Cather, Willa: Title Commentary

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O Pioneers!
The Song of the Lark

O Pioneers!


SOURCE: Wiesenthal, C. Susan. "Female Sexuality in Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and the Era of Scientific Sexology: A Dialogue between Frontiers." Ariel 21, no. 1 (January 1990): 41-63.

In the following essay, Wiesenthal examines parallels between Cather's treatment of female sexuality in O Pioneers! and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scientific preoccupations with "deviant" female sexuality.

Perhaps the most critical issue which immediately confronts any discussion of Willa Cather's fictional portrayal of sexuality is the nature of the relationship between the author's life and her work, between biography and art. For it is primarily on biographical bases such as Cather's adolescent rejection of femininity—her masquerade as the short-haired, boyishly-dressed 'William Cather Jr.'—and her adult relationships with women such as Louise Pound, Isabelle McClung, and Edith Lewis, that an increasing number of critics have been led to consider her as a 'lesbian writer.' Although no evidence exists to indicate that any of Cather's relationships with women involved an erotic dimension, many scholars agree that, at the very least, her life may be regarded as 'lesbian' in the sense of Adrienne Rich's extensive definition of the term. Briefly, Rich conceives of a broad "lesbian continuum" which "includes a range … of woman-identified experience," embracing any extra-sexual or emotional form of "primary intensity between women," and "not simply the fact that a woman has had or [has] consciously desired genital experience with another woman" (648).



I have not much interest in anyone's personal history after the tenth year, not even my own. Whatever one was going to be was all prepared for before that. The rest is merely confirmation, extension, development. Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good. While I have been reading again Willa Cather's essays and occasional papers, and thinking about her, I remembered a sentence from the diaries of Anne Frank, who died in the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen just before she was sixteen years old. At less than fifteen, she wrote: "I have had a lot of sorrow, but who hasn't, at my age?"

In Miss Cather's superb little essay on Katherine Mansfield, she speaks of childhood and family life: "I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday 'happy family' who are merely going on with their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications.…Yet every individual in that house hold (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavor … the mere struggle to have anything of one's own, to be oneself at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at breaking point.

"… Even in harmonious families there is this double life … the one we can observe in our neighbor's household, and, underneath, another—secret and passionate and intense—which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them."

This is masterly and water-clear and autobiography enough for me: my mind goes with tenderness to the lonely slow-moving girl who happened to be an artist coming back from reading Latin and Greek with the old storekeeper, helping with the housework, then sitting by the fireplace to talk down an assertive brood of brothers and sisters, practicing her art on them, refusing to be lost among them—the longest-winged one who would fly free at last.

Porter, Katherine Anne. "Reflections on Willa Cather." In The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter, pp. 29-39. New York: Delacorte Press, 1970.

Almost invariably, however, when critics turn to Cather's novels, it is precisely the absence of any 'lesbian' sensibility which they emphasize. Thus, Jane Rule, the first writer to situate Cather specifically within a lesbian literary tradition along with Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, and others, sharply reproves readers who attempt to find a homoerotic sensibility in Cather's art, claiming that if the author's private "sexual tastes" manifest themselves in the fiction at all, it is only in her "capacity to transcend the conventions of what is masculine and feminine" (87, 80). More recently, Phyllis Robinson has flatly asserted that "the loving relationships with women that were so important in [Cather's] personal life are no where reflected in her fiction" (158). In Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, Sharon O'Brien concurs, stating that "[c]ertainly the most prominent absence and the most unspoken love in her work are the emotional bonds between women that were central to her life" (127). O'Brien does not insist on wholly divorcing author and text, however, and argues instead that Cather's fiction works to both disclose and conceal a lesbian psyche. Nevertheless, in "'The Thing Not Named': Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer," she concentrates on the latter aspect of her thesis—on those "literary strategies" whereby Cather is able to "disguise" or "camouflage" the "emotional source of her fiction." For O'Brien, Cather's 'lesbian' sensibility represents "the unwritten text" of the novels ("The Thing Not Named" 577, 593-94, 577).

The object of this essay is not to determine whether the authorial sensibility manifest in Cather's fiction is or is not a specifically 'lesbian' one. Rather, it is to reverse the prevailing critical preoccupation with the "absent" and "unwritten," and to explore the possible ways in which an authorial attitude towards a broader concept of 'deviant' female sexuality, in general, does disclose itself in the written text. In the written text of O Pioneers!, in particular, this authorial attitude may be perceived to inhere implicitly in the hermaphroditic, heterosexual, and same-sex relationships Cather does portray. In this novel, for example, the heroine, Alexandra Bergson, is depicted as a character who embodies a seemingly hermaphroditic sexual nature which is viewed positively, as a potentially self-fulfilling value, while the more unambiguously heterosexual natures of other characters, on the contrary, are seen to result exclusively in unhappy and debilitating 'love' relationships. This dichotomous portrayal seems to suggest an authorial sensibility, which, while it is not specifically sympathetic to a homosexual nature, is certainly sensitive to the potential gratification which unconventional forms of sexuality may yield.

In order to grasp the full significance of Cather's portrayal of sexuality in O Pioneers! it is necessary to consider not only the dialectic between life and art, but the dynamic relationship between text and context as well. For as the "golden age of scientific determinism, Social Darwinism, and eugenics" (Smith-Rosenberg 267), Cather's contemporary milieu represented, in fact, a stridently heterosexual era especially obsessed with what it perceived as the 'unnatural' or 'inverted' (that is, lesbian) nature of virtually all manifestations of female sexuality or eroticism beyond heterosexual marriage (Smith-Rosenberg 53-76, 245-96; Faderman 147-277). The extent to which O Pioneers! courageously challenges dominant medical and cultural assumptions about female sexuality can be gauged only when the text is considered in a dialogic relation to this larger historic discourse. For indeed, Cather's positive delineation of the sexually unorthodox Alexandra, and, conversely, her negative or critical depiction of conventional heterosexuality, actually work together to controvert systematically a number of contemporary tenets about the nature of the sexually 'inverted' woman. In this way, Cather's novel of pioneer life indirectly addresses the issues of the "New Scientific Discourse" (Smith-Rosenberg 265) being promulgated by such influential and widely popularized theorists as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. And in so far as these late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century 'sexologists' also self-consciously beheld themselves as "pioneers" in a hitherto unexplored psychosexual "borderland" (Ellis 2:219), the subtle interplay between text and context may be regarded as a form of dialogue between two disparate sorts of frontiers.1

Ultimately, however, the crucial limits of the challenge implicit in Cather's treatment of sexuality in O Pioneers! must be also firmly acknowledged. For although she repeatedly re-inverts, as it were, contemporary convictions about the perversity of female 'inversion,' her novel also reflects an element of self-conscious restraint which expresses itself most clearly in her highly circumspect handling of close female friendship—an integral thematic and structural component of the novel, which is deftly and gingerly developed by Cather, only to be rather abruptly abandoned when she is brought to deploy a somewhat disappointing, conventional romance closure, an ending both marked and marred, as one critic suggests, by the purely "token marriage" of the heroine (Bailey 396).2 Whether this novelistic outcome may be ultimately ascribed, as critics such as Sharon O'Brien would contend, to "the lesbian writer's need to conceal the socially unacceptable" ("The Thing Not Named" 592) must remain, perhaps, a moot point. A close reading of O Pioneers!, however, does, at least, appear to substantiate the more general claim that internalized cultural strictures governing the 'socially unacceptable' in the realm of sexuality do indeed exert a profound force upon Cather's artistic impulse, and, consequently, upon the shape of this novel as a whole.

Through a comprehensive examination of contemporary women's diaries and letters, as well as medical literature and fiction, feminist historians such as Lillian Faderman and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg have been able to trace the critical late nineteenth-century shifts in the theoretic conceptualization and social experience of female homosexuality throughout the Western world. Unlike male homosexuality, that is, which had long been perceived as a punishable offence against scriptural and secular order, lesbianism had not only been "generally ignored by the law" until this point, but did not even constitute a conceptual category of deviance until the 1880s and 1890s (Faderman, "The Morbidification of Love" 77, 75; Smith-Rosenberg 266). Indeed, in the earlier decades of the Victorian century, passionate homosocial bonds between women—physically uninhibited as well as emotionally intense relationships—were "casually accepted in American society" as forms of romantic love "both socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage" (Smith-Rosenberg 53, 50).3 Such 'legitimate' romantic friendships between women, however, came to be stigmatized by medical authorities and educators as 'morbid' and 'unnatural' during the final decades of the century, because it was at this point that such alliances first became an economically feasible alternative to heterosexual marriage for a small, but growing, group of autonomous, college-educated New Women. "For the first time," as Lillian Faderman remarks, "love between women became threatening to the social structure," posing truly portentous consequences, not only for the institutional nucleus of the social fabric, the family, but—as eugenicists and imperialists alike pointed out—for the already "dangerously low" birth-rate of the American Republic as well (Faderman 238).4

As steadily increasing numbers of New Women, like Willa Cather herself, began to eschew marriage and motherhood for higher education and professional livelihoods, one form which the simultaneously escalating anti-feminist reaction took was in the widespread expression of fear and repugnance of an 'intermediate sex': an appalling type of "semi-woman" whose behaviour and physical appearance "violated normal gender categories" (Smith-Rosenberg 265, 271). To accommodate such freaks of nature, the leading European neurologist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, promptly created in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) the new "medico-sexual category" of the "Mannish Lesbian": a nosological classification in which, as Smith-Rosenberg observes, "women's rejection of traditional gender roles and their demands for social and economic equality" were linked directly to "cross-dressing, sexual perversion, and borderline hermaphroditism" (272). More influential yet in Britain and America, however, were the theories of Havelock Ellis. It was his 1901 work, Sexual Inversion, which most powerfully contributed to the "morbidification" of the formerly innocent "female world of love and intimacy," because in it, Ellis re-defined the close friendships of college-aged and adult New Women "as both actively sexual and as actively perverted" (Smith-Rosenberg 269, 275).5 Thus, forms of affection between women which had long been regarded with equanimity or indifference suddenly came to be viewed with suspicion and alarm as subversive and abnormal affairs.

