in to protect the gospel woman, Mrs. Daly retorts:

“…Youse jist got here, yu hillbilly heathen…Leggo this broom, yu big bitch. I’ll calla cops (p. 224)…”

As Gertie takes the gospel woman under her protection and leads her home, she is aided by Mrs. Anderson, who becomes her friend. She learns from her that Father Moneyhan is a famous Catholic priest, enamored of Hitler and Mussolini, who regularly broadcasts sermons on the radio filled with anti-communist hate.       

Then her husband, Clovis, comes home early from work, angry and upset; there had been a ‘walk out’ at the factory. She tells him about her battle with Mrs. Daly, and their son, Enoch, who had also got in a fight with the Daly children, asks him:


“Pop, is a Protestant a heathen?”

“You know better’n that, Clovis cried. “It’s the Catholics that’s th heathen, a worshipen idols an th pope…That’s why they hate us…”

“Aw, Clovis,” Gertie began, “not all—“

“How would you know woman?” Clovis asked, his eyes blazing. “You never have to git out an work with em, hear em talk about hillbillies.”

Gertie’s anger shook her like a wind. “You know I’d hunt a factory job in a minute, but you won’t hear to it…(p. 252)…”


Seeking support from her husband, she only gets his denigration of her role as mother, wife and housekeeper.  Later in the novel she will endure his complaints about her cooking, her cleaning, her care for their children. He is a typical sexist husband who denies the overwhelming tasks she faces each day –  the rearing and care of five children and a husband. All of the issues of the women’s movement are embodied in Gertie’s daily life. But amidst all the ugliness of Merry Hill her sensitive eye grasps an occasional moment of beauty:


“But she walked on…glad…to be out of the house. The always red-tinged twilight was brightening into wavering flickers of red light that sharpened the rows of squat chimney tops between her and the crimson sky above the steel mill. Behind her the snowy roofs grew warmly pink…She reached an intersection where no houses blocked the view of the steel mill…a pour was being made…red light boiling up into the sky…The light rose ever higher. Instead of red, it leaped now white, now blue like lightning, and with it there was a noise like one long roll of hissing, spitting thunder…The light above the pouring shed was pure white now, so that all around it, in the drop-forge mill, the stripping shed, the other furnaces, the lesser lights, through all shades of quivering red, were dull beside the leaping brightness. (p. 267-69)…”


From this moment of unexpected beauty, we return to Gertie’s daily grind. When Clovis returns home late, exhausted from his day at the factory, he complains about the dinner and her housekeeping:

“…Gert, that grub wasn’t fitten fer a dawg.”

“It ain’t my fault it set two hours,” she answered…

He grew even more angry, and his voice rose. “What ud you think I was doen…I was worken, gitten overtime pay. I fin’ly git home an th place is in a mess. (p. 270)…”

Later, she remembers the way it was on the farm, where the roles of husband and wife were not so clearly divided between home and factory:


“It wasn’t the way it had used to be back home when she had done her share, maybe more than her share of feeding and fending for the family. Then, with the egg money, chicken money, a calf sold here, a pig sold there, she’d bought almost every bite of food they didn’t raise. Here everything, even to the kindling wood, came from Clovis. (p. 338)…”


But the oppression of women is not confined to the home. Women (together with men) worked in Detroit’s dangerous factories during the war. Their dual oppression – domestic labor plus factory job – was apparent in the stories Gertie overheard Clovis and his fellow workers tell:


“They fell then into long musing tales of the things they had seen…Gertie had never known there were so many ways for a workingman to die: burned, crushed, skinned alive, smothered, gassed, electrocuted, chopped to bits, blown to pieces. She heard tales of the ways of loose bolts or old belts with human arms, legs, and heads. She listened to stories of machines on a speed-up that…flew with no warning into flying pieces of steel that blinded and crippled when they didn’t kill. (p. 318)…”


Then her eldest son, Reuben, disappears. Worried sick, his parents finally find a note from him in Clovis’ wallet, saying he has borrowed money and returned home to Kentucky. There, he can be himself and do the work he knows for his grandfather.  Having lost one child to the hill country she longed to return to, Gertie next notices that her favorite daughter, Cassie, has wandered off to the nearby railroad yard. She follows and spies her by the tracks through a crack in the wooden fence:

“…on the other side of the fence a train stood…The purring, steaming engine was far away…Fainter, like the buzzing of a horsefly, was the buzzing airplane, still high above…Cassie stood between the main line and the fence…Gertie called to her, “Git away, Cassie, git away,” but the airplane kept her words from Cassie…unable to hear the terror-filled voice on the other side of the fence: “Cassie, git back! Thet car’s on a engine. It could move!”…(p. 402, 3)”


