Study Guide

A Lost Lady

by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

A Lost Lady is Cather’s elegiac portrait of the spirit of an earlier age. In her depiction of Marian Forrester, the much-admired figurehead of culture and society in the town of Sweet Water, Cather evokes a quality of life that began, for her, to vanish sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century. To Cather, much of what was wrong with twentieth century life was the absence of those qualities that Mrs. Forrester embodies: charm, warmth, and a certain graciousness of manner that has no place in the harsher climate of an industrialized society.

The novel traces the fortunes of the Forresters from their position in the book’s opening chapters as wealthy and prominent citizens who divide their time between Sweet Water and the more sophisticated society of Denver, to their financial ruin and the decay of spirit that it precipitates. As in My Ántonia, the title character is seen through the eyes of a young man, Niel Herbert, although the voice here takes the form of a third-person narrator. From the time he is twelve and is nursed by Mrs. Forrester after a fall from a tree, Niel regards Marian as the standard against which all other women are measured. His devotion to her continues throughout his teenage years until the morning when he becomes aware that she is involved in an affair with a friend of her husband. For Niel, the shock is overwhelming. As Cather phrases it, “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal.”

The revelation of Mrs. Forrester’s secret life coincides with the Forresters’ financial...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

A Lost Lady Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Forrester home at Sweet Water is a stopping-off place for railroad magnates riding through the prairie states along the Burlington line. Old Captain Forrester likes to drive his guests from the train station and watch them as they approach his estate. He enjoys their praise of his stock farm and their delight when his charming wife meets them at the front door. Everyone from railroad presidents to the village butcher boy and the kitchen maids likes Mrs. Forrester; her manner is always one of friendliness and respect.

Niel Herbert’s acquaintance with Mrs. Forrester began when he was twelve years old, when he fell from a tree while playing with some village boys on the Captain’s property, and Mrs. Forrester summoned a doctor. The boy who caused Niel’s fall was Ivy Peters. Ivy had winged a woodpecker and then had slit its eyes. The bird had fumbled back into its hole, and Niel was trying to reach the creature to put it out of its misery when he lost his balance and fell. He did not know it at the time, but Mrs. Forrester had already singled him out from the others because he was Judge Pommeroy’s nephew. After his recovery, Niel began to be invited to the Forrester home often with his uncle.

Some years later, during a period of hard times, Niel’s father goes out of business and leaves Sweet Water. Niel stays on to read law in his uncle’s office. A few days before Christmas, Mrs. Forrester invites Niel to her home to help entertain Constance Ogden, the daughter of one of the Captain’s friends, who is spending the holidays with the Forresters. Also included in the party is Frank Ellinger, a bachelor of forty. The dinner is a festive one. Niel decides that Constance is neither pretty nor pleasant; it is evident that she has designs on Frank Ellinger.

The following day, Niel is asked to stay with Constance during the afternoon while Mrs. Forrester and Frank take the small cutter and go out to collect cedar for the Christmas decorations. The Blum boy, out hunting, sees Mrs. Forrester and Frank after he comes upon the deserted cutter beside a thicket, but he does not give away their secret. The doings of the rich are not his concern, and Mrs. Forrester has been kind to him on many occasions.

During that winter, Judge Pommeroy and his nephew often play cards with the Forresters. One night, during a snowstorm, Mrs. Forrester reveals to Niel how much she misses the excitement and glamour of former winters she spent at fashionable resorts. She mocks the life of quiet domesticity that she and the Captain are living.

In the spring, the Captain goes to Denver on business, and while he is gone, Frank Ellinger arrives at the Forrester home for a visit. One morning, Niel cuts a bouquet of wild roses to leave outside the windows of Mrs. Forrester’s bedroom. As he is leaving the bouquet, he suddenly hears from the bedroom the voices of Mrs. Forrester and Frank Ellinger. Thus the first illusion of his life is shattered by a man’s...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)