Cather, Willa: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Rosowski, Susan J. "Willa Cather's Women." Studies in American Fiction 9, no. 2 (autumn 1981): 261-75.

In the following essay, Rosowski explores the ways in which Cather portrays her female characters not only as feminine archetypes but also as individual women.

Willa Cather created a gallery of powerful women. It includes the indomitable pioneer Alexandra Bergson, the great artist Thea Kronborg, the Earth Mother Ántonia Shimerda, the artful teacher of civilized standards Marian Forrester, the fiercely individual Myra Driscoll Henshawe. As critics have recognized, each functions as a type, an allegorical figure, of Cather's major themes, as Alexandra and Ántonia are allegorical of the pioneer experience, Thea and Myra Henshawe of the artistic soul, and Mrs. Forrester of the corrupting power of materialism.1 Yet these critical categories have led readers from similarities among them. All are female, and Cather makes her character's sex central to the characterization of each. Aside from recent studies on sexuality in specific novels, however, the broader question of Cather's treatment of these characters as women has received little attention, as if her insistence that individuals deal with permanent values has diverted readers from the directness with which she treats the economic and social conditions that shape a woman's relationships to those values. Just as Cather's women embody themes concerning the pioneer, artist, and materialism, so they embody themes concerning female experience.

The emotional pattern of two selves that runs through Cather's fiction is especially suited to writing about women's lives. There are two selves in each person, Cather suggests: a personal, worldly self expressed with family and friends, and an otherworldly, imaginative second self expressed in creative work. The ideal human condition, described in Cather's early novels, involves a synthesis of the two, with the outward-moving self rooted in the settled personal self. In society, however, a woman encounters contradictions between the human pattern of two selves and cultural myths that would limit her to only one of them. Cather's later novels present increasingly complex examinations of social roles assigned to women and of the implication of those roles for individuals caught in them.

In her early novels—O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia —Cather presents women who either live or move outside conventional society; their strengths are due in part to this fact. Of the three, O Pioneers! offers the purest example of Cather's myth of human greatness. It was, Cather later said, a book she wrote entirely for herself;2 in it, she abandoned the conventional setting and characterization of her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, andturnedtoNebraskaasher setting and to a woman, Alexandra, as her major character.

Alexandra dominates the book. Assuming mythic dimensions, she is an Earth Mother, a corn goddess, and an epic heroine.3 But just as Alexandra represents ideal forms of being, so her development presents Cather's ideal growth of the two selves, first by extending her creative self with the land and then by extending her personal self with Carl. This development follows that traditionally associated with a man, who through his work "encounters change and progress" and "senses his extension through time and the universe" then later turns to personal stability, "a home, a fixed location, and an anchorage in the world."4

Early scenes of O Pioneers! establish Alexandra's independence by contradicting cultural restrictions imposed upon a female character. Alexandra dresses comfortably and practically in a man's long ulster;5 just as naturally, she assumes conventionally male attitudes, walking "rapidly and resolutely," fixing her gaze "intently on the distance" (p. 6) and "into the future" (p. 14), then "gathering her strength … to grasp a situation which, no matter how painful, must be met and dealt with somehow" (p. 10). Throughout, Alexandra moves as a subject rather than an object, a distinction Cather drives home in one brief encounter. When a drummer admires the girl's hair, Alexandra "stabbed him with a glance of Amazonian fierceness," "mercilessly" crushing his "feeble flirtatious instincts" (p. 8).

A cultural pattern of restriction contrasts to this dominant pattern of independence. A foil to Alexandra, Marie Tovesky assumes the traditional role reserved for a female character: she is a "city child" dressed in the "'Kate Greenaway' manner," with "brown curly hair, like a brunette doll's," (p. 11). While Alexandra defiantly rejects the drummer's admiration and, in so doing, romantic conventions that reduce a woman to an object for male attention, Marie becomes such an object in a grotesque parody of courtship. In town, Joe Tovesky's "cronies formed a circle about him, admiring and teasing the little girl.… They told her that she must choose one of them for a sweetheart, and each began pressing his suit and offering her bribes; candy, and little pigs, and spotted calves. She looked archly into the big, brown, mustached faces, smelling of spirits and tobacco, then she ran her tiny forefinger delicately over Joe's bristly chin and said, 'Here is my sweetheart'" (p. 12).

It is not enough, of course, to escape limitations; one must develop also the positive qualities that enable growth. Alexandra has little imagination about her personal life (p. 203), "not the least spark of cleverness" (p. 61), and, apparently, no unusual physical strength. Instead, she is distinguished by her capacity for sympathy, for feeling the promise of the land (p. 67) and, on the Divide, achieving union with it, "as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover" (p. 71). Significantly, Alexandra awakens a female principle of active receptivity in the land. In the description of spring plowing, for example, Cather scarcely mentions the plow or the seed; instead, she describes a receptive land as "the brown earth [that] with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it, yields itself eagerly to the plow" (p. 76).6

Once the land has been tamed, Cather turns to Alexandra's "personal life, her own realization of herself" that has remained "almost a subconscious existence" (p. 203). Again, Alexandra's growth is relatively pure, as was her previous outward movement to universal values; and again, Cather contrasts traditional cultural patterns to Alexandra's independence. The community that has come in the intervening sixteen years has brought with it the assumption of male superiority. The clearly defined responsibility delegated to the young Alexandra by her dying father has, with time, been obscured, and Alexandra's brothers, asserting she is overweening in insisting to her right to her own land, declare "'the property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title'" (p. 169). Even in her old friend and future husband, Carl, Alexandra encounters traditional social restrictions. In a reversal of roles, Alexandra proposes to Carl, saying "'what I have is yours, if you care enough about me to take it'"; he, however, stung by criticism of his dependency, leaves for Alaska in a lonely and futile effort to prove himself worthy (p. 182).

