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Cather is regarded as one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. Identified often as a "regional" writer because of her frequent use of western and midwestern backdrops in her stories, Cather is equally identified with women's issues because her works foreground the experiences of American and immigrant women in the prairies and towns of a burgeoning country.

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Cather was born in Virginia and spent the first decade of her life on her family's farm in Back Creek Valley. After a fire destroyed their sheep barn, Cather's father auctioned off his remaining assets and moved the family to the Great Plains, where his parents and brother had already established a homestead. Arriving in 1884, the Cathers joined the ethnically diverse group of settlers in Webster County, Nebraska, but establishing a farm on the prairie proved a more difficult task than Cather's father was willing to undertake, and a year later the family moved to the nearby town of Red Cloud. Once settled there, Cather began to attend school on a regular basis. She rapidly distinguished herself as a brilliant, though somewhat temperamental, student. Although her primary interest was science, she displayed a talent for acting, and she performed plays she had composed for the entertainment of her family, gave recitations, and participated in amateur theatricals staged at the Red Cloud opera house. Planning to become a physician, she also accompanied a local doctor on his house calls, and she was eventually allowed to assist him. Sometime shortly before her thirteenth birthday, Cather adopted the outward appearance and manner of a male and began signing her name "William Cather, Jr." or "William Cather M.D." While some commentators suggest that this behavior can be construed simply as one aspect of Cather's blanket rejection of the strictures placed upon women in the nineteenth century, others contend that Cather's masculine persona was an authentic reflection of her identity, citing as proof her consistent use of male narrators and her strong attachments to some female friends, with whom Cather may have had romantic relationships. In either case, Cather was eventually persuaded by friends to return to a more conventional mode of dress, and she later dismissed the episode as juvenile posturing. Although she intended to study medicine when she entered the University of Nebraska, she reconsidered her career choice when an essay she had written for her English class was published in the local newspaper, accompanied by lavish praise from the editor. Thereafter, Cather pursued a humanities curriculum, studying primarily English, French, German, and classical literature. After graduation, Cather moved to Pittsburgh to serve as editor of a short-lived women's magazine called Home Monthly. While she continued to write and publish stories, she made her living as a journalist and teacher for the next seventeen years. In 1906 she moved to New York City to assume the managing editorship of the influential McClure's magazine. Her association with that publication brought her national recognition, and it was S. S. McClure, the dynamic, iconoclastic publisher of the magazine, who arranged for the release of Cather's first volume of short stories. While on assignment in Boston in 1908, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, an author whose work she greatly admired. After reading Cather's fiction, Jewett encouraged her to give up journalism to write fiction full-time. Cather was profoundly influenced by Jewett's opinion, and shortly afterward she relinquished her responsibilities at McClure's. After one unsuccessful novel (Alexander's Bridge, 1912), Cather found her stride with subject matter drawn from childhood memories of the Nebraska prairie, using them and other incidents from her life to create a series of well-received novels published between her retirement from journalism in 1912 and her death in 1947.


Although many critics have focused on Cather's American prairie themes, recent criticism has noted Cather's strong interest in women's personal development throughout her most recognized novels. In O Pioneers! (1913) Cather featured Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants in Nebraska. On his deathbed, her father leaves her the family land and assets. When difficulties set in over the next few years, her brothers want to leave the farm and move on to other pursuits; Alexandra, however, chooses to remain. Struggling against both the surrounding wilderness and conventional female roles upheld by her brothers and the neighboring farmers, Alexandra turns the farm into a success despite the fear and resentment she inspires. In The Song of the Lark (1915) Cather turned to a different aspect of women's experience. Her protagonist, Thea Kronborg, is a young Swedish immigrant trying to pursue a career as an opera singer. In her small midwestern town, however, Thea—like Alexandra—encounters different expectations of what she will become. It is made clear to her that she may sing in the church choir, but pursuing a life as an artist is considered out of the question for a woman. Cather detailed the challenges and prejudices a woman artist faces, and the price she must pay for artistic freedom and success. My Ántonia (1918) is widely considered Cather's masterpiece; it is also her most problematic novel for feminist critics. My Ántonia begins with an introduction ostensibly narrated by Cather herself, which tells of meeting an old friend, Jim Burden, who has written a memoir of a girl both knew during their childhoods. The narrator of the introduction agrees to read Burden's manuscript, which then forms the body of the novel. In Book I, Burden describes his initial encounter with Ántonia's family, the Shimerdas, his friendship with fourteen-year-old Ántonia, and her father's suicide. Book II follows both Burden and Ántonia in their move to the town of Black Hawk, Ántonia having left her family to work for the Burdens' neighbors, the Harlings. Ántonia is absent from Book III, in which Burden goes to the state university, and she is featured only indirectly in Book IV, with Burden learning of her scandalous love affair and illegitimate child with a neighbor. She reappears only in the final section of the novel, when Burden visits the farm where she and her husband are raising their large family. As straightforward as the plot outline appears, My Ántonia presents several difficulties for feminists. First is the fact that Cather chose to tell Ántonia's story with a male narrator, thus disallowing her a voice of her own. Second is the complete absence of mutually satisfying sexual relationships, particularly the asexual relationship between Burden and Ántonia. While admitting that Cather's avowed impatience with the limitations imposed by men upon women in the nineteenth century led to a consistently negative portrayal of male-female relationships in her fiction, many commentators nevertheless consider such portrayals reflections of Cather's more basic and unacknowledged ambivalence toward heterosexuality. Either way, a darkness pervades the novel where sex is concerned. Finally, Ántonia's reappearance at the end of the story is viewed by some scholars as a joyous or affirmative event; but by others as a portrayal of a submissive, defeated, and weary character. While Ántonia survives childhood poverty, her father's suicide, an illicit affair, and the birth of an illegitimate child, she is triumphant mainly in the eyes of Jim Burden. Her appearance has declined dramatically, and the title of the final chapter, "Cuzak's Boys," not only focuses on Ántonia's children's patrimony, thus denying her a significant role in their lives, but also ignores Ántonia's daughters as well.


Recent critical attention has placed Cather's undocumented lesbianism in the foreground. Whether or not she was in fact a lesbian, most critics agree that Cather's fiction displays a marked discomfort with female sexuality. Cather's frequent use of male narrators to tell the stories of women, as well as her archetypal treatment of the women themselves, has led critics to link her works with her life, particularly her early cross-dressing phase. Despite her apparent difficulties in dealing with sexuality in her writings and her penchant for using male narrators, Cather and her works remain a subject of great interest for feminists into the twenty-first century.

Principal Works

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April Twilights (poetry) 1903

The Troll Garden (short stories) 1905

Alexander's Bridge (novel) 1912

O Pioneers! (novel) 1913

The Song of the Lark (novel) 1915

My Ántonia (novel) 1918

Youth and the Bright Medusa (short stories) 1920

OneofOurs (novel) 1922

A Lost Lady (novel) 1923

The Professor's House (novel) 1925

My Mortal Enemy (novel) 1926

Death Comes for the Archbishop (novel) 1927

Shadows on the Rock (novel) 1931

Obscure Destinies (short stories) 1932

Lucy Gayheart (novel) 1935

Not under Forty (essays) 1936

The Novels and Stories of Willa Cather. 13 vols. (novels and short stories) 1937-41

Sapphira and the Slave Girl (novel) 1940

The Old Beauty, and Others (short stories) 1948

On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art (essays) 1949

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Cather, Willa. "My First Novels [There Were Two]." In On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, pp. 91-7. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

In the following essay, originally published in The Colophon in 1931, Cather provides background information on the writing and publication of her first two novels.

My first novel, Alexander's Bridge, was very like what painters call a studio picture. It was the result of meeting some interesting people in London. Like most young writers, I thought a book should be made out of "interesting material," and at that time I found the new more exciting than the familiar. The impressions I tried to communicate on paper were genuine, but they were very shallow. I still find people who like that book because it follows the most conventional pattern, and because it is more or less laid in London. London is supposed to be more engaging than, let us say, Gopher Prairie; even if the writer knows Gopher Prairie very well and London very casually. Soon after the book was published I went for six months to Arizona and New Mexico. The longer I stayed in a country I really did care about, and among people who were a part of the country, the more unnecessary and superficial a book like Alexander's Bridge seemed to me. I did no writing down there, but I recovered from the conventional editorial point of view.

When I got back to Pittsburgh I began to write a book entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbours of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old. I found it a much more absorbing occupation than writing Alexander's Bridge; a different process altogether. Here there was no arranging or "inventing"; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time. Since I wrote this book for myself, I ignored all the situations and accents that were then generally thought to be necessary. The "novel of the soil" had not then come into fashion in this country. The drawing-room was considered the proper setting for a novel, and the only characters worth reading about were smart people or clever people. "O. Henry" had made the short story go into the world of the cheap boarding-house and the shop-girl and the truck-driver. But Henry James and Mrs. Wharton were our most interesting novelists, and most of the younger writers followed their manner, without having their qualifications.

O Pioneers! interested me tremendously, because it had to do with a kind of country I loved, because it was about old neighbours, once very dear, whom I had almost forgotten in the hurry and excitement of growing up and finding out what the world was like and trying to get on in it. But I did not in the least expect that other people would see anything in a slow-moving story, without "action," without "humour," without a "hero"; a story concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands and pig yards,—set in Nebraska, of all places! As everyone knows, Nebraska is distinctly déclassé as a literary background; its very name throws the delicately attuned critic into a clammy shiver of embarrassment. Kansas is almost as unpromising. Colorado, on the contrary, is considered quite possible. Wyoming really has some class, of its own kind, like well-cut riding breeches. But a New York critic voiced a very general opinion when he said: "I simply don't care a damn what happens in Nebraska, no matter who writes about it."

O Pioneers! was not only about Nebraska farmers; the farmers were Swedes! At that time, 1912, the Swede had never appeared on the printed page in this country except in broadly humorous sketches; and the humour was based on two peculiarities: his physical strength, and his inability to pronounce the letter "j." I had certainly good reasons for supposing that the book I had written for myself would remain faithfully with me, and continue to be exclusively my property. I sent it to Mr. Ferris Greenslet, of Houghton Mifflin, who had published Alexander's Bridge, and was truly astonished when he wrote me they would publish it.

I was very much pleased when William Heinemann decided to publish it in England. I had met Mr. Heinemann in London several times, when I was on the editorial staff of McClure's Magazine, and I had the highest opinion of his taste and judgment. His personal taste was a thing quite apart from his business, and it was uncompromising. The fact that a second-rate book sold tremendously never made him hedge and insist that there must be something pretty good in it after all. Most publishers, like most writers, are ruined by their successes.

When my third book, The Song of the Lark, came along, Heinemann turned it down. I had never heard from him directly that he liked O Pioneers! but now I had a short hand-written letter from him, telling me that he admired it very much; that he was declining The Song of the Lark because he thought in that book I had taken the wrong road, and that the full-blooded method, which told everything about everybody, was not natural to me and was not the one in which I would ever take satisfaction. "As for myself," he wrote, "I always find the friendly, confidential tone of writing of this sort distressingly familiar, even when the subject matter is very fine."

At that time I did not altogether agree with Mr. Heinemann, nor with Randolph Bourne, in this country, who said in his review almost the same thing. One is always a little on the defensive about one's last book. But when the next book, My Ántonia, came along, quite of itself and with no direction from me, it took the road of O Pioneers!—not the road of The Song of the Lark. Too much detail is apt, like any other form of extravagance, to become slightly vulgar; and it quite destroys in a book a very satisfying element analogous to what painters call "composition."

Susan J. Rosowski (Essay Date Autumn 1981)

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SOURCE: Rosowski, Susan J. "Willa Cather's Women." Studies in American Fiction 9, no. 2 (autumn 1981): 261-75.

In the following essay, Rosowski explores the ways in which Cather portrays her female characters not only as feminine archetypes but also as individual women.

Willa Cather created a gallery of powerful women. It includes the indomitable pioneer Alexandra Bergson, the great artist Thea Kronborg, the Earth Mother Ántonia Shimerda, the artful teacher of civilized standards Marian Forrester, the fiercely individual Myra Driscoll Henshawe. As critics have recognized, each functions as a type, an allegorical figure, of Cather's major themes, as Alexandra and Ántonia are allegorical of the pioneer experience, Thea and Myra Henshawe of the artistic soul, and Mrs. Forrester of the corrupting power of materialism.1 Yet these critical categories have led readers from similarities among them. All are female, and Cather makes her character's sex central to the characterization of each. Aside from recent studies on sexuality in specific novels, however, the broader question of Cather's treatment of these characters as women has received little attention, as if her insistence that individuals deal with permanent values has diverted readers from the directness with which she treats the economic and social conditions that shape a woman's relationships to those values. Just as Cather's women embody themes concerning the pioneer, artist, and materialism, so they embody themes concerning female experience.

