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“The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker

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The following is a discussion of what the short story “The Standard of Living,” by author Dorothy Parker, suggests about the beliefs, dreams, and value systems of today’s materialistic society through a satire of the lives of two young American working girls.

People are shallow, greedy, selfish, and generally immoral creatures–they were in 1941 (when the story was written) and they still are now. What some people do not accept is that a person’s quality of life is not dependent on their standard of living–to utilize an old cliché, some people do believe that money does in fact buy happiness. Indeed, some people even value wealth so much that they even believe in emulating the behaviours that they associate with being wealthy. In the story “The Standard of Living,” the girls act as if they are rich by eating imitation “rich people” food, and by treating the people, with whom they interact, with contempt.

The girls are also sexually promiscuous. Some people in our society behave in the same manner that the girls in the story do; some people attempt to satisfy their own vanity and their egos by acting as if they are wealthier and more culturally sophisticated those around them. The fact that promiscuity exists in society will not come as a shock to anyone, especially anyone that has watched television, ever. However, the fact that the story suggests many things about the narrow-mindedness of society’s emphasis on wealth does not trigger new conceptions or ideas in my mind–I have known of the pretentiousness and shallowness of society for many years.

To me, the foods that the girls eat are the embodiment of the delusion of acting “wealthy.” For example, the “meat patties” that the girls choose to eat, the ones that were “sweating beads of inferior oils,” sound like a disgusting attempt, on their part, to eat foods they associate with wealth. This nauseating creation of a poor man’s foie gras (I assume the “pale, stiffening sauce” is supposed to be an even more gruesome imitation of the traditional cognac and truffle sauce that foie gras is supposed to be served with, shudder to think) is what I find to be the most disturbing thing in the entire story. (The sheer ignorance of the girls would make the story entirely implausible if I did not know that it is a satire.)

The values that people place on behaviours they associate with wealth are ridiculous. Though I doubt many people would consume faux expensive foods to prop their value systems up, some people simply emulate behaviours that they associate with wealth in other ways. For example, in any fine dining restaurant, when patrons order wine, few people will know what to do with the cork when the server presents it for the traditional inspection after uncorking the bottle. What a majority of people will do is give the cork a sniff, give the server a small, approving nod, and hand the cork back (if they really want to make fools of themselves, they will do this even when the Wine Master is watching). Maybe one person in fourty will know that the only thing you are supposed to do with the cork is give the end that was inside the bottle a gentle squeeze.

This will allow the person to know–by inferring from the cork’s moistness, resistance to pressure, and the speed with which it returns to its original shape–the approximate dryness of the wine (if a person really, really knows their wines, this will allow them to know if the bottle has been properly stored–that is all). Despite the fact that any server worth their salt will instantly know whether or not a person is a true wine snob or just an impersonator, many people continue to perpetuate this foolish behaviour. Although this is just one example, people in our society behave in this manner in many, many ways.

Two passages in the story say a great deal about the sexual mores of the girls and society. The first passage says, “Often they were joined by two young men, but there was no steadiness to any such quartet; the two young men would give place, unlamented, to two other young men, and lament would have been inappropriate, really since the newcomers were scarcely indistinguishable from their predecessors.” The second passage, where the author comments on the appearances of the girls, says, “They looked conspicuous and cheap and charming.” To me, these passages indicate that the girls were licentious and promiscuous.

The way they are said to have been involved with, in essence, an endless stream of young men is, as far as I am concerned, common to our society. Many people in today’s society seem to believe that sexual promiscuity is perfectly acceptable. Recently, Statistics Canada released a report that said one out of four students in Canadian universities has a sexually transmitted disease. I believe that this statistic confirms my opinion of the sexual mores and practices of our society, and I have no further [appropriate] comment on this topic.

The way the girls focus on wealth, the way they seem to crave being rich, is common to many people who live in the same relative poverty as the girls. I find this ironic. As citizens of the United States of America, the last great bastion to capitalism, the place where all citizens are guaranteed the right to own property and compete amongst one and other, all the girls do is dream about being wealthy. The girls, like so many people, do not act to satisfy their desires. They simply continue to dream of a “better” life and continue with their lives as simple wage earners. To me this indicates that, although the people of society have unlimited wants, few have ambition enough to try to satisfy those wants. I know that not everybody who is not rich is lazy, but I still feel that if a person is not willing to work for his or her goals, they do not have a right to complain about being poor when they have no legitimate reason to.

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