If the theories and beliefs of Krafft-Ebing, Ellis, and others were a matter of "common knowledge" by the turn-of-the-century, as Faderman contends (Surpassing the Love of Men 238), then by 1910-1920, the decade during which O Pioneers! was written, medical tropes of the "Mannish Lesbian" or the 'unsexed' woman had been so pervasively disseminated throughout the cultural imagination—via newspaper caricatures, anti-feminist tracts, and sensational as well as 'high' literature—that they had begun to have a substantial impact upon the marital and educational standards of young women, as statistical evidence of the period clearly shows (Smith-Rosenberg 281).

That Cather herself would have been fully conscious of the contemporary medico-cultural discourse of deviant female sexuality, then, seems almost inevitable on historical bases alone. More specifically, however, biographical details further support this assumption. Cather's work as an editor for McClure's Magazine, for example, led her to regularly read the columns of the rival Ladies' Home Journal, in which articles admonishing women "against forming exclusive romantic bonds with women" often appeared (O'Brien, Willa Cather 133). More importantly, despite the fact that Cather and Edith Lewis destroyed the vast majority of Cather's personal correspondence, some of the letters she wrote during her two-year obsession with Louise Pound—"the most serious romantic attachment of [her] college life"—have indeed survived. Unfortunately, testamentary restrictions prevent scholars and biographers with access to these letters from quoting them directly (Robinson 58).6 According to Sharon O'Brien, however, Cather states in one of these epistles that "it is so unfair that female friendships should be unnatural," before she goes on to accede that, nevertheless, "they are." As O'Brien suggests, Cather's self-conscious, if grudging, awareness of the fact that female friendships are "unnatural," reflects the extent to which she internalized the sexual norms of her age, and recognized the nature of her intense attachment to Louise as a "special category not sanctioned by the dominant culture" (O'Brien, Willa Cather 131-32).7

If critics' descriptions of Cather's "turbulent" and "passionate" "love letters" (O'Brien, "The Thing Not Named" 583) are accurate, her college 'crush' on Louise Pound represents precisely the sort of "flame," "rave," or "spoon" relationship which so gravely concerned sexologists and educators of the period. Ellis, for instance, devotes a lengthy appendix in his book to documenting such unsavoury "School-Friendships of Girls," in which he cites the cautionary words of one "American correspondent": "Love of the same sex … though [it] is not generally known, is very common; it is not mere friendship; the love is strong, real, and passionate"—sometimes, indeed, as he has been informed, it is "insane, intense love."8 Speculating on the explosive end of the Cather-Pound alliance, one biographer has even suggested that Pound's older brother may have intervened because he interpreted their relationship apprehensively in this current context:

Perhaps he called the friendship unnatural and his sister's friend perverse. He may have even used the term 'lesbian' to describe her. We do not know. We do know, however, that losing Louise caused Willa the most intense suffering she had ever known.

(Robinson 60-61)9

In any case, whether or not the widespread cultural anxieties of deviant female sexuality, fanned by the 'New Scientific Discourse' of the sexologists, actually affected Cather's personal life with such painful immediacy, it remains plausible to assume, at the very least, that a sharp awareness of such medico-cultural censures must have impinged uncomfortably upon her conscious mind at one time or another.

It is with such biographical and contextual background in mind that one may, perhaps, most fruitfully approach the question of sexuality in O Pioneers! For as Annette Kolodny has argued, whether one speaks of critics "reading" texts or writers "reading" the world, one "call[s] attention to interpretive strategies that are learned, historically determined, and thereby necessarily gender-inflected" (47). In this sense, Cather's fictional portrayal of sexuality represents a cultural construct shaped largely by the lived experiences of her gender. And because she experienced and observed, or 'read,' female sexuality in an age in which traditional sexual roles and distinctions were being rapidly erased and eroded, sparking feelings of confusion, fear, and guilt, it is relatively unsurprising that her fictional treatment of the subject should embody an element of the conflict which marked both her life and her times.

Set on a wild, windswept prairie frontier, O Pioneers! initially appears far removed indeed from Cather's controversial modern era. And yet the profound extent to which her novel is informed by the milieu in which it was produced is apparent even in the central character of Alexandra Bergson: a heroine who incorporates many definitive features of the New Woman upon whom the contemporary debate of the 'intermediate sex' centred. In so far as the New Woman of the age "constituted a revolutionary demographic and political phenomenon" (Smith-Rosenberg 245), of course, Alexandra eludes the historical paradigm: unlike Cather herself, she is neither part of a novel, homogeneous group of college-educated women, nor does she self-consciously resist traditional gender roles on intellectual or ideological grounds. Practical circumstances, as she angrily informs her brothers, have dictated the nature of her pioneering career: "Maybe I would never have been very soft, anyhow; but I certainly didn't choose to be the kind of girl I was" (Cather, O Pioneers! 171). On the other hand, there are also strong suggestions in the text that the intellectually gifted Alexandra would have made a fine student, and that had she in fact had a choice in the matter, she would not have remained on the outside of the State University's "long iron fence" curiously "looking through," and observing campus life from a distance (287).

At any rate, beyond these few fundamental differences, Cather's heroine embodies the majority of qualities typical of the late nineteenth-century New Woman: she is single, economically autonomous, and quite ready to assert her legal and social equality, defiantly maintaining her right to "do exactly as [she] please[s] with her land" (167). Moreover, with her innovative silos and pig-breeding schemes, Alexandra is the owner of "one of the richest farms on the Divide" (83), and as such, assumes the position of a community leader. In these respects, she corresponds closely to Smith-Rosenberg's description of the quintessential New Woman:

Eschewing marriage, she fought for professional visibility, espoused innovative, often radical, economic and social reforms, and wielded real political power. At the same time, as a member of the affluent new bourgeoisie, most frequently a child of small-town America, she felt herself part of the grass roots of her country.


It is also interesting to note that although Alexandra presents a new type of heroine in the tradition of American frontier fiction, she is by no means an anomaly in a historical context; indeed, by the late nineteenth century, many women had begun to take advantage of the Homestead Act to acquire property in the West—some of them single, adventurous New Women who "exploited their claims to earn money for other ventures" like college tuition (Myers 258-59). The conceptual distance between the modern era of the New Woman and that of Cather's farming pioneer, then, is not so great as it may first appear to be.

The affinities between the New Woman of Cather's period and the heroine of O Pioneers! extend to the portrayal of Alexandra as a representative of a type of 'intermediate sex': a vaguely intimidating sort of 'mannish' woman who appears to combine certain traditional aspects of masculinity and femininity in one. This trait is immediately apparent in Cather's initial description of Alexandra as "a tall, strong girl" who

walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next. She wore a man's long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier), and a round plush cap, tied down with a veil. She had a serious, thoughtful face, and her clear, deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance.


Krafft-Ebing, who believed, as Smith-Rosenberg states, that "only the abnormal woman would challenge gender distinctions—and by her dress you would know her" (272)—would have likely recognized his 'Mannish Lesbian' here, on the basis of Alexandra's manly ulster alone. Ellis, too, would have detected an element of perversity in the "comfortable" confidence with which Alexandra "carries" her masculine garb, since he maintained that the "very pronounced tendency among sexually inverted women to adopt male attire when practicable" could be "chiefly" accounted for by the fact that "the wearer feels more at home in them" (245). Moreover, the heroine's rapid and resolute gait and the "Amazonian fierceness" with which she cows the "little drummer" who dares ogle her (8) also reflect the sort of "brusque, energetic movements" and "masculine straightforwardness and sense of honour … free from any suggestion of either shyness or audacity," which, according to a "keen observer" like Ellis, betrayed an "underlying psychic abnormality" (250). As a heroine of epic proportions, in fact, Alexandra corresponds strikingly to one sexologist's profile of the typical female 'invert,' whom he held to be

more full of life, of enterprise, of practical energy, more aggressive, more heroic, more apt for adventure, than either the heterosexual woman or the homosexual man.

(Magnus Hirschfeld, qtd. in Ellis 251)

Endowed with a greatness of stature which dwarfs the "little men" who surround her (181), as well as a "direct[ness]" of manner which often makes men "wince" (121), Alexandra is indeed the most enterprising, energetic, and heroic character in Cather's novel.

Importantly, however, this positive vision of the heroic 'manly woman' appears to constitute the exception rather than the rule in medical literature of the period. For while early nineteenth-century commentators could still gloat contemptuously that "Amazonian" types were "their own executioners" and presented no danger of "perpetuating their race," since they had "unsexed themselves in public estimation,"10 most of the sexologists of Cather's era were much less confident—for by then it was clear that the ranks of the 'intermediate sex' were indeed continuing to swell. Such women were thus viewed collectively with a good deal of trepidation as the "ultimate symbol of social disorder" (Smith-Rosenberg 181).

