A Wagner Matinee Summary
by Willa Cather

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A Wagner Matinee Summary

Clark is a young man who makes his home at a boarding house in Boston. He receives a letter one day from his Uncle Howard in Nebraska; it informs him that his Aunt Georgiana will be arriving in the city to take care of some business matters. Uncle Howard asks Clark to pick her up at the station and to “render her whatever services might be necessary.” Not surprisingly, his uncle has written at the last minute; his aunt will be arriving the next day. The situation reawakens long-forgotten memories for Clark. He remembers the figure of his aunt, “at once pathetic and grotesque,” and in his mind he becomes again “the gangling farm boy [she] had known.”

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Aunt Georgiana has come all the way from Red Willow County on a day coach and is exhausted and disheveled when she arrives in Boston. Clark notices that her familiar, misshapen figure is so stooped now that her shoulders are almost bent together; she wears “ill-fitting false teeth” and her skin is yellow from constant exposure to the elements. This worn woman had once been a teacher at the Boston Conservatory, but on a visit to relatives in a Green Mountains town at the age of thirty, she caught the attention of “the most idle and shiftless of all the village lads,” a “callow” youth nine years her junior by the name of Howard Carpenter. When she returned to Boston, Howard followed her. Ignoring the warnings of her family and friends, Georgiana eloped with her enamored suitor and left behind forever the comfortable environs of the big city. Howard had no money, so he took a homestead in Nebraska, and the couple arduously measured off their quarter section and settled there. Their lives were fraught with constant hardship and danger; their holding was fifty miles from the railroad in conditions that were utterly primitive. Georgiana has worked her fingers to the bone alongside her husband since then to eke out a living on the land. Until this trip to Boston, she has not left the prairie for thirty years.

Clark reflects that he owes to his aunt “most of the good that ever came [his] way in [his] boyhood.” During the years he had lived with the family, he watched as this indefatigable woman executed with dogged determination the daunting tasks of running a farm household and raising six children. Clark remembers that in the evenings, when the heavy work was finally done, Aunt Georgiana would help him with his studies, coaching him in Latin and introducing him to classical mythology and the great writings of Shakespeare. After fifteen years, Uncle Howard was finally able to buy his wife a small parlor organ; on this, the good woman taught her nephew to play, after a fashion. Although she provided him with the rudiments of exercises and scales, she rarely actually spoke to him about music. Clark understood that the hurt of having had to sacrifice the rich, cultural artistry of her former life had been at times almost too much for Aunt Georgiana to bear; when she had sensed that her nephew was hungering for more, she poignantly warned him, “Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.”

Recalling how his aunt had on occasion told him about the “splendid performance[s]” she had enjoyed in her youth, Clark plans to take her to see a Wagner program rendered by the Symphony Orchestra, but the woman’s demeanor makes him wonder if indeed he should. Aunt Georgiana had been “wretchedly train-sick” for the course of her entire journey and still seems to suffer its effects. She is vague and detached, and though she questions her nephew “absently” about various changes in the city, her conversation seems focused more on tasks back at home she may have forgotten to do. To Clark, it seems as if his aunt has been separated from the life she once loved for so long that she no longer yearns for it and that the long struggle she must have waged to accept her necessary sacrifices has “mercifully ended at last.” It occurs to him that it might be...

(The entire section is 1,504 words.)