Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

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Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

By using a touch-and-go narrative technique, Cather avoids emphasizing major events over minor ones, so that everything in this novel seems somewhat flattened and puny when set against the background of the Southwestern landscape. For example, Vaillant’s ability to garden and to make onion soup is stressed as much as is the story of an eighteenth century Mexican priest executed by Ácoma Indians for killing a native servant. Both French soup and Ácoma legend are part of tradition. Also, Cather repeatedly shows Latour equally attentive to everyone he meets, from bishops to Indian boys, from nuns to heiresses. All are equal in his eyes and certainly in those of God above.

Nevertheless, the past became more and more important to Cather as she aged; as she once put it, her “world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” after which she increasingly disliked much of what she saw in the world. She also preferred the past for other reasons, all of which are reflected in Death Comes for the Archbishop. She moved from Virginia, the region of her birth, to Nebraska when she was nine years old, became bookish, studied (and later taught) Latin, and mastered French. After she was graduated from the University of Nebraska, she moved to the East, cast her best writing in her reverently remembered past, visited Europe and delighted in its age-old history, and came to adore the great Southwest and its varied traditions—which she esteemed more than she could its commerce-and tourist-conscious present. Even her habitual use of flashbacks in her fictions, with outstanding success in Death Comes for the Archbishop, implies her deep-seated awareness of the need to probe the past to understand the present. The very title of her masterwork suggests that all events in Latour’s life are a prologue to the events immediately preceding his death. (Cather then wrote a second historical novel, Shadows on the Rock, after which death prevented her from completing a third one, which was to be cast in medieval Avignon.)

By the early 1920’s, Cather had developed a style all her own, and one very hard to define. In her most important critical essay, “The Novel Démeublé,” which she published in The New Republic (April 12, 1922), she accords the highest praise to novels that are démeublé (“unfurnished”)—that is, uncluttered by detail. Death Comes for the Archbishop illustrates this narrative ideal. Cather was highly observant during her time in the Southwest, but her employment of details is deliberately the reverse of reportorial. She hints, is suggestive, pares down, and simplifies,...

(The entire section is 647 words.)