This understandable though fallacious perception of the 'deviant' woman as an emblem of social disruption emerges as the first issue implicitly addressed and refuted by Cather in O Pioneers! For having once established her heroine as an 'Amazonian' or 'manly woman,' Cather proceeds to depict her not as a harbinger of chaos, but as precisely the opposite: as a pre-eminent symbol of order and a bedrock of stability. Under Alexandra's creative and loving will, for example, the natural world is gradually though steadily transformed from a hostile "wild land" to a productive and geometrically neat farm, noteworthy for its "most unusual trimness and care for detail" (83). Hence, there is an

order and fine arrangement manifest all over [Alexandra's] great farm; in the fencing and hedging, in the windbreaks and sheds, [and] in the symmetrical pasture ponds.


"Not unlike a tiny village" (83), Alexandra's farming homestead also represents a contained microcosm of fair but efficient social and domestic order. When she has no "visitors" and dines with "her men," for instance, Cather's heroine sits "at the head of the long table," and the place to her left is routinely reserved for old Ivar, her trusted advisor (85-86). With a democratic spirit, Alexandra "encourage[s] her men to talk" during these meals, to voice their opinions and concerns over the business affairs of the farm, but throughout the novel there is never a doubt that she retains an absolutely firm control over the hierarchical structure she has created. "As long as there is one house there must be one head," John Bergson declares before his death, and it is a maxim by which his "dotter" unswervingly abides (25-26).

Cather's affirmative portrayal of the 'manly woman' also works in a similar fashion to subvert or re-invert the prevailing medical and cultural conception of the sexually inverted woman as a physiologically 'morbid' or diseased, mutant being. For not only were such women of 'intermediate sex' judged to be 'unnatural' in the sense of being quirkily unconventional in dress and behaviour, but, as the "visible symptom[s] of a diseased society," they were also held to be innately sick—organically degenerative and neurotic as well as morally contaminating. Because contemporary authorities habitually transposed social and political evils into physiological terms, medical discourses of the sexually deviant woman abound in metaphors of morbidity and pathology (Smith-Rosenberg 245, 261-62). Krafft-Ebing, for example, believed that lesbianism was the sign of "an inherited diseased condition of the central nervous system," which he referred to as a form of "taint."11 Similarly, Ellis, although ostensibly aware that "the study of the abnormal is perfectly distinct from the study of the morbid," still claimed that female sexual inversion was a type of "germ" fostered by the feminist movement (319, 262).12

The Amazonian Alexandra may assume manly attire, but she is not, as the narrator notes, in any sense "afflicted" by it; quite the contrary, in fact, she is depicted by Cather as the epitome of health and wholesomeness. Her body, so "tall and strong" that "no man on the Divide could have carried it very far," is also a "gleaming white body" (206), consistently associated with images of both vigour and purity. While Cather thus likens her heroine's sun-kissed face to "one of the big double sunflowers" in the garden, she also emphasizes the contrasting "smoothness and whiteness" of the delicate skin beneath her shirt collar and sleeves: it is skin which "none but Swedish women ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself" (88). Just as Jim Burden, in My Ántonia, thinks "with pride that Ántonia, like Snow White in the fairy tale, is still the fairest of them all" (215), so in this novel does Carl Lindstrum remember admiringly how the fair Alexandra used to appear at dawn with her milking pails, "looking as if she had walked straight out" of the "milky light" "of the morning itself" (126). Even as an older, successfully established farming businesswoman, the pristine aura of the dairymaid still suffuses Alexandra, who blandly admits that people find her "clean and healthy-looking" appearance pleasant (132).

At once robust and delicate, fusing conventional attributes of male and female within herself, the heroine's healthy, hermaphroditic nature also facilitates a vital, erotically fulfilling relationship with the land—virtually the only salutary relationship offered by Cather in O Pioneers! Indeed, the Nebraskan prairie is charged with "the same tonic, puissant quality" characteristic of Alexandra herself (77). Like her tanned face and white body, "the brown earth" is yet so clean and pure that it rolls from the shear of the plow without "even dimming the brightness of the metal" (76). And like Alexandra, too, the land is presented as a hermaphroditic entity. Thus, it both "yield[s] itself eagerly" to her active and yearning "human will" (76, 65), and "stir[s]" beneath her like a giant leviathan, eliciting, in turn, a sensual responsiveness or 'yielding' in the heroine herself:

Alexandra remembered … days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil.


As a sexually animated presence within the text, however, the land may constitute not so much an autonomous entity in its own right as it does a specular reflection of the heroine's own hermaphroditic nature. For it is, in fact, Alexandra who sublimates her sexual energies into the land—who sets her face "toward it with love and yearning" (65)—and it is also her perception and sense of it that are invariably conveyed to the reader, who sees only the way the land "seem[s]" to her or the way she "remember[s]" it (65, 204).

What Cather actually appears to present, then, is a type of autoerotic, onanistic relationship of the heroine with a part of her hermaphroditic sexual self which has been displaced onto the "Other" of the land. In this respect, her portrayal of sexuality in O Pioneers! is comparable to that of Martha Ostenso's in the Canadian prairie novel Wild Geese (1925), in which the heroine, Judith, lies upon the "damp ground" nude and feels that "here was something forbiddenly beautiful;" something as "secret as one's own body" (67). Seemingly complete in herself, Cather's heroine may be perhaps best likened, though, to the "single wild duck" she so fondly recalls in her memory: the "solitary bird" which "take[s] its pleasure" quite alone, and which strikes Alexandra as more "beautiful" than any "living thing had ever seemed to [her]" (204-05). A subtle celebration of the hermaphroditic and perhaps even bisexual sensibility, the portrayal of Alexandra's fulfilling erotic life suggests that she may not be as lonely in her unmarried state as the narrator would sometimes have us believe.

By presenting her 'manly woman' as a fresh and vital human being whose hermaphroditic attributes constitute the source of positive erotic gratification, Cather's novel works to break down the contemporary myth of the diseased and degenerative woman of 'intermediate sex.' Significantly, however, her artistic response to the large, pseudo-scientific discourse of sexuality does not end at this point, for Cather also proceeds to challenge her culture's yet more fundamental assumption of the intrinsic desirability and 'normalcy' of heterosexuality itself. In O Pioneers!, indeed, it is not the seemingly 'deviant' but the socially acceptable heterosexual impulse which is portrayed as 'morbid' and unhealthy. Thus, when Alexandra does indulge in one of her rare heterosexual fantasies, she is apt to experience it as a form of profoundly sordid "reverie": literally, an unclean impulse which she immediately attempts to wash away, via a penitential ritual of Spartan ablution, with "buckets of cold well-water" (206). And the one and only time that Alexandra does envisage a heterosexual embrace as a positive desire to be unresisted, it is rather alarmingly associated with the hooded figure of Death, "the mightiest of all lovers" (283).

Similarly, Cather also consistently links the major heterosexual relationship within her novel—the love of Emil and Marie—to images of decay, sickness, and pain. Emil's passion, for example, is compared to a defective grain of corn which will never shoot up "joyfully into the light" but is destined instead to rot and fester in the dark, damp earth (164). The essential morbidity of his relationship with Marie is further conveyed by the nature of the three gifts he drops into the lap of his beloved over the course of the novel: the uncut turquoises are pretty, but must, like the grain of corn, remain concealed in dark secrecy (224-25); the branch full of "sweet, insipid fruit" is already overripe and on the verge of decay (153); and, in stark contrast to Alexandra's sportive and contented solitary duck, the birds associated with the two young lovers are dead and dripping with blood (127-28). Gone for both Emil and Marie are those "germless days" of childhood (216), for their experience of adult heterosexuality is indeed like a type of "affliction," a perverse sort of malaise in the grip of which they "cannot feel that the heart lives at all" unless "its strings can scream to the touch of pain" (226).

Neatly reversing her society's binary equation of deviant sexuality with disease and heterosexuality with health, Cather also continues to turn contemporary medical theory upon its head by attributing to the nature of heterosexuality a number of other specific aberrations which sexologists typically ascribed to the sexual 'invert.' By the early twentieth century, for instance, the notion of 'sexual inversion' was commonly associated not only with physical disease, but with all manner of tragedy, insanity, and criminality as well. "Inverted women," as Ellis asserts in his work, "present a favourable soil for the seeds of passional crime," and to illustrate his point, he promptly proceeds to recount, in gruesome detail, several cases of lesbian homicides and suicides, deeming one particularly sensational 1892 murder of a young Memphis woman by her female lover as quite "typical" (201). The sexual nature of the 'inverted' person, moreover, was thought to "constitute as well a specific atavistic response, a sudden throwback to a primitive bisexuality, a tragic freak of nature" (Smith-Rosenberg 269). "[F]rom a eugenic standpoint" such as Ellis's, therefore, "the tendency to sexual inversion" could be regarded as "merely … nature's merciful method of winding up a concern which, from her point of view, has ceased to be profitable" (335).

In Cather's novel, conversely, it is heterosexuality which is presented as the direct cause of such grievous afflictions and processes. While the component of tragedy is, of course, most dramatically evident in the violent and premature deaths of Marie and Emil, almost all of the heterosexual alliances in the text are presented as unhappy or pathetic. Hence, John Bergson is "warped" by his marriage, which is described as a mere "infatuation" on his part: "the despairing folly of a powerful man who [could] not bear to grow old" (23). Similarly, the snug security of Angélique's happy little family is blighted by the sudden death of Amédée; the confused young Signa is afraid of her bullish husband even before he forces her to plod home with the cows on their wedding day; and "young farmers" like Lou betray a measure of embarrassed discomfort in their spousal relations in that they can seldom bring themselves to address their wives by name (111). And, unlike Alex-andra's orderly household, the Shabata home is frequently the scene of domestic crises and violence, for Frank is a rash and volatile man whose unleashed temper has "more than once" compelled Marie to struggle with him over a loaded gun (265-66). Uniting themselves in relationships which all too often result in animosity, violence, divorce (148), or death, the majority of heterosexual characters in this novel are to some degree culpable, like Marie, of "spread[ing] ruin around" (304), and as such, they are viewed collectively by the author not only as a tragic lot but, indeed, as the 'ultimate symbol' of what the sexual invert was supposed to represent: utter social and domestic chaos.

