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Clark, the protagonist of "A Wagner Matinee" by Willa Cather, is living in Boston now, but he was raised by his Aunt Georgiana in the farmlands of the Midwest. She was the one who inspired his love of music and the arts, something she, too, once loved and appreciated. She chose love and a life spectacularly devoid of cultural elements, and she did not spend time or energy talking about what she missed out on by making that choice. She did try to warn her nephew that things he love may not always be his, saying, “Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.”
Now it has been years since he has seen his Aunt Georgiana, and when she arrives he is shocked by her appearance and demeanor. She is physically worn out by the hard life she has been living, and it is obvious to him that her life has sucked the physical life out of her. Clark introduces her to his landlady and says the following:
Whatever shock Mrs. Springer experienced at my aunt's appearance she considerately concealed. 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.
This is a clear example of hyperbole, exaggeration used for effect. Clark claims that he feels the same way about his aunt as he does about explorers who have lost fingers and ears in their journeys to the frozen north or those who have contracted debilitating diseases in the jungles of the Congo. These are pretty dramatic occurrences, especially compared to Aunt Georgiana who simply eked out a hard living on the prairie. They are dramatic examples, hyperbole, used to impress upon us how he sees her, knowing we probably just see her as an old, decrepit woman who has worked hard and lived a rather disappointing life. The hyperbole grants her an exaggerated measure of "awe and respect" because of who she is to him.
The good news is that Clark discovers, when he takes to a Wagner matinee, Aunt Georgiana has maintained her love for beautiful music, despite her physical condition.
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