Coming, Aphrodite

by Willa Cather

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Don Hedger, a talented young painter who lives in a dingy top-floor apartment in Washington Square, leads a solitary life of dedication to his art. His only close companion is his dog, Caesar, a fierce English bulldog whose character mirrors that of his owner in many ways, and who also is the self-appointed protector of Hedger’s privacy. Although he is far from rich, Hedger is successful by his own standards; indeed, when, as has happened on several occasions previously, he is on the verge of commercial success, he deliberately refuses to pursue this success.

Into this ascetic way of life comes Eden Bower, who moves into the apartment next to Hedger’s. Eden, a beautiful and ambitious young girl from the West, plans to study singing in Paris. Hedger hears her singing but soon forgets about her, as he forgets everything when absorbed in his painting. When they do meet, however, he is overwhelmed by her beauty. Some time later, as Hedger is rummaging through his closet, he discovers a knothole in the wall that allows him to see into Eden’s apartment. In the middle of a sun-drenched room, Eden stands naked, engaged in a series of gymnastic exercises. Hedger watches, enthralled. The richly suggestive imagery evokes a sense of Eden’s beauty and energy, and appears to confer on her the status of a divine being. Hedger views her with the eyes of an artist, but as he continues to gaze raptly at the shower of golden sun pouring in through the windows after Eden has finished her exercises, the echoes of the story of Zeus impregnating Danae in a shower of gold not only add to the mythological overtones but also give a strong sexual suggestiveness to the entire scene.

Hedger becomes obsessed by Eden and is no longer able to paint. The two become friends, and one day she agrees to accompany him on an expedition to Coney Island, where they observe a friend of Don executing the daring feat of ascending in a balloon. Eden is so enthralled by this sight that, unknown to Don, she arranges to go up in the balloon herself. Furious at Eden for taking such a foolish risk, Don is moved against his will by the beautiful sight as she descends from the sky like a “slowly falling silver star.”

Eden’s daring has charged the air with sexual excitement for both of them, and over dinner that evening Hedger tells her an ancient Aztec story called “The Forty Lovers of the Queen.” This queen has been dedicated to the gods from early childhood, and taught the mysteries of rainmaking. Her chief qualities are her voracious sexuality and her miraculous ability to bring fertility to the land. This power endures until she tries to save the life of one of her lovers, thus violating the unspoken law that such lovers must die after having sexual relations with her. She is put to death and a drought follows. This extraordinary and powerful myth has clear symbolic connections with the story of Eden and Don. The woman, like Eden, is seen as having divine powers; her sexuality has a primeval quality that transcends the personal. That night, Eden and Don become lovers. As they embrace for the first time, they are “two figures, one white and one dark, and nothing whatever distinguishable about them but that they were male and female.”

Inevitably, the relationship breaks down when Eden tries to help Don get ahead. She enlists the assistance of Burton Ives, a successful artist whose department-store conception of art Hedger loathes. Desperately hurt by the revelation...

(This entire section contains 869 words.)

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that Eden has no understanding of his idea of art, Hedger takes a train to Long Beach and stays away for several days. He returns, however, because Eden “was older than art,” but she has left for Paris with the Chicago millionaire who is financing her studies. Thus, Hedger is left, saddened and lonely, in the knowledge that the rest of his life will be spent in solitary dedication to his painting.

Twenty years pass, and Eden returns from Paris, where she has become a famous opera singer. “Coming, Aphrodite,” the legend that announces her name in lights at the opera house, refers both to the opera in which she will perform and, once again, to her association with the goddess of love. Curious to know what has become of Don Hedger, she asks an art dealer of her acquaintance about him. She learns that he enjoys a considerable reputation but has never become commercially successful. The story concludes with an image of her face, hard and settled in the glow of an ugly orange light. The contrast with Hedger is clear. Eden has succeeded in getting everything she wants, and has led a very exciting life in conventional terms. Moreover, when she sings, she has the capacity to become the divine Aphrodite, in the eyes of her audience at least. However, as Willa Cather has commented earlier, Hedger “has had more tempestuous adventures sitting in his dark studio than she would have in all the capitals of Europe.” Eden’s art as well as her life are empty by comparison with Hedger’s.