It is also Frank Shabata, the most aggressively heterosexual character in the novel, who emerges from Cather's perspective as the "most favourable soil for the seeds of passional crime," as well as madness and degeneration. After his passionate jealousy has resulted in the murders of Emil and Marie, he regresses in prison to an atavistic creature, a grey, unshaven, and stooped figure who appears "not altogether human." Left to ponder his guilt in a wretched cell, the now pathetic Frank depicts a dismal future for himself; as he confesses to Alexandra when she visits him, "I guess I go crazy sure 'nough" (294). The implicit but clear message in Cather's text, then, is that the heterosexual nature, far from embodying an unambiguously 'normal' or healthy appetite, may manifest itself as 'unnatural' and 'morbid' in precisely the same ways as those of 'inverted' or 'deviant' sexual tendencies were thought to. Or, considered from an obverse angle, Cather's novel is one whose sexually unorthodox but sane, vigorous, and prosperous heroine serves as a timely reminder to those, who, like Ellis, tended to forget that what may be perceived as 'abnormal' need not necessarily be 'morbid.'

Through her own process of conceptual 'inversion,' then, Cather may be seen to respond in a creative and challenging way to dominant contemporary theories of sexuality, quietly establishing, in O Pioneers!, her own alternate paradigms of human sexuality. And yet it is, perhaps, an authorial consciousness of implicitly engaging—and controverting—this larger medico-cultural ethos which may also be seen to constitute the source of an inhibiting force in Cather's art. In O Pioneers!, this aspect of the narrative is best illustrated by Cather's treatment of the relations between women. For indeed, contrary to the pervasive critical over-generalization that Cather "never" deals in her fiction with the homosocial emotions and bonds which filled and fuelled her own life, a very complex and subtle relationship does unfold in this novel between Alexandra and Marie, which, to the best extent of my knowledge, has not been extensively or adequately examined. And it is important that it should be, for it suggests that within this novel of pioneer life, Cather begins to explore a second sort of 'frontier': not a historical and geographical one, but a psychic "frontier between friendship and love" (M. Tarde, qtd. in Ellis 75). This is not to argue that Cather depicts the friendship between her heroine and Marie as one which moves toward incipient lesbianism. Rather, it is to suggest that, along with its nostalgia for the heroic cultural and geographical Nebraskan frontier of the past, Cather's text also quietly but perceptibly mourns the passing of that older world of passionate yet innocent female love, so well documented by Smith-Rosenberg, into a modern era of 'morbidified' relations.

Perhaps because of the disparity of their respective ages, the affection Alexandra feels for Marie clearly manifests itself on one level as a type of maternal love. "Sit down like a good girl, Marie," Alexandra says in her best matronly manner, for example, "and I'll tell you a story" (137). Marie, that "crazy child" who married at eighteen (119), seems in this respect to present a surrogate daughter-figure for Alexandra, just as she thinks of her younger brother, Emil, as her "boy." On the other hand, however, the friendship between the two women is marked by both a degree of intensity and a dimension of sensuality which makes it a far more "romantic" relationship than, in fact, Alexandra's ostensibly 'real' romance with Carl Lindstrum. Indeed, when Cather's heroine reflects on the "pretty lonely life" she has led, the primacy of her bond with the young Bohemian girl is indicated by the order in which she names her two closest companions: "Besides Marie, Carl is the only friend I have ever had" (177). Unlike Carl, who drifts in and out of Alexandra's life between long intervals, Marie is woven closely into the fabric of her daily existence. "It is not often," therefore, that Alexandra "let[s] three days go by without seeing Marie"—and when Carl does reappear at one point, and Alexandra postpones her regular visit, she frets guiltily that her younger friend will think she has "forsaken her" (130). Later, of course, it is Alexandra herself who feels woefully "forsaken" when she learns of Marie's affair with Emil:

Could you believe that of Marie Tovesky? I would have been cut to pieces, little by little, before I would have betrayed her trust in me!


Not only is it revealing that Alexandra apparently does not recognize Marie "Tovesky" as Frank Shabata's wife, but her emphatic language and words of "betrayal" and "forsaken" anguish also clearly echo the "romantic rhetoric" of "emotional intensity" which Smith-Rosenberg notes as characteristic of close female friendships before the late nineteenth century (59).

Furthermore, while Alexandra's relationship with Carl remains a fairly dispassionate affair throughout—arrested, in fact, at the stage of hand-holding until a light kiss at the very end of the novel is offered as a prelude to a marriage of "friends" (308-09)—her relationship with Marie allows for a great measure of uninhibited physical contact. At one point, for example, Marie runs up to her friend "panting," throws "her arms about Alexandra," and then gives her arm an affectionate "little squeeze" as they begin to walk together (134). And Alexandra similarly expresses her sentiments by "pinch[ing] Marie's cheek playfully" when they meet (192). The two women have an acute and joyful sense of each other's physical proximity as well; hence, Alexandra confides that she is "glad" to have Marie living "so near" her, while Marie delights in the delicate scent of rosemary on Alexandra's dress (119, 134).

Like Cather herself, who so ardently admired female beauty that she sometimes strapped herself financially by loaning money to attractive actresses whose plays she reviewed (Woodress 105; O'Brien, Willa Cather 134), Alexandra responds to Marie with pleasure and admiration on an aesthetic level. Of course, almost every character in the novel does, for Marie's spectacular "tiger eyes" (11) are irresistibly captivating. Indeed, at the risk of pressing a fine (but in this context, relevant) point too closely, Marie's striking eyes may reflect a subtle authorial allusion to Balzac's sensational lesbian novel, The Girl With the Golden Eyes—particularly since that novel is believed to have been inspired by the real-life relationship of George Sand (Cather's avowed role-model) and a woman named Marie Dorval.13 At any rate, Alexandra is especially drawn by the unique blend of exoticism and innocence in Marie, comparing her to both a "queer foreign kind of doll" and a "little brown rabbit" (192, 133). Carl's observation of Marie's sensuously "full" and "parted" lips, and of the "points of yellow light dancing in her eyes" (135) reinforces Alexandra's perception of her friend as an attractively animated yet vulnerable young woman who is "too young and pretty for this sort of life" (121).

With Marie, Alexandra thus enjoys an emotional and physical intimacy which is a source of innocent pleasure to them both. The crucial point, however, is how others perceive their relationship. Through the perspective of Carl Lindstrum, Cather subtly but deftly probes the perverse interpretations apt to be construed from such close homosocial bonds in the new era of 'scientific' sexology. When Alexandra explains to Carl how "nice" it has felt for her to have "a friend" at "the other end" of the path between the Bergson-Shabata homesteads since he has lived there, for instance, Carl responds with a rueful "smile": "All the same, I hope it hasn't [sic] been quite the same" (130). It is an odd remark, laden with an innuendo that makes Alexandra look at Carl "with surprise," and respond defensively:

Why no, of course not. Not the same. She could not very well take your place, if that's what you mean. I'm friendly with all my neighbors, I hope. But Marie is really a companion, someone I can talk to quite frankly. You wouldn't want me to be more lonely than I have been would you?


To this, Carl laughs nervously, fusses with his hair, and replies uncertainly:

Of course I don't. I ought to be thankful that this path hasn't been worn by—well, by friends with more pressing errands than your little Bohemian is likely to have.


Carl realizes that he "ought" to be thankful that Alexandra's female "friend" is not "likely" to pose a serious rival for her affections, but his hesitant manner and doubtful language suggest that his suspicions are obviously not allayed. When he does, therefore, have an opportunity to scrutinize the type of relationship the two women share, he carefully "watch[es]" them from "a little distance" (135). That they make a "pretty picture" together is his first thought, but after observing Marie's intense and delighted absorption in Alexandra for a time, Carl goes on to reflect: "What a waste … she ought to be doing all that for a sweetheart. How awkwardly things come about!" (136).

Significantly, it is not long after Carl's reappearance on the Divide that the pleasant state of affairs between Cather's heroine and the attractive young immigrant girl begin to alter. Indeed, the shift in Alexandra and Marie's friendship, the point at which each woman first begins to distance herself warily from the other, occurs as issues of their respective heterosexual relationships begin to impinge upon their lives. When it comes to the subject of Carl and her differences with her brothers over him, for example, Alexandra "instinctive[ly]" feels that "about such things she and Marie would not understand one another" (188). Suddenly, when the topic is Alexandra's relationship with a male, Marie no longer appears to represent the "real" "companion" she "can talk to quite frankly" (130). It is a blind "instinct" which Alexandra follows without testing when she has the opportunity. For when during one of their last intimate moments together, Marie begins to speak "frankly" about her own unhappy union with Frank, Alexandra withdraws guardedly from the conversation, abruptly recalling Marie to the "crochet patterns" for which they have been searching: "no good," she rationalizes, can ever come "from talking about such things" (198).

Immediately after this incident, a reciprocal process of withdrawal takes place on Marie's part. As the narrator observes:

After that day the younger woman seemed to shrink more and more into herself. When she was with Alexandra she was not spontaneous and frank as she used to be. She seemed to be brooding over something, and holding something back.


The pain, confusion, or guilt which each woman experiences over her respective relationship—or relationships—with men is the one thing they cannot share with each other directly, and it is as a stave which wedges them further and further apart. Finally, when Alexandra places her hand tenderly on the arm of a pale and tired-looking Marie, just after Emil has drained the blood from her cheeks with an electrifying kiss, she can feel her young friend "shiver": "Marie stiffened under that kind, calm hand. Alexandra drew back, perplexed and hurt" (226).

Cather's novel thus clearly traces the steady disintegration of a formerly intimate female friendship to the point of physical recoil and abiding resentment. But what happened? Certainly, in so far that the "pretty picture" which consists of Alexandra and Marie becomes "awkward" only when men enter into it, it may be argued that Cather's depiction of a loving female relationship is intended as an illustration of the sad consequences of social pressures which compel women (and men) to erect psychic barriers between one another in an obsessively heterocentric culture—lest their affection, that is, be construed by the Carls of the world as suspiciously 'unnatural.' If this is what Cather attempted, however, she does not wholly accomplish her goal. For although she does begin to critique the contemporary attitude toward, and perception of, innocently romantic female friendships, she eventually abandons this daring impulse in what seems a silent submission to the established sexual prejudices and stereotypes of her day, a submission which sharply reinforces O'Brien's contention that Cather never fully "freed herself from male constructs of femininity" ("The Thing Not Named" 596; Willa Cather 124-25). Because indeed, the whole tragic point of the devolution of Alexandra and Marie's relationship is undermined by Cather's ultimate reliance upon the archetypal paradigm of the fallen Eve for Marie, and by her apparently unqualified endorsement of a conventional marriage for Alexandra—an authorial enthusiasm which is nevertheless unconvincing because it purports to applaud a heterosexual alliance which has been portrayed from the beginning as tepid and watery, at best.

Ultimately, then, Cather's careful dissolution and final destruction of the poignant bond first established between her women represent an authorial retreat into literary convention and rather insipid romanticism. It is a retreat which is in itself tragic. For as the character of Carl suggests, Cather was at some point while writing her novel obviously aware of just how "awkwardly" her portrayal of an artless and genuine female friendship might appear to her modern audience. Whether unconsciously or with a painful memory of her own past friendship with Louise Pound, Cather therefore defuses the potentially scandalous subject she has begun to probe, before it becomes too overt an issue within the text. The simple beauty of a loving friendship between women was the one central aspect of the contemporary discourse of sexuality which Cather could not fully address, because it involved not merely an indirect, artistic inversion of her culture's metaphors, myths, and theories, but entailed, rather, a direct and necessarily polemical authorial entry into the heartland of the sexologists' "frontier" territory, that twilight and controversial nowoman's land separating socially acceptable female companionship from illicit same-sex love. And for all the dramatic adolescent rejection of frocks and frills and curls; for all the aggressively outspoken, critical target-shooting of youth; for all the steadfast, personal commitments to other women in her maturity, this was something the adult 'Billy Cather, Jr' was not rebel enough to risk.


  1. Ellis uses terms such as "frontier," "pioneer," and "borderland" quite extensively throughout.
  2. For a differing interpretation of the marriage of Carl and Alexandra, see O'Brien, Willa Cather 444-46.
  3. This chapter of Smith-Rosenberg's book, entitled "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America," appeared originally in the first issue of Signs (1975).
  4. Smith-Rosenberg also explores the potentially revolutionary social implications which a strong network of homosocial female bonds posed in the context of the feminist movement, and makes a similar point; see Disorderly Conduct 277-82.
  5. The term 'morbidification,' however, is taken from Faderman.
  6. On Cather's destruction of her letters and the legal provisions of her will, see Robinson 33-34 and 274; Brown xxiii; Woodress xiii-xiv.
  7. See 127-37 for the most compelling and comprehensive account, to date, of Cather's complex and contradictory sense of lesbian self-identity.
  8. E. G. Lancaster, qtd. in Ellis, Sexual Inversion 382. The colloquial terms "flame," "rave," and "spoon" also appear in Ellis's appendix, 368-84 passim.
  9. It should be noted, however, that subsequent biographers have dismissed Robinson's suggestion as "pure speculation" (Woodress 87).
  10. Anon., "Female Orators," The Mother's Magazine, VI (1838): 27, qtd. in Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men 235.
  11. Krafft-Ebing, qtd. in Faderman, "The Morbidification of Love" 77. Faderman points out that Krafft-Ebing later changed his stance on homosexuality as a disease, but that this was announced only shortly before his death in 1902 and had "minimal" impact "on popular notions regarding homosexuals" (77-78, n. 6).
  12. In fairness, it must be noted that Ellis also uses the word "germ" elsewhere in Sexual Inversion in a purely organic sense. In language very appropriate to the context of Cather's novel, in fact, he describes human sexuality in terms of a "soil" which at conception is "sown" with an equal amount of masculine and feminine "seeds" or "germs." In bisexuals and homosexuals, he maintains, the "normal" process whereby the "seeds" of one sex come to "kill off" most of those of the other sex has somehow dysfunctioned, a phenomenon, he says, that can only be attributed to an inherent abnormality "in the soil" (309-11).
  13. On the relevance of Balzac's novel in the context of late nineteenth-century French aesthetic-decadent literature, see Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men 254, 267. Cather was known to be a fan of such literature, which strengthens the possibility that she had indeed come across Balzac's book; see O'Brien, Willa Cather 134-35; Woodress 119; and Brown 98, 103.

Works Cited

Bailey, Jennifer. "The Dangers of Femininity in Willa Cather's Fiction." Journal of American Studies 16.3 (1982): 391-406.

Brown, E. K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. Completed by Leon Edel. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! 1913. Boston: Houghton, 1941.

——. My Ántonia. 1918. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside P, 1926.

Ellis, Havelock. Sexual Inversion. Vol.2of Studies in the Psychology of Sex. 6 vols., 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Davis, 1918.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

——. "The Morbidification of Love Between Women by Nineteenth-Century Sexologists." Journal of Homosexuality 4.1 (1978): 73-90.

Kolodny, Annette. "A Map for Rereading: Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts." The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 46-62.

Myers, Sandra L. Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1982.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: OUP, 1987.

——. "'The Thing Not Named': Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer." Signs 9.4 (1984): 576-99.

Ostenso, Martha. Wild Geese. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1925.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs 5.4 (1980): 631-61.

Robinson, Phyllis. Willa: The Life of Willa Cather. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.

The Song of the Lark


SOURCE: Dubek, Laura. "Rewriting Male Scripts: Willa Cather and The Song of the Lark." Women's Studies 23, no. 4 (September 1994): 293-306.

In the following essay, Dubek argues that Cather may have identified more strongly with her male characters in Song of the Lark than with her main female character, Thea, because of artificial models of behavior imposed on men.

Sharon O'Brien's Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice has drawn attention to Cather's unique position as a lesbian writer who often employed male characters to explore love relationships between women. Certainly, The Song of the Lark, with its emphasis on the divided self, the tension between disclosure and concealment, public masks and erotic desire, qualifies as a novel which may contain a lesbian subtext. At the very least, the novel demonstrates the author's intuitive understanding of "man's" struggle to deny and repress desires that culture deems unnatural or improper. Cather adored the theater because it "gives what the everyday world lacks—strong emotions and experience to warm and uplift, sharpening what custom or caution obliterates" (Slote 66). She must have enjoyed novel-writing for the same reason, creating characters who liberate their second, secret selves and triumph as her heroine in The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronborg, finally does. But Cather called this novel her fairy tale, and so Thea's success is only a wish that comes true in fiction. Perhaps precisely because Thea succeeds so thoroughly in fairy-tale fashion, Cather may have invested more sympathy in those destined to live without such happy endings. Although critics consider The Song of the Lark her most autobiographical novel, I suspect that Cather's real identification lies not with Thea and her flowering as an artist but with her male characters who suffer from a script imposed on them by a repressive society frightened of desire.

Intent on proving the subservient nature of the male roles and so Cather's reversal of traditional gender convictions, many critics of The Song of the Lark remain trapped in dualisms that Cather herself sought to transcend in her novel about discovery, integration, and continuity. Susan Rosowski argues that while Cather gives Thea typically "male qualities," she casts the men "as instruments in the central [female] character's advancement" (63). Others support Rosowski's view that the men play minor roles: Shirley Foster calls them "social or economic units" rather than love interests, men from whom Thea must nevertheless protect her inner-self (170) and Linda Huf writes of the men as "teachers and friends" who invest in Thea's future only to have her climb "beyond their reach" (84). Although recognizing that others are drawn to the heroine's "magnetic center," Demaree Peck explores Thea's own emptiness rather than the hunger of her admirers (33). Published in 1968, Giannone's work on Cather's use of music contains the fullest treatment of the male characters in The Song of the Lark. Giannone, writing of music's ability to arouse man's higher self, identifies Doctor Archie, Professor Wunsch, Ray Kennedy, and Fred Ottenburg as four of Thea's friends who have musical responses that imply "the higher self which society does not discern and which the friends themselves cannot reach or release on their own" (87). Like other critics, though, Giannone writes mainly of what the men "give" to Thea (money, encouragement, knowledge), evaluating them strictly in terms of their effect on the heroine rather than in their own rights.

Naturally, the criticism on The Song of the Lark highlights Thea Kronborg as the opera star who defies tradition and achieves worldly success; virtually everyone who writes about this novel focuses on Thea's dominant "voice" in a world where power, control, and creation are usually reserved for men.1 Envisioning a world that does not restrict a woman's influence to the private/domestic sphere nor require a complete surrendering of the "female self" for success in the public/male sphere, Cather does indeed attack the notion that femininity perforce implies passivity and subordinate status. By defining Thea in terms of her ability to integrate ostensibly antithetical attributes, however, Cather questions rather than reverses the traditional gender roles which rely on Western civilization's use of dichotomies (male/female, mind/body, dominant/submissive) to maintain the social order. Thea Kronborg embodies the author's idea of the artist as one who "possesses traits conventionally divided between the sexes: intellect, discipline, and control as well as intuition, passion, and self-abandonment" (O'Brien 425). But while Thea frees herself from the confining, fixed gender role prescribed for her by Victorian society and realizes the full integration of feminine and masculine qualities that ensures her success, her male supporters struggle with the images of woman which have hitherto secured their positions but are now, in Thea's case, inadequate. Cather's new definition of womanhood signals the need for a readjustment not just of the options granted to women but of the ways in which men construct and maintain their distinctively masculine identities.

Historically, masculinity has been identified with reason and control. John Shepard traces the beginnings of such an association to Post-Renaissance man, who thought himself into "the entirely mythical position of being separate from the world, of being able analytically to pin down physical, human and social existence as a unidimensional, static display having relevance only for the gaze of the beholder" (58). To protect these feelings of power and control, men have had to separate themselves from their natures (passions and desires), learning to act out of a sense of duty rather than in accordance with their feelings. Culture aids this process by teaching men that they are divided against themselves, (Griffin 140) that their minds/reason must dominate their bodies/passions. Victor Seidler points out a crucial consequence of defining masculine identity in terms of "a disembodied conception of reason"—man's systematic denial of his material and emotional self (96). Men construct their identities, then, by suppressing their need for dependency and connectedness, a negation of sexuality which Freud saw as producing "misery and unhappiness in the name of virtue and morality" (Seidler 100).2 Divorced from nature by a culture that identifies male identity/sexuality with self-control, men live in constant fear of the revelation of their true natures, their secret selves.

The degree to which four of the major male characters3 in The Song of the Lark succeed in negotiating a compromise between social definitions of masculine identity and their secret, second selves varies. Doctor Howard Archie and Professor Wunsch, both friends from Thea's childhood, desperately cling to the public masks society has provided them (doctor, husband, teacher, substitute-father, drunk) to ensure a strict separation between their minds/reason and bodies/passion. While Archie manages quite successfully to suppress his hidden desires and instead focus on his social obligations, Wunsch reveals his vulnerability prior to a self-imposed exile from Moonstone. Archie and Wunsch each demonstrate the debilitating nature of patriarchal society's script for men, a script that teaches men to fear intimacy and erotic passion because they threaten the sense of independence, rational control, and dominance so closely identified with masculinity. This denial of the need for connectedness fosters the creation of Archie's and Wunsch's secret, second selves—"others" who seek to resolve the conflict between nature and culture, between instinctual desires and socialized life by embracing the engulfment offered by intimate relationships. Andor Harsanyi, Thea's piano instructor in Chicago, fares much better than Archie or Wunsch; he succeeds in liberating his secret self primarily because of his understanding of and appreciation for music. Unlike vision, which emphasizes separation, objectification, and distance, sound stresses what Shepard calls "the integrative and relational"; it reveals the "world of depth surrounding us, approaching us simultaneously from all directions, totally fluid in its evanescence, a world which is active and constantly prodding us for a reaction" (159). So, the voice, as paradigm of sound, has the power to awaken man's secret self, bringing to his consciousness the buried knowledge of his connection to the world of nature. Thea herself consciously realizes music's unique power to recognize and call to the secret selves in her listeners: "How deep they lay, these second persons, and how little one knew about them, except to guard them fiercely. It was to music, more than to anything else, that these hidden things in people responded" (273). Giannone asserts that Cather shows music as revelatory of a previously unshared, buried self that longs for expression (240). Thea's music, her ability to enter "the very skin of another human being," (Sergeant 111) enables Harsanyi to release more fully that buried self. A confidant and artistic equal, Harsanyi shares one aspect of Thea's life—her passion for art—and so finds an expression for his hidden desires that Archie and Wunsch do not. While Harsanyi shares Thea's artistic passion, Fred Ottenburg, the young beer prince, earns her love by completely bridging the gap between inhibition and fulfillment. Cather's "new man," Fred meets the challenge of Thea's voice (inseparable from her self) by merging the worlds of nature and culture and revising the stifling gender role imposed on him by patriarchal society, a role characterized by denial and repression.

Cather symbolically portrays these male secret selves through images of locks and enclosure. The novel opens with Doctor Archie snapping the lock on the cupboard that hides his liquor. O'Brien, quoting Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, asserts that a closed box represents the human need for secrecy, for emotional hiding places, and a lock symbolizes a "psychological threshold"; in Cather's early fiction, O'Brien thinks "closed boxes signify both the female body with its sexual secrets and the creative or hidden self" (410). Content and secure alone in his office with his locked cupboard, Archie fears "being discovered and ridiculed" more than anything else. He refuses to divorce his estranged wife because a "divorced man was a disgraced man; at least, he had exhibited his hurt, and made it a matter for common gossip" (107). Physically and mentally confined to Moonstone's ideas of propriety, Archie receives no warmth from his wife and presumably little sex—Mrs. Archie prefers her "house" to be "clean, empty, dark, locked" (42). Lacking "the courage to be an honest thinker," comforting himself "by evasions and compromises" (108), Archie escapes his unsatisfying marriage and personal sense of failure by hiding behind his role as Moonstone physician. His neighbors are friendly and respectful of his position, but because he was "transplanted" from Michigan, Archie never truly belongs. Years later, after his wife has died and he has left the small Colorado town, Archie reflects on his life as the young country doctor and remembers his only comfort:

[W]herever his life had touched Thea Kronborg's, there was still a little warmth left, a little sparkle … when we look back, the only things we cherish are those which in some way met our original want; the desire which formed in us in early youth, undirected, and of its own accord.

(488, my italics)

Thea satisfies Archie's "original want," his need to be connected and part of something bigger than himself by offering him a "continuous sort of relationship" (487) and an outlet for the expression of his secret self.

Thea's bout with pneumonia provides Doctor Archie with the opportunity to indulge his secret self and fulfill his need for emotional connectedness. Archie touches and looks at Thea while she lies practically unconscious. Laura Mulvey describes such looking as "scopophilia," receiving pleasure by gazing at others as objects, usually of sexual stimulation (61). Reflecting on his unhappy marriage, Archie undresses Thea and thinks to himself "what a beautiful thing a girl's body was—like a flower. It was so neatly and delicately fashioned, so soft, and so milky white" (12). The doctor, experiencing a tension between his sense of duty and his desire, objectifies Thea, for in her childhood innocence lies his own memory of a wholeness associated with the knowledge of the body that culture has taught him to forget. Susan Griffin's study of pornography argues that in the child's world, we rediscover eros: "The beauty of the child's body. The child's closeness to the natural world. The child's heart. Her love. Touch never divided from meaning. Her trust. Her ignorance of culture" (254). At the end of the novel, Archie tells Thea, "When I dream about you, I always see you as a little girl" (549). As a ten-year-old girl, Thea represents the part of nature beyond Archie's control, the part of himself that lies hidden, and the "something" that he forever searches for and finds only in his memories of Thea's childhood.

Archie controls his erotic feelings for Thea by playing the white knight to her fairy princess, by turning their relationship into a story-book romance;4 his mind cannot, however, always control his body, and his hidden desires often surface. When Thea talks with Doctor Archie about her frustrations and her fierce desire to get everything she wants out of life, Archie notices that she has grown up and is "afraid to touch her" (306). Unmistakably a woman, "goaded by desires, ambitions, revulsions that were dark to him," Thea threatens to awaken Archie's secret self by demanding an emotional response. While Thea's heart labors, Archie's mind struggles desperately to control the instinctual drive that seeks expression through his body. When Thea stands over Archie, her dress barely touching him, "she was breathing through her mouth and her throat was throbbing with excitement." Looking up at her, "Archie's hands tightened on the arms of his chair. He had thought he knew Thea Kronborg pretty well, but he did not know the girl who was standing here. She was beautiful, as his little Swede had never been, but she frightened him" (307). Archie had thought he knew himself pretty well; his own reaction to Thea frightens him more than anything else because it brings to consciousness his own sexuality. Doctor Archie, then, confronted with Thea's womanhood and his attraction to her "throbbing throat," maintains control by willing his body to be silent. Archie's advice to Thea dramatically illuminates his understanding of his own inability to break the chains of culture as well as his castration anxiety. Feeling the sharp edge of his paper-cutter, Archie murmurs half to himself,

He either fears his fate too much
Or his deserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch
To win … or lose it all. (306)

Afraid to "touch" the womanly Thea, Archie loses the chance to merge with something larger than himself. His secret self, his memory of a wholeness before culture separated him from others, remains carefully hidden, and he carries on with the business of denial and repression.

