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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Lucy Gayheart is equally a study of the central character and of the effect that she has on others. The novel opens twenty-five years after Lucy’s death, when her memory is still fondly cherished by the residents of her small hometown: “In Haverford on the Platte the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart. They do not talk of her a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present.” This retrospective point of view provides the counterpoint to the dominant point of view in the novel, Lucy’s. Most of the novel takes place during the year before Lucy’s death, when she is in her early twenties and is just beginning to understand herself and to make choices about her future.

Lucy’s hardest choices involve her potential career as a pianist. Encouraged by her father, a watchmaker and music teacher, to study music in Chicago, Lucy has learned to love the cultural opportunities that the city offers. After three years of study with Paul Auerbach, Lucy is not convinced that she has the talent or the stamina to become a concert pianist. Yet her confidence in her ability is increased when she is asked to become a temporary accompanist for Clement Sebastian, a concert singer with an international reputation. Lucy’s sensitivity to mood and musical nuance makes her a talented accompanist, and Sebastian comes to appreciate not only her skill but also her enthusiastic outlook on life. Her enthusiasm enriches his life, which, although aesthetically full, is emotionally barren.

Soon after beginning to play for Sebastian, Lucy returns to Haverford for Christmas vacation. There she represses her new interests and enjoys her old friends and childhood activities, all the while aware that something is missing from her life. At the same time, she appears more interesting than ever to Harry Gordon, the most intelligent and the wealthiest young man in Haverford. Harry recognizes that he loves Lucy but is not certain that marrying her would be prudent, for Harry has been reared to value material advantages and expects a wife to advance his position in the world. Harry also assumes that Lucy is his for the asking; his egotism about her leads to his lifelong disappointment.

When Lucy returns to Chicago, she begins to fall in love with Sebastian, and he with her. Here is a love that asks for nothing; it is enough to be with Sebastian and to see the world through his eyes for a while. Sebastian is equally undemanding, realizing that Lucy is in love, not merely with him, but with a way of perceiving life. Unfortunately, it is at this stage that Harry Gordon comes to Chicago to ask Lucy to marry him. Her response, implying that she and Sebastian are lovers, drives him back to Nebraska, where he marries a wealthy daughter of society to spite Lucy. Lucy, on the other hand, shortly experiences despair over Sebastian’s accidental drowning. On her return to Haverford to overcome her depression, she is shocked to discover that Harry will not speak to her, and she tries, unsuccessfully, to break down his reserve. In a final misunderstanding, Harry refuses a ride to Lucy, who is exhausted from skating too long; in anger, Lucy skates onto thin ice and is drowned in the Platte River. This occurs soon after her realization that she wants to go back to Chicago to continue her studies.

The last section of the novel occurs twenty-five years later, at the time that the novel opens. Lucy is remembered by many with love, especially at her father’s funeral, which has occurred recently. No one remembers as vividly as Harry Gordon, who has become the wealthiest member of Haverford society.

Knowing that he has made a loveless marriage, understanding that he is responsible for Lucy’s death, Harry has nevertheless learned how to live with the consequences of his youthful pride. His sense of guilt has lessened while he has learned to do things for others: He works in an ambulance unit in France during World War I; he spends hours playing chess with Mr....

(The entire section is 1,257 words.)