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Willa Cather's 1905 short story The Sculptor's Funeral depicts small-town people in a rather negative light, with the characters' flaws lying in their warped priorities with regard to their own as well as their children's lives. The disdain for the town's professionals exemplified in Cather's narrative stems from their inability to view value in anything other than monetary terms. In that, most of these characters are scarred by the sin of gross materialism. Harvey Merrick was, in life, a gifted sculptor -- an artist whose passion for creating beauty and for finding meaning in his creations supplanted the all-consuming passion for material wealth exemplified by the townsfolk's disturbing emphasis on the deceased's failure to earn a fortune and on their inability to focus their intentions, if for only a few hours, on the matter at hand: the death of their friend's son and the funeral for which they gather. Cather's narrative notes the little expressions of materialism among these people, such as the banker's "pearl-handled pocket-knife," and the quill toothpick extracted from the Grand Army man's waistcoat pocket. It is in these characters' demeanor, and in their discussions, however, where the crass materialism of their lives is most evident. At as solemn an occasion as the funeral of a member of their own "family," the two bankers, Phelps and Elder are preoccupied with business, and are soon joined by the other businessmen among them:
"The two bankers, Phelps and Elder, sat off in a corner behind the dinner-table, where they could finish their discussion of the new usury law and its effect on chattel security loans. The real estate agent, an old man with a smiling, hypocritical face, soon joined them. The coal and lumber dealer and the cattle shipper sat on opposite sides of the hard coal burner, their feet on the nickel-work."
Similarly, when the Grand Army man raises the subject of the deceased's will, his question is met derisively by the banker Phelps:
"The banker laughed disagreeably, and began trimming his nails with a pearl-handled pocket-knife.
"There'll scarcely be any need for one, will there?" he queried in his turn.
And, in one of the story's more glaring examples of the warped sense of priorities the author means to convey, one of the local businessmen summarily rejects the notion of art as a viable profession: "Harve never was much account for anything practical, and he shore was never fond of work," began the coal and lumber dealer." Never mind the fact that Harvey Merrick followed his dream of escaping this morally and culturally noxious backwater and pursuing his ambition of being an artist. To these men, only a career such as their's would suffice. Only the pursuit of money would represent a life well-lived. It is near the story's conclusion, though, that the author discards the suggestions of moral constipation that permeates the atmosphere and delivers the final indictment of their character. Listening to these critics of the dead's choices in life, the alcoholic lawyer can take no more and lashes out at his neighbors' unbridled materialism. Noting the tragic stories of their own sons, none of whom would lead a happy and productive life, and some of whom chose death as a preferable option, the lawyer responds their sniping:
"The lawyer paused and unfolded his arms, laying one clenched fist quietly on the table. "I'll tell you why. Because you drummed nothing but money and knavery into their ears from the time they wore knickerbockers; because you carped away at them as you've been carping here to-night, holding our friends Phelps and Elder up to them for their models, as our grandfathers held up George Washington and John Adams."
This angry, defiant rebuttal by the only man in town who actually 'got it' and who lamented his own inability to flee this environment as had his old friend Merrick is Cather's ultimate attack on the materialism at the core of these prominent members of the town. These, then, are examples of materialism among the characters in The Sculptor's Funeral.
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