In developing Alexandra's personal self, Cather again establishes her character's independence from convention. Alexandra "had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries" but, instead, had always looked upon men as "work-fellows" (p. 205). Again, Marie serves as a foil, in her love for Emil following the general romantic pattern by which lovers, seeking transcendence through each other, are doomed. In Cather's novels, such love corrupts; it led to Marie's disastrous marriage to Frank and leads to her tragic love for Emil.

Alexandra's relationship with Carl develops in marked contrast to the Marie-Emil relationship. With her expected marriage to Carl, Alexandra turns from her romantic dream of being carried by a lover who "was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat" (p. 206). The action reveals, according to one reader, "the pathos of her limitation," for she and Carl "are of different natures—she an earth goddess, he a not very notable tinker."7 A more accurate distinction might be made between the natures of the experiences. Alexandra seems larger than life—an "earth goddess"—in her reaching toward the land, but she lives her personal life in the human dimension of time. Carl is not an "earth god," and there is little evidence that "for [Alexandra] at least Carl and the vegetation god have become one."8 Indeed, Alexandra's growth in the second part of the novel is away from the romantic dream of transcendence through human love and toward the real value of personal stability through love. For Carl offers an anchorage, and "Alexandra and Carl mate not as passionate lovers but more like … ongoing companions."9 Most importantly, Carl recognizes that Alexandra "'belong[s] to the land'" (p. 307), and the happiness that Alexandra predicts for them is defined not by a self-limited passion but by "the great peace … and freedom" (p. 307) of that land.

In O Pioneers! Cather both presented the two selves she will explore in later novels and sketched the restrictions to those selves that she will later focus upon: social expectations of male superiority, the economic dimension of courtship and marriage, the romantic myth that places the ideal in a love object, and the insistence that women make themselves objects to conform to cultural myths. But these restrictions remain background concerns, scarcely touching Alexandra. Instead, the frontier setting offers "the metaphorical isolation"10 that enables a pure form of heroism; the early action of Alexandra's father, before his death passing responsibility for the family and farm to Alexandra, makes her authority formal; and the narrative structure, with its omniscient narrator, avoids sexist expectations that Cather will develop in later works.

In her next novel, The Song of the Lark, Cather moves her character into society, using "cultural not bucolic"11 elements. Thea Kronborg is an artist. Through her, Cather presents her most straightforward account of second-self growth: Thea moves from the personal security of her family life in a small Midwestern town to greatness as an opera singer. Remarkably, Cather avoids the stereotypic female artist's attitude toward work noted by critics from Beauvoir to Spacks—narcissism and a resulting view of art as a means to love and power. Instead, Thea acts according to her instinctive allegiance to universal values; her highest moments involve the loss of self in art. Again, the basic metaphor of the novel is both female and active: Thea nurtures her second self through stages of (1) gestation and birth; (2) growth toward active receptivity; and (3) creative reproduction of eternal truths into worldly form.

As an artist, Thea Kronborg lives in a rarified atmosphere by which talent is its own justification and creates its own myths. Around her, secondary characters construct secondary myths: Ray Kennedy, the railway man, sees her as Thee, his ideal love; Doctor Archie as the promise of his own lost youth; her aunt Tillie as the romantic heroine she would be. But just as Thea would not play a part assigned for her for a church play, she refuses to play these parts. In the end, she creates her own myth and returns it to her society. Like Alexandra Bergson, Thea Kronborg acts independently of cultural expectations that a woman exist as an object to a male perspective.

But our cultural myths assign to women the position of objects and restrict women to immanence. In My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and My Mortal Enemy, Cather focuses squarely on the implications for women of cultural myths concerning them. In each novel, a distinct narrator represents conventions that are contradicted by a major female character who works out her individual destiny in defiance of the narrator's expectation. Cather perfectly adapts the narrative structure of My Ántonia to cultural assumptions of two selves. The male narrator, Jim Burden, assumes the subject position, moves outward, engages in change and progress, and writes about "my Ántonia"; Ántonia, the archetypal woman, provides an anchorage to which Jim can return and serves as the muse for his creative imagination. Through Jim, Cather presents myths of male transcendence—of man as a liberating hero, romantic lover, and creative genius; of a woman to be rescued, loved, and transformed into art.

My Ántonia is Jim Burden's account of all that Ántonia means to him or, more precisely, of his youthful attempt to make her "'anything that a woman can be to a man.'"12 By his account, Ántonia seeks primarily to nurture by giving—to give her ring to the ten-year-old Jim and "to appreciate and admire" (p. 50) his exploits; to give her love to Larry Donovan, and to give "a better chance" than she had to her children (p. 320). As important, she makes no demands upon the world or upon others in it. Even after becoming pregnant, Ántonia did not press Larry Donovan to marry her, for "'I thought if he saw how well I could do for him, he'd want to stay with me'" (p. 313); her husband, Cuzak, affirms "'she is a good wife for a poor man'" because "'she don't ask me no questions'" (pp. 365-66). Ántonia offers unconditional love: both her strength and her weakness is that "'I never could believe harm of anybody I loved'" (p. 344). Through her love, Ántonia, like the orchard she tends, offers "the deepest peace" of escape from worldly demands (p. 341). Finally, Jim presents Ántonia as a well-spring for male activity in the larger world. On a physical level, she bears sons. Jim titles his final chapter "Cuzak's Boys," and he concludes "it was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight." On a spiritual level, she is a muse to Jim, for she "had that something which fires the imagination" (p. 353). Through Ántonia, Jim comes to realize what his country girls mean: "If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry" (p. 270).

At the same time that Cather uses Jim to present "the collective myths"13 about women, she builds tension against his account. There emerges a certain ruthlessness about Jim's affection for Ántonia that belies his stated affection for her. His love, unlike hers, is conditional. He is proud of Ántonia when he believes her to be "like Snow-white in the fairy tale" (p. 215); he turns from her when she asserts her individuality. He resents her protecting manner toward him, is angered over her masculine ways when she works the farm, is bitter and unforgiving when she "throws herself away on … a cheap sort of fellow" and, once pregnant, falls from social favor.14 Jim's allegiance is consistently to his dreams and illusions; when they conflict with reality, he denies the reality.

