Like Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), her tribute to the heroic Catholic leaders of territorial New Mexico, “Neighbor Rosicky” is the account of an admirable life and the portrait of an idealized person, worthy of emulation. As the reader sees Rosicky through the eyes of his doctor, his wife and children, his daughter-in-law, and through his own thoughts, words, and deeds, he emerges as a kind, considerate, courteous, gentle, generous, soft-spoken, humorous, and self-reliant man whose life seems to Dr. Burleigh to be “complete and beautiful.” The message for the reader is that one should try to have an equally admirable character, to accept life with amusement and interest rather than to complain of ill fortune or to compete with ruthless cruelty to get ahead of others. What Polly discovers about Rosicky is that he “had a special gift for loving people.”
Despite that love and his deep loyalty to his family, Rosicky is self-contained and endowed with self-respect. The most disagreeable feeling he knows is embarrassment. He and his wife have agreed not to hurry through life skimping and saving. When there is a crop failure one year, Rosicky responds by having a picnic. There is no use feeling sorry for oneself, and he and his family survive the year better by keeping up their spirits rather than wallowing in self-pity, as others do. A good craftsperson, Rosicky takes his time with his work, taking pride in doing things right.
“Neighbor Rosicky” could easily have been flawed by sentimentality, but Cather avoids it by showing the grim details of Rosicky’s youth and the continuing unpredictability and hardness of farm life. Rosicky is not simply a lovable old man; he is a survivor, like Ernest Hemingway’s old fisherman Santiago. Having encountered evil, Rosicky is careful to avoid it and not to inflict it on others. Having finally achieved independence as a farmer on his own land, he sees the agrarian life as one of freedom and cities as places where the poor suffer and are exploited. Aware of “depraved and poisonous specimens of man,” Rosicky sets an example to the contrary for his children and for the reader. He exemplifies what William Faulkner meant when he said that man will not merely endure but will prevail because he has a soul capable of pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice, and endurance.