The emotional pattern of two selves that runs through Cather's fiction is especially suited to writing about women's lives. There are two selves in each person, Cather suggests: a personal, worldly self expressed with family and friends, and an otherworldly, imaginative second self expressed in creative work. The ideal human condition, described in Cather's early novels, involves a synthesis of the two, with the outward-moving self rooted in the settled personal self. In society, however, a woman encounters contradictions between the human pattern of two selves and cultural myths that would limit her to only one of them. Cather's later novels present increasingly complex examinations of social roles assigned to women and of the implication of those roles for individuals caught in them.

In her early novels—O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia—Cather presents women who either live or move outside conventional society; their strengths are due in part to this fact. Of the three, O Pioneers! offers the purest example of Cather's myth of human greatness. It was, Cather later said, a book she wrote entirely for herself;2 in it, she abandoned the conventional setting and characterization of her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, andturnedtoNebraskaasher setting and to a woman, Alexandra, as her major character.

Alexandra dominates the book. Assuming mythic dimensions, she is an Earth Mother, a corn goddess, and an epic heroine.3 But just as Alexandra represents ideal forms of being, so her development presents Cather's ideal growth of the two selves, first by extending her creative self with the land and then by extending her personal self with Carl. This development follows that traditionally associated with a man, who through his work "encounters change and progress" and "senses his extension through time and the universe" then later turns to personal stability, "a home, a fixed location, and an anchorage in the world."4

Early scenes of O Pioneers! establish Alexandra's independence by contradicting cultural restrictions imposed upon a female character. Alexandra dresses comfortably and practically in a man's long ulster;5 just as naturally, she assumes conventionally male attitudes, walking "rapidly and resolutely," fixing her gaze "intently on the distance" (p. 6) and "into the future" (p. 14), then "gathering her strength … to grasp a situation which, no matter how painful, must be met and dealt with somehow" (p. 10). Throughout, Alexandra moves as a subject rather than an object, a distinction Cather drives home in one brief encounter. When a drummer admires the girl's hair, Alexandra "stabbed him with a glance of Amazonian fierceness," "mercilessly" crushing his "feeble flirtatious instincts" (p. 8).

A cultural pattern of restriction contrasts to this dominant pattern of independence. A foil to Alexandra, Marie Tovesky assumes the traditional role reserved for a female character: she is a "city child" dressed in the "'Kate Greenaway' manner," with "brown curly hair, like a brunette doll's," (p. 11). While Alexandra defiantly rejects the drummer's admiration and, in so doing, romantic conventions that reduce a woman to an object for male attention, Marie becomes such an object in a grotesque parody of courtship. In town, Joe Tovesky's "cronies formed a circle about him, admiring and teasing the little girl.… They told her that she must choose one of them for a sweetheart, and each began pressing his suit and offering her bribes; candy, and little pigs, and spotted calves. She looked archly into the big, brown, mustached faces, smelling of spirits and tobacco, then she ran her tiny forefinger delicately over Joe's bristly chin and said, 'Here is my sweetheart'" (p. 12).

It is not enough, of course, to escape limitations; one must develop also the positive qualities that enable growth. Alexandra has little imagination about her personal life (p. 203), "not the least spark of cleverness" (p. 61), and, apparently, no unusual physical strength. Instead, she is distinguished by her capacity for sympathy, for feeling the promise of the land (p. 67) and, on the Divide, achieving union with it, "as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover" (p. 71). Significantly, Alexandra awakens a female principle of active receptivity in the land. In the description of spring plowing, for example, Cather scarcely mentions the plow or the seed; instead, she describes a receptive land as "the brown earth [that] with such a strong, clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it, yields itself eagerly to the plow" (p. 76).6

Once the land has been tamed, Cather turns to Alexandra's "personal life, her own realization of herself" that has remained "almost a subconscious existence" (p. 203). Again, Alexandra's growth is relatively pure, as was her previous outward movement to universal values; and again, Cather contrasts traditional cultural patterns to Alexandra's independence. The community that has come in the intervening sixteen years has brought with it the assumption of male superiority. The clearly defined responsibility delegated to the young Alexandra by her dying father has, with time, been obscured, and Alexandra's brothers, asserting she is overweening in insisting to her right to her own land, declare "'the property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title'" (p. 169). Even in her old friend and future husband, Carl, Alexandra encounters traditional social restrictions. In a reversal of roles, Alexandra proposes to Carl, saying "'what I have is yours, if you care enough about me to take it'"; he, however, stung by criticism of his dependency, leaves for Alaska in a lonely and futile effort to prove himself worthy (p. 182).

In developing Alexandra's personal self, Cather again establishes her character's independence from convention. Alexandra "had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries" but, instead, had always looked upon men as "work-fellows" (p. 205). Again, Marie serves as a foil, in her love for Emil following the general romantic pattern by which lovers, seeking transcendence through each other, are doomed. In Cather's novels, such love corrupts; it led to Marie's disastrous marriage to Frank and leads to her tragic love for Emil.

Alexandra's relationship with Carl develops in marked contrast to the Marie-Emil relationship. With her expected marriage to Carl, Alexandra turns from her romantic dream of being carried by a lover who "was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat" (p. 206). The action reveals, according to one reader, "the pathos of her limitation," for she and Carl "are of different natures—she an earth goddess, he a not very notable tinker."7 A more accurate distinction might be made between the natures of the experiences. Alexandra seems larger than life—an "earth goddess"—in her reaching toward the land, but she lives her personal life in the human dimension of time. Carl is not an "earth god," and there is little evidence that "for [Alexandra] at least Carl and the vegetation god have become one."8 Indeed, Alexandra's growth in the second part of the novel is away from the romantic dream of transcendence through human love and toward the real value of personal stability through love. For Carl offers an anchorage, and "Alexandra and Carl mate not as passionate lovers but more like … ongoing companions."9 Most importantly, Carl recognizes that Alexandra "'belong[s] to the land'" (p. 307), and the happiness that Alexandra predicts for them is defined not by a self-limited passion but by "the great peace … and freedom" (p. 307) of that land.

In O Pioneers! Cather both presented the two selves she will explore in later novels and sketched the restrictions to those selves that she will later focus upon: social expectations of male superiority, the economic dimension of courtship and marriage, the romantic myth that places the ideal in a love object, and the insistence that women make themselves objects to conform to cultural myths. But these restrictions remain background concerns, scarcely touching Alexandra. Instead, the frontier setting offers "the metaphorical isolation"10 that enables a pure form of heroism; the early action of Alexandra's father, before his death passing responsibility for the family and farm to Alexandra, makes her authority formal; and the narrative structure, with its omniscient narrator, avoids sexist expectations that Cather will develop in later works.

In her next novel, The Song of the Lark, Cather moves her character into society, using "cultural not bucolic"11 elements. Thea Kronborg is an artist. Through her, Cather presents her most straightforward account of second-self growth: Thea moves from the personal security of her family life in a small Midwestern town to greatness as an opera singer. Remarkably, Cather avoids the stereotypic female artist's attitude toward work noted by critics from Beauvoir to Spacks—narcissism and a resulting view of art as a means to love and power. Instead, Thea acts according to her instinctive allegiance to universal values; her highest moments involve the loss of self in art. Again, the basic metaphor of the novel is both female and active: Thea nurtures her second self through stages of (1) gestation and birth; (2) growth toward active receptivity; and (3) creative reproduction of eternal truths into worldly form.

As an artist, Thea Kronborg lives in a rarified atmosphere by which talent is its own justification and creates its own myths. Around her, secondary characters construct secondary myths: Ray Kennedy, the railway man, sees her as Thee, his ideal love; Doctor Archie as the promise of his own lost youth; her aunt Tillie as the romantic heroine she would be. But just as Thea would not play a part assigned for her for a church play, she refuses to play these parts. In the end, she creates her own myth and returns it to her society. Like Alexandra Bergson, Thea Kronborg acts independently of cultural expectations that a woman exist as an object to a male perspective.

But our cultural myths assign to women the position of objects and restrict women to immanence. In My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and My Mortal Enemy, Cather focuses squarely on the implications for women of cultural myths concerning them. In each novel, a distinct narrator represents conventions that are contradicted by a major female character who works out her individual destiny in defiance of the narrator's expectation. Cather perfectly adapts the narrative structure of My Ántonia to cultural assumptions of two selves. The male narrator, Jim Burden, assumes the subject position, moves outward, engages in change and progress, and writes about "my Ántonia"; Ántonia, the archetypal woman, provides an anchorage to which Jim can return and serves as the muse for his creative imagination. Through Jim, Cather presents myths of male transcendence—of man as a liberating hero, romantic lover, and creative genius; of a woman to be rescued, loved, and transformed into art.

My Ántonia is Jim Burden's account of all that Ántonia means to him or, more precisely, of his youthful attempt to make her "'anything that a woman can be to a man.'"12 By his account, Ántonia seeks primarily to nurture by giving—to give her ring to the ten-year-old Jim and "to appreciate and admire" (p. 50) his exploits; to give her love to Larry Donovan, and to give "a better chance" than she had to her children (p. 320). As important, she makes no demands upon the world or upon others in it. Even after becoming pregnant, Ántonia did not press Larry Donovan to marry her, for "'I thought if he saw how well I could do for him, he'd want to stay with me'" (p. 313); her husband, Cuzak, affirms "'she is a good wife for a poor man'" because "'she don't ask me no questions'" (pp. 365-66). Ántonia offers unconditional love: both her strength and her weakness is that "'I never could believe harm of anybody I loved'" (p. 344). Through her love, Ántonia, like the orchard she tends, offers "the deepest peace" of escape from worldly demands (p. 341). Finally, Jim presents Ántonia as a well-spring for male activity in the larger world. On a physical level, she bears sons. Jim titles his final chapter "Cuzak's Boys," and he concludes "it was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight." On a spiritual level, she is a muse to Jim, for she "had that something which fires the imagination" (p. 353). Through Ántonia, Jim comes to realize what his country girls mean: "If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry" (p. 270).

At the same time that Cather uses Jim to present "the collective myths"13 about women, she builds tension against his account. There emerges a certain ruthlessness about Jim's affection for Ántonia that belies his stated affection for her. His love, unlike hers, is conditional. He is proud of Ántonia when he believes her to be "like Snow-white in the fairy tale" (p. 215); he turns from her when she asserts her individuality. He resents her protecting manner toward him, is angered over her masculine ways when she works the farm, is bitter and unforgiving when she "throws herself away on … a cheap sort of fellow" and, once pregnant, falls from social favor.14 Jim's allegiance is consistently to his dreams and illusions; when they conflict with reality, he denies the reality.

The world and the people in it just as consistently belie the myths Jim attempts to impose upon them. Otto Fuchs is not a Jesse James desparado but a warmhearted ranchhand; Lena Lingard is not a wild seductress but a strong-minded girl who becomes an independent businesswoman; Jim himself is not the adventurer, the lover, or the poet that he pretends to be. By contrasting the boast and the deed, Cather suggests comic, self-serving, and ineffectual dimensions of male gallantry. Picturing himself as a dragon slayer, Jim kills an old, lazy rattlesnake. Forced by his grandmother into service as Ántonia's rescuer, Jim sleeps at the Cutters, saving Ántonia from rape but feeling something close to hatred of her for embarrassing him. Resolving to "'go home and look after Ántonia'" (p. 268), Jim returns to her only twenty years later, after being assured that he will not have to part with his illusions (pp. 327-28). Finally, Ántonia and Lena, the objects of Jim's benevolence, react to his promises with smiles (pp. 322-23) and "frank amusement" (p. 268). They get on with their lives basically independently from men, whether by design, as when Lena resolves that she will never marry and that she will build a house for her mother, for "'the men will never do it'" (p. 241), or by necessity, as when Ántonia, deserted by her lover, proceeds to raise her daughter well and proudly.

Tension against Jim's account increases as his narrative role changes. In the initial sections, Cather presents Ántonia through Jim's perspective. Jim measures Ántonia against his idea of women, approving of her when she assumes a role he expects of her. But in Book IV, "The Pioneer Woman's Story," Cather moves Jim aside, to the position of tale recorder, and makes the midwife who attended Ántonia the tale teller. The Widow Steavens provides a woman's account of a woman's experience and, with it, a significant change in tone toward Ántonia. She relates her story with understanding and sympathy rather than with Jim's shocked and bitter insistence that Ántonia play her part in his myth.

By the fifth section, Jim and Ántonia have reversed roles. Jim began the novel as the story teller in several senses, telling the account he titles my Ántonia and also telling it in terms of stories he has read: The Life of Jesse James, Robinson Crusoe, Camille, the Georgics. But the child Jim grew into a man who followed the most conventional pattern for success: he left the farm to move to town, then attended the university, studied law at Harvard, married well, and joined a large corporation as a lawyer. In the process he seems to have lost his personal identity. Conversely, Ántonia, who began the novel as a character rendered by Jim, in the fifth section breaks through myths Jim had imposed upon her and emerges powerfully as herself. With her children around her, she is the center of "the family legend" (p. 350), to whom her children look "for stories and entertainment" (p. 351). But Ántonia's stories, unlike Jim's, are not from literature. They are instead "about the calf that broke its leg, or how Yulka saved her little turkeys from drowning … or about old Christmases and weddings in Bohemia" (p. 176).