The world and the people in it just as consistently belie the myths Jim attempts to impose upon them. Otto Fuchs is not a Jesse James desparado but a warmhearted ranchhand; Lena Lingard is not a wild seductress but a strong-minded girl who becomes an independent businesswoman; Jim himself is not the adventurer, the lover, or the poet that he pretends to be. By contrasting the boast and the deed, Cather suggests comic, self-serving, and ineffectual dimensions of male gallantry. Picturing himself as a dragon slayer, Jim kills an old, lazy rattlesnake. Forced by his grandmother into service as Ántonia's rescuer, Jim sleeps at the Cutters, saving Ántonia from rape but feeling something close to hatred of her for embarrassing him. Resolving to "'go home and look after Ántonia'" (p. 268), Jim returns to her only twenty years later, after being assured that he will not have to part with his illusions (pp. 327-28). Finally, Ántonia and Lena, the objects of Jim's benevolence, react to his promises with smiles (pp. 322-23) and "frank amusement" (p. 268). They get on with their lives basically independently from men, whether by design, as when Lena resolves that she will never marry and that she will build a house for her mother, for "'the men will never do it'" (p. 241), or by necessity, as when Ántonia, deserted by her lover, proceeds to raise her daughter well and proudly.

Tension against Jim's account increases as his narrative role changes. In the initial sections, Cather presents Ántonia through Jim's perspective. Jim measures Ántonia against his idea of women, approving of her when she assumes a role he expects of her. But in Book IV, "The Pioneer Woman's Story," Cather moves Jim aside, to the position of tale recorder, and makes the midwife who attended Ántonia the tale teller. The Widow Steavens provides a woman's account of a woman's experience and, with it, a significant change in tone toward Ántonia. She relates her story with understanding and sympathy rather than with Jim's shocked and bitter insistence that Ántonia play her part in his myth.

By the fifth section, Jim and Ántonia have reversed roles. Jim began the novel as the story teller in several senses, telling the account he titles my Ántonia and also telling it in terms of stories he has read: The Life of Jesse James, Robinson Crusoe, Camille, the Georgics. But the child Jim grew into a man who followed the most conventional pattern for success: he left the farm to move to town, then attended the university, studied law at Harvard, married well, and joined a large corporation as a lawyer. In the process he seems to have lost his personal identity. Conversely, Ántonia, who began the novel as a character rendered by Jim, in the fifth section breaks through myths Jim had imposed upon her and emerges powerfully as herself. With her children around her, she is the center of "the family legend" (p. 350), to whom her children look "for stories and entertainment" (p. 351). But Ántonia's stories, unlike Jim's, are not from literature. They are instead "about the calf that broke its leg, or how Yulka saved her little turkeys from drowning … or about old Christmases and weddings in Bohemia" (p. 176).

As Jim leaves the Cuzak farm in the last paragraphs, Ántonia recedes into the background. One of a group standing "by the windmill," she is "waving her apron" (p. 368). Returning to the larger male world, Jim spends a "disappointing" day in Black Hawk, talking idly with "one of the old lawyers who was still in practice" (p. 369) and, finally, walking outside of town to the unploughed prairie that remained from early times. There Jim's "mind was full of pleasant things," for he intended "to play" with Cuzak's boys and, after the boys are grown, "to tramp along a few miles of lighted streets with Cuzak" (p. 370). But these plans seem curiously empty, irrelevant to the center of life represented by the female world of Ántonia. The early male myths of adventure have led to pointless wandering and lonely exile, and the women, originally assigned roles of passivity, have become the vital subjects who create the myths that Jim can only hope to witness and to record.

In her next novel, One of Ours, Cather incorporates many of Jim Burden's characteristics into her central character. Claude Wheeler, a young man in search of "something splendid," passively follows abstract cultural myths (now of pure love and noble war), is frightened by complex human reality, and, when confronted by conflict between the two, sacrifices the reality to the dream. As one reader has suggested, the title, "which labels Claude 'one of ours,' suggests a national malaise, perhaps a cluster of them,"15 for here, as elsewhere, a male character is imprisoned in simplistic patterns of transcendence. In presenting Claude, Cather also presents with great sensitivity the two women most directly affected by Claude's actions. Claude perceives the two as stereotypic seductress and virgin, yet Cather develops in each a human reality that contradicts the role Claude assigns to her. Furthermore, unlike Claude, a character astonishingly lacking in self knowledge, each knows herself and, if given the opportunity, would choose for herself action appropriate to her nature—Enid Royce the ascetic life of the missionary and Gladys Farmer the more physical life of marriage to Claude.

In A Lost Lady, Cather turns again to the narrative structure of My Ántonia : the male narrator, Niel Herbert, recounts his memories of a woman, Marian Forrester, and through them, recalls his own growth. But Niel and Jim write about quite different women. Ántonia is a "'natural-born mother,'" creating her own myth independently from society. Marian Forrester is a wife and, as such, a woman defined in terms of society, a society provided by her husband's business, money, and interests. Twenty-five years younger than Captain Forrester, she was brought by him as a bride to the small town of Sweet Water, where she became renowned as a great hostess.

As a wife, Mrs. Forrester is a magnificent object to be adorned, admired, and cherished. It gratified Captain Forrester to have men admire his fine stock and his fine wife. She gives him identity: he is remembered as the man "'with the beautiful wife,'"16 and she provides a means by which he may display his success. The gems she wears represent, for example, her husband's "archaic ideas about jewels.… They must be costly; they must show that he was able to buy them, and that she was worthy to wear them" (p. 51-52). Most of all, she gives value to her husband's domain by transforming it, by creating an atmosphere of calm, timelessness, and absolute security. It is an atmosphere that enables those in it to dream.

