The United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was undergoing a drastic change. A war between its states had just concluded, enslaved people were granted freedom, immigrants from all over the world flocked to the country, and a bitter divide between rich and poor was beginning to form. The literature followed the same trajectory of the country and, as does most literature, became a mirror of the happenings across gender, race, and class. Many telling insights about the new construct of country post-Civil War could be found within these works.
One such insight about the United States concerned the relationship between women and choice. During this new chapter of American history, women were making their voices known. Writers like Margaret Fuller, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were some of the most prominent female writers during this time and were large contributors to this new wave of literature. They blended feminine perspective with a form of literature that became extremely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: Realism.
Feminine realism was so marketable that even male authors produced such writings. One such male author was Theodore Dreiser with his short story “The Second Choice. ” Much can be inferred from this story, but mainly that while money can buy women’s happiness and the freedom to choose, true mobility and choice is something only accessible to rich, white men. The title of the work may give many readers the implication that Shirley, the protagonist, ultimately resigns to her fate and chooses Bart, her second choice for a mate.
While that is a very valid interpretation, it certainly isn’t the only one. One reading into the title could suggest that Shirley is the second choice. Consider the opening pages of the story, which is Arthur’s, Shirley’s love, letter to Shirley. While Shirley is limited to her choices, Arthur has, and has made, many choices. He tells her, “But I’m too young to marry now. You know that, Shirley, don’t you? ” He continues with, “Roxbaum–that’s my new employer–came to me and wanted to know if I would like an assistant overseership…
in Java (p. 1). ” Within one paragraph of a letter, Arthur has already made two choices! Furthermore, the fact that he has even penned this letter to Shirley all the way from Pittsburgh shows the mobility and free range that he has. Dreiser perhaps was reminding his audience (which was largely composed of immigrant and/or lower class women) that despite the fierce feminist movement that had gripped the nation, equality between men and women was still grossly imbalanced.
In the span of about forty pages, Arthur easily moves from West Leigh (the adjoining suburb), to Shirley’s town, to Pittsburgh to Java. However, for Shirley, West Leigh is the furthest she travels in the story, and even then, she was invited by a friend. It is only through another person that Shirley is able to move from one place to another. Another reading into both the title and plot is the question about class. Anatomy already puts half of the population at a disadvantage in attaining mobility, but class can also be a major hinderance to the freedoms of choice.
In the beginning of the story, Shirley muses, “… her parents, her work, her daily shuttling to and fro between the drug company for which she worked and this street and house–was typical of her life and what she was destined to endure always. ” She continues her lament by comparing herself to other “girls [who] were so much more fortunate. They had fine clothes, fine homes, a world of pleasure and opportunity in which to move (4). ” Shirley is very conscious of her position as a “have not” and yearns for that “world of pleasure and opportunity in which to move.
” It is with this passage in mind that raises the question: Is Shirley really in love with Arthur or is she simply drawn to the opportunity and world he represents? A compelling case can be made for both, however, the question nor answer are as important as the result. Due to her gender and class, she will not have the chance to find out. Her gender and class are parts of Shirley’s identity that restrict her from movement. The choices that such confining circumstances allow are so limited, Shirley might as well have no choice at all. She can marry Bart, marry someone else, or spend her life alone.
None of these choices include Arthur, so none of them will make her happy. Through this short story, Dreiser is making a statement about the position of lower class women in the feminist movement. Feminism does not include someone of Shirley’s status and gender. This was a movement strictly for the higher classes. Besides this, perhaps Dreiser is making an even broader statement about the suffrage movement. Indeed the suffrage movement was largely composed of genteel women, but much like Shirley, the only chance at more freedom and choice for any woman in this country is still through a man.
Women’s right to vote and the right to make more independent decisions for themselves still must be approved by a federal government run exclusively by men. Regardless of any choice that Shirley (women) could have made, Arthur (men) still have the greatest mobility. Dreiser probably neither praises or condemns the feminist movement, but rather reminds his readers to keep things in their proper perspective and not to allow themselves to be carried away quite so quickly. No matter class or gender, true freedom is still only reserved to rich, white males.