To suppress his sexual attraction to Thea, Archie casts himself in the role of substitute father; playing benefactor provides him with a socially acceptable image to hide behind while he indulges his secret self. Before Thea leaves to study voice in Germany, she writes to Archie for money, advice, and friendship. Archie immediately buys a train ticket to New York, shoving his money "under the grating of the ticket window as if he could not get rid of it fast enough" (435). He realizes that, at forty, he has never traveled farther east than Buffalo and that his pursuit of material wealth has prevented him from satisfying his own, personal interests. Glad "that his first trip had a human interest, that he was going for something, and because he was wanted," Archie thinks "it's worth paying out to be in on it—for a fellow like me. And when it's Thea—oh, I back her!" (436). Unable to completely suppress the part of himself that yearns for human connections, Archie looks forward to rescuing Thea and filling his own emptiness. His natural instincts once again betraying his mind's precarious control over his emotions, Archie rushes to get a new suit because he doesn't want "to look different to her from everybody else there," and he knows his tailor, Wan, will "put him right." Noticing his client's exuberance, Van calls Archie a bridegroom who must have a date in New York; his comment "made [Archie] remember that he wasn't one" (436). Catching him with his public mask off, the tailor makes Archie aware of the secret self that seeks union with Thea.

Archie's need for emotional nurturance and connectedness cannot be openly acknowledged, but it cannot be obliterated either. Years later, when the doctor talks about perhaps going to Japan or Russia and then blurts out that he wants to go to New York, Fred asks him if he will see Thea, and the older man replies, "'I suspect I am going exactly to see her'" (482). Thea represents the "something" Archie wants for himself, the connection to others that he cannot experience because culture denies him access to the emotional selves of others. Offered no acceptable means of expressing his hidden desires, Archie seeks pleasure in watching Thea perform. Overwhelmed first by the largeness of Thea's downtown apartment building and then by the enormous height of the audience room in the Metropolitan Opera House, Archie expects Thea "to appear and sing and reassure him," but when she does enter the stage, "her face was there … and he positively could not see it. She was singing, at last, and he positively could not hear her … whatever was there, she was not there—for him" (499). Archie was so intent on seeing the Thea who was his fairy princess, that when "Kronborg" the opera star appeared, he could see only "this new woman" who had "devoured his little friend" (500). Unable to integrate culture and nature as Thea has done, Archie remains the spectator firmly entrenched in a society which objectifies, separates, and mystifies human relations. He realizes that "the ocean he could cross, but there was something here he could not cross"—at least not while he lived in this world:

[P]resently he found that he was sitting quietly in a darkened house, not listening to, but dreaming upon, a river of silver sound. He felt apart from the others, drifting alone on the melody, as if he had been alone with it for a long while and had known it all before … he seemed to be looking through an exalted calmness at a beautiful woman from far away, from another sort of life and feeling and understanding than his own, who had in her face something he had known long ago, much brightened and beautified. As a lad he used to believe that the faces of people who died were like that in the next world; the same faces, but shining with the light of a new understanding.


Rich with images of birth and death, of engulfment and isolation, this passage exposes Archie's unconscious memories of a wholeness associated perhaps first with his mother and later with Thea. In his dreams, Archie remembers, but only in death, when culture releases its grip on his mind, body, and soul, will he embrace the full knowledge of his secret self. During the second act, "the doctor's thoughts were as far away from Moon-stone as the singer's doubtless were … he [feels] the exhilaration of getting free from personalities, of being released from his own past as well as from Thea Kronborg's" (501). While he witnesses Thea's theatrical "marriage," Doctor Archie gives his little girl to the world, his mind finally conquering his body and restoring the control that was constantly threatened by his intimate, secret feelings for Thea. Archie joins the others in applauding Kronborg's performance, "but it was the new and wonderful he applauded, not the old and dear. His personal, proprietary pride in her was frozen out" (502). Archie's revision of traditional manhood, then, amounts to his public recognition of Thea's identity separate from his fantasies and his private recognition of his own inability to embrace the world of nature.

If Thea's first piano teacher, Professor Wunsch, could have heard the "new and wonderful" Kronborg, his faith in the power of hope might have been restored, for Thea certainly fulfills the dreams Wunsch fears to covet for her when she's his young pupil in Moonstone. Like Archie, Wunsch feels a "natural" attraction to Thea, her "fierceful nature" recalling to him hidden desires and memories of a time when life was "wild with joy" and culture hadn't yet demanded the suppression of his secret self. Wunsch "had been a musician once, long before he wandered into Moonstone, but when Thea awoke his interest there was not much left of him" (219). Walking the wet streets of Moonstone without an overcoat or overshoes, poor, drunk, and starving for nurturance, Wunsch finds little to rejoice about until the Kohlers, a German couple, take him into their home. While Doctor Archie escapes his troubled life by hiding behind his professional mask, Wunsch escapes into the Kohlers' garden. Separated from the rest of Moonstone by the railroad tracks and a deep ravine, the Kohlers' home and garden provide Wunsch with a sanctuary, an enclosure which shields Wunsch from the penetrating light of self-reflection and the burning heat of desire. The Edenic garden stands in marked contrast with the harsh desert, a place Cather thought of as the locus for "celibate withdrawal" as well as "primitive passion," "sensual indulgence," and "spiritual and aesthetic revelation" (O'Brien 407). When Thea, as a child of the desert, enters the Kohlers' garden, she threatens to expose the secret self that Wunsch tries so desperately to silence:

And there was always the old enemy, more relentless than others. It was long since he had wished anything or desired anything beyond the necessities of the body. Now that he was tempted to hope for another, he felt alarmed and shook his head.


Like Doctor Archie, Wunsch struggles to maintain a strict separation between his mind and body, silencing the voice of nature within in order to avoid his secret self. Wunsch cannot win this battle, though, because while bodily needs and material wants can, in fact, be satisfied, "a symbolic need of the mind perpetually hungers if in reality that need is to silence the body … such insatiability [arising] precisely because the mind contrives against nature" (Griffin 102). Culture forcing him to act out of a sense of duty rather than according to instinctual desires, Wunsch responds coldly to Thea's aversion to the way he has marked the fingering of a particular passage by saying, "'It makes no matter what you think,… [t]here is only one right way'" (33). And yet Wunsch's passions, deep and powerful, refuse to be controlled by reason (the one right way) and continually seek expression. Rather than embracing the vitality which Thea rekindles in him, Wunsch represses such emotions, labelling them shameful, deviant, and necessarily sexual in nature because they arouse his hidden, "evil" nature.

Try as he might to suppress them, Wunsch's repressed feelings nevertheless resurface, just as Archie's do. On Thea's thirteenth birthday, Wunsch's struggle with his divided self comes to a climax, leading ultimately to a drunken rampage and his final retreat from Moonstone. After giving Thea her piano lesson, Wunsch leads his pupil out to the garden where they walk hand-in-hand among the flowers and plants. Wunsch has Thea repeat in German a favorite song:

In the soft-shining summer morning
I wandered the garden within.
The flowers they whispered and murmured,
But I, I wandered dumb.
The flowers they whisper and murmur,
And me with compassion they scan:
'Oh, be not harsh to our sister,
Thou sorrowful, death-pale man!' (96-7)

Associating Thea with the flowers in the garden, Wunsch paces the garden, recalling his past years teaching girls who had nothing inside them compared to Thea, pseudo-musicians unable to elicit any emotional response from him. Breathless and upset, without even saying goodbye, the old teacher storms out of the garden when Thea will not discuss the song's significance to their relationship. Wunsch's sudden outburst represents more than simple frustration over a pupil's refusal to answer a question. If, as Griffin argues, "the body speaks the language of the soul," the body's fevered longing unmasking "a deep desire for that part of the self to come to consciousness [and] be remembered," (88) Wunsch's tantrum reveals his inner-struggle with the secret self which seeks union with others. Since sexual imagery pervades the birthday scene (the prickly-pear blossoms with their thousand stamens, the two symmetrical linden trees standing proud, the purple morning-glories that ran over the bean poles, the wild bees buzzing, the green lizards racing each other), Wunsch undoubtedly associates these longings with eros. After the German's outburst, Thea "felt there was a secret between her and Wunsch. Together they had lifted a lid, pulled out a drawer, and looked at something. They hid it away and never spoke of what they had seen; but neither of them forgot it" (100). O'Brien identifies the hidden drawer Wunsch and Thea look into as either Pandora's box of sexuality or a "container of unexpressed but potential activity" (202). Once he peers inside, Wunsch finds it impossible to deny his emotional starvation and dire need to merge with another and so drinks himself into oblivion.

Unable to continue following society's script for manhood and yet terribly frightened of his secret self, Wunsch decides to destroy both his selves (cultural and secret) and end his torment. Awakening from his drunken coma, Wunsch rises "to avenge himself, to wipe out his shame, to destroy his enemy" (116). Dressed in only his undershirt and drawers, the old German, "his face snarling and savage, his eyes … crazy," stumbles to the garden and chops down the dove-house (117). When Wunsch faces humiliation and risks his already questionable reputation in Moonstone, he destroys the false/public/cultural image of himself which requires the denial of desire and dependence. Society, which characterizes such displays of emotion as insane, even criminal, then condemns him to a wanderer's life. Forced to leave Moonstone, Wunsch severs his relationships with the Kohlers and his prized pupil, thereby eliminating the possibility of a further encounter with his secret self. On her next birthday, Thea receives a greeting from her old teacher, a postcard from an obscure mid-western town with "a white dove, perched on a wreath of very blue forget-me-knots (135). Apparently, Wunsch didn't forget the day he looked inside himself and discovered the same "fierceful nature" he recognized in his extraordinary pupil even though he realizes that his desires must remain forever hidden if he is to function at all.