In A Lost Lady, Cather asks what happens to such a woman without the props by which she acts, then presents the paradox of the married woman's situation. Her strength lies in her ability to transform the world so that others may dream, but this apparent strength makes her highly vulnerable. First, her domain is wholly within a context of change. Marian Forrester came to Sweet Water to witness the loss of pioneer values, the railway men's departure, her husband's loss of fortune, and, finally, his decline and death. In these changes, she gradually lost both the friends and the money necessary to her. Second, such a woman is valued because she carefully subordinates her individuality so that others may see her as they wish her to be. The young Niel, for example, initially perceives her as from a magical realm, always lovely, never changing. Consequently, Niel judges her by his own illusion and, inevitably, human reality contradicts the illusion. For Niel, then, Mrs. Forrester's story is initially a story of betrayal. He responds to her in stages, similar to but more clearly defined than those of Jim Burden.17 Initially, he worships her as "belonging to a different world" (p. 42). Upon discovering her sexual relationship with Frank Ellinger, however, he is disillusioned, charging that she betrayed his "aesthetic ideal" (p.87). Niel's disillusionment deepens when, after Captain Forrester's death, he discovers Marian Forrester's liaison with Ivy Peters. With Ivy Peters, Marian Forrester is guilty, Neil believes, of commonness and lack of discrimination. Throughout this period, there runs the charge that Marian Forrester has betrayed others' values—those of Captain Forrester, of the noble pioneers of the past, and, most of all, of Niel himself.

But in A Lost Lady, far more than in her previous novels, Cather pits her character against conventions imposed upon her. First, Marian Forrester clearly contradicts the social conventions of Sweet Water, represented by the Molly Beasleys who forage throughout her house and who see only material objects they reduce to items for barter. Second, and more important, Marian Forrester just as clearly contradicts the aesthetic conventions of Niel, who holds it against her that she did not immolate herself to the past and to his romantic illusion.

By the end of A Lost Lady, Niel has reached a third stage in which "he came to be very glad that he had known her, and that she had had a hand in breaking him in to life" (p. 171). Recalling her, he wonders about "the secret of that ardour," of that ability to transform reality and appear "to promise a wild delight that he has not found in life" (p. 171). No longer measuring her by the aesthetic ideal she created for him, he appreciates in her "the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring" (p. 172). The change is significant, from Niel's viewing Marian Forrester solely as a passive object representing his aesthetic ideal, to recognizing in her the active, willed power of suggesting that ideal. Supporting this change, Cather provides glimpses of the human subject herself: the lines of exhaustion, the smell of spirits, the momentary lowering of the "lively manner" that she kept "between her and all the world" (p. 68). But as with My Ántonia, at the end Cather returns to a male world with a sense of loss, having only suggested the woman herself beneath the overwhelming male perspective of the account.

My Ántonia and A Lost Lady present major cultural myths about women: My Ántonia the woman as archetypal mother and muse, A Lost Lady the woman as teacher, bearer of culture. In both, Cather uses male narrators who view women in terms of their own spiritual growth, and in each she gives her female character the strength to break through conventional roles imposed upon them. But convention offers to the woman herself a different route to transcendence from that offered to men, that of romantic love. In My Mortal Enemy, Cather focuses squarely on women's perspectives of the romantic love convention. In using Nellie Birdseye to write about Myra Driscoll Henshawe, Cather suggests a sequential relationship between narrator and character: the female narrator in writing about a female subject explores a possible future self; the female subject in speaking to the narrator speaks as if to a younger self. The overall effect is to extend Cather's concern with cultural patterns that restrict individuals from permanent values, for in My Mortal Enemy, Cather goes beyond her previous contrast between convention and reality to present the ways in which these patterns are passed from one generation to another.

In My Mortal Enemy, the adult narrator, Nellie Birdseye, recalls her life-long knowledge of Myra Driscoll Henshawe; in so doing, she presents tension between the romantic and the human perspective. The romantic, offered by Nellie's Aunt Lydia, Myra's husband Oswald, and by the young girl Nellie once was, dominates the first of the novel. By this perspective, Myra Driscoll is the "brilliant and attractive figure"18 of family legend who lives on in love stories taught to generation after generation of young girls. Cather suggests the ritualistic transmission of myth when Nellie recalls that her Aunt Lydia "used to take me for a walk … around the old Driscoll grounds" and "would tell me again about that thrilling night" (pp. 15-16). The story itself is strikingly conventional: young lovers, denied permission to marry as a result of "a grudge of some sort" between their elders, defy worldly restrictions and elope, though their marriage results in disinheritance. This is the stuff on which girls dream and which, finally, shapes their imaginations.

As Nellie grew older, she not only incorporated the romantic perspective passed to her but elaborated on it, ignoring a Myra and an Oswald she had never known and turning instead to sweeping myths and personifications: "When I was older I used to walk around the Driscoll place alone very often.… I thought of the place as being under a spell, like the Sleeping Beauty's palace; it had been in a trance, or lain in its flowers like a beautiful corpse, ever since that winter night when Love went out of the gates and gave the dare to Fate" (p. 17). Nellie's reminiscence distills the timelessness of the romantic love convention, which promises escape from human dimensions of change and decay. But consequently, this same convention requires either that lovers die or that they live happily ever after. Myra Driscoll and Oswald Henshawe, however, live on and are, as it turns out, only "'as happy as most people,'" a conclusion that Nellie finds "disheartening" for "the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people" (p. 17).

