Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647
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, as she says great art should always do. There is a disarming directness in her cinematic focus on scenes, her selection of salient details and somber coloration, and her use of simple but resonating dialogue. As for her tone, it is not quite elegiac, but might be called autumnal. Modulated, low-keyed, muted, and often tinged with melancholy, it is surely unique, with a timbre all its own. The effect is art seemingly so effortless that a few early reviewers thought that her labors must have been too slight.
The structure that emerges in Death Comes for the Archbishop also puzzles many readers. Some dismiss it as formless, while others see it as a sequence of tableaux. Indeed, the odd title comes from a Hans Holbein woodcut called The Dance of Death, which depicts the skeletal figure of Death coming for an archbishop. The nine books of Cather’s work fall naturally into three trios—introductory, laudatory, and revelatory—precisely as does the Angelus, the ringing of which significantly awakens Latour early in the novel (book 1, chapter 4). As though to suggest this interpretation, references to the Virgin Mary at frequent intervals punctuate the narrative. At the end the tired archbishop lies on his deathbed, motionless but for his gentle touching of a signet ring, inscribed “Auspice Maria,” which Vaillant once wore.
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