Claude Wheeler’s sensitivity and intelligence are obvious, though he himself never recognizes them. His mother and Mahailey, the family housekeeper, love him deeply and know that he is unhappy, yet Claude defers to what he believes are his mother’s wishes when he does not insist on full matriculation at the state university. Similarly, he says nothing when forced to leave college to manage the family farm.
He finds his greatest happiness when he is with intelligent and worldly people: Ernest Havel, a German immigrant who is Claude’s own age; Mrs. Erlich, a cultured widow with five bright sons; Gladys Farmer, a childhood sweetheart and a high school teacher with a gift for music; Victor Morse, a devil-may-care R.A.F. pilot; David Gerhardt, a violinist turned soldier; and Madame Joubert, a farm woman who provides Claude’s first billet in France. All of them offer interludes of happiness in Claude’s restless life. Even so, Cather is careful not to make Claude’s death an indictment of war or even to see it as a tragedy for her protagonist. Claude considers his experience noble, and he dies with convictions he believes worth fighting for.
Evangeline Wheeler has a simple yet profound religious faith and contentment which contrast with her son’s unhappiness. While she has no doubt that she is where her Lord wants her to be, Claude sees her as a woman whose spirit is stifled both by her religion and by her isolated life on the farm. She is a pivotal character whose persona reappears in the guise of several of the novel’s other women. For example, there is something of Mrs. Wheeler in the worldly and kind Mrs. Erlich, whom Claude meets while he is a student in Lincoln, as there is in Mrs. Voigt, a German immigrant and the owner of a restaurant that is frequented by travelers who are moving between Lincoln and Frankfort, and in Madame Joubert, Claude’s first host in France.
When Nat and Ralph Wheeler spend a winter at the Colorado ranch that Nat has purchased, Claude assumes management of the home farm. Since he must leave college to do this, Claude surrenders, for a time, his own goals to the values of his father. Though Claude never openly complains, he resents Nat’s interest in acquiring land for investment as well as Ralph’s irresponsible spending on impractical gadgetry. He sees these things as part of a pattern of materialism and acquisitiveness sweeping America in the years before World War I. It is for these reasons that Claude admires Mahailey, who sees her life in terms of the service she can render others.
There are priorities for service to others, however, and Enid’s involvements, whether in her prohibition activities or in her sudden departure for China to nurse her sister Carrie, are essentially selfish and at the expense of her life with Claude. Cather implies that Gladys Farmer would have made Claude a better wife. Gladys teaches, plays piano, and has less concern for grand causes or dramatic gestures. Though Claude’s brother Bayliss courts Gladys and wishes to marry her, Gladys realizes that they would never find real happiness together. In one sense Gladys’s is the real tragedy; by the novel’s end, she has determined to accept Frankfort life, though she realizes that she will remain unlike most of those around her.
Claude Wheeler, a young Midwestern farmer, sandy-haired and freckle-faced, with a large, square-shaped head and a good physique. As a child, he is characterized by a violent temper and physical restlessness. During adolescence, he struggles with his lack of confidence. Surrounded by many who see the world only as a business proposition, he is uncertain and unguided as he searches for meaning. As he begins, in college, to get excited about learning, he is brought back to work on the family farm. He is sensitive to the land but is also aware of other challenges. His choice in a wife reflects his own lack of direction. In France during World War I, he comes to know himself...
(The entire section is 2,338 words.)