Nellie's reaction here anticipates the second perspective of the novel, offered by Myra Henshawe herself. Clearly, the forty-five-year-old woman is unlike the romantic heroine immortalized in family legend. When Nellie first meets "the real Myra Henshawe, twenty-five years older than I had always imagined her," she feels disappointed and is tempted to prefer the illusions to the reality. She wonders whether it wasn't "better to get out of the world … than to linger on in it … getting a double chin" (p. 19). But Nellie, like Cather's other narrators, goes through stages in her view of the woman she writes about.19 Youthful idealization ends in disillusionment when Nellie glimpses the anger and malice that, along with love and affections, exist in the Henshawe's marriage. And this disillusionment gradually gives way to mature understanding and appreciation. When, after a long separation, she finds Myra, now in ill-health and living with Oswald in severely reduced circumstances, Nellie is no longer disappointed in the human reality but instead "delighted" that "she was herself, Myra Henshawe!" (p. 62). For what Nellie recognizes in Myra Henshawe is the magnificent complexity of a mature woman who "sat crippled but powerful in her brilliant wrappings. She looked strong and broken, generous and tyrannical, a witty and rather wicked old woman, who hated life for its defeats, and loved it for its absurdities" (p. 65).

The stages of youthful idealization, disillusionment, and mature understanding are familiar: Cather used them for Jim Burden and Niel Herbert. But the rendition of these stages is quite different from that of previous novels. Far more than the women Cather's male narrators wrote about—Ántonia Cuzak and Marian Forrester—Myra Henshawe actively guides Nellie's growth and directly questions the romantic convention by which Nellie perceives her. Initially, Myra warns Nellie in general terms of the "bad luck" that love draws on a woman and of the hell that is likely to follow youthful romantic commitments (pp. 28-31). In her dying days, however, Myra's warnings become painfully personal as she rejects Oswald's sentimental version of their lives and reveals the hell they created for one another. Their lives were not always like "'those days when [they] were young and loved each other,'" and human existence is not so simple as the romantic convention pretends: "'People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were.…A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other'" (p. 88).

Through Oswald and Nellie, Cather presents sharply contrasted responses to her central character's attempt to break through the myth that had shaped her. Oswald, faced with the same painful honesty that Myra offers to Nellie, chooses not the woman but instead a romantic figure from the past. Viewing his aging wife as "'the mother of the girl who ran away with me,'" Oswald declares "'nothing ever took that girl from me,'" then charges Nellie, too, to sacrifice the woman to the myth by remembering a young Myra, "'when she was herself, and we were happy'" (pp. 103-04). The "'wild, lovely creature'" Oswald recalls seems curiously detached from reality, presented only through Lydia's stories and Oswald's reminiscences. Clearly, this "creature" is unlike the woman Nellie has come to admire. The change in Nellie is significant: no longer the moon-struck girl who perceived in terms of convention, Nellie has become a woman capable of understanding and respecting the woman Myra Driscoll Henshawe and, in turn, capable of guiding the reader to a similarly enlarged understanding. For Cather has pitted Myra Driscoll Henshawe against her narrator's and her reader's expectations of a female character and, by her character's complex richness, has exposed those expectations as stagnant and self limiting.

In "Old Mrs. Harris," Cather comes full circle in her concern with what it is to be a woman, presenting female characters who neither follow a traditionally male route toward transcendence nor struggle for individuality against male expectations. Instead, Cather presents the most traditional pattern of women's lives within their family and community. On one level, such lives are conventionally limited. The story concerns events during one summer in the daily lives of the Templeton family: a neighbor brings a slice of cake for Mrs. Harris; a family cat dies; fifteen-year-old Vickie wins a college scholarship; her mother, Victoria Templeton, learns she is pregnant; the family attends a church supper; and old Mrs. Harris dies.

But on a second level, Cather reveals that apparently individual events affect the entire family and apparent restricted spheres yield universal values. Cather uses omniscient narration to extend the story beyond the daily lives of its characters to patterns of women's lifetimes. Point of view is almost entirely female, as Cather presents the thoughts of Mrs. Rosen, the Templeton's learned and childless neighbor who is drawn to "a pleasantness in the human relationships"20 she feels in the Templeton's house, and three generations of women: Vickie, self-absorbed by her own youth and inexperience; her mother, Victoria, self-absorbed by knowledge of yet another pregnancy announcing yet another child to care for in an already crowded house; and Mrs. Harris, Victoria's mother, who lives with her daughter's family and works to keep "the light-heartedness … going" in those about her (p. 112). As their names suggest, Vickie will become as Victoria, and both, "when they are old … will come closer to Grandma Harris" (p. 190).

Significantly, Cather describes this larger pattern in terms reminiscent of her earliest treatments of women. As Alexandra Bergson and Thea Kronborg were before her, Mrs. Harris is "perfectly happy" in "the realest and truest things" (p. 184). But unlike the earlier characters, who reached a loss of self through the land and art, Mrs. Harris does so through family relationships. When "she heard the children running down the uncarpeted back stairs … she ceased to be an individual, an old woman with aching feet; she became part of a group, became a relationship" (pp. 136-37).

In this late work, as elsewhere, Cather presents a character reaching toward permanent values, for "that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."21 And this, Cather's concern for permanent values, is the constant that runs throughout her career. Treating this constant, Cather devotes works long recognized as among her most powerful to gradually narrowing the question of what it is to be a woman. She places her female characters within increasingly complex and restrictive contexts. In setting, Cather turns from the natural expanses of Alexandra's frontier to the ever-narrowing circumstances of Marian Forrester, Myra Henshawe, and Mrs. Harris; in convention, Cather turns from women as mythic goddess and earth mother to the more specifically cultural myths of woman as aesthetic ideal and romantic heroine and, finally, to women who live apparently ordinary lives as daughter, mother, and grandmother. But at the same time that she creates increasingly restrictive contexts, Cather gives to her characters increasingly personal and specific strength to defy apparent restrictions placed upon them. She moves from the otherworldly, mythic power of Alexandra to the personal strength of exceptional women to defy convention (Ántonia, Marian Forrester, and Myra Driscoll Henshawe) to, in "Old Mrs. Harris," conventional women living conventional women's lives who, by the fullness of these personal lives, become exceptional.


  1. See, for example, Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 13-14, et. passim. A version of this paper was presented at the 1979 convention of the Modern Language Association. I am most grateful to Professor Bernice Slote, Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln, for suggestions during the various stages of this study and to Professor Patrick Morrow, Auburn Univ., for suggestions on the manuscript.
  2. "My First Novels [There Were Two]," in Willa Cather on Writing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), p. 92. Cather uses the phrase "for myself" three times in the six pages of the essay.
  3. See, for example, David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (1951; rpt. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1971), p. 28; J. Russell Reaver, "Mythic Motivation in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!" WF, 27 (1968), 19-25; and David Stouck, Willa Cather's Imagination (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1975), pp. 23-32.
  4. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (1953; Modern Library Edition, New York: Random House, 1968), p. 430.
  5. (1913; rpt. Sentry Edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941), p. 6. Subsequent references to O Pioneers! will be to this edition.
  6. Other examples of active receptivity, frequently expressed in sexual imagery, occur throughout the novel. Alexandra at times felt "close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil" (pp. 203-04), and, similarly, Marie's great talent for "living" is a talent for responding actively, for feeling "as the pond must feel when it held the moon like that; when it encircled and swelled with that image of gold" (p. 250).
  7. Maynard Fox, "Symbolic Representation in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!," WAL, 9 (1974), 196.
  8. J. Russell Reaver, "Mythic Motivation in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!," WF, 27 (1968), 24.
  9. Bernice Slote, "Willa Cather: The Secret Web," from Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium, ed. John J. Murphy (North Andover: Merrimack College, 1974), n.p.
  10. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (1976; Garden City: Anchor, 1977), p. 350.
  11. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (1953; reissued with a new foreword and an index as a Bison Book, Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1963), p. 104.
  12. (1918; Sentry edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), p. 321. Subsequent references to My Ántonia will be to this edition.
  13. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pp. 248-49.
  14. Significantly, Jim, seeing Ántonia as "'a natural-born mother'" (p. 318), does not admit her sexuality: sexuality involves physicality rather than spirituality, activity rather than passivity, change rather than timelessness. Accordingly, Jim separates sexuality from Ántonia and dreams only of Lena Lingard as a seductress. See Blanche H. Gelfant's discussion, "The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Ántonia," AL, 43 (1971), 60-82.
  15. John J. Murphy, "Willa Cather: The Widening Gyre," in Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium," n.p.
  16. (1923; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), p. 121. Subsequent references to A Lost Lady will be to this edition.
  17. For a detailed discussion of these stages, see my essay, "Willa Cather's A Lost Lady: The Paradoxes of Change," Novel, 11 (1977), 51-62. Other readers have similarly focused upon the discrepancy between Niel's description of Marian Forrester and the character herself: Eugenie Lambert Hamner, "Affirmations in Willa Cather's A Lost Lady," MQ, 17 (1976), 245-51; and Anneliese H. Smith, "Finding Marian Forrester: A Restorative Reading of Cather's A Lost Lady," CLQ, 14 (1978), 221-25.
  18. (1926; New York: Vintage, 1961). Subsequent references to My Mortal Enemy will be to this edition.
  19. For a more detailed discussion of these stages, see my essays, "Narrative Technique in Cather's My Mortal Enemy," JNT, 8 (1978), 141-49; and "The Novel of Awakening," Genre, 12 (1979), 313-32.
  20. In Obscure Destinies (1932; New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 111. Subsequent references to "Old Mrs. Harris" will be to this edition.
  21. My Ántonia, p. 18.


SOURCE: Acocella, Joan. "Cather and the Feminists: The Problem." In Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, pp. 37-43. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

In the following essay, Acocella discusses the difficulty that Cather's apparent ambivalence about women causes for feminist critics attempting to analyze her work.

An important job for feminist literary critics in the 1970s and 1980s was to assemble a "female canon," a list of first-rate woman-authored books that would demonstrate that women were the equal of men as writers and therefore that their underrepresentation in the approved catalog of great literature—and in allied enterprises, such as publishing and the universities—was the result of politics, not biology. Cather was of course necessary to such a list. But the feminists didn't just need first-rate writers; they needed them to be feminists. Gertrude Stein's declaring the women's movement a bore, George Eliot's writing an essay called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"—these things were an embarrassment.1 Cather's early prairie novels were everything a feminist could have asked for. In O Pioneers! Alexandra not only raises up a farm out of the barren plain; she is the head of her household. As for The Song of the Lark, it is even better, for it is about a woman becoming an artist.

But as we saw, something changed in Cather after The Song of the Lark. Life came to seem to her less a matter of victory than of sorrow and memory and art. And those became the subject of her next novel, My Ántonia. In a move that has given more pain to her feminist critics than almost anything else she ever did, she placed a male narrator, Jim Burden, between the reader and Ántonia: men silencing women all over again. Furthermore, My Ántonia is really Jim's book. Ántonia drops out of it for a long stretch, and as the title indicates, the subject is not really her, it is Jim's vision of her, and the meditations on memory and art to which that vision prompts him. Finally, Ántonia is not victorious. She has a hard life: poverty, toil, an illegitimate child. Eventually she marries a good man, Anton Cuzak, and we find her at the end of the book in her kitchen, doing the dishes, with her sons and daughters gathered around her. But this is not what most feminists would call a victory. As a culminating insult, the last section of the book is entitled "Cuzak's Boys," not "Ántonia's Children."

That was just the beginning. In Cather's next novel, One of Ours, the main character was a male, and one who went to war, and liked it. And so on it went, for the rest of Cather's career. Sometimes her protagonists were women, sometimes men, and sometimes they did good, and sometimes evil, but not along sex lines. She seems no longer to have viewed the difference between male and female as crucial. Life was hard for everyone—"Even the wicked get worse than they deserve," as one of her characters says (One of Ours, 257)—and the suffering had simply to be borne or, if possible, transcended through memory and art. The principles of life were changeless, and so, consequently, were the themes of art. Hence Jim Burden's description of Ántonia as something out of Virgil or ancient myth, something "universal and true" (342). This, of course, is exactly what feminists did not want to hear. Universals, transcendence—those were the magic words by which women were taught to accept a fate that in fact was not universal, but assigned to only half of humanity, the female half. As for Ántonia, who stays home and stays poor while Jim goes to Harvard to study the Virgilian texts to which he will compare her, the feminists did not see her as the embodiment of a changeless principle. They saw her as an oppressed woman.

It wasn't just Cather's fiction that fell short. Her life did too, from childhood on. She was much closer to her father than to her mother—not good news to feminists who were now stressing the mother-daughter relationship. (Adrienne Rich: "The dutiful daughter of the fathers is only a hack."2) At her father's funeral Cather was inconsolable—grief-stricken, panicked. Her mother's funeral she did not attend (though she did help care for Jennie during her final illness). In the list of other adults who nurtured her, the men greatly outnumber the women. The town doctors, who took her on their rounds; Herr Schindelmeisser, the piano teacher, who talked to her about music and Europe; William Ducker, who taught her Greek; the professor who published her Carlyle essay and made her see that she was a writer: men, men.

Then there is the matter of the "William Cather period." Innocent readers might imagine that this is something feminists would sympathize with. It is not. "Male-identified" is a bad word in feminist circles. As one disgruntled feminist, Jean Elshtain, put it recently, "One is either part of the group of those who have found their authentic voices as women or one is a 'male-identified' dupe of the patriarchy."3 Remember Cather's page in her friend's album. The trait she most admired in men was an original mind; in women, flirting. As long as she was free to develop an original mind, it was okay by her if women had to go on flirting. Indeed, she liked it, just as a man would. Nor did Cather's male identification really end when she grew her hair out again. A journalist who interviewed her in 1924 said that she seemed less like a writer than like the head of "a great law practice or a successful dairy farm."4 For the times, she was a mannish woman.

She had no high opinion of women, at least as writers. "Sometimes I wonder why God ever trusts [literary] talent in the hands of women, they usually make such an infernal mess of it," she wrote in 1895. "I think He must do it as a sort of ghastly joke" (The Kingdom of Art, 408). Female poets were so gushy—"emotional in the extreme, self-centered, self-absorbed" (The World and the Parish, 146). As for female novelists, all they could write about was love: "They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable" (The World and the Parish, 276). She went on to attack various women's novels on this score—for example, Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), a book sacred to feminists. How could Chopin have devoted her gifts to "so trite and sordid a theme" as adultery (The World and the Parish, 697)? And when women writers were not splashing about in their emotions, they were doing other inartistic things, like running after causes. "The feminine mind has a hankering for hobbies and missions": Just look at Uncle Tom's Cabin, she said (The Kingdom of Art, 406). All in all, women seemed to Cather to use art rather than to make it. "Has any woman every really had the art instinct, the art necessity? Is it not with them a substitute, a transferred enthusiasm, an escape valve for what has sought or is seeking another channel?" (The Kingdom of Art, 158). This is basically the same complaint that Virginia Woolf later made in A Room of One's Own, that women used writing as "self-expression" rather than as art. But Cather made it with uncommon ferocity: "If I see the announcement of a new book by a woman, I—well, I take one by a man instead.… I prefer to take no chances when I read" (The World and the Parish, 362).

Finally, in a time when feminist critics were trying to show that women inherited their literary tradition not from men but from women—literary "foremothers," often excluded from the established canon—it was not a pleasure to see Cather so clearly take her inspiration from male writers. Apart from Virgil, the Bible, and Pilgrim's Progress, the books that left the strongest imprint on her were those of Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Henry James. One woman writer was crucial to her: Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett, she says, told her to use her "home" material, distilled over a long period, and to "write it as it is, don't try to make it like this or that"—in other words, don't imitate Henry James. Jewett not only gave Cather these rules; with her "local-colorist" tales of her native Maine, she exemplified them. But as Cather's early writings suggest, she already knew before meeting Jewett that she had to turn back to Nebraska. She just needed somebody to push her, and that's what Jewett did. Jewett was more a mentor than a model to Cather.5

So Cather, having once looked as though she might advance the cause of feminism, turned out to be a disaster. A number of feminists bit the bullet and condemned her as such. According to Carolyn Heilbrun, in her 1979 book Reinventing Womanhood, Cather was one of many female writers who "have been unable to imagine for other women … the self they have in fact achieved." In The Song of the Lark, Heilbrun claimed, Cather created her "last major woman character with a 'self.'" In her subsequent novels she simply demonstrated the "female urge toward the destruction and denial of female destiny." Another writer, Frances Kaye, published a whole book arguing that Cather's writings were politically dangerous. Because Cather distanced herself from the cause of women in general, awarding victories only to a few, male-identified women, her work discouraged collective action and thus could involve "psychic and social costs" for the unwary reader.6

Other feminist critics, however, were sorry to lose Cather from their team, and wondered if something might be done. What if the wrongful attitudes that she expressed were not hers at all, but the attitudes of men, the men in her novels? Godfrey St. Peter's disdain for the materialism of his wife and daughters in The Professor's House; Jim Burden's intrusion into Ántonia's story and his acquiescence in her hard fate—what if these were acts of irony on Cather's part, her way of criticizing St. Peter and Jim?