As Jim leaves the Cuzak farm in the last paragraphs, Ántonia recedes into the background. One of a group standing "by the windmill," she is "waving her apron" (p. 368). Returning to the larger male world, Jim spends a "disappointing" day in Black Hawk, talking idly with "one of the old lawyers who was still in practice" (p. 369) and, finally, walking outside of town to the unploughed prairie that remained from early times. There Jim's "mind was full of pleasant things," for he intended "to play" with Cuzak's boys and, after the boys are grown, "to tramp along a few miles of lighted streets with Cuzak" (p. 370). But these plans seem curiously empty, irrelevant to the center of life represented by the female world of Ántonia. The early male myths of adventure have led to pointless wandering and lonely exile, and the women, originally assigned roles of passivity, have become the vital subjects who create the myths that Jim can only hope to witness and to record.

In her next novel, One of Ours, Cather incorporates many of Jim Burden's characteristics into her central character. Claude Wheeler, a young man in search of "something splendid," passively follows abstract cultural myths (now of pure love and noble war), is frightened by complex human reality, and, when confronted by conflict between the two, sacrifices the reality to the dream. As one reader has suggested, the title, "which labels Claude 'one of ours,' suggests a national malaise, perhaps a cluster of them,"15 for here, as elsewhere, a male character is imprisoned in simplistic patterns of transcendence. In presenting Claude, Cather also presents with great sensitivity the two women most directly affected by Claude's actions. Claude perceives the two as stereotypic seductress and virgin, yet Cather develops in each a human reality that contradicts the role Claude assigns to her. Furthermore, unlike Claude, a character astonishingly lacking in self knowledge, each knows herself and, if given the opportunity, would choose for herself action appropriate to her nature—Enid Royce the ascetic life of the missionary and Gladys Farmer the more physical life of marriage to Claude.

In A Lost Lady, Cather turns again to the narrative structure of My Ántonia: the male narrator, Niel Herbert, recounts his memories of a woman, Marian Forrester, and through them, recalls his own growth. But Niel and Jim write about quite different women. Ántonia is a "'natural-born mother,'" creating her own myth independently from society. Marian Forrester is a wife and, as such, a woman defined in terms of society, a society provided by her husband's business, money, and interests. Twenty-five years younger than Captain Forrester, she was brought by him as a bride to the small town of Sweet Water, where she became renowned as a great hostess.

As a wife, Mrs. Forrester is a magnificent object to be adorned, admired, and cherished. It gratified Captain Forrester to have men admire his fine stock and his fine wife. She gives him identity: he is remembered as the man "'with the beautiful wife,'"16 and she provides a means by which he may display his success. The gems she wears represent, for example, her husband's "archaic ideas about jewels.… They must be costly; they must show that he was able to buy them, and that she was worthy to wear them" (p. 51-52). Most of all, she gives value to her husband's domain by transforming it, by creating an atmosphere of calm, timelessness, and absolute security. It is an atmosphere that enables those in it to dream.

In A Lost Lady, Cather asks what happens to such a woman without the props by which she acts, then presents the paradox of the married woman's situation. Her strength lies in her ability to transform the world so that others may dream, but this apparent strength makes her highly vulnerable. First, her domain is wholly within a context of change. Marian Forrester came to Sweet Water to witness the loss of pioneer values, the railway men's departure, her husband's loss of fortune, and, finally, his decline and death. In these changes, she gradually lost both the friends and the money necessary to her. Second, such a woman is valued because she carefully subordinates her individuality so that others may see her as they wish her to be. The young Niel, for example, initially perceives her as from a magical realm, always lovely, never changing. Consequently, Niel judges her by his own illusion and, inevitably, human reality contradicts the illusion. For Niel, then, Mrs. Forrester's story is initially a story of betrayal. He responds to her in stages, similar to but more clearly defined than those of Jim Burden.17 Initially, he worships her as "belonging to a different world" (p. 42). Upon discovering her sexual relationship with Frank Ellinger, however, he is disillusioned, charging that she betrayed his "aesthetic ideal" (p.87). Niel's disillusionment deepens when, after Captain Forrester's death, he discovers Marian Forrester's liaison with Ivy Peters. With Ivy Peters, Marian Forrester is guilty, Neil believes, of commonness and lack of discrimination. Throughout this period, there runs the charge that Marian Forrester has betrayed others' values—those of Captain Forrester, of the noble pioneers of the past, and, most of all, of Niel himself.

But in A Lost Lady, far more than in her previous novels, Cather pits her character against conventions imposed upon her. First, Marian Forrester clearly contradicts the social conventions of Sweet Water, represented by the Molly Beasleys who forage throughout her house and who see only material objects they reduce to items for barter. Second, and more important, Marian Forrester just as clearly contradicts the aesthetic conventions of Niel, who holds it against her that she did not immolate herself to the past and to his romantic illusion.

By the end of A Lost Lady, Niel has reached a third stage in which "he came to be very glad that he had known her, and that she had had a hand in breaking him in to life" (p. 171). Recalling her, he wonders about "the secret of that ardour," of that ability to transform reality and appear "to promise a wild delight that he has not found in life" (p. 171). No longer measuring her by the aesthetic ideal she created for him, he appreciates in her "the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring" (p. 172). The change is significant, from Niel's viewing Marian Forrester solely as a passive object representing his aesthetic ideal, to recognizing in her the active, willed power of suggesting that ideal. Supporting this change, Cather provides glimpses of the human subject herself: the lines of exhaustion, the smell of spirits, the momentary lowering of the "lively manner" that she kept "between her and all the world" (p. 68). But as with My Ántonia, at the end Cather returns to a male world with a sense of loss, having only suggested the woman herself beneath the overwhelming male perspective of the account.

My Ántonia and A Lost Lady present major cultural myths about women: My Ántonia the woman as archetypal mother and muse, A Lost Lady the woman as teacher, bearer of culture. In both, Cather uses male narrators who view women in terms of their own spiritual growth, and in each she gives her female character the strength to break through conventional roles imposed upon them. But convention offers to the woman herself a different route to transcendence from that offered to men, that of romantic love. In My Mortal Enemy, Cather focuses squarely on women's perspectives of the romantic love convention. In using Nellie Birdseye to write about Myra Driscoll Henshawe, Cather suggests a sequential relationship between narrator and character: the female narrator in writing about a female subject explores a possible future self; the female subject in speaking to the narrator speaks as if to a younger self. The overall effect is to extend Cather's concern with cultural patterns that restrict individuals from permanent values, for in My Mortal Enemy, Cather goes beyond her previous contrast between convention and reality to present the ways in which these patterns are passed from one generation to another.

In My Mortal Enemy, the adult narrator, Nellie Birdseye, recalls her life-long knowledge of Myra Driscoll Henshawe; in so doing, she presents tension between the romantic and the human perspective. The romantic, offered by Nellie's Aunt Lydia, Myra's husband Oswald, and by the young girl Nellie once was, dominates the first of the novel. By this perspective, Myra Driscoll is the "brilliant and attractive figure"18 of family legend who lives on in love stories taught to generation after generation of young girls. Cather suggests the ritualistic transmission of myth when Nellie recalls that her Aunt Lydia "used to take me for a walk … around the old Driscoll grounds" and "would tell me again about that thrilling night" (pp. 15-16). The story itself is strikingly conventional: young lovers, denied permission to marry as a result of "a grudge of some sort" between their elders, defy worldly restrictions and elope, though their marriage results in disinheritance. This is the stuff on which girls dream and which, finally, shapes their imaginations.

As Nellie grew older, she not only incorporated the romantic perspective passed to her but elaborated on it, ignoring a Myra and an Oswald she had never known and turning instead to sweeping myths and personifications: "When I was older I used to walk around the Driscoll place alone very often.… I thought of the place as being under a spell, like the Sleeping Beauty's palace; it had been in a trance, or lain in its flowers like a beautiful corpse, ever since that winter night when Love went out of the gates and gave the dare to Fate" (p. 17). Nellie's reminiscence distills the timelessness of the romantic love convention, which promises escape from human dimensions of change and decay. But consequently, this same convention requires either that lovers die or that they live happily ever after. Myra Driscoll and Oswald Henshawe, however, live on and are, as it turns out, only "'as happy as most people,'" a conclusion that Nellie finds "disheartening" for "the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people" (p. 17).

Nellie's reaction here anticipates the second perspective of the novel, offered by Myra Henshawe herself. Clearly, the forty-five-year-old woman is unlike the romantic heroine immortalized in family legend. When Nellie first meets "the real Myra Henshawe, twenty-five years older than I had always imagined her," she feels disappointed and is tempted to prefer the illusions to the reality. She wonders whether it wasn't "better to get out of the world … than to linger on in it … getting a double chin" (p. 19). But Nellie, like Cather's other narrators, goes through stages in her view of the woman she writes about.19 Youthful idealization ends in disillusionment when Nellie glimpses the anger and malice that, along with love and affections, exist in the Henshawe's marriage. And this disillusionment gradually gives way to mature understanding and appreciation. When, after a long separation, she finds Myra, now in ill-health and living with Oswald in severely reduced circumstances, Nellie is no longer disappointed in the human reality but instead "delighted" that "she was herself, Myra Henshawe!" (p. 62). For what Nellie recognizes in Myra Henshawe is the magnificent complexity of a mature woman who "sat crippled but powerful in her brilliant wrappings. She looked strong and broken, generous and tyrannical, a witty and rather wicked old woman, who hated life for its defeats, and loved it for its absurdities" (p. 65).

The stages of youthful idealization, disillusionment, and mature understanding are familiar: Cather used them for Jim Burden and Niel Herbert. But the rendition of these stages is quite different from that of previous novels. Far more than the women Cather's male narrators wrote about—Ántonia Cuzak and Marian Forrester—Myra Henshawe actively guides Nellie's growth and directly questions the romantic convention by which Nellie perceives her. Initially, Myra warns Nellie in general terms of the "bad luck" that love draws on a woman and of the hell that is likely to follow youthful romantic commitments (pp. 28-31). In her dying days, however, Myra's warnings become painfully personal as she rejects Oswald's sentimental version of their lives and reveals the hell they created for one another. Their lives were not always like "'those days when [they] were young and loved each other,'" and human existence is not so simple as the romantic convention pretends: "'People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were.…A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other'" (p. 88).

Through Oswald and Nellie, Cather presents sharply contrasted responses to her central character's attempt to break through the myth that had shaped her. Oswald, faced with the same painful honesty that Myra offers to Nellie, chooses not the woman but instead a romantic figure from the past. Viewing his aging wife as "'the mother of the girl who ran away with me,'" Oswald declares "'nothing ever took that girl from me,'" then charges Nellie, too, to sacrifice the woman to the myth by remembering a young Myra, "'when she was herself, and we were happy'" (pp. 103-04). The "'wild, lovely creature'" Oswald recalls seems curiously detached from reality, presented only through Lydia's stories and Oswald's reminiscences. Clearly, this "creature" is unlike the woman Nellie has come to admire. The change in Nellie is significant: no longer the moon-struck girl who perceived in terms of convention, Nellie has become a woman capable of understanding and respecting the woman Myra Driscoll Henshawe and, in turn, capable of guiding the reader to a similarly enlarged understanding. For Cather has pitted Myra Driscoll Henshawe against her narrator's and her reader's expectations of a female character and, by her character's complex richness, has exposed those expectations as stagnant and self limiting.

In "Old Mrs. Harris," Cather comes full circle in her concern with what it is to be a woman, presenting female characters who neither follow a traditionally male route toward transcendence nor struggle for individuality against male expectations. Instead, Cather presents the most traditional pattern of women's lives within their family and community. On one level, such lives are conventionally limited. The story concerns events during one summer in the daily lives of the Templeton family: a neighbor brings a slice of cake for Mrs. Harris; a family cat dies; fifteen-year-old Vickie wins a college scholarship; her mother, Victoria Templeton, learns she is pregnant; the family attends a church supper; and old Mrs. Harris dies.

But on a second level, Cather reveals that apparently individual events affect the entire family and apparent restricted spheres yield universal values. Cather uses omniscient narration to extend the story beyond the daily lives of its characters to patterns of women's lifetimes. Point of view is almost entirely female, as Cather presents the thoughts of Mrs. Rosen, the Templeton's learned and childless neighbor who is drawn to "a pleasantness in the human relationships"20 she feels in the Templeton's house, and three generations of women: Vickie, self-absorbed by her own youth and inexperience; her mother, Victoria, self-absorbed by knowledge of yet another pregnancy announcing yet another child to care for in an already crowded house; and Mrs. Harris, Victoria's mother, who lives with her daughter's family and works to keep "the light-heartedness … going" in those about her (p. 112). As their names suggest, Vickie will become as Victoria, and both, "when they are old … will come closer to Grandma Harris" (p. 190).

Significantly, Cather describes this larger pattern in terms reminiscent of her earliest treatments of women. As Alexandra Bergson and Thea Kronborg were before her, Mrs. Harris is "perfectly happy" in "the realest and truest things" (p. 184). But unlike the earlier characters, who reached a loss of self through the land and art, Mrs. Harris does so through family relationships. When "she heard the children running down the uncarpeted back stairs … she ceased to be an individual, an old woman with aching feet; she became part of a group, became a relationship" (pp. 136-37).

In this late work, as elsewhere, Cather presents a character reaching toward permanent values, for "that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."21 And this, Cather's concern for permanent values, is the constant that runs throughout her career. Treating this constant, Cather devotes works long recognized as among her most powerful to gradually narrowing the question of what it is to be a woman. She places her female characters within increasingly complex and restrictive contexts. In setting, Cather turns from the natural expanses of Alexandra's frontier to the ever-narrowing circumstances of Marian Forrester, Myra Henshawe, and Mrs. Harris; in convention, Cather turns from women as mythic goddess and earth mother to the more specifically cultural myths of woman as aesthetic ideal and romantic heroine and, finally, to women who live apparently ordinary lives as daughter, mother, and grandmother. But at the same time that she creates increasingly restrictive contexts, Cather gives to her characters increasingly personal and specific strength to defy apparent restrictions placed upon them. She moves from the otherworldly, mythic power of Alexandra to the personal strength of exceptional women to defy convention (Ántonia, Marian Forrester, and Myra Driscoll Henshawe) to, in "Old Mrs. Harris," conventional women living conventional women's lives who, by the fullness of these personal lives, become exceptional.


  1. See, for example, Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 13-14, et. passim. A version of this paper was presented at the 1979 convention of the Modern Language Association. I am most grateful to Professor Bernice Slote, Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln, for suggestions during the various stages of this study and to Professor Patrick Morrow, Auburn Univ., for suggestions on the manuscript.
  2. "My First Novels [There Were Two]," in Willa Cather on Writing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), p. 92. Cather uses the phrase "for myself" three times in the six pages of the essay.
  3. See, for example, David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (1951; rpt. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1971), p. 28; J. Russell Reaver, "Mythic Motivation in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!" WF, 27 (1968), 19-25; and David Stouck, Willa Cather's Imagination (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1975), pp. 23-32.
  4. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (1953; Modern Library Edition, New York: Random House, 1968), p. 430.
  5. (1913; rpt. Sentry Edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941), p. 6. Subsequent references to O Pioneers! will be to this edition.
  6. Other examples of active receptivity, frequently expressed in sexual imagery, occur throughout the novel. Alexandra at times felt "close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil" (pp. 203-04), and, similarly, Marie's great talent for "living" is a talent for responding actively, for feeling "as the pond must feel when it held the moon like that; when it encircled and swelled with that image of gold" (p. 250).
  7. Maynard Fox, "Symbolic Representation in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!," WAL, 9 (1974), 196.
  8. J. Russell Reaver, "Mythic Motivation in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!," WF, 27 (1968), 24.
  9. Bernice Slote, "Willa Cather: The Secret Web," from Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium, ed. John J. Murphy (North Andover: Merrimack College, 1974), n.p.
  10. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (1976; Garden City: Anchor, 1977), p. 350.
  11. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (1953; reissued with a new foreword and an index as a Bison Book, Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1963), p. 104.
  12. (1918; Sentry edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), p. 321. Subsequent references to My Ántonia will be to this edition.
  13. Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pp. 248-49.
  14. Significantly, Jim, seeing Ántonia as "'a natural-born mother'" (p. 318), does not admit her sexuality: sexuality involves physicality rather than spirituality, activity rather than passivity, change rather than timelessness. Accordingly, Jim separates sexuality from Ántonia and dreams only of Lena Lingard as a seductress. See Blanche H. Gelfant's discussion, "The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Ántonia," AL, 43 (1971), 60-82.
  15. John J. Murphy, "Willa Cather: The Widening Gyre," in Five Essays on Willa Cather: The Merrimack Symposium," n.p.
  16. (1923; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), p. 121. Subsequent references to A Lost Lady will be to this edition.
  17. For a detailed discussion of these stages, see my essay, "Willa Cather's A Lost Lady: The Paradoxes of Change," Novel, 11 (1977), 51-62. Other readers have similarly focused upon the discrepancy between Niel's description of Marian Forrester and the character herself: Eugenie Lambert Hamner, "Affirmations in Willa Cather's A Lost Lady," MQ, 17 (1976), 245-51; and Anneliese H. Smith, "Finding Marian Forrester: A Restorative Reading of Cather's A Lost Lady," CLQ, 14 (1978), 221-25.
  18. (1926; New York: Vintage, 1961). Subsequent references to My Mortal Enemy will be to this edition.
  19. For a more detailed discussion of these stages, see my essays, "Narrative Technique in Cather's My Mortal Enemy," JNT, 8 (1978), 141-49; and "The Novel of Awakening," Genre, 12 (1979), 313-32.
  20. In Obscure Destinies (1932; New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 111. Subsequent references to "Old Mrs. Harris" will be to this edition.
  21. My Ántonia, p. 18.

Joan Acocella (Essay Date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2816

SOURCE: Acocella, Joan. "Cather and the Feminists: The Problem." In Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, pp. 37-43. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

In the following essay, Acocella discusses the difficulty that Cather's apparent ambivalence about women causes for feminist critics attempting to analyze her work.

An important job for feminist literary critics in the 1970s and 1980s was to assemble a "female canon," a list of first-rate woman-authored books that would demonstrate that women were the equal of men as writers and therefore that their underrepresentation in the approved catalog of great literature—and in allied enterprises, such as publishing and the universities—was the result of politics, not biology. Cather was of course necessary to such a list. But the feminists didn't just need first-rate writers; they needed them to be feminists. Gertrude Stein's declaring the women's movement a bore, George Eliot's writing an essay called "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"—these things were an embarrassment.1 Cather's early prairie novels were everything a feminist could have asked for. In O Pioneers! Alexandra not only raises up a farm out of the barren plain; she is the head of her household. As for The Song of the Lark, it is even better, for it is about a woman becoming an artist.

But as we saw, something changed in Cather after The Song of the Lark. Life came to seem to her less a matter of victory than of sorrow and memory and art. And those became the subject of her next novel, My Ántonia. In a move that has given more pain to her feminist critics than almost anything else she ever did, she placed a male narrator, Jim Burden, between the reader and Ántonia: men silencing women all over again. Furthermore, My Ántonia is really Jim's book. Ántonia drops out of it for a long stretch, and as the title indicates, the subject is not really her, it is Jim's vision of her, and the meditations on memory and art to which that vision prompts him. Finally, Ántonia is not victorious. She has a hard life: poverty, toil, an illegitimate child. Eventually she marries a good man, Anton Cuzak, and we find her at the end of the book in her kitchen, doing the dishes, with her sons and daughters gathered around her. But this is not what most feminists would call a victory. As a culminating insult, the last section of the book is entitled "Cuzak's Boys," not "Ántonia's Children."

That was just the beginning. In Cather's next novel, One of Ours, the main character was a male, and one who went to war, and liked it. And so on it went, for the rest of Cather's career. Sometimes her protagonists were women, sometimes men, and sometimes they did good, and sometimes evil, but not along sex lines. She seems no longer to have viewed the difference between male and female as crucial. Life was hard for everyone—"Even the wicked get worse than they deserve," as one of her characters says (One of Ours, 257)—and the suffering had simply to be borne or, if possible, transcended through memory and art. The principles of life were changeless, and so, consequently, were the themes of art. Hence Jim Burden's description of Ántonia as something out of Virgil or ancient myth, something "universal and true" (342). This, of course, is exactly what feminists did not want to hear. Universals, transcendence—those were the magic words by which women were taught to accept a fate that in fact was not universal, but assigned to only half of humanity, the female half. As for Ántonia, who stays home and stays poor while Jim goes to Harvard to study the Virgilian texts to which he will compare her, the feminists did not see her as the embodiment of a changeless principle. They saw her as an oppressed woman.

It wasn't just Cather's fiction that fell short. Her life did too, from childhood on. She was much closer to her father than to her mother—not good news to feminists who were now stressing the mother-daughter relationship. (Adrienne Rich: "The dutiful daughter of the fathers is only a hack."2) At her father's funeral Cather was inconsolable—grief-stricken, panicked. Her mother's funeral she did not attend (though she did help care for Jennie during her final illness). In the list of other adults who nurtured her, the men greatly outnumber the women. The town doctors, who took her on their rounds; Herr Schindelmeisser, the piano teacher, who talked to her about music and Europe; William Ducker, who taught her Greek; the professor who published her Carlyle essay and made her see that she was a writer: men, men.

Then there is the matter of the "William Cather period." Innocent readers might imagine that this is something feminists would sympathize with. It is not. "Male-identified" is a bad word in feminist circles. As one disgruntled feminist, Jean Elshtain, put it recently, "One is either part of the group of those who have found their authentic voices as women or one is a 'male-identified' dupe of the patriarchy."3 Remember Cather's page in her friend's album. The trait she most admired in men was an original mind; in women, flirting. As long as she was free to develop an original mind, it was okay by her if women had to go on flirting. Indeed, she liked it, just as a man would. Nor did Cather's male identification really end when she grew her hair out again. A journalist who interviewed her in 1924 said that she seemed less like a writer than like the head of "a great law practice or a successful dairy farm."4 For the times, she was a mannish woman.

She had no high opinion of women, at least as writers. "Sometimes I wonder why God ever trusts [literary] talent in the hands of women, they usually make such an infernal mess of it," she wrote in 1895. "I think He must do it as a sort of ghastly joke" (The Kingdom of Art, 408). Female poets were so gushy—"emotional in the extreme, self-centered, self-absorbed" (The World and the Parish, 146). As for female novelists, all they could write about was love: "They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable" (The World and the Parish, 276). She went on to attack various women's novels on this score—for example, Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), a book sacred to feminists. How could Chopin have devoted her gifts to "so trite and sordid a theme" as adultery (The World and the Parish, 697)? And when women writers were not splashing about in their emotions, they were doing other inartistic things, like running after causes. "The feminine mind has a hankering for hobbies and missions": Just look at Uncle Tom's Cabin, she said (The Kingdom of Art, 406). All in all, women seemed to Cather to use art rather than to make it. "Has any woman every really had the art instinct, the art necessity? Is it not with them a substitute, a transferred enthusiasm, an escape valve for what has sought or is seeking another channel?" (The Kingdom of Art, 158). This is basically the same complaint that Virginia Woolf later made in A Room of One's Own, that women used writing as "self-expression" rather than as art. But Cather made it with uncommon ferocity: "If I see the announcement of a new book by a woman, I—well, I take one by a man instead.… I prefer to take no chances when I read" (The World and the Parish, 362).

Finally, in a time when feminist critics were trying to show that women inherited their literary tradition not from men but from women—literary "foremothers," often excluded from the established canon—it was not a pleasure to see Cather so clearly take her inspiration from male writers. Apart from Virgil, the Bible, and Pilgrim's Progress, the books that left the strongest imprint on her were those of Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Henry James. One woman writer was crucial to her: Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett, she says, told her to use her "home" material, distilled over a long period, and to "write it as it is, don't try to make it like this or that"—in other words, don't imitate Henry James. Jewett not only gave Cather these rules; with her "local-colorist" tales of her native Maine, she exemplified them. But as Cather's early writings suggest, she already knew before meeting Jewett that she had to turn back to Nebraska. She just needed somebody to push her, and that's what Jewett did. Jewett was more a mentor than a model to Cather.5

So Cather, having once looked as though she might advance the cause of feminism, turned out to be a disaster. A number of feminists bit the bullet and condemned her as such. According to Carolyn Heilbrun, in her 1979 book Reinventing Womanhood, Cather was one of many female writers who "have been unable to imagine for other women … the self they have in fact achieved." In The Song of the Lark, Heilbrun claimed, Cather created her "last major woman character with a 'self.'" In her subsequent novels she simply demonstrated the "female urge toward the destruction and denial of female destiny." Another writer, Frances Kaye, published a whole book arguing that Cather's writings were politically dangerous. Because Cather distanced herself from the cause of women in general, awarding victories only to a few, male-identified women, her work discouraged collective action and thus could involve "psychic and social costs" for the unwary reader.6

Other feminist critics, however, were sorry to lose Cather from their team, and wondered if something might be done. What if the wrongful attitudes that she expressed were not hers at all, but the attitudes of men, the men in her novels? Godfrey St. Peter's disdain for the materialism of his wife and daughters in The Professor's House; Jim Burden's intrusion into Ántonia's story and his acquiescence in her hard fate—what if these were acts of irony on Cather's part, her way of criticizing St. Peter and Jim?