Unable to warn Cassie because of the noise of the airplane, Gertie can neither squeeze through the fence nor has she time to run around it. She dashes up and down it, screaming at Cassie, searching for a way through the fence. Finding an opening, she desperately tries to squeeze through, bloodying her hands, arms and shoulders. Then she searches for something to throw at Cassie to get her attention, hurling her shoe through a hole in the fence. Cassie drops to her knees on a crosstie under a boxcar. Hearing an approaching engine, she crawls onto the rail and sits huddled close to the car’s great wheel. Her legs were over the rail; then the train shot past her:


“…Gertie screamed for a moment longer, her head through the hole again, her shoulders fighting the wood. She knew Cassie couldn’t hear, but still she screamed: “Thet other train’ull move, too! Git away, honey! Git between em!”…The switch engine stopped with a jerk that sent shivering knocks through all the cars. A man leaped down from the engine…She had come almost opposite the place where she had first seen Cassie. She turned and saw near the rail a child’s boot…a little boot that looked to be stuffed with something…The man behind her... was crying, “No – no, lady – please, lady!...under the train she saw Cassie, white-faced, strange-looking, whimpering little begging cries of “Mommie, Mommie.” (p. 405, 6)…”


Gertie lays Cassie across her knees. Her face is white, eyes wild, arms flailing, as she cries “It hurts, Mommie – oh, Mommie!” Her words end in screams, as Gertie helplessly rocks her back and forth in her arms: holding the stubs of her child’s legs as the blood streams out. Finally, a police car takes them to the hospital emergency room, where she dies and her corpse is placed in a freezer:


“She had barred the way of the cart into the coldness, repeating, “No, no,” wanting Cassie away from the cold seeping door, for the place was the place in the Bible: “And where the light is as midnight. (p.411)…”

With the help of her friend, Mrs. Anderson, she slowly recovers. And her whittling of the block of wood  helps her preserve her sanity:


“The man in the wood at first seemed far away…the knife fumbled, a lost knife hunting a lost man in the wood…But gradually the thing in the wood came closer and yielded itself, and the chips and shavings fell…Then would come the remembering, and the knife would be lost again while she sat helplessly fumbling…tossed and whirled about as she was in the ringing, roaring fury (p. 417, 18)…”  


Then, finally, the war ends and there is joy in the streets. The war had not only brought good-paying jobs for men, it had also provided employment for women like never before. Now there would be lay-offs; and men would be coming home from the war to replace women in the factories. And those “hillbillies” from the South who had trecked north to do dangerous war work, were now accused of stealing jobs from northern workers. Once again the Dalys – this time in the person of Mr. Daly – are the chief spokesmen for bigotry:

“They’s plenty a native-born Detroiters walking a streets without jobs, while hillbillies wot don’t belong here works.”…


“Want us to go back home an raise another crop of youngens at no cost to you an Detroit, so’s they’ll be already to save you when you start another war – huh? We been comen up here to save Detroit ever since th War a 1812. (p. 509)…”


Furthermore, the no strike pledge of the unions would now be replaced by the greatest strike wave in U.S. history. But we must return to Gertie’s own story.

She had slowly built up a clientele for her wood-carved dolls and crucifixes, so Clovis builds her an electric saw to enable her to save time carving:


“…I got a surprise fer you, old woman.”

She followed him into the bedroom…and watched in silence while he took the contraption he had finished last night…”Now look,” he whispered…he put the board on the flat piece of steel, turned on the saw again, and by turning the board as the blade ate into the wood, he had in a moment a cross exactly to his knife markings.


He held it up for her to see, and whispered: “Look at th time you’ll save. (p. 476)…”


Then one night while working on her block of wood, it speaks to her:

“She roused, but instead of bed turned to the block of wood…the man in the wood gave rest and peace from thoughts of the things lost behind her and the things ahead she feared.  Tonight, however, seemed like she’d worked on the lifted hand for only a little while before she came wide awake with listening; it seemed the faceless man was whispering, “There’s no money in me (499)…”


And the economic pressure mounts as the likelihood of a strike looms. Clovis might be out of work or be replaced altogether:


“…she could faintly hear the rain against the glass. If she could hear it on a roof – fall rain on the roof shingles of a barn when the animals were fed…and Dock to drive. Where was Dock?...To have Dock in a barn…and round her food for the winter…To live that way, without debts, unions, boys in cars, foremen, traffic; to be free from the fears, forever at her back –  How long would Clovis work…What if he got sick? (p. 524)…”


She works frantically, carving her wooden dolls. Then one night she returns to her block of wood; and when Clovis sees her whittling, he complains she should be making dolls:

“You’ll wear yerself out on that, Gert…You ought to be worken on them patterns. (p. 595)…”          

The next day she is determined to sacrifice everything to provide for her family. She borrows her son’s wagon to go to the wood lot:


“She went into the living room, and stood for a moment smoothing the wood and looking down at it, then took it in her two arms as if it had been a child, and carried it to the kitchen door. She stopped there and looked back at the room; it seemed empty now – of what? A block of wood could not make such emptiness.

