Excerpted from the author’s 2021 honors thesis
Gender Performance as Sacrifice in Stella Dallas
Before the mirror, Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) engages in class-conscious gender performance in King Vidor’s melodrama
Likely the most remembered scene of King Vidor’s 1937 film Stella Dallas is the closing one. As Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) watches her only daughter entering a society she wished she belonged to through marriage, tears stream down her face like the rain trickling down the window. A police man approaches the crowd watching outside, attempting to disperse them, but Stella begs for another moment, just until the groom kisses the bride. The camera closes in on her face as she bites her handkerchief, watching the ceremony. When the film returns to her in a close-up, we see the tears glittering in her eyes as she smiles, finding pleasure even through the pained experience of being away from her daughter. As the crowds inside the room cover the view of the newly married couple, the crowd outside the window disperses and Stella turns around to walk away. She continues to bite the handkerchief as she crosses the street, walking hesitantly, almost dreamily. When she finally lets go of the handkerchief in her mouth, her smile broadens, she looks up and walks triumphantly towards the camera as the film fades to black. This ending has been the cause of much debate, since after all, it compels us to feel somewhat ambiguous, the fight between happiness and sadness taking place in our minds and hearts, just as it does for Stella. While some may point to Stella’s sacrifice of leaving her daughter to allow her access to high society as an act of submission to the society which will not fully accept her, Stella’s final reaction, especially in comparison to her actions throughout the film, complicates such as reading. But that does seem to be the goal: not to make the audience suffer completely, or to express an undying happiness for the success of her daughter, but to depict a bittersweet, and somewhat revolutionary decision on Stella’s part to fulfill her fantasy through her daughter and using her powers of active performance to achieve her fantasies within the loopholes created by society.
From its earliest manifestations, one of the ways in which film has been used is as a medium to express conflict between desire and the obstacles that stand in its way. This may then lead to the question: what is the role of desire in films designated as maternal melodramas? Often labeled as ‘women’s films,’ melodramas were a “staple element in studios’ year plan since Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s” and were characterized “not only in the way they centered on women but also by the foregrounding of the wish-fulfillment scenarios thereby presented” (Cowie 144). If this is true of all melodrama, King Vidor’s Stella Dallas has an interesting way of depicting its heroine’s fulfilled wish. Watching the ending of this film complicates the concept of ‘wish-fulfillment’ as the protagonist Stella renounces her role and identity as a mother in favor of a ‘picture perfect’ ending for her only daughter, Laurel (Anne Shirley). The complexity of this ending is what begins to reveal the interlaced existence of desire, fantasy, and sacrifice within melodrama and its representation of motherhood in the 1930s and 1940s.
In her work on film and feminism, Lauren Berlant claims that “the gender-marked texts of women’s popular culture cultivate fantasies of vague belonging as an alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real — social antagonisms, exploitation, compromised intimacies, the attrition of life” (Berlant 5). What is interesting about Stella Dallas however, is the film’s ability to recognize those fantasies of belonging already present in popular culture, and present a different perspective; one which reveals the way in which those fantasies may be achieved, through sacrifice. Stella, for example, does wish for a sense of vague belonging in what she sees as the world of film. During one of her outings with Stephen Dallas (John Boles), Stella claims she doesn’t want to be like herself, she would rather be “like the people in the movies.” Stephen shakes his head, laughing and replies “don’t be like anyone else, I like you the way you are.” Stella quickly responds by saying “no, I don’t want to be like me.” What Stephen doesn’t realize, of course, is that the way Stella acts around him is simply that: an act, a performance. He doesn’t truly know who she is, nor has he truly fallen in love with her. Rather, he has fallen for an idea of her, one she began to perform from the first time they met. This then begs the question of who Stella truly is.
One may be tempted to label Stella’s character as shallow, and perhaps even gold-digging, as she pines after Stephen Dallas. However, there are various moments throughout the film that speak otherwise. Once we have been introduced to Stella and her desire for Stephen, we see a newspaper and hear Stella’s voice narrating Stephen’s backstory. It relates to us that he was the son of a millionaire, the recent death of whom led Stephen to run away from his life and marriage to Helen Dane. Below his picture the newspaper reads “Harvard Graduate and Crew Man Disappeared Immediately After His Father’s Death. Millionaire Playboy Left Without a Penny.” It is right after we hear Stella read this sentence that she lowers the newspaper and begins to chew on her lip as the scene fades to black. Considering the framing of this newspaper insert within the film, this scene seems to suggest that Stella’s desire is not simply for money. Rather, it is as if Stella is attracted to the attention and drama of the situation.
