The Sculptor's Funeral

by Willa Cather
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Last Updated on July 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814

Challenging Social Expectations

Harvey Merrick never seemed to fit in to the societal expectations surrounding what men should be and how they should act. Even his own father acknowledges that when Harvey lived at home, he and the other townsmen could never relate to him well. Harvey was passionate and artistic, once letting a man's cow escape because a sunset was too beautiful to miss. He left home and became a talented sculptor, earning fame which the citizens at his visitation seem to know nothing about. Several men stand around his coffin, criticizing both the choices he'd made with his education and his father's allowance of it all. Only a young lawyer, Jim Laird—with whom Harvey was friends in college—speaks up in defense of him:

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There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn't come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels. Lord, Lord, how you did hate him!

Jim goes on to say that they sent him off to become a good lawyer, and when he returned home, they forced him to do things against his conscience. He tells the visitors that all of the boys of his childhood "meant to be great men," but the expectations of their small town have already killed several of them.

Harvey wanted to live in a world where he was free to create things of beauty and passionately engage with nature and life. This contrasts sharply with the expectations of the society he grew up in. As a man, he chose to live a life that was different from the life his childhood town expected of him, and he found great beauty in that choice.

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Transcending Negative Childhood Experiences

From the moment Henry Steavens enters Harvey Merrick's childhood home, he feels that the setting isn't right. The emotion—or lack thereof—in this house cannot possibly reflect the environment which shaped his warm, passionate friend and teacher. He even looks desperately around for some hint that they have brought the coffin to the right place and finds a photo of Harvey as a young child that affirms that this group of people is, indeed, his friend's family and neighbors. He is so shocked that he feels that he will be sick several times. Steavens reflects on Harvey's desire to return home after his death:

"We ought to go back to the place we came from in the end. The townspeople will come in for a look at me; and after they have had their say, I shan't have much to fear from the judgment of God. The wings of the Victory, in there"—with a weak gesture toward his studio—"will not shelter me."

Harvey knows in his final hours that his town will be disappointed in the life he has lived, but he is proud of the work he has accomplished and doesn't fear God's judgment of his choices. Harvey overcame a childhood where ideals not his own pressed in on him every day and grew to become a man who created works of great beauty:

Whatever he touched, he revealed its holiest secret; liberated it from enchantment and restored it to its pristine loveliness, like the Arabian prince who fought the enchantress, spell for spell. Upon whatever he had come in contact with, he had left a beautiful record of the experience—a sort of ethereal signature; a scent, a sound, a color that was his own.

The Enduring Power of Friendship and Loyalty

Harvey and Steavens forged a friendship so strong that Steavens will not leave his friend's coffin to the townspeople until he is certain that it will arrive in the right place. Steavens reflects on all that was wonderful about his friend with great adoration, noting how Harvey's talents put his small hometown on the map. Harvey was much more than simply a "master" to Steavens, who protects his friend and teacher even after his death. The young lawyer, Jim Laird, who speaks near the end also supports Harvey against the townspeople who criticize his life. Jim notes that many other men in their town have followed their fathers' advice and have ended up dead because of it. In contrast, he notes,

It's not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter waters; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he's been hearing here to-night is the only tribute any truly great man could ever have from such a lot of sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City.

Jim refuses to allow the townspeople to belittle his former friend and tries to make them see the ugliness of their own actions and values.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249

Many of Cather’s early stories probe in a highly self-conscious manner the relationship between the artist and society. Despite her own statement that the world was tired of stories about artists, Cather returned to the subject over and over again, indicating clearly her passionate concern with it. In “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” the clash of values between Harvey Merrick, the artist figure, and the inhabitants of the frontier town to which he returns only in death, is absolute. Only by escaping to the East, representative of older, more civilized traditions and values, has Merrick been able to achieve artistic fulfillment, and even then the fulfillment is premised on a total sacrifice of self.

For Cather, the artist represents everything that is beautiful and noble in terms of human endeavor, and yet artistic achievement is seldom acknowledged or even recognized by ordinary people. In the case of Harvey Merrick, the ultimate irony lies in the failure of the artist’s own family and fellow citizens to understand the value of his art. Life is too harsh and demanding in the primitive conditions engendered by pioneer society, to support anything except a crass materialism that blights any appreciation for the creative spirit. Although Cather came to believe later that she had been overly harsh in her condemnation of western society in this story, the intensity of her commitment to art and her desire to defend its value against the encroachment of vulgar materialism remained with her during her entire life.

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