Thea's second piano teacher, Andor Harsanyi, looks forward to his meetings with Thea "for the same reason that poor Wunsch had sometimes dreaded his; because she stirred him more than anything she did could adequately explain" (240). His hour with Thea "took more out of him than half a dozen other lessons … [she] set him vibrating" (220-21). Unlike the old, discouraged German who believes that if he hopes for another, disaster will follow, Harsanyi lives for such opportunities. He tells his wife, "'All this drudgery will kill me if once in a while I cannot hope something, for somebody! If I cannot sometimes see a bird fly and wave my hand to it'" (268). A true artist, secure and happy with a wife and children, Harsanyi embraces the world of nature in a way that Wunsch and Archie cannot.

But while Harsanyi finds expression for his secret self in his own artistry, Theas's passion elicits an emotional response from her teacher that, nonetheless, disturbs him because it threatens the delicate balance of mind/body that protects him from confronting his own sexuality. When Harsanyi first hears Thea sing, he sits mesmerized, "looking intently at the toes of his boots, shading his forehead with his long white hand" (235). When she finished, the young Hungarian "sprang from his chair and dropped lightly upon his toes, a kind on entre-chat that he sometimes executed when he formed a sudden resolution, or when he was about to follow a pure intuition, against reason" (236, my italics). Not afraid to follow his instincts, Harsanyi puts his hands to Thea's throat, feeling it throb and vibrate. Excited over his discovery, Harsanyi entertains the idea "that no one had ever felt this voice vibrate before" (237). Like Archie and Wunsch, Harsanyi experiences a tension between his sense of duty and his desire; he resolves this conflict later when he turns Thea over to a voice specialist, but first he indulges his own fantasies by giving up one-half hour of his own time at the end of her lesson to teach her some songs:

He found that these unscientific singing lessons stimulated him in his own study … He had never got so much back for himself from any pupil as he did from Miss Kronborg. From the first she had stimulated him … She often wearied him, but she never bored him. Under her crudeness and brusque hardness, he felt there was a nature quite different … It was toward this hidden creature that he was trying, for his own pleasure, to find his way. (239-40)

Harsanyi differs from Archie and Wunsch in that he actively, consciously seeks the engulfment that the other men associate with dependency and emasculation. His secret self not nearly as frightened of or starved for intimacy as Archie's or Wunsch's, Harsanyi thrives in his relationship with Thea because her passion renews rather than awakens him, though her voice often overwhelms him. For example, when Thea sings 'Die Lorelei,' Harsanyi feels the room so "flooded" that he has to open a window, imploring her to stop singing. Later, he tells his wife, Miss Kronborg "'had my room so reeking of a song this afternoon that I couldn't stay there,'" adding that he's glad "'there are not two of her'" (243). Harsanyi's secret self surfaces in response to Thea's "summons" while his "cultural self" gasps for air in the study which has now become the world of nature devoid of the social conventions which inhibit men from giving in to their hidden desires. Giannone argues that "when she grasps the idea of a river enduring beneath the havoc above it, Thea gives the end of 'Die Lorelei' an 'open flowing' tone to suggest continuity" (91). Thea's interpretation leaves her listener breathless but exhilarated, both his mind and body struggling to embrace the "stream of life" gushing from the singer's vessel/throat. Harsanyi manages to harness such intensity of feeling for his own artistic use before joining Archie and Wunsch in their renunciation of any claim to Thea herself. When Harsanyi sends her away to a new instructor, he "took one of her hands and kissed it lightly upon the back. His salute was one of greeting, not of farewell, and it was for someone he had never seen" (267). Unlike Archie and Wunsch, each frightened and enervated by Thea's womanhood, Harsanyi feels privileged to have witnessed her flowering and shared her passion—what he later calls "an open secret."

Of all her teachers, Thea feels closest to Harsanyi, but of all the men in her life, she wants Fred Ottenburg for a sweetheart: "Certainly she liked Fred better than anyone else in the world. There was Harsanyi, of course—but Harsanyi was always tired" (381). Fred's youth and personality enable him to respond to Thea and her voice in a more open, socially acceptable way even though his secret marriage prevents him from publicly acknowledging his love for her. Like Archie, Wunsch, and Harsanyi, Fred feels a "natural" attraction to Thea because she represents the wholeness that he desperately craves but finds lacking in a patriarchal society whose survival depends on separation, not integration, on reason divorced from desire. Unlike the other men, however, Fred feels so uncomfortable with such notions that he is "always running away" (334) from his work in the Ottenberg brewing business to gratify the secret self that finds expression in his relationship with his mother, his love for sports, parties, and music, and his affair with Thea. A sensuous man, Fred lives for the moment; Thea likes him because "with Fred she was never becalmed. There was always life in the air, always something coming or going, a rhythm of feeling and action—stronger than the natural accord of youth" (392). Fred, in turn, enjoys Thea's vivacity, "brilliancy of motion," and "direction." Finally, Cather shows a man who does not find Thea's ''fierceful nature" threatening, a man secure enough with himself and his own sexuality to welcome the engulfment which to others means loss of control. Although already married, Fred convinces himself that he is the best match for Thea because he will not hold her back to satisfy his own ego or any conventional notions of masculinity:

He meant to help her, and he could not think of another man who would … The clever ones were selfish, the kindly ones were stupid. 'Damn it, if she's going to fall in love with somebody, it had better be me than any of the others—of the sort she'd find. Get her tied up with some conceited ass who'd try to make her over, train her like a puppy!'


Challenging the idea that a woman must follow the script of a sexist society, Fred later tells Thea, "'You will never sit alone with a pacifier and a novel. You won't subsist on what the old ladies have put into the bottle for you. You will always break through into the realities. That was the first thing that Harsanyi found out about you; that you couldn't be kept on the outside'" (444). Fred wants to be on the inside with Thea; he confides to her, "'I've had a lot of sweethearts, but I've never been so much—engrossed before'" (403). Torn between his social obligation to an estranged wife (he desperately wants a divorce, but she promises a disastrous scandal) and his desire to complete himself by merging with Thea, Fred reveals his secret marriage but doesn't disengage because "nobody could look into her face and draw back, nobody who had any courage" (425). In the Epilogue, we learn that Thea has married Fred after all—not surprising considering Fred's intuitive understanding of and respect for Thea's ambition, independence, and "natural rhythm"—although Cather never explains how Fred was able to free himself from his wife. Because Fred knows that his existence depends not on his ability to control nature or deny his feelings of dependency but on whether he can construct his identity in relation rather than in opposition to others, he represents Cather's alternative to patriarchy's definition of masculinity.

In her article on Katherine Mansfield, Cather remarks that in his mind each member of a social unit constantly escapes, runs away, and tries "to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him" (136). The male characters in The Song of the Lark demonstrate the devastating effects the patriarchal net of repression and denial can have on the individual, perhaps offering their creator a chance to explore her own sexuality while hiding behind the role of novelist.


  1. Much criticism of The Song of the Lark focuses on the feminist aspect of the novel. Besides Foster, Huf, and Peck, see Susan Rosowski, "The Pattern of Willa Cather's Novels," Western American Literature 15 (1981): 243-63; Linda Panill, "Willa Cather's Artist-Heroines," Women's Studies 11 (1984): 223-30; Susan Leonardi, "To Have a Voice: The Politics of the Diva," Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 13 (1987): 65-72; and Susan Hallgarth, "The Woman Who Would Be Artist in The Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart," Willa Cather: Family, Community, and History, ed. John J. Murphy (Provo: Brigham Young, 1990) 169-173.
  2. Besides Seidler's study of masculinity, see Harry Brod, "Pornography and the Alienation of Male Sexuality," Men, Masculinities & Social Theory, ed. Jeff Hearn & David Morgan, (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990) 124-39.
  3. My study is necessarily limited to only four men in an attempt to provide an in-depth analysis of each rather than a general survey of every male character in the novel. Strong arguments could be made, however, for including Spanish Johnny, Ray Kennedy, Peter Kronborg, and Oliver Landry as males whose relationships with the heroine demonstrate Cather's challenge to traditional definitions of masculinity.
  4. Marilyn Berg Callander devotes the first chapter of her book Willa Cather and the Fairy Tale (Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1989) 7-18, to The Song of the Lark. Recognizing Archie's sexual attraction to Thea, Callander labels the older man one of Thea's various "father/Kings" and discusses his and Thea's relationship in terms of the Oedipal complex.

Works Cited

Cather Willa, "Katherine Mansfield." Not Under forty. New York: Knopf, 1953. 123-147.

——. The Song of the Lark. London: Virago, 1982.

Foster, Shirley. "The Open Cage: Freedom, Marriage, and the Heroine in Early Twentieth-Century American Women's Novels." Women's Writing: A Challenge to Theory. Ed. Moire Monteith. Great Britain: Harvester P, 1986. 154-74.

Giannone, Richard. Music in Willa Cather's fiction. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968.

Griffin, Susan. Pornography and silence: Culture's Revenge Against Nature. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Huf, Linda. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman. New York: Frederick Unger, 1983. 81-102.

Mulvey, Laura. "Vision Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1988. 57-68.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Peck, Demaree. "Thea Kronborg's 'Song of Myself': The Artist's Imaginative Inheritance in The Song of the Lark." Western American Literature 26 (1991): 21-38.

Rosowski, Susan J. "Writing Against Silences: Female Adolescent Development in the Novels of Willa Cather." Studies in the Novel 21 (1989): 60-77.

Seidler, Victor J. "Reason, Desire, and Male Sexuality." The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. Ed. Pat Caplan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1987. 82-112.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1953.

Shepard, John. Music as Social Text. Cambridge: Polity P, 1991.

Slote, Bernice. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements 1893-1896. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.

My Ántonia


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Any first-rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can't be a cheap workman; he can't be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise. Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning, the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.

Cather, Willa. "On the Art of Fiction." In On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, pp. 101-04. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976.

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