Willa Cather’s 1904 short story A Wagner Matinee tells the story of a middle-aged woman, Georgiana, on the cusp of old age, who arrives in the land of her youth, Boston, Massachusetts, for the purpose of settling a legal matter. For the past 30 years, Georgiana has been living in Nebraska, having married a simple man whom she met on a visit there when she was 30 years old. Cather’s story is about this once-cultured educator, a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory, who has existed in a cultural vacuum, and about how her nephew, the story’s narrator, comes to appreciate the sacrifice his aging aunt made to be with the man with whom she had fallen in love. Cather’s narrator describes his initial impressions of Aunt Georgiana when, after an absence of three decades, she arrives back in Boston:
“Myself, I saw my aunt's misshapened figure with that feeling of awe and respect with which we behold explorers who have left their ears and fingers north of Franz Josef Land, or their health somewhere along the Upper Congo.”
In other words, the years have not been kind to Georgiana. The physically harsh nature of life on a farm, however, would pale in comparison to the cultural deficiencies inherent in one’s transference from Boston to Nebraska – a land that Cather clearly held in disdain. Taking his aunt to a performance of Richard Wagner, the narrator contemplates the effects of 30 years on the farm to a woman once immersed in the more genteel, refined world of Boston’s fine arts scene:
“The world there is the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that stretched to sunset; between, the sordid conquests of peace, more merciless than those of war.
“The overture closed. My aunt released my coat-sleeve, but she said nothing. She sat staring at the orchestra through a dullness of thirty years, through the films made little by little, by each of the three hundred and sixty-five days in every one of them. What, I wondered, did she get from it? She had been a good pianist in her day, I knew, and her musical education had been broader than that of most music-teachers of a quarter of a century ago. She had often told me of Mozart's operas and Meyerbeer's, and I could remember hearing her sing, years ago, certain melodies of Verdi's.”
Cather presents Georgiana as a tragic figure, a woman deprived of her natural milieu for much of her adult life and now reintroduced to that environment if only for an afternoon. And that is the theme of A Wagner Matinee: the harshness of life on the plains (remember: this story was written early in the 20th Century) and the emotionally restorative effects of classical music on the protagonist’s soul. Georgiana married a man ten years her junior and moved halfway across the country to settle in the most culturally devoid region between the two great oceans. Especially in the era in which Cather lived and which she portrays in her story, an educated woman of 30 not yet married would be classified a spinster and held in generally lower esteem than warranted. To be desired by a man of twenty would be more than a little appealing, if socially unacceptable in snobbish corners of Boston. The sacrifice Georgiana made, however, was greater than she no doubt anticipated.