The Last Question Summary and Analysis by Dorothy Parker

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Dorothy Parker- Dorothy Parker, best known as the humorous voice of the Roaring Twenties, was born in New Jersey on August 22, 1893. Being a voracious reader, with keen interest in literature, she began her career by writing verse as well as captions for a fashion magazine. She is believed to have captured the spirit of her age in her writings, more than any of her contemporaries. The modern age, in which she wrote, was a time of great experiment, and a daring one for women in New York. She examined the social customs and practices of the time, and made an attempt to expose the darkness that laid beneath the dazzling lives of the rich who were seen as possessing the continual aristocratic divine happiness. This duality can be seen in her life too, for she was  one of the most talked-about women of her day at one time and was also known as a masochist whose passion for unhappiness knew no limits. The philosopher Irwin Edman addressed her as a Sappho who could combine a heartbreak with a wisecrack.


A poet, a short story writer, and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, Parker transcended the early twentieth century in her intimate examination of human motivation and behaviour. Famous for her cynicism and the concentration of her judgements, she has been closely associated with modern urbane humour. Despite experiencing sadness in life, she excelled at composing the humour in everyday events. She died in 1967, and The New York Times described Parker in her obituary as a “sardonic humorist who portrayed her wit in conversation, short stories, verse and critic

Setting of The Last Question- 

“The Last question” was first published in 1928 in Dorothy Parker’s poetry collection Sunset Gun  and reprinted in The portable Dorothy Parker  later. The poem is said to have appealed to the sensibility of the 1920s through its complex tone of world-weariness and its almost fatalistic acceptance of the danger brought on by a new love affair. The element of female sexuality being exposed by the poet herein was taken in with a shock by the readers, as the female during her days  were believed to be subservient to the desires of male members of the family. And Parker, being a feminist, opposed this submissive social construct through her writings, wherein she frankly accepted the female sexuality. She used herself and the female voice in her writings to act as a sort of role model for young women of her time. The poem is a conventional one in terms of its use of rhythm, and repetition, but the theme being contemplated herein reflects the spirit of the flapper generation. In essence, the flapper of the Roaring Twenties became the picture of breaking the status quo, shattering glass ceilings and expressing one’s innermost desires for freedom, self expression and equality. This generation seemed rapturous in its new liberties and the breaking away of the old, inundated culture. However, in throwing off the old certainties, the generation had to bear the cost, and this poem is a reflection of those costs. The traces of despair and self-destructiveness can be seen as being hinted at or portrayed rather. The poem is a rebellious one, but it avoids being revolutionary. This brings into consideration the feminine aspects here, tracing the image of women who made an attempt to voice for themselves but had yet not been seditious. The poem in question tries to undermine  the old rules of romance by openly disregarding them; it shows a witty and cynical woman’s love affair, but it does not appear to  propose any particular cure for the dangers of the liaison. It is not suggestive in its attempt as to there could be a way to remake human relationships in a feminist mould.

Poetic Devices in The Last Question- 

Alliteration:

“New love, new love” (line 1, 5) ; “How are you to slake me, and how are you to feed me?” ( line 3) ; “Sweet it is to slumber” (line 7) ; “Whose will be the broken heart, when dawn comes by?” (line 8)

Personification/Metaphor:

The lover, probably a male, is not given a name, but is personified as a “new love”. The female voice is interrogating her lover as to how he would feed her, express his love for her, which is being metaphorically expressed in with “bitter yellow berries” and “a sharp new wine”. The last line posing a question to the lover ambiguously means that it is enjoyable to sleep in the arms of one’s new love, but “slumber” also represents a lack of awareness that may lead to a bitterness and pain. Similarly, “awaken” is used herein the poem in a literal and metaphorical sense, both.

Symbolism:

Parker’s romantic lyrical ballads are rich with imagery and symbolism. “Crooked line” is an imagery used by the poet to depict or portray the way that the female voice assumes to be taken to by her lover.

Style:

The poem consists of two four-line stanzas, called “quatrains,” specifically, in literary terms. The rhyme appears as alternating, with the first line of each stanza rhyming with the third line, and the second rhyming, likewise, with the fourth one. The  rhyme seen in the very first stanza falls on accented single-syllable words, which is called the masculine rhyme. In the second stanza of the poem, the words “forsaken” and “awaken” rhyme on two syllables, which is called the double rhyme. The rhyming pattern used in this poem is a conventional one, not as something unexceptional.

