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Edgar Lee Masters' "Mrs. Williams"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "Mrs. Williams"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Mrs. Williams” from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is the mother of "Dora Williams,” who after a life of prostitution, married and then killed two wealthy husbands and was likely poisoned by her third husband, who was an Italian count.

Mrs. Williams is miffed because the reputation of her miscreant daughter splattered her with shame. She understood that the Spoon River residents blamed Dora's upbringing for her misdeeds in becoming a prostitute. But this mother has observed that the women of Spoon River could avoid losing their husbands to prostitutes if they would simply dress better.

Then again, if those women decided to dress better, they would have to visit the milliner to purchase a spiffy hat or a nice set of "buckles and feathers." So Mrs. Williams' advice comes as a commercial for her own business venture. She proves herself rather clever and crafty.

Mrs. Williams

I was the milliner
Talked about, lied about,
Mother of Dora,
Whose strange disappearance
Was charged to her rearing.
My eye quick to beauty
Saw much beside ribbons
And buckles and feathers
And leghorns and felts,
To set off sweet faces,
And dark hair and gold.
One thing I will tell you
And one I will ask:
The stealers of husbands
Wear powder and trinkets,
And fashionable hats.
Wives, wear them yourselves.
Hats may make divorces—
They also prevent them.
Well now, let me ask you:
If all of the children, born here in Spoon River
Had been reared by the County, somewhere on a farm;
And the fathers and mothers had been given their freedom
To live and enjoy, change mates if they wished,
Do you think that Spoon River
Had been any the worse?

Reading of "Mrs. Williams"

Commentary

Mrs. Williams is the mother of Dora Williams, a despicable character if ever there was one. But Mrs. Williams has a philosophical turn of mind and has some advice for the wives of Spoon River.

First Movement: The Sins of the Mothers

I was the milliner
Talked about, lied about,
Mother of Dora,
Whose strange disappearance
Was charged to her rearing.
My eye quick to beauty
Saw much beside ribbons
And buckles and feathers
And leghorns and felts,
To set off sweet faces,
And dark hair and gold.

Mrs. Williams begins by stating her profession—she was a milliner. She identifies herself as the “Mother of Dora.” But Mrs. Williams also reports that she was “talked about” and “lied about,” and she disdains the fact that she has been blamed for Dora’s misdeeds.

Mrs. Williams then reveals that there was more to her knowledge than having an eye “quick to beauty”; she wants to state that she knew more about human nature than it might have seemed. Thus, Mrs. Williams claims that she understood more about things than mere “ribbons / And buckles and feathers / And leghorns and felts, / To set off sweet faces.”

Mrs. Williams then announces that she will reveal her philosophical observations with two things: one she “will tell you” and the other she will “ask.”

Second Movement: Pearls of Wisdom (Pun Intended)

One thing I will tell you
And one I will ask:
The stealers of husbands
Wear powder and trinkets,
And fashionable hats.
Wives, wear them yourselves.
Hats may make divorces—
They also prevent them.

Mrs. Williams announces, "One thing I will tell you / And one I will ask.” She then sets about spreading her pearls of wisdom; she says that the strumpets who lure husbands away from their wives, "Wear powder and trinkets / And fashionable hats.” Mrs. Williams drops a bombshell, telling wives,” Wives, wear them yourselves.” She adds, "Hats may make divorces— / They also prevent them.”

So if only wives would avail themselves of Mrs. Williams wares, they could save their marriages, keep their husbands from divorcing them and taking up with those women who have already availed themselves of Mrs. Williams items for sale.

It is interesting that her observation works like a commercial for her business. Although she thinks she is offering solid advice to the poor wives of Spoon River, she is able to look back and see how she could have been enriched if the wives had been able to follow her advice.

Third Movement: Let the State Raise the Brats

Well now, let me ask you:
If all of the children, born here in Spoon River
Had been reared by the County, somewhere on a farm;
And the fathers and mothers had been given their freedom
To live and enjoy, change mates if they wished,
Do you think that Spoon River
Had been any the worse?

Finally, Mrs. Williams asks a question that reveals an incredibly decadent mindset: she wants to know if the social fabric of Spoon River would be any worse off if “the County” would raise the children “somewhere on a farm,” thus allowing the fathers and mothers “freedom to live and enjoy" life, changing partners as they wished. When one considers Dora’s situation, one is inclined to give that insane suggestion some serious thought.

Edgar Lee Masters - Memorial Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters - Memorial Stamp

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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