Death Comes for the Archbishop Essay - Critical Essays

Willa Cather

Analysis

By using a touch-and-go narrative technique, Cather avoids emphasizing major events over minor ones, so that everything in this novel seems somewhat flattened and puny when set against the background of the Southwestern landscape. For example, Vaillant’s ability to garden and to make onion soup is stressed as much as is the story of an eighteenth century Mexican priest executed by Ácoma Indians for killing a native servant. Both French soup and Ácoma legend are part of tradition. Also, Cather repeatedly shows Latour equally attentive to everyone he meets, from bishops to Indian boys, from nuns to heiresses. All are equal in his eyes and certainly in those of God above.

Nevertheless, the past became more and more important to Cather as she aged; as she once put it, her “world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” after which she increasingly disliked much of what she saw in the world. She also preferred the past for other reasons, all of which are reflected in Death Comes for the Archbishop. She moved from Virginia, the region of her birth, to Nebraska when she was nine years old, became bookish, studied (and later taught) Latin, and mastered French. After she was graduated from the University of Nebraska, she moved to the East, cast her best writing in her reverently remembered past, visited Europe and delighted in its age-old history, and came to adore the great Southwest and its varied traditions—which she esteemed more than she could its commerce-and tourist-conscious present. Even her habitual use of flashbacks in her fictions, with outstanding...

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