Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Through the two central characters of this story, Cather asks the question of what it means to be an artist, and she examines the dangers that lie in wait for those who have chosen to follow this path. Both Don Hedger and Eden Bower are artist figures, but whereas Hedger understands the real nature of art and remains true to his ideals, Eden, although gifted, chooses commercial success and does not understand that there can be a difference between being a good artist and achieving material success. The title of the collection in which the story first appeared, Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), indicates Cather’s continuing obsession with this theme. Although the indifference of society can harm the artist, the bright Medusa of success can also lure him to his downfall. Hedger realizes that in order to achieve success by his own definition, he must remain always open to new ideas and always ready to discard what is old or outworn, even though it may be what the public wants.

Cather also explores the artist’s encounter with elemental beauty and sexuality in the form of a woman. The mythological resonance of the story of the Aztec queen, with its emphasis on a primitive sexuality stripped of all the superficialities of civilization, lends power and dignity to the love affair between the young couple. However, solitude must be the way for Hedger in the end: The true artist must place his art above everything else. Although it is Eden who literally leaves Hedger behind, in her zeal to get ahead, the implication is that the permanency of human relationships is not permitted to the artist. Unlike the Aztec queen who tries to save her lover and dies, bringing about drought, Hedger remains alone but also remains an artist.