Thus was born what can be called the unreliable-narrator school of Cather criticism. A good example is Jean Schwind, who has devoted a number of essays to defending Cather from the charge that she held incorrect views. The Professor's House, Schwind argues in a 1993 article, is not a story about the professor's despair, it is a critique of the patriarchy. The professor is an "ungenerous and dishonest" man, basically a sexist pig, who cares only about his work and who, under the cover of his hypocritical antimaterialism, abuses the excellent women around him. By exposing these facts, Cather is exploring "frameups of women in literature." The same goes for My Ántonia, Schwind asserts in a 1985 article. Jim Burden is an utterly unreliable narrator—genteel, sexist, indeed racist and imperialist. Furthermore, he reads too much. The Homeric epithets and pastoral conventions that he uses in his narrative show that he imposes on reality a "faulty literary vision," a romantic vision. He is "devoted to ideal 'forms'" that have nothing to do with prairie realities, including Ántonia. Ántonia belongs to the free, true-grit New World, Jim to the hidebound, patriarchal Old World, and Cather subtly celebrates the former and disparages the latter.7

This interpretation of My Ántonia has since been enlarged upon by others. Elizabeth Ammons, in her 1992 book Conflicting Stories, congratulates Cather on her "subtle exposure" of Jim's attempt to "take over and rewrite a strong, threatening woman's story in terms that suit his own image of her." Annette Bennington McElhiney, in a 1993 essay, says that by having Ántonia remain silent and letting Jim's "supposed" narrative drone on and on, Cather "re-creates in her novel circumstances similar to what happened historically in America"—the silencing of women by men.8 So yes, Cather's fiction contains patriarchal attitudes, but only because she is decrying them. People just didn't notice before.

A number of feminists were apparently uncomfortable with such readings, however. And well they might have been, for the traits that supposedly disqualified Cather's male narrators and protagonists as reliable witnesses were her traits as well. Romantic, elegiac, attached to ideal forms, besotted with Virgil, deeply read in classical literature and given to alluding to it—Cather was all these things, and she believed in them, as her other writings show.9 Furthermore, if her contemporaries misread her, failing to notice her sustained attack on the patriarchy, why had she never corrected them?

Clearly a subtler reading was needed, something that would both acknowledge Cather's endorsement of unfeminist values and yet show her in conflict with those values. According to some feminists, conflict was endemic to women writers anyway, for they were torn between the need to tell their own, female story and the wish to write something acceptable to the male literary establishment. Consequently, in the words of Elaine Showalter, women's fiction was "a double-voiced discourse, containing a 'dominant' and a 'muted' story," which oscillated back and forth before our eyes.10 But Cather's prose didn't look oscillatory. Plain and pure, it rose like a cliff wall in the face of the conflict seekers, denying them access, insisting that it really did mean what it said. Something was needed, some stick of dynamite, to blow Cather's world open. As the feminists soon realized, the thing they needed was already there. In a 1975 book called Lesbian Images, Jane Rule, a Canadian novelist and critic, had matter-of-factly declared that Cather was homosexual.


  1. Stein's indifference to the women's movement is discussed by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in No Man's Land, 2: 242.
  2. Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, quoted in Showalter, The New Feminist Criticism, 7.
  3. Elshtain, in "Race and Racism," 6.
  4. Rascoe, "First Meeting with Willa Cather," 63.
  5. Cather quoting Jewett in F. H., "Willa Cather Talks of Work," 11. Of the writings which suggest that Cather knew before meeting Jewett the things she later claimed Jewett taught her, the most notable is her 1900 essay "When I Knew Stephen Crane." There she says that Crane told her, "'The detail of a thing has to filter through my blood, and then it comes out like a native product, but it takes forever'" (The World and the Parish, 776-777). James Woodress points out (Willa Cather, 99) that this describes the slowstarting Willa Cather far better than the precocious Stephen Crane, who produced enough to fill twelve volumes before dying at age twenty-nine. As for her evaluation of Jewett as a writer, Cather, in her preface to the 1925 Mayflower edition of The Best Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, compared Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs to Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter, but this exalted compliment was probably an act of loyalty more than of sincerity. (Jewett was much neglected at the time.) When Cather revised and reprinted that essay in 1936, she shrank her praise, saying only that Jewett, like Twain and Hawthorne, possessed that "very personal quality of perception, a vivid and intensely personal experience of life, which make a 'style'" (Not Under Forty, 95). But already in 1924, a year before the publication of the Mayflower collection, Cather told an interviewer that Jewett "was a very uneven writer. A good portion of her work is not worth preserving. The rest, a small balance—enough to make two volumes—is important" (quoted in Rascoe, "Willa Cather," 66).
  6. Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood, 79, 81. Kaye, Isolation and Masquerade, 187. In their condemnation of Cather on feminist grounds, these writers were preceded by Josephine Lurie Jessup, who in her 1965 book The Faith of Our Feminists judged Cather's greatness to be confined to the prairie novels, which "sing of triumph and a woman" (56). "Where no woman dominates the action," Jessup continues, "a novel by Willa Cather tends to fall into the hopelessness of One of Ours or of The Professor's House; or to become less a record of human conflict than a series of insubstantial reveries, such as Death Comes for the Archbishop" (75). Gilbert and Gubar, in No Man's Land, agree that Cather's work is fatally weakened after The Song of the Lark. In their view, the falling off is due to Cather's "fatal attraction to a renunciation of passion" (2:205), which, however, is attributable in turn to her gender conflicts and her suppression of lesbian desire.
  7. Schwind, "This Is a Frame-Up," 82, 88; Schwind, "The Benda Illustrations to My Ántonia," 59, 61.
  8. Ammons, Conflicting Stories, 135. McElhiney, "Willa Cather's Use of a Tripartite Narrative Point of View in My Ántonia," 75.
  9. Cather was one of the most allusive novelists in Western literature. Tracking down her literary sources was a great part of the task of John March's 846-page Reader's Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather (1993) and of the University of Nebraska Press's scholarly editions of O Pioneers! (1992), My Ántonia (1994), A Lost Lady (1997), Obscure Destinies (1998), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1999). The project of decoding Cather's allusions continues today. See, for example, Marilyn Arnold's 1996 essay "The Allusive Cather."
  10. Showalter, The New Feminist Criticism, 266.

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Cather, Willa: General Commentary

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