Thus was born what can be called the unreliable-narrator school of Cather criticism. A good example is Jean Schwind, who has devoted a number of essays to defending Cather from the charge that she held incorrect views. The Professor's House, Schwind argues in a 1993 article, is not a story about the professor's despair, it is a critique of the patriarchy. The professor is an "ungenerous and dishonest" man, basically a sexist pig, who cares only about his work and who, under the cover of his hypocritical antimaterialism, abuses the excellent women around him. By exposing these facts, Cather is exploring "frameups of women in literature." The same goes for My Ántonia, Schwind asserts in a 1985 article. Jim Burden is an utterly unreliable narrator—genteel, sexist, indeed racist and imperialist. Furthermore, he reads too much. The Homeric epithets and pastoral conventions that he uses in his narrative show that he imposes on reality a "faulty literary vision," a romantic vision. He is "devoted to ideal 'forms'" that have nothing to do with prairie realities, including Ántonia. Ántonia belongs to the free, true-grit New World, Jim to the hidebound, patriarchal Old World, and Cather subtly celebrates the former and disparages the latter.7

This interpretation of My Ántonia has since been enlarged upon by others. Elizabeth Ammons, in her 1992 book Conflicting Stories, congratulates Cather on her "subtle exposure" of Jim's attempt to "take over and rewrite a strong, threatening woman's story in terms that suit his own image of her." Annette Bennington McElhiney, in a 1993 essay, says that by having Ántonia remain silent and letting Jim's "supposed" narrative drone on and on, Cather "re-creates in her novel circumstances similar to what happened historically in America"—the silencing of women by men.8 So yes, Cather's fiction contains patriarchal attitudes, but only because she is decrying them. People just didn't notice before.

A number of feminists were apparently uncomfortable with such readings, however. And well they might have been, for the traits that supposedly disqualified Cather's male narrators and protagonists as reliable witnesses were her traits as well. Romantic, elegiac, attached to ideal forms, besotted with Virgil, deeply read in classical literature and given to alluding to it—Cather was all these things, and she believed in them, as her other writings show.9 Furthermore, if her contemporaries misread her, failing to notice her sustained attack on the patriarchy, why had she never corrected them?

Clearly a subtler reading was needed, something that would both acknowledge Cather's endorsement of unfeminist values and yet show her in conflict with those values. According to some feminists, conflict was endemic to women writers anyway, for they were torn between the need to tell their own, female story and the wish to write something acceptable to the male literary establishment. Consequently, in the words of Elaine Showalter, women's fiction was "a double-voiced discourse, containing a 'dominant' and a 'muted' story," which oscillated back and forth before our eyes.10 But Cather's prose didn't look oscillatory. Plain and pure, it rose like a cliff wall in the face of the conflict seekers, denying them access, insisting that it really did mean what it said. Something was needed, some stick of dynamite, to blow Cather's world open. As the feminists soon realized, the thing they needed was already there. In a 1975 book called Lesbian Images, Jane Rule, a Canadian novelist and critic, had matter-of-factly declared that Cather was homosexual.


  1. Stein's indifference to the women's movement is discussed by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in No Man's Land, 2: 242.
  2. Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, quoted in Showalter, The New Feminist Criticism, 7.
  3. Elshtain, in "Race and Racism," 6.
  4. Rascoe, "First Meeting with Willa Cather," 63.
  5. Cather quoting Jewett in F. H., "Willa Cather Talks of Work," 11. Of the writings which suggest that Cather knew before meeting Jewett the things she later claimed Jewett taught her, the most notable is her 1900 essay "When I Knew Stephen Crane." There she says that Crane told her, "'The detail of a thing has to filter through my blood, and then it comes out like a native product, but it takes forever'" (The World and the Parish, 776-777). James Woodress points out (Willa Cather, 99) that this describes the slowstarting Willa Cather far better than the precocious Stephen Crane, who produced enough to fill twelve volumes before dying at age twenty-nine. As for her evaluation of Jewett as a writer, Cather, in her preface to the 1925 Mayflower edition of The Best Short Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, compared Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs to Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter, but this exalted compliment was probably an act of loyalty more than of sincerity. (Jewett was much neglected at the time.) When Cather revised and reprinted that essay in 1936, she shrank her praise, saying only that Jewett, like Twain and Hawthorne, possessed that "very personal quality of perception, a vivid and intensely personal experience of life, which make a 'style'" (Not Under Forty, 95). But already in 1924, a year before the publication of the Mayflower collection, Cather told an interviewer that Jewett "was a very uneven writer. A good portion of her work is not worth preserving. The rest, a small balance—enough to make two volumes—is important" (quoted in Rascoe, "Willa Cather," 66).
  6. Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood, 79, 81. Kaye, Isolation and Masquerade, 187. In their condemnation of Cather on feminist grounds, these writers were preceded by Josephine Lurie Jessup, who in her 1965 book The Faith of Our Feminists judged Cather's greatness to be confined to the prairie novels, which "sing of triumph and a woman" (56). "Where no woman dominates the action," Jessup continues, "a novel by Willa Cather tends to fall into the hopelessness of One of Ours or of The Professor's House; or to become less a record of human conflict than a series of insubstantial reveries, such as Death Comes for the Archbishop" (75). Gilbert and Gubar, in No Man's Land, agree that Cather's work is fatally weakened after The Song of the Lark. In their view, the falling off is due to Cather's "fatal attraction to a renunciation of passion" (2:205), which, however, is attributable in turn to her gender conflicts and her suppression of lesbian desire.
  7. Schwind, "This Is a Frame-Up," 82, 88; Schwind, "The Benda Illustrations to My Ántonia," 59, 61.
  8. Ammons, Conflicting Stories, 135. McElhiney, "Willa Cather's Use of a Tripartite Narrative Point of View in My Ántonia," 75.
  9. Cather was one of the most allusive novelists in Western literature. Tracking down her literary sources was a great part of the task of John March's 846-page Reader's Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather (1993) and of the University of Nebraska Press's scholarly editions of O Pioneers! (1992), My Ántonia (1994), A Lost Lady (1997), Obscure Destinies (1998), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1999). The project of decoding Cather's allusions continues today. See, for example, Marilyn Arnold's 1996 essay "The Allusive Cather."
  10. Showalter, The New Feminist Criticism, 266.

O Pioneers!

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SOURCE: Wiesenthal, C. Susan. "Female Sexuality in Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and the Era of Scientific Sexology: A Dialogue between Frontiers." Ariel 21, no. 1 (January 1990): 41-63.

In the following essay, Wiesenthal examines parallels between Cather's treatment of female sexuality in O Pioneers! and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scientific preoccupations with "deviant" female sexuality.

Perhaps the most critical issue which immediately confronts any discussion of Willa Cather's fictional portrayal of sexuality is the nature of the relationship between the author's life and her work, between biography and art. For it is primarily on biographical bases such as Cather's adolescent rejection of femininity—her masquerade as the short-haired, boyishly-dressed 'William Cather Jr.'—and her adult relationships with women such as Louise Pound, Isabelle McClung, and Edith Lewis, that an increasing number of critics have been led to consider her as a 'lesbian writer.' Although no evidence exists to indicate that any of Cather's relationships with women involved an erotic dimension, many scholars agree that, at the very least, her life may be regarded as 'lesbian' in the sense of Adrienne Rich's extensive definition of the term. Briefly, Rich conceives of a broad "lesbian continuum" which "includes a range … of woman-identified experience," embracing any extra-sexual or emotional form of "primary intensity between women," and "not simply the fact that a woman has had or [has] consciously desired genital experience with another woman" (648).

Almost invariably, however, when critics turn to Cather's novels, it is precisely the absence of any 'lesbian' sensibility which they emphasize. Thus, Jane Rule, the first writer to situate Cather specifically within a lesbian literary tradition along with Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, and others, sharply reproves readers who attempt to find a homoerotic sensibility in Cather's art, claiming that if the author's private "sexual tastes" manifest themselves in the fiction at all, it is only in her "capacity to transcend the conventions of what is masculine and feminine" (87, 80). More recently, Phyllis Robinson has flatly asserted that "the loving relationships with women that were so important in [Cather's] personal life are no where reflected in her fiction" (158). In Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, Sharon O'Brien concurs, stating that "[c]ertainly the most prominent absence and the most unspoken love in her work are the emotional bonds between women that were central to her life" (127). O'Brien does not insist on wholly divorcing author and text, however, and argues instead that Cather's fiction works to both disclose and conceal a lesbian psyche. Nevertheless, in "'The Thing Not Named': Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer," she concentrates on the latter aspect of her thesis—on those "literary strategies" whereby Cather is able to "disguise" or "camouflage" the "emotional source of her fiction." For O'Brien, Cather's 'lesbian' sensibility represents "the unwritten text" of the novels ("The Thing Not Named" 577, 593-94, 577).

The object of this essay is not to determine whether the authorial sensibility manifest in Cather's fiction is or is not a specifically 'lesbian' one. Rather, it is to reverse the prevailing critical preoccupation with the "absent" and "unwritten," and to explore the possible ways in which an authorial attitude towards a broader concept of 'deviant' female sexuality, in general, does disclose itself in the written text. In the written text of O Pioneers!, in particular, this authorial attitude may be perceived to inhere implicitly in the hermaphroditic, heterosexual, and same-sex relationships Cather does portray. In this novel, for example, the heroine, Alexandra Bergson, is depicted as a character who embodies a seemingly hermaphroditic sexual nature which is viewed positively, as a potentially self-fulfilling value, while the more unambiguously heterosexual natures of other characters, on the contrary, are seen to result exclusively in unhappy and debilitating 'love' relationships. This dichotomous portrayal seems to suggest an authorial sensibility, which, while it is not specifically sympathetic to a homosexual nature, is certainly sensitive to the potential gratification which unconventional forms of sexuality may yield.

In order to grasp the full significance of Cather's portrayal of sexuality in O Pioneers! it is necessary to consider not only the dialectic between life and art, but the dynamic relationship between text and context as well. For as the "golden age of scientific determinism, Social Darwinism, and eugenics" (Smith-Rosenberg 267), Cather's contemporary milieu represented, in fact, a stridently heterosexual era especially obsessed with what it perceived as the 'unnatural' or 'inverted' (that is, lesbian) nature of virtually all manifestations of female sexuality or eroticism beyond heterosexual marriage (Smith-Rosenberg 53-76, 245-96; Faderman 147-277). The extent to which O Pioneers! courageously challenges dominant medical and cultural assumptions about female sexuality can be gauged only when the text is considered in a dialogic relation to this larger historic discourse. For indeed, Cather's positive delineation of the sexually unorthodox Alexandra, and, conversely, her negative or critical depiction of conventional heterosexuality, actually work together to controvert systematically a number of contemporary tenets about the nature of the sexually 'inverted' woman. In this way, Cather's novel of pioneer life indirectly addresses the issues of the "New Scientific Discourse" (Smith-Rosenberg 265) being promulgated by such influential and widely popularized theorists as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. And in so far as these late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century 'sexologists' also self-consciously beheld themselves as "pioneers" in a hitherto unexplored psychosexual "borderland" (Ellis 2:219), the subtle interplay between text and context may be regarded as a form of dialogue between two disparate sorts of frontiers.1

Ultimately, however, the crucial limits of the challenge implicit in Cather's treatment of sexuality in O Pioneers! must be also firmly acknowledged. For although she repeatedly re-inverts, as it were, contemporary convictions about the perversity of female 'inversion,' her novel also reflects an element of self-conscious restraint which expresses itself most clearly in her highly circumspect handling of close female friendship—an integral thematic and structural component of the novel, which is deftly and gingerly developed by Cather, only to be rather abruptly abandoned when she is brought to deploy a somewhat disappointing, conventional romance closure, an ending both marked and marred, as one critic suggests, by the purely "token marriage" of the heroine (Bailey 396).2 Whether this novelistic outcome may be ultimately ascribed, as critics such as Sharon O'Brien would contend, to "the lesbian writer's need to conceal the socially unacceptable" ("The Thing Not Named" 592) must remain, perhaps, a moot point. A close reading of O Pioneers!, however, does, at least, appear to substantiate the more general claim that internalized cultural strictures governing the 'socially unacceptable' in the realm of sexuality do indeed exert a profound force upon Cather's artistic impulse, and, consequently, upon the shape of this novel as a whole.

Through a comprehensive examination of contemporary women's diaries and letters, as well as medical literature and fiction, feminist historians such as Lillian Faderman and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg have been able to trace the critical late nineteenth-century shifts in the theoretic conceptualization and social experience of female homosexuality throughout the Western world. Unlike male homosexuality, that is, which had long been perceived as a punishable offence against scriptural and secular order, lesbianism had not only been "generally ignored by the law" until this point, but did not even constitute a conceptual category of deviance until the 1880s and 1890s (Faderman, "The Morbidification of Love" 77, 75; Smith-Rosenberg 266). Indeed, in the earlier decades of the Victorian century, passionate homosocial bonds between women—physically uninhibited as well as emotionally intense relationships—were "casually accepted in American society" as forms of romantic love "both socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage" (Smith-Rosenberg 53, 50).3 Such 'legitimate' romantic friendships between women, however, came to be stigmatized by medical authorities and educators as 'morbid' and 'unnatural' during the final decades of the century, because it was at this point that such alliances first became an economically feasible alternative to heterosexual marriage for a small, but growing, group of autonomous, college-educated New Women. "For the first time," as Lillian Faderman remarks, "love between women became threatening to the social structure," posing truly portentous consequences, not only for the institutional nucleus of the social fabric, the family, but—as eugenicists and imperialists alike pointed out—for the already "dangerously low" birth-rate of the American Republic as well (Faderman 238).4

As steadily increasing numbers of New Women, like Willa Cather herself, began to eschew marriage and motherhood for higher education and professional livelihoods, one form which the simultaneously escalating anti-feminist reaction took was in the widespread expression of fear and repugnance of an 'intermediate sex': an appalling type of "semi-woman" whose behaviour and physical appearance "violated normal gender categories" (Smith-Rosenberg 265, 271). To accommodate such freaks of nature, the leading European neurologist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, promptly created in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) the new "medico-sexual category" of the "Mannish Lesbian": a nosological classification in which, as Smith-Rosenberg observes, "women's rejection of traditional gender roles and their demands for social and economic equality" were linked directly to "cross-dressing, sexual perversion, and borderline hermaphroditism" (272). More influential yet in Britain and America, however, were the theories of Havelock Ellis. It was his 1901 work, Sexual Inversion, which most powerfully contributed to the "morbidification" of the formerly innocent "female world of love and intimacy," because in it, Ellis re-defined the close friendships of college-aged and adult New Women "as both actively sexual and as actively perverted" (Smith-Rosenberg 269, 275).5 Thus, forms of affection between women which had long been regarded with equanimity or indifference suddenly came to be viewed with suspicion and alarm as subversive and abnormal affairs.

