Strange Night Gowns, or Lack Thereof
In his 1931 poem entitled “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” Wallace Stevens paints a picture of two very different twentieth century American eras: the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. As it is written 1931, it comes from the perspective of someone living in the early Great Depression looking back on American life only a few years earlier. The poem captures the sadness of the 1930s by contrasting the exciting recent past with the utterly depressing present.
As it does not refer specifically to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 or any historical event in particular, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” is indirectly relational to the Great Depression. Instead of specifically mentioning the Roaring Twenties’ collapse into the Great Depression, which Wallace could have done had he wanted to create a direct relationship between his poem and his topic, he describes the showy night gowns of the 1920s and notes that these gowns have vanished although they had once been prevalent. In addition, instead of portraying a stock market investor who is down on his luck, Wallace describes a drunkard still dreaming about the exoticism and extravagance characteristic of the 1920s. For a modern-day reader, it may not be obvious just by reading the text that the poem refers to the Great Depression. Yet it would only take a moment to figure this out once readers know Wallace Stevens wrote “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” in 1931.
The poem, as can be assumed by its title, takes place during nighttime. It is ten o’clock, and “The houses are haunted/By white night-gowns” (Stevens 1237). The line could have read “The houses are haunted by white night-gowns,” but Stevens decides instead to split what could have been one regular-sized line into two short lines. The last word of each line is typically the most important since it is the last word one reads before pausing and beginning a new line. Thus, it appears that Stevens wants to emphasize the word “haunted.” This raises the question of why Wallace assigns to night gowns a word more commonly given to ghosts and other supernatural beings. In order to understand the significance of white night gowns, one must contrast them with the other gowns Wallace mentions.
Wallace writes more about the gowns: “None are green,/Or purple with green rings,/Or green with yellow rings,/Or yellow with blue rings” (Wallace 1237). Mentioning the colors of these gowns serves several purposes. The first of these is to demonstrate the color clashing in which the flappers partook. Purple and green are not typically considered to be matching colors; neither are yellow and blue. The women of the Twenties’ non-matched, color-clashing clothing serve as symbols of their rebellion against tradition.
Another example of women’s methods of breaking from tradition during the Twenties includes the invention of brassieres. “The first bras,” David E. Kyvig writes, “also sought to flatten the chest for the chemise or flapper dress just beginning to be popular, especially among women who wished to deemphasize their reproductive function and assert their independence” (120). Thus, bras were a form of protest against American society’s assertion that a woman’s role is to be a mother.
Flappers’ bobbed hair was also a form of protest: “The fashion of ‘bobbed’ hair became another central element of flapper style. Not only did extremely short-cropped hair emphasize the slender look, it served as a symbol of a break against tradition” (Kyvig 124). For the first time, it became popular for women’s hair to be almost as short as men’s hair.
Wallace’s mention of the festive multi-colored night gowns may also serve to accentuate women’s growing sexuality. It only makes sense for a woman to wear a fancy night gown if she has a man around whom she will wear it. This idea of expressing sexuality through clothing is enforced by Stevens’s talk of other undergarments: “With socks of lace/And beaded ceintures” (Stevens 1237). Again, the only way for a man to admire a woman’s lace socks and decorated girdles is through some kind of sexual encounter.
The sexuality of women to which Stevens refers is significant because it is unprecedented. Frederick Lewis Allen writes about pre-Twenties standards for females: “Women were the guardians of morality; they were made of finer stuff than men and were expected to act accordingly. Young girls must look forward in innocence. . . to a romantic love match which would lead them to the alter and to living-happily-ever-after” (73). Women were discouraged from even kissing a man until she found the man she would marry. As for sexual intercourse, it was absolutely off-limits until after the couple married; “girls of respectable families were supposed to have no such temptations” (Allen 74). In order to be respectable, a woman must not merely refrain from sex, but also not even be tempted to break this rule. It is no wonder that the liberated women of the Twenties rebelled against these restrictive moral codes.
The significance of the white night gowns is that they are not bold and exciting like the colorful gowns of the Twenties. After a decade of brave women breaking from tradition with their bobbed hair, clashing night gowns, and chest-flattening bras, the Great Depression abruptly halted women’s liberation from old ideas of propriety and modesty. Women haunting their homes wearing plain white night gowns in the Thirties replaced the spirited flappers of the Twenties. By using the word “haunt,” Stevens indicates that the women are mere ghosts of their formers selves. They are, as is evident from the title, disillusioned with their lives.
Because of the stock market’s downfall, “People are not going/To dream of baboons and periwinkles” (Stevens 1237). Stevens specifically uses unusual animals in these lines to prove a point. He could have written “People are not going/To dream of cats and dogs,” but those animals do not illustrate the mindset of the Twenties. People of the Twenties praised everything new and exotic and wanted nothing to do with the traditional and ordinary. This sense of obsession with the unique is reinforced when Stevens writes about the Thirties gowns: “None of them are strange” (Stevens 1237). Oftentimes the adjective “strange” may be used as an insult, but in this context it is a positive trait. The “strange” gowns of the Twenties are seen as a cheery alternative to the mundane white gowns of the Thirties.
All at once American economy went from a new high to a new low. Americans went from living an exciting life of breaking tradition, shedding inhibition, and experimenting with new ideas to not even being capable of dreaming anymore. Gone are women’s vivacious gowns and girdles that dazzle the eye and promise sex, and there to stay are the modest white night gowns that turn human beings into ghosts in their own homes.
Stevens ends his poem with a tragic description of a hopeless inebriate: “Only, here and there, an old sailor,/Drunk and asleep in his boots,/Catches tigers/In red weather” (Stevens 1237). Because the drunken man is asleep in his boots, it suggests that the sailor is actually sleeping in public. The surreal imagery of tigers and “red weather” indicates that he is dreaming. The tiger’s purpose is in the dream is the same as the baboon’s and the periwinkle’s; it stands for the unusual and exciting as opposed to the commonplace and mundane. The sailor is the only exception Stevens makes to his claim that people will not dream anymore. Therefore, he is saying the only man to still trying to dream of excitement and adventure is a man who does not even have enough sense to not sleep in public.
The Great Depression caused American society to lose its hope. Americans of the Thirties traded in their colorful night gowns for plain white ones and their wonderful lust for life for a dreary living death. For them, the dismal present was so all-encompassing that, besides a few old drunken fools, they could not even imagine the strange, wonderful dreams and ideas they had only a few years in the past.
Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.Kyvig, David E. Daily Live in the United States. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.Stevens, Wallace. “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 6th edition. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2003. 1237.