Life and Death

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1990

With her portrayal of Anton Rosicky, a Bohemian farmer on the Nebraska prairie in the 1920s, Willa Cather returns to the settings and themes of her early fiction. Like O Pioneers! and My Antonia, ‘‘Neighbour Rosicky’’ explores both the literal and symbolic importance of the land to the people who settled on the plains in the first decades of the twentieth century. Cather’s sympathetic interest in the struggles and triumphs of the immigrants who domesticated the great prairies of the Midwest is keenly alive in this story about one farmer’s gentle cultivation of his land and his home. Though ‘‘Neighbour Rosicky’’ marks Cather’s return to the great themes of her early fiction, critics agree that the story displays a new maturity of vision.

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Cather’s biographer, E. K. Brown, attributes Cather’s mature vision to the fact that she wrote ‘‘Neighbour Rosicky’’ shortly after her father’s death. Cather had always been attracted to the elegiac mode. An elegy is a poem of mourning and reflection written on the occasion of someone’s death. Cather can be called ‘‘elegiac’’ because she often used her fiction to reflect on the meaning of death and separation. In ‘‘Neighbour Rosicky,’’ Anton Rosicky faces his own impending death after the doctor tells him he has a bad heart. The knowledge that he soon will be leaving behind everything that he cherishes causes him to reflect on the important events that have marked his life. Though she is writing a story about death, Cather’s deft handling of her subject matter transforms sorrow into celebration; the permanence of the land makes the brevity of life meaningful.

Critics have almost unanimously pointed to the story’s careful balancing of life and death. In her book Willa Cather’s Short Fiction, for instance, Marilyn Arnold observes that ‘‘[d]eath is neither a great calamity nor a final surrender to despair, but rather, a benign presence, anticipated and even graciously entertained. It is the other side of life, and comes . . . as a natural consequence of ‘having lived.’ It is a reunion with the earth for one like Rosicky who has lived close to the land.’’ Indeed, at the end of the story Dr. Burleigh observes, after Rosicky’s death, that ‘‘Rosicky’s life seemed to him complete and beautiful.’’ Since the story’s publication, critics have attempted to define precisely what contributes to this sense of completeness. Many critics consider Cather’s attention to the defining power of agricultural cycles to be central to the story’s measured acceptance of death. In Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, David Daiches argues that ‘‘the relation of the action to its context in agricultural life gives the story an elemental quality.’’ However, Arnold points out that unity in ‘‘Neighbour Rosicky’’ is also ‘‘defined in human terms, a wholeness and completeness that derives from human harmony and caring.’’

In ‘‘Neighbour Rosicky,’’ Cather establishes an accord between the natural world and the human one, between the inflexible facts of material existence and the human ability to transcend them. Cather strikingly illustrates the intimate connection between the human and the natural world through the image of the graveyard which occurs twice in ‘‘Neighbour Rosicky’’: once at the beginning of the story and once at its conclusion. When Rosicky first learns that he has ‘‘a bad heart,’’ he stops by the graveyard on the way home from town and considers its finer points:

It was a nice graveyard, Rosicky reflected, sort of snug and homelike, not cramped or mournful,—a big sweep all round it. A man could lie down in the long grass and see the complete arch of the sky over him, hear the wagons go by; in summer the mowingmachine...

(The entire section contains 10423 words.)

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