If the theories and beliefs of Krafft-Ebing, Ellis, and others were a matter of "common knowledge" by the turn-of-the-century, as Faderman contends (Surpassing the Love of Men 238), then by 1910-1920, the decade during which O Pioneers! was written, medical tropes of the "Mannish Lesbian" or the 'unsexed' woman had been so pervasively disseminated throughout the cultural imagination—via newspaper caricatures, anti-feminist tracts, and sensational as well as 'high' literature—that they had begun to have a substantial impact upon the marital and educational standards of young women, as statistical evidence of the period clearly shows (Smith-Rosenberg 281).

That Cather herself would have been fully conscious of the contemporary medico-cultural discourse of deviant female sexuality, then, seems almost inevitable on historical bases alone. More specifically, however, biographical details further support this assumption. Cather's work as an editor for McClure's Magazine, for example, led her to regularly read the columns of the rival Ladies' Home Journal, in which articles admonishing women "against forming exclusive romantic bonds with women" often appeared (O'Brien, Willa Cather 133). More importantly, despite the fact that Cather and Edith Lewis destroyed the vast majority of Cather's personal correspondence, some of the letters she wrote during her two-year obsession with Louise Pound—"the most serious romantic attachment of [her] college life"—have indeed survived. Unfortunately, testamentary restrictions prevent scholars and biographers with access to these letters from quoting them directly (Robinson 58).6 According to Sharon O'Brien, however, Cather states in one of these epistles that "it is so unfair that female friendships should be unnatural," before she goes on to accede that, nevertheless, "they are." As O'Brien suggests, Cather's self-conscious, if grudging, awareness of the fact that female friendships are "unnatural," reflects the extent to which she internalized the sexual norms of her age, and recognized the nature of her intense attachment to Louise as a "special category not sanctioned by the dominant culture" (O'Brien, Willa Cather 131-32).7

If critics' descriptions of Cather's "turbulent" and "passionate" "love letters" (O'Brien, "The Thing Not Named" 583) are accurate, her college 'crush' on Louise Pound represents precisely the sort of "flame," "rave," or "spoon" relationship which so gravely concerned sexologists and educators of the period. Ellis, for instance, devotes a lengthy appendix in his book to documenting such unsavoury "School-Friendships of Girls," in which he cites the cautionary words of one "American correspondent": "Love of the same sex … though [it] is not generally known, is very common; it is not mere friendship; the love is strong, real, and passionate"—sometimes, indeed, as he has been informed, it is "insane, intense love."8 Speculating on the explosive end of the Cather-Pound alliance, one biographer has even suggested that Pound's older brother may have intervened because he interpreted their relationship apprehensively in this current context:

Perhaps he called the friendship unnatural and his sister's friend perverse. He may have even used the term 'lesbian' to describe her. We do not know. We do know, however, that losing Louise caused Willa the most intense suffering she had ever known.

(Robinson 60-61)9

In any case, whether or not the widespread cultural anxieties of deviant female sexuality, fanned by the 'New Scientific Discourse' of the sexologists, actually affected Cather's personal life with such painful immediacy, it remains plausible to assume, at the very least, that a sharp awareness of such medico-cultural censures must have impinged uncomfortably upon her conscious mind at one time or another.

It is with such biographical and contextual background in mind that one may, perhaps, most fruitfully approach the question of sexuality in O Pioneers! For as Annette Kolodny has argued, whether one speaks of critics "reading" texts or writers "reading" the world, one "call[s] attention to interpretive strategies that are learned, historically determined, and thereby necessarily gender-inflected" (47). In this sense, Cather's fictional portrayal of sexuality represents a cultural construct shaped largely by the lived experiences of her gender. And because she experienced and observed, or 'read,' female sexuality in an age in which traditional sexual roles and distinctions were being rapidly erased and eroded, sparking feelings of confusion, fear, and guilt, it is relatively unsurprising that her fictional treatment of the subject should embody an element of the conflict which marked both her life and her times.

Set on a wild, windswept prairie frontier, O Pioneers! initially appears far removed indeed from Cather's controversial modern era. And yet the profound extent to which her novel is informed by the milieu in which it was produced is apparent even in the central character of Alexandra Bergson: a heroine who incorporates many definitive features of the New Woman upon whom the contemporary debate of the 'intermediate sex' centred. In so far as the New Woman of the age "constituted a revolutionary demographic and political phenomenon" (Smith-Rosenberg 245), of course, Alexandra eludes the historical paradigm: unlike Cather herself, she is neither part of a novel, homogeneous group of college-educated women, nor does she self-consciously resist traditional gender roles on intellectual or ideological grounds. Practical circumstances, as she angrily informs her brothers, have dictated the nature of her pioneering career: "Maybe I would never have been very soft, anyhow; but I certainly didn't choose to be the kind of girl I was" (Cather, O Pioneers! 171). On the other hand, there are also strong suggestions in the text that the intellectually gifted Alexandra would have made a fine student, and that had she in fact had a choice in the matter, she would not have remained on the outside of the State University's "long iron fence" curiously "looking through," and observing campus life from a distance (287).

At any rate, beyond these few fundamental differences, Cather's heroine embodies the majority of qualities typical of the late nineteenth-century New Woman: she is single, economically autonomous, and quite ready to assert her legal and social equality, defiantly maintaining her right to "do exactly as [she] please[s] with her land" (167). Moreover, with her innovative silos and pig-breeding schemes, Alexandra is the owner of "one of the richest farms on the Divide" (83), and as such, assumes the position of a community leader. In these respects, she corresponds closely to Smith-Rosenberg's description of the quintessential New Woman:

Eschewing marriage, she fought for professional visibility, espoused innovative, often radical, economic and social reforms, and wielded real political power. At the same time, as a member of the affluent new bourgeoisie, most frequently a child of small-town America, she felt herself part of the grass roots of her country.


It is also interesting to note that although Alexandra presents a new type of heroine in the tradition of American frontier fiction, she is by no means an anomaly in a historical context; indeed, by the late nineteenth century, many women had begun to take advantage of the Homestead Act to acquire property in the West—some of them single, adventurous New Women who "exploited their claims to earn money for other ventures" like college tuition (Myers 258-59). The conceptual distance between the modern era of the New Woman and that of Cather's farming pioneer, then, is not so great as it may first appear to be.

The affinities between the New Woman of Cather's period and the heroine of O Pioneers! extend to the portrayal of Alexandra as a representative of a type of 'intermediate sex': a vaguely intimidating sort of 'mannish' woman who appears to combine certain traditional aspects of masculinity and femininity in one. This trait is immediately apparent in Cather's initial description of Alexandra as "a tall, strong girl" who

walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next. She wore a man's long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier), and a round plush cap, tied down with a veil. She had a serious, thoughtful face, and her clear, deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance.


Krafft-Ebing, who believed, as Smith-Rosenberg states, that "only the abnormal woman would challenge gender distinctions—and by her dress you would know her" (272)—would have likely recognized his 'Mannish Lesbian' here, on the basis of Alexandra's manly ulster alone. Ellis, too, would have detected an element of perversity in the "comfortable" confidence with which Alexandra "carries" her masculine garb, since he maintained that the "very pronounced tendency among sexually inverted women to adopt male attire when practicable" could be "chiefly" accounted for by the fact that "the wearer feels more at home in them" (245). Moreover, the heroine's rapid and resolute gait and the "Amazonian fierceness" with which she cows the "little drummer" who dares ogle her (8) also reflect the sort of "brusque, energetic movements" and "masculine straightforwardness and sense of honour … free from any suggestion of either shyness or audacity," which, according to a "keen observer" like Ellis, betrayed an "underlying psychic abnormality" (250). As a heroine of epic proportions, in fact, Alexandra corresponds strikingly to one sexologist's profile of the typical female 'invert,' whom he held to be

more full of life, of enterprise, of practical energy, more aggressive, more heroic, more apt for adventure, than either the heterosexual woman or the homosexual man.

(Magnus Hirschfeld, qtd. in Ellis 251)

Endowed with a greatness of stature which dwarfs the "little men" who surround her (181), as well as a "direct[ness]" of manner which often makes men "wince" (121), Alexandra is indeed the most enterprising, energetic, and heroic character in Cather's novel.

Importantly, however, this positive vision of the heroic 'manly woman' appears to constitute the exception rather than the rule in medical literature of the period. For while early nineteenth-century commentators could still gloat contemptuously that "Amazonian" types were "their own executioners" and presented no danger of "perpetuating their race," since they had "unsexed themselves in public estimation,"10 most of the sexologists of Cather's era were much less confident—for by then it was clear that the ranks of the 'intermediate sex' were indeed continuing to swell. Such women were thus viewed collectively with a good deal of trepidation as the "ultimate symbol of social disorder" (Smith-Rosenberg 181).

This understandable though fallacious perception of the 'deviant' woman as an emblem of social disruption emerges as the first issue implicitly addressed and refuted by Cather in O Pioneers! For having once established her heroine as an 'Amazonian' or 'manly woman,' Cather proceeds to depict her not as a harbinger of chaos, but as precisely the opposite: as a pre-eminent symbol of order and a bedrock of stability. Under Alexandra's creative and loving will, for example, the natural world is gradually though steadily transformed from a hostile "wild land" to a productive and geometrically neat farm, noteworthy for its "most unusual trimness and care for detail" (83). Hence, there is an

order and fine arrangement manifest all over [Alexandra's] great farm; in the fencing and hedging, in the windbreaks and sheds, [and] in the symmetrical pasture ponds.


"Not unlike a tiny village" (83), Alexandra's farming homestead also represents a contained microcosm of fair but efficient social and domestic order. When she has no "visitors" and dines with "her men," for instance, Cather's heroine sits "at the head of the long table," and the place to her left is routinely reserved for old Ivar, her trusted advisor (85-86). With a democratic spirit, Alexandra "encourage[s] her men to talk" during these meals, to voice their opinions and concerns over the business affairs of the farm, but throughout the novel there is never a doubt that she retains an absolutely firm control over the hierarchical structure she has created. "As long as there is one house there must be one head," John Bergson declares before his death, and it is a maxim by which his "dotter" unswervingly abides (25-26).

Cather's affirmative portrayal of the 'manly woman' also works in a similar fashion to subvert or re-invert the prevailing medical and cultural conception of the sexually inverted woman as a physiologically 'morbid' or diseased, mutant being. For not only were such women of 'intermediate sex' judged to be 'unnatural' in the sense of being quirkily unconventional in dress and behaviour, but, as the "visible symptom[s] of a diseased society," they were also held to be innately sick—organically degenerative and neurotic as well as morally contaminating. Because contemporary authorities habitually transposed social and political evils into physiological terms, medical discourses of the sexually deviant woman abound in metaphors of morbidity and pathology (Smith-Rosenberg 245, 261-62). Krafft-Ebing, for example, believed that lesbianism was the sign of "an inherited diseased condition of the central nervous system," which he referred to as a form of "taint."11 Similarly, Ellis, although ostensibly aware that "the study of the abnormal is perfectly distinct from the study of the morbid," still claimed that female sexual inversion was a type of "germ" fostered by the feminist movement (319, 262).12

The Amazonian Alexandra may assume manly attire, but she is not, as the narrator notes, in any sense "afflicted" by it; quite the contrary, in fact, she is depicted by Cather as the epitome of health and wholesomeness. Her body, so "tall and strong" that "no man on the Divide could have carried it very far," is also a "gleaming white body" (206), consistently associated with images of both vigour and purity. While Cather thus likens her heroine's sun-kissed face to "one of the big double sunflowers" in the garden, she also emphasizes the contrasting "smoothness and whiteness" of the delicate skin beneath her shirt collar and sleeves: it is skin which "none but Swedish women ever possess; skin with the freshness of the snow itself" (88). Just as Jim Burden, in My Ántonia, thinks "with pride that Ántonia, like Snow White in the fairy tale, is still the fairest of them all" (215), so in this novel does Carl Lindstrum remember admiringly how the fair Alexandra used to appear at dawn with her milking pails, "looking as if she had walked straight out" of the "milky light" "of the morning itself" (126). Even as an older, successfully established farming businesswoman, the pristine aura of the dairymaid still suffuses Alexandra, who blandly admits that people find her "clean and healthy-looking" appearance pleasant (132).

