Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The structure of the novel reinforces one of its major themes, that tragedy is absorbed into the less dramatic flow of one’s life, that while it may signal a turning point, it does not necessarily result in major changes. The beginning and the closing sections of the novel are about memories of Lucy; her death in a sense provides the climax of the middle sections about her love for Sebastian. Yet Lucy has also experienced her tragedy—Sebastian’s death—and overcome her depression by wondering, “What if Life itself were . . . like a lover waiting for her in distant cities . . . drawing her, enticing her, weaving a spell over her.” Lucy is drowned shortly after the moment of her recovery, but Harry matures to a philosophic understanding of tragedy. His final act in the novel is to preserve a piece of sidewalk that Lucy had run through before the concrete was dry; he cherishes this memorial, recognizing that he has lost Lucy forever but has also been profoundly influenced by her.

Secondary themes explored through the characters are the egotism of youth and the tremendous power of art. Cather develops these themes in other novels as well; here, the self-destructive quality of both Lucy’s and Harry’s egotism is clear. Their assumptions about each other keep them apart and cause both to behave dishonestly: Lucy lies about her relationship with Sebastian, implying that it is sexual when it is not, and Harry refuses to extend more than impersonal courtesy to Lucy at a time when he realizes that he loves her more than ever.

Sebastian’s profession makes him seductive because of his association with all that Lucy is learning to appreciate. Even after his death, it is Lucy’s sensitivity to music that helps her through her depression. Seeing an old singer perform wonderfully with a second-rate opera company triggers her reaffirmation that life itself is the lover.