The Standard Of Living by Dorothy Parker, 1941
The magic trick:
Adding real emotional gravitas to her normal comedy
Hey, it’s a Dorothy Parker. You’re expecting slightly mean-spirited social commentary comedy, some dated references and a pretty lean plot. “The Standard Of Living” won’t disappoint on any count. But not so fast my friends. There’s something more here; something, shall we say, substantial. This story made me sad. I felt real sympathy for the two women by story’s end. There was a real tender heart at the core of this story; something I had not seen from Parker previously.
So how did she win me over? I figure it was three things. One – even as she saddles the two girls with silly, superficial behavior, Parker likewise counters with sympathetic details (the girls both live at home and give half their already-modest salaries to their families). Two – the “What if you had a million dollars?” game the girls play is incredibly endearing. Three – the scene in which the girls price the necklace in the jewelry shop is heartbreaking. The girls fully expected to be blown away by the cost; that was the whole point. But being forced to confront their own socio-economic limitations isn’t fun at all as it turns out, and all they can do is return to their fantasies. I was just as nearly knocked back as the reader. And that’s quite a trick on Parker’s part.
Now, as they walked along Fifth Avenue, they played the game anew. It was one of those days with which September is repeatedly cursed; hot and glaring, with slivers of dust in the wind. People drooped and shambled, but the girls carried themselves talls and walked a straight line, as befitted young heiresses on their afternoon promenade. There was no longer need for them to start the game at its formal opening. Annabel went direct to the heart of it.
“All right,” she said. “So you’ve got this million dollars. So what would be the first thing you’d do?”