At once robust and delicate, fusing conventional attributes of male and female within herself, the heroine's healthy, hermaphroditic nature also facilitates a vital, erotically fulfilling relationship with the land—virtually the only salutary relationship offered by Cather in O Pioneers! Indeed, the Nebraskan prairie is charged with "the same tonic, puissant quality" characteristic of Alexandra herself (77). Like her tanned face and white body, "the brown earth" is yet so clean and pure that it rolls from the shear of the plow without "even dimming the brightness of the metal" (76). And like Alexandra, too, the land is presented as a hermaphroditic entity. Thus, it both "yield[s] itself eagerly" to her active and yearning "human will" (76, 65), and "stir[s]" beneath her like a giant leviathan, eliciting, in turn, a sensual responsiveness or 'yielding' in the heroine herself:

Alexandra remembered … days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil.


As a sexually animated presence within the text, however, the land may constitute not so much an autonomous entity in its own right as it does a specular reflection of the heroine's own hermaphroditic nature. For it is, in fact, Alexandra who sublimates her sexual energies into the land—who sets her face "toward it with love and yearning" (65)—and it is also her perception and sense of it that are invariably conveyed to the reader, who sees only the way the land "seem[s]" to her or the way she "remember[s]" it (65, 204).

What Cather actually appears to present, then, is a type of autoerotic, onanistic relationship of the heroine with a part of her hermaphroditic sexual self which has been displaced onto the "Other" of the land. In this respect, her portrayal of sexuality in O Pioneers! is comparable to that of Martha Ostenso's in the Canadian prairie novel Wild Geese (1925), in which the heroine, Judith, lies upon the "damp ground" nude and feels that "here was something forbiddenly beautiful;" something as "secret as one's own body" (67). Seemingly complete in herself, Cather's heroine may be perhaps best likened, though, to the "single wild duck" she so fondly recalls in her memory: the "solitary bird" which "take[s] its pleasure" quite alone, and which strikes Alexandra as more "beautiful" than any "living thing had ever seemed to [her]" (204-05). A subtle celebration of the hermaphroditic and perhaps even bisexual sensibility, the portrayal of Alexandra's fulfilling erotic life suggests that she may not be as lonely in her unmarried state as the narrator would sometimes have us believe.

By presenting her 'manly woman' as a fresh and vital human being whose hermaphroditic attributes constitute the source of positive erotic gratification, Cather's novel works to break down the contemporary myth of the diseased and degenerative woman of 'intermediate sex.' Significantly, however, her artistic response to the large, pseudo-scientific discourse of sexuality does not end at this point, for Cather also proceeds to challenge her culture's yet more fundamental assumption of the intrinsic desirability and 'normalcy' of heterosexuality itself. In O Pioneers!, indeed, it is not the seemingly 'deviant' but the socially acceptable heterosexual impulse which is portrayed as 'morbid' and unhealthy. Thus, when Alexandra does indulge in one of her rare heterosexual fantasies, she is apt to experience it as a form of profoundly sordid "reverie": literally, an unclean impulse which she immediately attempts to wash away, via a penitential ritual of Spartan ablution, with "buckets of cold well-water" (206). And the one and only time that Alexandra does envisage a heterosexual embrace as a positive desire to be unresisted, it is rather alarmingly associated with the hooded figure of Death, "the mightiest of all lovers" (283).

Similarly, Cather also consistently links the major heterosexual relationship within her novel—the love of Emil and Marie—to images of decay, sickness, and pain. Emil's passion, for example, is compared to a defective grain of corn which will never shoot up "joyfully into the light" but is destined instead to rot and fester in the dark, damp earth (164). The essential morbidity of his relationship with Marie is further conveyed by the nature of the three gifts he drops into the lap of his beloved over the course of the novel: the uncut turquoises are pretty, but must, like the grain of corn, remain concealed in dark secrecy (224-25); the branch full of "sweet, insipid fruit" is already overripe and on the verge of decay (153); and, in stark contrast to Alexandra's sportive and contented solitary duck, the birds associated with the two young lovers are dead and dripping with blood (127-28). Gone for both Emil and Marie are those "germless days" of childhood (216), for their experience of adult heterosexuality is indeed like a type of "affliction," a perverse sort of malaise in the grip of which they "cannot feel that the heart lives at all" unless "its strings can scream to the touch of pain" (226).

Neatly reversing her society's binary equation of deviant sexuality with disease and heterosexuality with health, Cather also continues to turn contemporary medical theory upon its head by attributing to the nature of heterosexuality a number of other specific aberrations which sexologists typically ascribed to the sexual 'invert.' By the early twentieth century, for instance, the notion of 'sexual inversion' was commonly associated not only with physical disease, but with all manner of tragedy, insanity, and criminality as well. "Inverted women," as Ellis asserts in his work, "present a favourable soil for the seeds of passional crime," and to illustrate his point, he promptly proceeds to recount, in gruesome detail, several cases of lesbian homicides and suicides, deeming one particularly sensational 1892 murder of a young Memphis woman by her female lover as quite "typical" (201). The sexual nature of the 'inverted' person, moreover, was thought to "constitute as well a specific atavistic response, a sudden throwback to a primitive bisexuality, a tragic freak of nature" (Smith-Rosenberg 269). "[F]rom a eugenic standpoint" such as Ellis's, therefore, "the tendency to sexual inversion" could be regarded as "merely … nature's merciful method of winding up a concern which, from her point of view, has ceased to be profitable" (335).

In Cather's novel, conversely, it is heterosexuality which is presented as the direct cause of such grievous afflictions and processes. While the component of tragedy is, of course, most dramatically evident in the violent and premature deaths of Marie and Emil, almost all of the heterosexual alliances in the text are presented as unhappy or pathetic. Hence, John Bergson is "warped" by his marriage, which is described as a mere "infatuation" on his part: "the despairing folly of a powerful man who [could] not bear to grow old" (23). Similarly, the snug security of Angélique's happy little family is blighted by the sudden death of Amédée; the confused young Signa is afraid of her bullish husband even before he forces her to plod home with the cows on their wedding day; and "young farmers" like Lou betray a measure of embarrassed discomfort in their spousal relations in that they can seldom bring themselves to address their wives by name (111). And, unlike Alex-andra's orderly household, the Shabata home is frequently the scene of domestic crises and violence, for Frank is a rash and volatile man whose unleashed temper has "more than once" compelled Marie to struggle with him over a loaded gun (265-66). Uniting themselves in relationships which all too often result in animosity, violence, divorce (148), or death, the majority of heterosexual characters in this novel are to some degree culpable, like Marie, of "spread[ing] ruin around" (304), and as such, they are viewed collectively by the author not only as a tragic lot but, indeed, as the 'ultimate symbol' of what the sexual invert was supposed to represent: utter social and domestic chaos.

It is also Frank Shabata, the most aggressively heterosexual character in the novel, who emerges from Cather's perspective as the "most favourable soil for the seeds of passional crime," as well as madness and degeneration. After his passionate jealousy has resulted in the murders of Emil and Marie, he regresses in prison to an atavistic creature, a grey, unshaven, and stooped figure who appears "not altogether human." Left to ponder his guilt in a wretched cell, the now pathetic Frank depicts a dismal future for himself; as he confesses to Alexandra when she visits him, "I guess I go crazy sure 'nough" (294). The implicit but clear message in Cather's text, then, is that the heterosexual nature, far from embodying an unambiguously 'normal' or healthy appetite, may manifest itself as 'unnatural' and 'morbid' in precisely the same ways as those of 'inverted' or 'deviant' sexual tendencies were thought to. Or, considered from an obverse angle, Cather's novel is one whose sexually unorthodox but sane, vigorous, and prosperous heroine serves as a timely reminder to those, who, like Ellis, tended to forget that what may be perceived as 'abnormal' need not necessarily be 'morbid.'

Through her own process of conceptual 'inversion,' then, Cather may be seen to respond in a creative and challenging way to dominant contemporary theories of sexuality, quietly establishing, in O Pioneers!, her own alternate paradigms of human sexuality. And yet it is, perhaps, an authorial consciousness of implicitly engaging—and controverting—this larger medico-cultural ethos which may also be seen to constitute the source of an inhibiting force in Cather's art. In O Pioneers!, this aspect of the narrative is best illustrated by Cather's treatment of the relations between women. For indeed, contrary to the pervasive critical over-generalization that Cather "never" deals in her fiction with the homosocial emotions and bonds which filled and fuelled her own life, a very complex and subtle relationship does unfold in this novel between Alexandra and Marie, which, to the best extent of my knowledge, has not been extensively or adequately examined. And it is important that it should be, for it suggests that within this novel of pioneer life, Cather begins to explore a second sort of 'frontier': not a historical and geographical one, but a psychic "frontier between friendship and love" (M. Tarde, qtd. in Ellis 75). This is not to argue that Cather depicts the friendship between her heroine and Marie as one which moves toward incipient lesbianism. Rather, it is to suggest that, along with its nostalgia for the heroic cultural and geographical Nebraskan frontier of the past, Cather's text also quietly but perceptibly mourns the passing of that older world of passionate yet innocent female love, so well documented by Smith-Rosenberg, into a modern era of 'morbidified' relations.

Perhaps because of the disparity of their respective ages, the affection Alexandra feels for Marie clearly manifests itself on one level as a type of maternal love. "Sit down like a good girl, Marie," Alexandra says in her best matronly manner, for example, "and I'll tell you a story" (137). Marie, that "crazy child" who married at eighteen (119), seems in this respect to present a surrogate daughter-figure for Alexandra, just as she thinks of her younger brother, Emil, as her "boy." On the other hand, however, the friendship between the two women is marked by both a degree of intensity and a dimension of sensuality which makes it a far more "romantic" relationship than, in fact, Alexandra's ostensibly 'real' romance with Carl Lindstrum. Indeed, when Cather's heroine reflects on the "pretty lonely life" she has led, the primacy of her bond with the young Bohemian girl is indicated by the order in which she names her two closest companions: "Besides Marie, Carl is the only friend I have ever had" (177). Unlike Carl, who drifts in and out of Alexandra's life between long intervals, Marie is woven closely into the fabric of her daily existence. "It is not often," therefore, that Alexandra "let[s] three days go by without seeing Marie"—and when Carl does reappear at one point, and Alexandra postpones her regular visit, she frets guiltily that her younger friend will think she has "forsaken her" (130). Later, of course, it is Alexandra herself who feels woefully "forsaken" when she learns of Marie's affair with Emil:

Could you believe that of Marie Tovesky? I would have been cut to pieces, little by little, before I would have betrayed her trust in me!


Not only is it revealing that Alexandra apparently does not recognize Marie "Tovesky" as Frank Shabata's wife, but her emphatic language and words of "betrayal" and "forsaken" anguish also clearly echo the "romantic rhetoric" of "emotional intensity" which Smith-Rosenberg notes as characteristic of close female friendships before the late nineteenth century (59).

Furthermore, while Alexandra's relationship with Carl remains a fairly dispassionate affair throughout—arrested, in fact, at the stage of hand-holding until a light kiss at the very end of the novel is offered as a prelude to a marriage of "friends" (308-09)—her relationship with Marie allows for a great measure of uninhibited physical contact. At one point, for example, Marie runs up to her friend "panting," throws "her arms about Alexandra," and then gives her arm an affectionate "little squeeze" as they begin to walk together (134). And Alexandra similarly expresses her sentiments by "pinch[ing] Marie's cheek playfully" when they meet (192). The two women have an acute and joyful sense of each other's physical proximity as well; hence, Alexandra confides that she is "glad" to have Marie living "so near" her, while Marie delights in the delicate scent of rosemary on Alexandra's dress (119, 134).

Like Cather herself, who so ardently admired female beauty that she sometimes strapped herself financially by loaning money to attractive actresses whose plays she reviewed (Woodress 105; O'Brien, Willa Cather 134), Alexandra responds to Marie with pleasure and admiration on an aesthetic level. Of course, almost every character in the novel does, for Marie's spectacular "tiger eyes" (11) are irresistibly captivating. Indeed, at the risk of pressing a fine (but in this context, relevant) point too closely, Marie's striking eyes may reflect a subtle authorial allusion to Balzac's sensational lesbian novel, The Girl With the Golden Eyes—particularly since that novel is believed to have been inspired by the real-life relationship of George Sand (Cather's avowed role-model) and a woman named Marie Dorval.13 At any rate, Alexandra is especially drawn by the unique blend of exoticism and innocence in Marie, comparing her to both a "queer foreign kind of doll" and a "little brown rabbit" (192, 133). Carl's observation of Marie's sensuously "full" and "parted" lips, and of the "points of yellow light dancing in her eyes" (135) reinforces Alexandra's perception of her friend as an attractively animated yet vulnerable young woman who is "too young and pretty for this sort of life" (121).