This scene further serves to subtly construct Stella’s multifaceted character by depicting her use of exaggeration as an active performance of her inherent personality traits in order to appeal to Stephen. Earlier in the film, as Stella prepares herself for Stephen’s fleeting passing by her house, she fixes her hair and chooses to visibly read a book titled India’s Love Lyrics. This initial scene is constructed to paint Stella as the classic trope of a young girl attempting to seem ‘interesting’ in order to catch the attention of her crush. When the film cross-fades into the beginning of the aforementioned newspaper scene, we actually see Stella inside, lying on her bed, reading the very book we previously assumed she was only pretending to read. It is true that she attempted to flaunt the book in front of Stephen however, it seems wrong to assume that Stella was fully pretending. Instead, she only seemed to present herself in a light she believes will seem most attractive to him. She actively performs, taking aspects of her personality and placing them in the right light or within the right frame, not unlike a director envisioning a movie. Even a few minutes later into the film, when Stella brings her brother, Charlie (George Walcott), lunch with the intention of seeing Stephen, her character may be misread. While, once again, it is true Stella left the house with a second intention, we cannot forget the fact mentioned only a few minutes earlier, that Stella actually packs her brother’s lunch practically every day.
This newspaper scene is increasingly interesting once one notes its emphasis on female identification. When the film cuts from the shot of Stella opening up the newspaper to a close-up on the newspaper itself, it first focuses on Helen Dane (Barbara O’Neil), Stephen’s intended bride. As Stella reads the article, it seems that it is the tragedy surrounding Helen’s loss of Stephen which drives the story. The scene goes as far as to emphasize this visually, beginning with the close-up on Helen’s picture and only later moving to Stephen’s. This moment begins to form a strange sense of community between these two women, as Stella’s point of identification is Helen, just as Helen will later be able to identify with Stella, and further, as female spectators are able to identify with both. Although it is clear Stella is interested in the man who used to be engaged to Helen, based on Stella’s reaction, this scene suggests Stella is actually more interested in the romantic drama of Helen’s life. Her focus on Stephen may then be read as a result of her desire for a dramatic love story, not for Stephen himself. This scene thus begins to set up Stella’s desire to be like the “people in the movies,” as the newspaper presents Helen in an ethereal way, much like the movies did with actors. Further, in considering Stella’s own narrative in the film, Helen’s story foreshadows Stella’s own downfall, as she will later be the one who leaves Laurel, much like Stephen left Helen.
This scene serves as a more thorough introduction to Stella’s fantasy and desires. When considering theories of fantasy in relation to film, Elizabeth Cowie writes that within psychoanalysis “fantasy is an imagined scene in which the subject is a protagonist, and which always represents the fulfillment of a wish albeit that its representation is distorted to a greater or lesser extent by defensive processes” (127). Cowie further argues in her work that fantasy is not about the achievement of desire, but rather “the arranging of, a setting out of, desire; a veritable mise-en-scène of desire” (133). In this sense, Stella’s newspaper scene may be a depiction of her fantasy expressed through her narration and the camera movement over the newspaper. The shots themselves are simple, unlike the excess which is traditionally recognized in melodrama, suggesting that the focus on the literary sources of romantic drama — both the copy of India’s Love Lyrics and the newspaper story — is the mise-en-scène of Stella’s fantasy. The film is then driven by Stella’s desire for an exciting love story, which she achieves not through her romance with Stephen, but rather through her maternal love for her daughter. Further, the role of fantasy in this scene once again emphasizes the film’s reflexivity. Just as Stella’s desire is laid out by the literary sources of her fantasy, with Helen serving as the point of identification as the protagonist of the newspaper’s story, the film itself functions as a display of the female spectator’s possible fantasies with Stella as our point of identification.
