Analysis

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Last Updated on July 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

Cather uses a great deal of visual imagery throughout the story to establish the mood and to enhance characterization. When Henry Steavens arrives with the coffin at Harvey's family home,

a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking . . ....

(The entire section contains 1036 words.)

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Cather uses a great deal of visual imagery throughout the story to establish the mood and to enhance characterization. When Henry Steavens arrives with the coffin at Harvey's family home,

a tall, corpulent woman rushed out bareheaded into the snow and flung herself upon the coffin, shrieking . . . . As Steavens turned away and closed his eyes with a shudder of unutterable repulsion, another woman, also tall, but flat and angular, dressed entirely in black, darted out of the house and caught Mrs. Merrick by the shoulders.

Everything is harsh and extreme: one woman is too big and loud and round, while the other is too skinny and sharp and severe. Harvey Merrick, on the other hand, is not associated with such vivid and extreme visibility. The narrator tells us, of him, that no matter with what or whom he came into contact, "he had left a beautiful record of the experience—a sort of ethereal signature; a scent, a sound, a color that was his own." It is noteworthy that neither this scent, sound, nor color is described. His family is too much, too vulgar, too loud, too extreme, too animal in nature. Harvey, however, is the opposite; his signature, so to speak, is described as ethereal. The juxtaposition of these qualities draws attention to their baseness as well as his immateriality, his spirituality, his delicacy and refinement—even, perhaps, his nearness to the divine rather than the earthly.

The opposition between Harvey's gentle, heavenly nature and the materiality and coarseness of his family and acquaintances reads like a kind of reverse Parable of the Prodigal Son from the book of Luke (chapter 15, verse 13) in the New Testament of the Bible. The number of inverted parallels between the two stories hints that this parable is used as an allusion in Cather's text, enhancing the tragedy of Harvey's family's misunderstanding of his life and character.

In the parable, the son asks for his inheritance and then travels to a distant country, where he "squandered his wealth in wild living." He returns home, chastened, and begs for his father's forgiveness and to become a servant in his father's home. Instead, his father embraces him, crying with happiness, and he insists that the son stay with him as an honored son, giving him gifts and acceptance and love. Harvey, on the other hand, returns dead, and his vulgar mother histrionically throws herself across his coffin. The prodigal's father is kind and forgiving; Harvey's mother is cruel and ugly. He is not honored but, instead, is ignored by his father and judged by his peers.

There is no celebrated homecoming, but rather, only the understanding of Harvey's pupil and the lawyer, Harvey's friend Jim Laird (whose last name means something similar to "lord" in Scots—a possible clue that readers are meant to make the leap to the Biblical story of the prodigal). Instead of coming home alive, to be appreciated and loved, Harvey comes home dead, to be judged and forgotten. This allusion certainly adds to the tone of sadness in the story, though the narrator regrets not Harvey's life but Harvey's family's inability to appreciate its beauty.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 307

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather’s Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Willa Cather. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Gerber, Philip L. Willa Cather. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Willa Cather and Others. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.

Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

O’Connor, Margaret Anne, ed. Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Romines, Ann, ed. Willa Cather’s Southern Connections: New Essays on Cather and the South. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Shaw, Patrick W. Willa Cather and the Art of Conflict: Re-visioning Her Creative Imagination. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1992.

Skaggs, Merrill Maguire, ed. Willa Cather’s New York: New Essays on Cather in the City. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

Stout, Janis P. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Stout, Janis P., ed. Willa Cather and Material Culture: Real-World Writing, Writing the Real World. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Wasserman, Loretta. Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

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