An Unfinished Woman | Teen Ink

An Unfinished Woman

August 29, 2009
By Mi Mai SILVER, GARDEN GROVE, California
9 articles 0 photos 0 comments

In the autobiography, “An Unfinished Woman,” Lillian Hellman unleashes her peerless wit and candor on the subject she knew best – herself. She presents her life story in a composition of sarcastic humor intertwined with straightforward diction and elaborate syntax. As a result, Hellman provides a rich, emotional, and personal account of a life lived as if there was no tomorrow, a nearly romantic rendering on the essence of a special era in this country, and the documentation of feminine empowerment despite second-sex expectations of her society.

The most striking element of Hellman's autobiography is the use of a cynical tone to convey her iron-wit and volatile temper. Her no-nonsense vitality and her passion for moral equity frequently conflicts with those around her. At a dinner party in Kremlin, a magazine writer spoke very loudly to degrade all Russians as savages. Hellman objects and jumps to their defense by reasoning “lots of people who had just learned not to sleep in their underwear thought that other people were savages, and it was all high-class talk like that until the American farm machine gentleman got up to drown us with the piano.” She mocks society's perception with a humorous counterargument as well as mention of the irony situated by the talented farmer. Hellman had good cause for her cynicism – it enabled her to create a vividly tough, smart and theatrical persona throughout the autobiography.

Although Hellman uses simple diction, she skillfully juxtaposes terminology to establish powerful sentences that undoubtedly reveal her talents at literary spin. When Dashiell Hammett, the love of her life dies, Hellman declares she never knew romantic love, and all she knew was “the excitement of wanting to know what somebody else thinks, will do, will not do, the tricks played and unplayed, the short cord that the years make into rope, and in my case there, hanging lose long after death.” This is a great example of Hellman's nature to discuss emotion only indirectly. The contrasting words reveal her sensibility and change in tone as her life is marked by a new era of pain and anguish with the loss of her “most beloved friend”. Consequently, the simplicity of the diction does not affect the flow of the prose; it simply makes the reader dig deeper to find more meaning in this story.

Furthermore, the autobiography takes full advantage of Hellman's notorious syntax—a mixture of endless adjectives amongst complex sentences. As she reminisced the memories of her childhood, Hellman recalls “…my two young and very pretty aunts; their taciturn, tight-faced brother; and the silent, powerful, severe woman, Sophie Newhouse, who was their mother, my grandmother.” Despite her simple, straightforward diction, the sentence as a whole is made intricate and contains parallel structure to establish a constant rhythm. Hellman consistently goes around the main point to promote a sense of obscurity and bewilderment, all reflecting upon her intellect and riveting style.

“An Unfinished Woman,” is a stimulating confession of memories and eloquent journal entries that shimmer with concentrated reflection and introspection. Hellman offers a truth about reviewing one's life – about the twists and turns of remembrance. She saw the worst, the truth, and did not hesitate in the least to speak her mind or write about it. She shows one and all that she was an empowered woman before many thought that could ever be possible. She proves to be the very product of an era when writers were the embodiment of intellectualism, style, and good sense. By approaching life's skirmishes with mettle and acid wit, Hellman establishes herself as a fascinating style icon whose attitude inspires more than her trousers do.

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