Meter:

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One interesting point to note in this poem is its use of meter. Meter is a term that denotes the repetition of rhythm in a line. It is known by two words- the first is an adjective that describes the pattern of rhythm known as foot, and the second is a noun that describes the number of times that pattern is repeated. The meter used in this particular poem is generally trochaic hexameter, with some significant exceptions. The first line of each stanza is written in this trochaic pentameter. The trochee is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that goes DA- da, with the stress on the first syllable. It is the inversion of the more-familiar iamb, which goes, da-DA.

The poem is rhythmical, but is far from metrically perfect. The first line is an example of trochaic pentameter. Its rhythm goes like this: DA da DA da DA da Da da DA da.

Summary of The Last Question- 

“The Last Question” is an exceedingly short poem, consisting of only eight lines. However this characteristic feature of Dorothy Parker’s poem- the conciseness- is nevertheless intimidating to the reader who encounters the poem in isolation. It is a love poem with an edge of worldly experience seeming to tamper the joys of a new love affair. The poem is written in two voices, and is in the form of interrogation. One of the voices continually seems to ask questions, and the other, presumably a male lover, responds in italicised lines. However, as the speaker addresses her lover, asking where he will lead her, it could be noted that the masculine voice appears as an ambiguous one, giving sinister replies. It is worth noting here that the poet is attempting to portray the age when the male used to be a leading gender in the society, wherein men were the leaders and the women were supposed to follow according to the old rules of romance. In reply to the questions about where he is to lead her, and how he is to feed her, and if he will forsake her, his replies are not at all promising. And the poem subsequently ends with an unanswered question: “Whose will be the broken heart, when dawn comes by?” The last word seems to summarise all the fears of the speaker: of being abandoned, rejected, and disregarded by the male lover, something that causes anxiety to her. This unexpressed feeling on the part of the speaker portrays the status of female in her times, when women were seen as some sort of a commodity always available to men, but who were kept aloof from enjoying their freedom, and even forbidden from expressing their desires. Though the final line brings an unsettling and ambiguous conclusion to the poem, it could be a clear evidence that the woman will be the one left with a broken heart.

Critical Analysis of The Last Question-

“The Last Question” appears a simple poem at the surface, but a careful examination of the same brings into context the underlying meaning, as the post-structuralists like Derrida believes in the “metaphysics of absence”.

The poet deploys the female voice and the male voice both, but that of the former is in context at the surface level. Asking very simple questions, the speaker sounds like an innocent being in the land of love. As the lover responds initially, however, the archaic words like “marks” and “crooked” call attention to themselves. This ambiguous answer appears like a omen, prophesying that the road ahead of the two lovers will not be an easy one.

Unlike the path strewn with flower petals in love poems, the lover’s path talked herein by Parker for the new lovers is a crooked one. To an even greater degree, the second query ridicules the romantic love. It seems to be an inquiry as to how the narrator is to be slaked, revealing that Parker’s narrator is not new to love; and this is so because “slake” refers not only to thirst, but also to sexual desire. However, the narrator is answered with frankness as the lover promises sour fruit and “sharp” wine, a dark and cruel answer indeed.

Central Idea of The Last Question- 

One of the central ideas being hinted at is the barrenness being experienced by the speaker in her love relation. The poem seems to be dealing with a love that is destined to be fruitless in its most literal sense, as there exists no emotional nourishment from the part of the male lover. The poem ends with an ambiguous response from the male lover, promising that one of the partners should be heartbroken in time. No imagination about the creation of a new life is hinted at in any of the eight lines comprising the lyric, and the relationship is assumed to be a bleak and barren one. This establishes an unpromising future, as though the speaker looks to have a reply to her questions, the response is vaguely menacing.

Tone of The Last Question- 

The tone of the poem remains non-reciprocated throughout as the speaker continues to interrogate and remain denied with the feigned response from her lover. The feeling of loneliness, abandonment persists, and the poem ends with an unanswered question, depicting the epitomised persona of a female in Parker’s days, who was doomed to unhealthy emotional dependence on men whose indifferent fickleness driven these females to the despair.

Conclusion- The poem “The Last Question” is a stark depiction of a female status, which is being presented here through the point of view of a female persona. She is an abandoned lover, suffering a sense of unworthiness and the pain of rejection, trying to cope with her dismay and despair by interrogating her lover. The melancholic condition of the female is portrayed here, wherein she attempts to ask her lover several questions concerning their future, but remains unsatisfied in the process.


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