How is the farm described in "A Wagner Matinee"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The farm in "A Wagner Matinee" is described in a way that sets it up as an extremely sharp contrast to the the city life the narrator now experiences.  He spent his early years living on the farm with his aunt and uncle, and while he recalls learning many positive things from his aunt that helped to build his character and develop his love for music, he was happy to leave the farm and has never returned.

When he reads that his aunt is coming to visit, his thoughts immediately return to the farm:

I became, in short, the gangling farm boy my aunt had known, scourged with chilblains and bashfulness, my hands cracked and sore from the corn husking. I felt the knuckles of my thumb tentatively, as though they were raw again.

The difficulties and hard work of farm life are clearly recalled by the narrator as he tells the story of how his aunt, a music teacher, had fallen in love with "the most idle and shiftless of all the village lads" and decided to marry him and follow him to a homestead in Red Willow County, far from the life she knew in Boston.  There, fifty miles from the railroad and far from the comforts of the city:

They had measured off their quarter section themselves by driving across the prairie in a wagon, to the wheel of which they had tied a red cotton handkerchief, and counting off its revolutions. They built a dugout in the red hillside, one of those cave dwellings whose inmates so often reverted to primitive conditions. Their water they got from the lagoons where the buffalo drank, and their slender stock of provisions was always at the mercy of bands of roving Indians.

The narrator does not only show the difficulties of farm life by describing the physical work of the farm, but by showing its effects on his aunt, whose "shoulders were now almost bent together over her sunken chest," and who has "ill-fitting false teeth ... (and)skin ... as yellow as a Mongolian's from constant exposure to a pitiless wind and to the alkaline water which hardens the most transparent cuticle into a sort of flexible leather."

Even after arriving in Boston, his aunt has a hard time leaving the never-ending work of the farm behind, as she worries about whether she "had forgotten to leave instructions about feeding half-skimmed milk to a certain weakling calf," and whether "she had neglected to tell her daughter about the freshly opened kit of mackerel in the cellar, which would spoil if it were not used directly."

It is only after being swept up in the music of the Wagner Matinee that his aunt lets herself think of things besides the farm - lets herself remember the passion for music and for life she once possessed - and as a result, she resists leaving the theater, not wanting to return to the life she now knows. 

The narrator realizes, regretfully, that perhaps he should not have brought her to the matinee, for the experience has reawakened her soul.  Now she does not want to return to her old ways:

For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards; naked as a tower, the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.

The farm in this story is not painted as a beautiful, pastoral setting, but rather as a place of drudge and labor, devoid for the most part of culture and beauty.  To live and work there, one must leave these things that nourish the soul behind.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial