Critical Evaluation

Willa Cather was of a generation of writers who lived through the passing of the old frontier, who saw the region of the homesteader transformed into a countryside of tidy farms and small towns. She found in the primitive virtues of the pioneer experience her values as an artist. The West is the setting of her best work, and the past is its spiritual home.

A Lost Lady is the first example in Cather’s writing of what she called the novel démeublé, or fiction stripped of all “furnishings.” Her method is well illustrated in the scene in which young Niel suffers his disillusionment in Marian Forrester. The whole passage is built upon the symbol of the wild roses that Niel picks early in the morning to place on Marian’s windowsill so that she will find them when she opens the blinds of her bedroom. As he bends to place the flowers, he hears beyond the closed blinds a woman’s laugh, “impatient, indulgent, teasing, eager,” and then a man’s, “like a yawn.” Niel flees and throws the roses in the mud where cattle can trample them. The brief bloom of his worship of Mrs. Forrester is gone like the transient beauty of the flowers. A Lost Lady is short, a reflection of Cather’s philosophy of the novel démeublé. Its prose is stripped of unnecessary adjectives; circumstantial details are taken away.

Niel Herbert initially looks upon Marian Forrester as an idol. Niel sees her as a woman of Old World charm who is gracious and can do no wrong. The novel is the story of how Marian changes. Many critics have seen A Lost Lady as a study in the degeneration of the title character as well as the degeneration of society. Cather wrote A Lost Lady during the...

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