What is the central conflict of Willa Cather's short story "The Sculptor's Funeral"? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The central conflict in "The Sculptor's Funeral" is that of the value of art vs. vulgar materialism.

When the devoted protégé of the sculptor Harvey Merrick brings the casket containing his beloved mentor back to his home in a forsaken Kansas frontier town, Henry Steavens is astounded by the mean-spirited and callous men who assemble in the Merrick parlor, as well as by the absence of Merrick's two brothers and the false emotion and cruelty of Harvey's mother. Later, he notices a florid, red-bearded man with blood-shot eyes. When this man speaks, 

...he knew that he had found what he had been heart-sick at not finding before—the feeling, the understanding, that must exist in some one, even here.

This man, who is named Jim Laird, speaks to the assembled businessmen of the town, accusing them of pettiness and sordid materialism that has made him the "shyster" that they have wanted him to be. Hearing this man speak, Steavens begins to comprehend "...well enough now the gentle bitterness of the smile that he had seen so often on his master's lips!"

With such an imaginative and creative spirit, Merrick has had to flee his stultifying environment or be killed by it. Jim Laird castigates the group of businessmen and civic leaders as he alludes to the young men who returned from college and tried to assimilate into the town's vulgar and corrupt materialistic society, but because they compromised their consciences, they became drunkards or committed suicide. Further, he tells the assembled men that he originally returned to be an honest lawyer, but he has had to become "the damned shyster" that they have wanted him to be in order to assist them in their dealings.

Willa Cather depicts the conflict between artistic value vs. crass materialism with the elite of Sand City where there is a vulgar and sordid materialism that destroys the beauty of the spirit and the integrity of the soul, as symbolized with the death of the artist Harvey Merrick. The sculptor has had to leave Sand City in order to save his artistic spirit; Jim Laird becomes a drunkard because he has not escaped.