This relationship between Helen, Stella, and female spectators is further explored in the scene in which Stella visits with Helen after the heartbreaking train scene where Stella realizes she may be an obstacle in her daughter’s social success. The scene fades from black into a medium shot of Stella across the opened door of the Morrison house. The camera is positioned behind the butler, and we do not see his face; however, because of his position in the foreground, his body appears larger, making Stella look somewhat small across the doorway. She is hesitant at first, requesting to see Mrs. Morrison. When the butler asks her why she has come, Stella insists it is a private matter, fidgeting with her handkerchief and the ruffles on her blouse. When the butler finally asks her for her name, Stella responds as Mrs. Dallas, straightening up and placing a slightly satisfied smile on her face as she repeats she is Mrs. Stephen Dallas. Encouraged by the butler’s knowing reaction, she straightens up further as he opens the door wide to allow her in, however, a few steps inside the door she pauses as she takes in the interior of the house. Her hand then goes to her mouth as she regards a house straight out of the movies, of her fantasies, before her. The film cuts to a long shot, once again making Stella small as she walks across the foyer. She makes her way over to a sitting room, as instructed, and once again pauses at the door, enchanted. She sits at a lone chair in the corner, still processing the whole room, until on the opposite side her eye gets caught on something. She rises and makes her way to a piano, on top of which sits a set of two photographs. The film cuts to a close-up of the photographs, revealing them to be portraits of Stephen and Laurel. Stella’s hand reaches towards Laurel’s portrait, touching her daughter’s lips. This moment mirrors that of the newspaper scene, but instead of expressing Stella’s fantasy through Helen, it expresses her desire through Laurel. What truly sends this home is the following close-up of Stella in which she smiles yet her eyes express a certain sadness. Here, she is not hopeful for a future where she can exist within the world of a movie, yet this cinematic close-up emphasizes her realization that her daughter can achieve that fantasy.
Caressing the photograph of her daughter, Stella expresses her own desire through the life her daughter leads
As the scene progresses, Helen and Stella share a moment of understanding and closeness, which is emphasized by their movement in the scene. First Helen stands by the door and Stella approaches her. The two then make their way to the center of the room, where most of the chairs are located. Helen sits comfortably on the sofa, but Stella opts for the small armchair next to it. As the two begin their conversation, Stella asks Helen if she would marry Stephen if Stella agreed to a divorce. Although Helen sheepishly replies that they would, apologizing for any discomfort her answer may have caused, Stella considers this and pushes the armchair closer to the sofa to ask her next question: what would become of Laurel. The camera simultaneously pushes in on the two women as well, further emphasizing their closeness. Stella makes a pleading face, which naturally Helen interprets as concern, and Helen leans in further, assuring Stella she would never take Laurel away, making the case that they share their identification as mothers. Stella continues, however, asking her if she didn’t want Laurel, to which Helen backs away slightly in surprise, but catches herself and corrects her statement, asking Helen if she could not have Laurel. Getting more emotional, Stella gets up from the armchair and moves a pillow from the sofa, taking its place, and the camera once again pushes into the characters. She continues to ask Helen these hypothetical questions, a pleading look always present in her face. When Helen finally gets caught on the word inconvenient, Stella adjusts herself. She leans back against the sofa, her tone changes, and she once again fidgets with her handkerchief. We understand that she is trying to pretend, attempting to make her excuse sound legitimate, claiming that with Laurel growing up she has become quite a responsibility. When Helen insists she does not understand, Stella continues by explaining that she believes Laurel must begin to have access to social events, to which she confesses she believes Helen would be a better guide to Laurel. She eventually suggests that if Stephen and Helen got married, with Helen taking his name, if Laurel came to live with them, others would simply assume Helen was her mother. Although she attempts to emphasize her statements with her animated hand gestures and a plastered smile on her face, Helen actually looks down, instead noticing the changes and slight hesitations on Stella’s voice, which betray her true feelings and intentions.
Helen finally reacts by reaching towards Stella and stating her admiration for Stella’s unselfishness. Stella, however, stuck on this performance, continues to attempt to sell the idea to Helen, insisting she would never be ashamed of Laurel and praising her daughter’s refined qualities. As Stella goes on about Laurel, Helen takes her hand, attempting to comfort her in the best way she can. Stella breaks up a bit once again before she tells Helen how much Laurel already looks up to her. Then, for the first time since the two women sat down, the film cuts to a medium close-up of the two as Stella’s voice catches before she says that Laurel would soon forget her and see Helen as her true mother. Although her words still attempt to carry her performance, her voice and face can no longer pretend, and she expresses her grief, opposed by her words, through her facial expressions. Further, it is almost as if her grief spills into Helen, who is also at the verge of tears in hearing the opposition of feeling and performance embodied by Stella in the moment. When Helen comments that she knows how wonderful Laurel is, and that it did not all come from her father, the two women share a moment of quiet understanding. Not being used to failing at her performance, however, Stella gets up quickly, claiming she must leave. Helen follows her, and the camera closes in on them both again as Helen observes Stella and takes her arm as she continues to speak, until the scene fades to black.
The construction of a moment of understanding between Stella and Helen is crucial to understanding how the film operates in terms of its target female spectators. When writing about the female spectator of the film, Linda Williams states:
She knows that women can find no genuine form of representation under patriarchal structures of voyeuristic or fetishistic viewing, because she has seen Stella lose herself as a woman and as a mother. But at the same time she believes that women exist outside this phallic economy, because she has glimpsed moments of resistance in which two women have been able to represent themselves to themselves through the mediation of their own gazes. (21)
As Williams argues, the power of this scene, and in fact of the film as a whole, can be found in the contrast between the constant performances these women are forced to put on and what happens when another fellow woman is able to see through that performance to the intention and emotions underneath. Like Helen, we are led to see the sacrifice of Stella’s last performance, unlike Stephen, for example, who is quick to judge Stella for going back to Ed Munn (Alan Hale), even though she in fact has not. This point, however, leads to a return to the question of what is underneath Stella’s performance. The film’s ability to demonstrate how Stella’s performance of strength breaks down before Helen and therefore before the spectator, suggests there is an “other,” some deeper, more emotionally sincere desire, which would suggest Stella’s deeper desire is for her daughter’s success. We must not forget, however, that Stella’s first demonstration of a deeper desire outside of performance was during the newspaper scene, in which we see her desire for a life of narrative drama, like that of Helen in the newspaper, and of course, the movies. But these desires are not only at odds with each other for a woman living in this time period, but are also somewhat at odds with Stella, since she found out soon after her wedding to Stephen that his life was not filled with drama and excitement like in the newspaper of the movies, and since not long after Laurel’s birth, Stella was eager to return to social life, instead of embodying “mother.” This then suggests Stella’s demonstrations of her desires, as seen in these moments, may be in and of themselves symptomatic performances of what society expects women to desire: either social standing or motherhood.
Another thing to note of this scene is of course the contrast between Helen and Stella’s costuming. Stella, as has become usual for her, wears a fairly large hat, a shirt with various ruffles, and an enormous fur coat, all meant to remind us of her tendency for exaggeration. Helen, on the other hand, wears a light, flowing dress. The contrast between the two women is not simply excess versus simplicity, but it is also heaviness and age. Stella’s clothes look heavy on her, as if they weighed her down, consequently making her look older than Helen, despite the fact they are both around the same age. However, while some have argued that Stella’s clothing and excess is a representation of her misunderstanding of high-class society, I believe those are the very things that relate to us how much she understands high class-society. According to Mary Ann Doane, “Stella, misunderstanding what is involved in refinement and respectability, overcompensates, views her access to a higher social position as a matter of excess, addition, more of everything — more jewelry, more frills, more perfume” (287). However, this contradicts the beginning of the film and the active performances that led Stella to charm Stephen. Even at the beginning of their marriage, Stella dressed less excessively. She begins to pile on the excess as she feels a loss of power, putting it on as a suit of armor rather than a naive attempt to fit in with a high society she doesn’t understand. Although it is true she later embarrasses Laurel at the club, as Laurel’s friends make fun of Stella for her excess, it seems this is more due to the fact that Stella has somewhat become numb to her own active performance. This is when her performance shifts from active to symptomatic, as Stella begins to lose herself in loud bangles, cold cream, and fur coats. Just as we see in this scene with Helen, Stella has become used to performing, so much so that she requires more of everything on her body in order to keep up the now symptomatic act, and Helen is the only one who can see this.