She turned quickly through the door…there were many children…Many followed after her, fussing at times over who should have the privilege of helping Amos pull the wagon, for the load was a heavy one…She heard the saw in the scrap-wood lot. (p. 597, 98)…”


The scrap-wood man sees the block of wood and asks her if it’s a sculpture of Christ. She shakes her head ‘no’, and replies she needs it sawed into boards for whittling. He says that she’s obviously put a lot of work into it; that she ought to put a face on it. She tells him that it’s just a pastime. But he insists it’s so large that it must be split with an ax. Seeing her hesitation, he suggests that she wield the ax herself:

“She swung the ax in a wide arc, and it sank into the wood across the top of the head…He brought a wedge, and a large hammer…She struck the ax with the hammer…The wood…came apart with a crying, rendering sound…(and) the face fell forward toward the ground. (p. 598, 99)…”


“A body’s got to have somethen all their own.”, she once said.  This magnificent woman – courageous, compassionate, willing to work herself to the bone – sacrifices the single “somethen all her own” to provide for her family. Not only has she been a “baby factory”, producing children and replenishing her children’s and husband’s strength, but she has now become The Dollmaker of the title: just a commodity producing commodities for the market.


Lise Vogel’s important, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, provides the theoretical framework for our discussion. Let us begin with famous passage by Marx describing class society:


“The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labor is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers – a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labor and thereby its social productivity – which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state (p. 791, Capital, Volume 3, Karl Marx)…”

Not only does this “innermost secret” – the relationship of the owners of the means of production to the direct producers – reveal the form of the economy and the state, but it also reveals the form of the family and the nature of the oppression of women. Vogel’s contribution to Marxist theory takes the daily and generational reproduction of labor-power as its point of departure. That author says:


“…If children are to be born, it is women who will carry and deliver them. Women belonging to the subordinate class have, therefore, a special role with respect to the generational replacement of labour-power. While they may also be direct producers, it is their differential role in the reproduction of labour-power that lies at the root of their oppression in class society (p. 150)…”


Furthermore, the role of women in the capitalist and working classes are fundamentally different:

“Only women in the subordinate class participate in the maintenance and replacement of the indispensable force that keeps a class-society going – exploitable labour-power (p. 154)…”


 And the working-class and capitalist-class families are also to be distinguished: the working-class family is the site of the maintenance and reproduction of labor-power; while the capitalist-class family is the carrier and transmitter of property. And the working-class family, the “home in a homeless world” is a bundle of contradictions:


“…working-class families generally embody elements of both support and conflict, bound together in a dynamic combination that is not necessarily fixed. Concrete investigation will reveal whether the supportive or the conflictual aspects dominate in a particular situation (p. 177)…”


We can better understand Gertie’s struggle within this Marxist framework. First, there is her epic journey from her farm in the hills of Kentucky to the industrial wastes of Detroit. There, she was not only a “housewife”, but also a producer of her fair share (or more than her fair share) of what her family needed. There, if she had been able to purchase the Tipton farm, she would have been “beholden to no man”. But here, in this ugly factory town, she is confined to her home and forbidden to take a job by her husband. And he, himself, is exploited in the dangerous factory where he works. So that when he returns home each evening, he takes it out on his wife: belittling her cooking, cleaning and care of their children. Despite their conflicts, however, there is their mutual love and support. But this working-class family is governed entirely by the decisions of the capitalist-class over the economy and war. And the capitalist class, itself, has limited control over its own unpredictable system. 


As long as working-class women live under capitalism, they will continue to suffer the dual oppression of domestic labor and exploitation in the workforce. As Vogel concludes:


“As an obstacle to effective equality for women, domestic labour has a stubborn material presence that no legislation, by itself, can overcome. A major index of socialist society is, then, the progressive reduction of the disproportionate burden placed on women by domestic labour. Two paths towards this goal are available. First, domestic labour can be reduced through the socialization of its tasks. Second, the domestic labour that remains to be done outside public production can be shared among women, men, and, in appropriate proportion, children. Because domestic labour cannot be substantially reduced, much less eliminated overnight socialist society must take both paths in order to assure women real social equality (p. 180)…” 

© 2015 By Mark Dickman