Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The deliberate choice of rendering the events of the story through the point of view of Steavens, Harvey Merrick’s young apprentice, strongly colors the reader’s response to those events. An unworldly young man whose chief characteristic is his admiration for the dead sculptor, Steavens looks on Merrick’s family and the inhabitants of Sand City with such horror and scorn that they take on the aspects of caricature at times. There is no indication that Cather does not share the views of Steavens, but she does complicate matters with her portrayal of Jim Laird, who is by far the most interesting character in the story. The biting and to some degree simplistic satire on small-town life, the descriptive style that verges at times on the naturalistic, despite Cather’s avowed distaste for this term, are qualified by the figure of Laird. Laird’s physical appearance (he is large, redheaded, bearded) and vitality make a strong impression, and in one scene, in which he opens with one blow of his fist a window that Steavens has been unable to move, there is a suggestion that this strength is not simply physical. The speech he makes in response to the petty criticisms the townsfolk have leveled at Merrick, is a set piece that rather too clearly expresses the views of Cather herself. However, it is also a moving testimony to what remains noble and visionary in Laird. He is a lost soul, one who sees the truth but has not been able to follow it himself. Cather clearly intends the reader to view him sympathetically. The beauty of the prairie landscape, along with Cather’s portrayal of Jim Laird, suggests the possibility of a less monolithic vision of pioneer life than the story, for the most part, offers, and one that would shape Cather’s later work.