When Laurel returns home, having realized why her mother has suggested she live with her father, Stella does her best to make Laurel feel unwanted, despite the pain it causes them both. When Laurel hugs her mother she begins her short monologue about how good times “aren’t what make you belong” but how “it’s when you’ve cried together and when you’ve been through things together … that’s when you seem to love the most.” As she speaks she rests her head on Stella’s shoulder, unable to see her face, and the camera closes in on them as Stella fights to keep from crying at her daughter’s words. As soon as Stella begins to break away, however, the camera moves back once again, removing us from that moment of intimacy and returning to Stella’s facade of indifference. Doing justice to its genre, the film’s score escalates during this scene, only to stop when Stella tells her daughter she has been “stepping out” with Ed Munn, causing Laurel to doubt her mother’s true intentions. The other two most striking shots come at the end of the scene, the first being a close-up on Laurel as she buys the active performance Stella putting up and the second being the scene’s last medium shot of Stella, beginning with her facade and slowly merging into despair as her plan falls into place. The camera movement and framing throughout this scene is what truly marks the break between Stella in ‘the real world’ and Laurel in the ‘movie, fantasy world.’ In the two-shot mentioned above they both move between desire and fantasy, but by the end of the scene, the juxtaposition of Laurel’s cinematic close-up and Stella’s wider medium shot indicates their distancing, despite the pain depicted by both of them. Further, once again doing justice to melodrama, the film’s mise-en-scène only emphasizes their distancing and the interplay of desire and fantasy. Stella wears one of her most excessive costumes yet, with ruffles, pearls, and bangles, and her wider shots allow her to be depicted within the crowded environment of her apartment. Once again considering Cowie’s view of fantasy as a mise-en-scène, one can read Stella’s depiction in the film as lacking simplicity and elegance through her excess. On the other hand, Laurel dresses simply, as usual, and her close-up in shallow focus allows the image to be focused solely on her. What lacks in this image when compared to the earlier shot, is not only the presence of her mother, but the sacrificial image of her mother when Laurel believes Stella sent her away because of the cruel comments made by high society girls on their train-ride home. Thus, Stella’s fantasy and desire are both in play, as her desire for Laurel to become ‘like the people in the movies’ begins to come true, yet the part of that desire in which she stands with her daughter is not fulfilled, leaving, instead, a fantasy.
Once Laurel returns to her father’s house, believing her mother truly left her, her sweetheart, Dick Grosvenor (Tim Holt) appears, and not wanting to let him see her as she is, she hurries upstairs to change. However, before she does, we see a medium shot of Laurel across the railings of the staircase. She smiles as she hears him ask about her, yet her face is still wet with the tears she shed for her relationship with her mother. Like the bittersweet final scene in which Stella walks away from the window with both tears and a smile, Laurel is forced to see the light in a situation she has been trapped in. Although Stella sacrificed their relationship with good intentions, the sacrifice that was made was not purely as self-sacrifice. By actively performing indifference and sacrificing their relationship, Stella committed an act of sacrifice and self-sacrifice simultaneously. Poor Laurel was left with no choice, once again placing her in the world of fantasy, as her desire is no longer a choice she has to make but becomes inevitable, thus losing its designation as desire.
It is by sacrificing her desire to live a life ‘like the movies’ that Stella fulfills the fantasy of seeing part of herself, in the form of her daughter, live that life. There are various moments where the film creates a doubling effect between Stella and Laurel; for example, in a profile two shot where Laurel reminds her mother she had promised not to see Ed Munn again and Stella replies that “a woman wants to be something else besides a mother.” In this scene, Stella and Laurel are uncanny reflections of one another, one depicting unfulfilled desire and the other an incomplete fantasy. Further, as Stella attempts to fool Laurel into believing she no longer cares about her that much, Stella is forced to embrace a performance of lack of concern for her daughter. As Linda Williams points out, both roles Stella attempts to play, first of maternal concern for her brother and later a lack of the same concern for Laurel, are false, and while neither allow us to see Stella as she is “the succession of roles ending in the final transcendent self-effacement of the window scene … permits a glimpse at the social and economic realities that have produced such roles. Stella’s real offense, in the eyes of the community that so ruthlessly ostracizes her, is to have attempted to play both roles at once” (Williams, 16). In keeping up with the vocabulary of performance, what Stella seems to realize in the last scene is that her wish of being a character was impossible, yet the closest thing to it, being an actor, is what would allow her daughter to become the character she so desired to be.
