Death Comes for the Archbishop Analysis

Willa Cather

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Vatican City

*Vatican City. Enclave in Rome that is the center of the Roman Catholic Church and headquarters of the pope. There the novel opens in a prologue that describes an elegant garden in which three Italian cardinals select the new bishop of Santa Fe as they drink fine French wines. This scene contrasts sharply with the harsh world that the relocated priests will find in the American Southwest.


*Canada. Mission field from which Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant are removed and sent to New Mexico. The Italian cardinals who make the decision to relocate the missionaries express concern about the tendency of priests in the Southwest to lead dissolute lives and agree that the diocese’s new bishop must come from a different culture so that he can impose order and orthodoxy in this new diocese. The cardinals are oblivious to the difficulty of the transition they are asking the French missionaries to make by moving from the cold climate of Canada to the hot arid deserts of the American southwest. The novel then describes the missionaries’ harrowing trip across inhospitable mountains, rivers, oceans, and deserts in their journey from Canada to Santa Fe.

*New Mexico

*New Mexico. Territory in the American Southwest that the United States occupied in the late 1840’s, after winning the Mexican-American War. Most of the novel is centered in this arid region, particularly around...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In an open letter to the editor of Commonweal (November 27, 1927) in response to queries from an admiring public, Willa Cather wrote about Death Comes for the Archbishop as follows:I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment. Since I first saw the Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of Saint Genevieve [Pantheon nave, Paris, 1870’s] in my student days [actually first seen in 1902], I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme spiritual experience, were of about the same importance. The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on.

Cather succeeds abundantly. Death Comes for the Archbishop, which she regarded as her best novel, is divided into nine books, each of which is split into chapters. The work is so episodic that it cannot be defined as a regular novel. Cather herself preferred to call it a narrative. The thin main plot line is generally chronological but is interrupted by dozens of skillfully placed flashbacks, many of them vivid vignettes. They provide a change of pace and are...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The impact of Death Comes for the Archbishop on the feminist movement is indirect and minimal, but at the same time it is significant. After Cather was graduated from the University of Nebraska, she evidently never thought of marriage and motherhood but instead became a free-lance writer while simultaneously trying journalism and then high school teaching in Pittsburgh. She published a book of poems in 1903 and a book of short stories in 1905 and then worked on the staff of McClure’s Magazine in New York City. She even ghostwrote S. S. McClure’s autobiography, published solely under his name as My Autobiography (1914). Once Cather had finished Alexander’s Bridge (1912), her first novel, she determined to be a full-time writer. This was an exemplary act of courage for a single woman approaching forty years of age.

Preceding Death Comes for the Archbishop were five novels, including My Ántonia (1916) and One of Ours (1922). My Ántonia, with an epic pioneer heroine, ranks with Death Comes for the Archbishop as a masterpiece, while One of Ours, though weaker, won its author a Pulitzer Prize. Not least among the virtues of Death Comes for the Archbishop is the fact that an Episcopalian woman novelist could write with profundity and sympathy about the male-dominated Roman Catholic church. (She did so again in Shadows on the Rock, cast in...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

America in the 1920s
Known as the “Jazz Age,” the 1920s in America is remembered as a time of prosperity and high times. It...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Throughout Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather presents lavish descriptions of the southwestern landscape....

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1850s: The population of New Mexico is almost exclusively Native American and Mexican. It becomes a U.S. state in 1851, but Anglos are...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the structure and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. For example, what are dioceses? And what are bishops, vicars, and cardinals? How...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Dee Brown’s 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West is read by students, scholars, and...

(The entire section is 198 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Boulton, Alexander O., “The Padre’s House,” in American Heritage, Vol. 45, No. 1, February/March 1994, pp....

(The entire section is 257 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather’s Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Includes a discussion of the sources of Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Daiches, David. Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction. New York: Collier Books, 1951. A sophisticated survey, with a book-by-book treatment of Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. An important...

(The entire section is 722 words.)