Betrayal is a theme that has surpassed from Judas scene
The legend of Judas is a constant background murmur in Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker. It begs us to wonder: is Gertie Nevels a victim or a betrayer? Many believe that Christ’s betrayal was preordained and that Judas, with his kiss, was obeying God’s command, suggesting his innocence of wrongdoing. Others believe that his act was a willful sin. To a lesser degree, Gertie can also be seen as a traitor, betraying herself and her children as she tries to obey her mother and the Bible’s command, “Wives, be in subjection unto your husbands” (154). Throughout the story, she both identifies with and pities Judas.
Gertie’s preoccupation with Judas is revealed early on when she remarks that she would like to carve the traitor’s likeness. Soon after, we’re introduced to Gertie’s block of wild cherry wood, with its man hidden deep inside and only the top of his head showing. Gertie believes that one day she’ll “bring him out a that block” (48), hoping that the man will be Christ, but secretly believing he’ll be Judas — “the Judas she had pitied” (139). When she finds she can buy the Tipton place and fulfill her dreams, her joy is expressed in her sudden belief that “it was Christ in the block of wood after all” (138). However, her first act of betrayal occurs shortly thereafter, when she lets her mother shame her into following Clovis to Detroit. Despite the strength of character she displays on other occasions, she crumbles in the face of her mother’s vitriol, losing her oldest son’s respect and effectively condemning herself and the children to a type of hell. As her dream of owning land crumbles away, she thinks, “she had always known that Christ would never come out of the cherry wood” (158). Later, on the train to Detroit, she struggles with guilt over the expense of bringing the block, thinking, “Judas wood it seemed now” (164). Her feelings toward the wood reflect her own unarticulated feelings about herself. She knows she has betrayed herself by giving up her dreams.
In Detroit, Gertie continues to identify with Judas. After saving the gospel woman from Mrs. Daly’s broom, Gertie is troubled by the rage in Mrs. Daly’s eyes. She blames herself for it: “A sin it was to make another sin with such hatred and such talk, but Judas had to sin” (226). Soon after, she betrays her oldest son by humiliating him in front of Mr. Daly. When Clovis insists, “it’s you that’s as much wrong with Reuben as anything” (380), she betrays Reuben again by counseling him to “try harder to be like the rest” (382), telling him (from his perspective, at least) that she doesn’t accept who he is. After he runs away, she dwells on Matthew 27:4: “I have betrayed innocent blood” (382). Obsessively reading the remorseful words of Judas is the closest Gertie can come to articulating her regret.
As much as she suffers from the loss of her son, Gertie goes on to betray Cassie in a very similar way. Once again, she ignores her own better judgment and follows Clovis’s injunction to “make her quit them foolish runnen an talken-to-herself fits” (412). She breaks Cassie’s heart by telling her, harshly, that her imaginary friend doesn’t exist — “there ain’t no Callie Lou” (426) — even as she fights the urge “to seize and hug and kiss the child, and cry, “Keep her, Cassie. Keep Callie Lou” (426). Like Reuben, Cassie must deny who she is to be accepted in Detroit, but unlike Reuben, she can’t escape this fate by running away. Yet Gertie loses her too when she’s killed by a train. Later, Gertie bleakly tells Mrs. Anderson, “we all sell our own” (496).
In some ways, Gertie is a victim, manipulated by bullying and bad advice. Yet she can’t be considered innocent. Her actions in Kentucky show that she is a strong and competent woman, capable of making good decisions. By later choosing not to assert herself, she causes harm and is responsible for the consequences. As she pours herself into the cherry block and must finally acknowledge that Christ is not emerging, she is confronted with the truth that she is as much to blame for the family’s suffering as Clovis, as her mother, as the war. She faces her conscience as she admits to herself that “the wood was Judas after all” (585). We remember Cassie’s voice back in Kentucky, laughingly insisting that the man in the wood is a “her” (47). The traitor’s face, never revealed, is perhaps Gertie’s own.