The scene right before the wedding, which is often not mentioned in readings of the film, now becomes key to understanding the film’s depiction of performance for the female spectator. The scene first begins with an image of the newspaper, in which we see a large picture of Laurel, announcing her wedding to Dick Grosvenor. This is the first depiction of Stella’s fulfilled desire through her daughter, as it very much echoes the first newspaper scene recounting Helen’s story. The film then cross-dissolves to the room where the wedding will be taking place. Men move things around as Helen makes the final touches in the room. She tells one of them that she needed the curtains to be drawn, despite the horrible weather outside. Not completely understanding why, the man does so, and Helen smiles, walking back up the aisle. We soon find that this was an act of compassion for Stella, to allow her to see the result of her planning. However, the following scene, which takes place between Helen and Laurel, is not visible to Stella, and portrays a different point of view. The film cuts from the hall where the ceremony will be held, to a room where the bride stands staring at the rain outside a window. Laurel turns slightly and though a medium shot we see it is her, ready for the wedding. Helen approaches her from the side, much as she did with Stella earlier in the film, and we see that Laurel is crying just slightly as she stares at the window, expressing her disappointment that her mother did not come to her wedding, still believing the ridiculous performance Stella put on. Helen insists that Stella would never be kept away from Laurel’s wedding if she knew about it, and Laurel then assumes Helen believes Stella simply doesn’t know about it. What is key here is the reading of Helen’s facial reaction. Laurel doesn’t see it, but Helen frowns slightly just as the film dissolves to the rainy chaos outside where we finally see Stella, very plainly dressed, attempting to find a good spot from which to watch the ceremony.
The importance of this short scene before the tear-jerking finale, is that it allows us as spectators, and especially allows the female spectator, a privileged look into the backstage of the film Stella is about to watch. By leaving her daughter and thrusting her into the high society world she so longed for, Stella gives up the ability to enter the backstage. She has become at once a director-figure of the film she hopes her daughter’s life to be, as well as a spectator, not privy to what happens behind the camera. As spectators of her film, however, we are being privileged by this scene which confesses to us that the happy ending Stella is about to watch, is not as happy as it really seems. As Williams argues, what is unique about Stella Dallas is that, “rather than raging against a fate that the audience has learned to accept, the female hero often accepts a fate that the audience at least partially questions” (Williams 22). Instead of simply trying to sell an ending which returns us to the status quo, it is through this very return to the social ideal — here expressed as Laurel’s advantageous marriage — that we are able to see the contradiction behind it: the pain expressed by both mother and daughter over the broken bond. By making the audience witness this, the film is making us aware of the bitterness of this superficially bittersweet ending. It draws attention back to all of the performances we saw throughout the film, and allows us to see the reality of the consequences of what has happened, instead of ending on a scene that simply re-establishes the oppression of women as mothers and wives. It allows just enough space to communicate the existence and importance of feminist defiance through active performance and of feminist spaces created through a community that is able to recognize and deconstruct those performances, both active and, most importantly, symptomatic.
The conflict which then takes place on a macro level in this film is the interplay between desire, fantasy, and performance. Desire is what shapes the fantasies which we see in the film, and what drives the characters’ performances in an attempt to fulfill it. It is almost as if the setting and narrative plot are the representations of fantasy, the characters’ performances are the actions they take, and desire is embodied by the characters themselves. This seems to follow some of the ideas suggested by Thomas Elsaesser, one of the first scholars to tackle melodrama as an aesthetic mode. In regards to the domestic melodrama, Elsaesser claims, “the tellingly impotent gesture, the social gaffe, the hysterical outburst replaces any more directly liberating or self-annihilating action, and the cathartic violence of a shoot-out or a chase becomes an inner violence, often one which the characters turn against themselves” (56). If this is true, then it is clear that Stella’s sacrificial act of performing indifference towards her daughter is an ultimate act of violence against herself, and somewhat against her daughter. Nevertheless, it is an act which yields real consequences within the narrative, thus contradicting Elsaesser’s claim that the behaviors of characters in this form of melodrama are “often pathetically at variance with the real objectives they want to achieve” (56). On the contrary, Stella’s sacrificial act is what she knows will allow Laurel to fulfill Stella’s desire of being like “the people in the movies.” Although this result is different from her fantasy, it fulfills her desire through a loophole of maternal identification. Further, as Stella does not participate in the wedding, the wedding scene is quite literally a presentation of Stella’s fantasy, as her desire is displayed in front of her, yet it is only fulfilled by proxy, through her daughter.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint. Duke University Press, 2008.
Cowie, Elizabeth. “Fantasia.” Representing the Woman, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp. 123–65.
Doane, Mary Ann. “The Moving Image: Pathos and the Maternal.” Imitations of Life: a Reader on FIlm and Television Melodrama, edited by Marcia Landy et al., Wayne State University Press, 1991, pp. 283-306.
Elsaesser, Thomas. “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.” Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, BFI Publishing, 1987, pp. 43–69.
Williams, Linda. “‘Something Else besides a Mother’: ‘Stella Dallas’ and the Maternal Melodrama.” Cinema Journal, vol. 24, no. 1, Princeton University Press, 1984, pp. 2–27.