With Marie, Alexandra thus enjoys an emotional and physical intimacy which is a source of innocent pleasure to them both. The crucial point, however, is how others perceive their relationship. Through the perspective of Carl Lindstrum, Cather subtly but deftly probes the perverse interpretations apt to be construed from such close homosocial bonds in the new era of 'scientific' sexology. When Alexandra explains to Carl how "nice" it has felt for her to have "a friend" at "the other end" of the path between the Bergson-Shabata homesteads since he has lived there, for instance, Carl responds with a rueful "smile": "All the same, I hope it hasn't [sic] been quite the same" (130). It is an odd remark, laden with an innuendo that makes Alexandra look at Carl "with surprise," and respond defensively:

Why no, of course not. Not the same. She could not very well take your place, if that's what you mean. I'm friendly with all my neighbors, I hope. But Marie is really a companion, someone I can talk to quite frankly. You wouldn't want me to be more lonely than I have been would you?


To this, Carl laughs nervously, fusses with his hair, and replies uncertainly:

Of course I don't. I ought to be thankful that this path hasn't been worn by—well, by friends with more pressing errands than your little Bohemian is likely to have.


Carl realizes that he "ought" to be thankful that Alexandra's female "friend" is not "likely" to pose a serious rival for her affections, but his hesitant manner and doubtful language suggest that his suspicions are obviously not allayed. When he does, therefore, have an opportunity to scrutinize the type of relationship the two women share, he carefully "watch[es]" them from "a little distance" (135). That they make a "pretty picture" together is his first thought, but after observing Marie's intense and delighted absorption in Alexandra for a time, Carl goes on to reflect: "What a waste … she ought to be doing all that for a sweetheart. How awkwardly things come about!" (136).

Significantly, it is not long after Carl's reappearance on the Divide that the pleasant state of affairs between Cather's heroine and the attractive young immigrant girl begin to alter. Indeed, the shift in Alexandra and Marie's friendship, the point at which each woman first begins to distance herself warily from the other, occurs as issues of their respective heterosexual relationships begin to impinge upon their lives. When it comes to the subject of Carl and her differences with her brothers over him, for example, Alexandra "instinctive[ly]" feels that "about such things she and Marie would not understand one another" (188). Suddenly, when the topic is Alexandra's relationship with a male, Marie no longer appears to represent the "real" "companion" she "can talk to quite frankly" (130). It is a blind "instinct" which Alexandra follows without testing when she has the opportunity. For when during one of their last intimate moments together, Marie begins to speak "frankly" about her own unhappy union with Frank, Alexandra withdraws guardedly from the conversation, abruptly recalling Marie to the "crochet patterns" for which they have been searching: "no good," she rationalizes, can ever come "from talking about such things" (198).

Immediately after this incident, a reciprocal process of withdrawal takes place on Marie's part. As the narrator observes:

After that day the younger woman seemed to shrink more and more into herself. When she was with Alexandra she was not spontaneous and frank as she used to be. She seemed to be brooding over something, and holding something back.


The pain, confusion, or guilt which each woman experiences over her respective relationship—or relationships—with men is the one thing they cannot share with each other directly, and it is as a stave which wedges them further and further apart. Finally, when Alexandra places her hand tenderly on the arm of a pale and tired-looking Marie, just after Emil has drained the blood from her cheeks with an electrifying kiss, she can feel her young friend "shiver": "Marie stiffened under that kind, calm hand. Alexandra drew back, perplexed and hurt" (226).

Cather's novel thus clearly traces the steady disintegration of a formerly intimate female friendship to the point of physical recoil and abiding resentment. But what happened? Certainly, in so far that the "pretty picture" which consists of Alexandra and Marie becomes "awkward" only when men enter into it, it may be argued that Cather's depiction of a loving female relationship is intended as an illustration of the sad consequences of social pressures which compel women (and men) to erect psychic barriers between one another in an obsessively heterocentric culture—lest their affection, that is, be construed by the Carls of the world as suspiciously 'unnatural.' If this is what Cather attempted, however, she does not wholly accomplish her goal. For although she does begin to critique the contemporary attitude toward, and perception of, innocently romantic female friendships, she eventually abandons this daring impulse in what seems a silent submission to the established sexual prejudices and stereotypes of her day, a submission which sharply reinforces O'Brien's contention that Cather never fully "freed herself from male constructs of femininity" ("The Thing Not Named" 596; Willa Cather 124-25). Because indeed, the whole tragic point of the devolution of Alexandra and Marie's relationship is undermined by Cather's ultimate reliance upon the archetypal paradigm of the fallen Eve for Marie, and by her apparently unqualified endorsement of a conventional marriage for Alexandra—an authorial enthusiasm which is nevertheless unconvincing because it purports to applaud a heterosexual alliance which has been portrayed from the beginning as tepid and watery, at best.

Ultimately, then, Cather's careful dissolution and final destruction of the poignant bond first established between her women represent an authorial retreat into literary convention and rather insipid romanticism. It is a retreat which is in itself tragic. For as the character of Carl suggests, Cather was at some point while writing her novel obviously aware of just how "awkwardly" her portrayal of an artless and genuine female friendship might appear to her modern audience. Whether unconsciously or with a painful memory of her own past friendship with Louise Pound, Cather therefore defuses the potentially scandalous subject she has begun to probe, before it becomes too overt an issue within the text. The simple beauty of a loving friendship between women was the one central aspect of the contemporary discourse of sexuality which Cather could not fully address, because it involved not merely an indirect, artistic inversion of her culture's metaphors, myths, and theories, but entailed, rather, a direct and necessarily polemical authorial entry into the heartland of the sexologists' "frontier" territory, that twilight and controversial nowoman's land separating socially acceptable female companionship from illicit same-sex love. And for all the dramatic adolescent rejection of frocks and frills and curls; for all the aggressively outspoken, critical target-shooting of youth; for all the steadfast, personal commitments to other women in her maturity, this was something the adult 'Billy Cather, Jr' was not rebel enough to risk.


  1. Ellis uses terms such as "frontier," "pioneer," and "borderland" quite extensively throughout.
  2. For a differing interpretation of the marriage of Carl and Alexandra, see O'Brien, Willa Cather 444-46.
  3. This chapter of Smith-Rosenberg's book, entitled "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth Century America," appeared originally in the first issue of Signs (1975).
  4. Smith-Rosenberg also explores the potentially revolutionary social implications which a strong network of homosocial female bonds posed in the context of the feminist movement, and makes a similar point; see Disorderly Conduct 277-82.
  5. The term 'morbidification,' however, is taken from Faderman.
  6. On Cather's destruction of her letters and the legal provisions of her will, see Robinson 33-34 and 274; Brown xxiii; Woodress xiii-xiv.
  7. See 127-37 for the most compelling and comprehensive account, to date, of Cather's complex and contradictory sense of lesbian self-identity.
  8. E. G. Lancaster, qtd. in Ellis, Sexual Inversion 382. The colloquial terms "flame," "rave," and "spoon" also appear in Ellis's appendix, 368-84 passim.
  9. It should be noted, however, that subsequent biographers have dismissed Robinson's suggestion as "pure speculation" (Woodress 87).
  10. Anon., "Female Orators," The Mother's Magazine, VI (1838): 27, qtd. in Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men 235.
  11. Krafft-Ebing, qtd. in Faderman, "The Morbidification of Love" 77. Faderman points out that Krafft-Ebing later changed his stance on homosexuality as a disease, but that this was announced only shortly before his death in 1902 and had "minimal" impact "on popular notions regarding homosexuals" (77-78, n. 6).
  12. In fairness, it must be noted that Ellis also uses the word "germ" elsewhere in Sexual Inversion in a purely organic sense. In language very appropriate to the context of Cather's novel, in fact, he describes human sexuality in terms of a "soil" which at conception is "sown" with an equal amount of masculine and feminine "seeds" or "germs." In bisexuals and homosexuals, he maintains, the "normal" process whereby the "seeds" of one sex come to "kill off" most of those of the other sex has somehow dysfunctioned, a phenomenon, he says, that can only be attributed to an inherent abnormality "in the soil" (309-11).
  13. On the relevance of Balzac's novel in the context of late nineteenth-century French aesthetic-decadent literature, see Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men 254, 267. Cather was known to be a fan of such literature, which strengthens the possibility that she had indeed come across Balzac's book; see O'Brien, Willa Cather 134-35; Woodress 119; and Brown 98, 103.

Works Cited

Bailey, Jennifer. "The Dangers of Femininity in Willa Cather's Fiction." Journal of American Studies 16.3 (1982): 391-406.

Brown, E. K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. Completed by Leon Edel. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! 1913. Boston: Houghton, 1941.

——. My Ántonia. 1918. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside P, 1926.

Ellis, Havelock. Sexual Inversion. Vol.2of Studies in the Psychology of Sex. 6 vols., 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Davis, 1918.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

——. "The Morbidification of Love Between Women by Nineteenth-Century Sexologists." Journal of Homosexuality 4.1 (1978): 73-90.

Kolodny, Annette. "A Map for Rereading: Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts." The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 46-62.

Myers, Sandra L. Westering Women and the Frontier Experience, 1800-1915. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1982.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: OUP, 1987.

——. "'The Thing Not Named': Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer." Signs 9.4 (1984): 576-99.

Ostenso, Martha. Wild Geese. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1925.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsive Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs 5.4 (1980): 631-61.

Robinson, Phyllis. Willa: The Life of Willa Cather. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.

The Song of the Lark

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6244


SOURCE: Dubek, Laura. "Rewriting Male Scripts: Willa Cather and The Song of the Lark." Women's Studies 23, no. 4 (September 1994): 293-306.

In the following essay, Dubek argues that Cather may have identified more strongly with her male characters in Song of the Lark than with her main female character, Thea, because of artificial models of behavior imposed on men.

Sharon O'Brien's Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice has drawn attention to Cather's unique position as a lesbian writer who often employed male characters to explore love relationships between women. Certainly, The Song of the Lark, with its emphasis on the divided self, the tension between disclosure and concealment, public masks and erotic desire, qualifies as a novel which may contain a lesbian subtext. At the very least, the novel demonstrates the author's intuitive understanding of "man's" struggle to deny and repress desires that culture deems unnatural or improper. Cather adored the theater because it "gives what the everyday world lacks—strong emotions and experience to warm and uplift, sharpening what custom or caution obliterates" (Slote 66). She must have enjoyed novel-writing for the same reason, creating characters who liberate their second, secret selves and triumph as her heroine in The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronborg, finally does. But Cather called this novel her fairy tale, and so Thea's success is only a wish that comes true in fiction. Perhaps precisely because Thea succeeds so thoroughly in fairy-tale fashion, Cather may have invested more sympathy in those destined to live without such happy endings. Although critics consider The Song of the Lark her most autobiographical novel, I suspect that Cather's real identification lies not with Thea and her flowering as an artist but with her male characters who suffer from a script imposed on them by a repressive society frightened of desire.

Intent on proving the subservient nature of the male roles and so Cather's reversal of traditional gender convictions, many critics of The Song of the Lark remain trapped in dualisms that Cather herself sought to transcend in her novel about discovery, integration, and continuity. Susan Rosowski argues that while Cather gives Thea typically "male qualities," she casts the men "as instruments in the central [female] character's advancement" (63). Others support Rosowski's view that the men play minor roles: Shirley Foster calls them "social or economic units" rather than love interests, men from whom Thea must nevertheless protect her inner-self (170) and Linda Huf writes of the men as "teachers and friends" who invest in Thea's future only to have her climb "beyond their reach" (84). Although recognizing that others are drawn to the heroine's "magnetic center," Demaree Peck explores Thea's own emptiness rather than the hunger of her admirers (33). Published in 1968, Giannone's work on Cather's use of music contains the fullest treatment of the male characters in The Song of the Lark. Giannone, writing of music's ability to arouse man's higher self, identifies Doctor Archie, Professor Wunsch, Ray Kennedy, and Fred Ottenburg as four of Thea's friends who have musical responses that imply "the higher self which society does not discern and which the friends themselves cannot reach or release on their own" (87). Like other critics, though, Giannone writes mainly of what the men "give" to Thea (money, encouragement, knowledge), evaluating them strictly in terms of their effect on the heroine rather than in their own rights.

Naturally, the criticism on The Song of the Lark highlights Thea Kronborg as the opera star who defies tradition and achieves worldly success; virtually everyone who writes about this novel focuses on Thea's dominant "voice" in a world where power, control, and creation are usually reserved for men.1 Envisioning a world that does not restrict a woman's influence to the private/domestic sphere nor require a complete surrendering of the "female self" for success in the public/male sphere, Cather does indeed attack the notion that femininity perforce implies passivity and subordinate status. By defining Thea in terms of her ability to integrate ostensibly antithetical attributes, however, Cather questions rather than reverses the traditional gender roles which rely on Western civilization's use of dichotomies (male/female, mind/body, dominant/submissive) to maintain the social order. Thea Kronborg embodies the author's idea of the artist as one who "possesses traits conventionally divided between the sexes: intellect, discipline, and control as well as intuition, passion, and self-abandonment" (O'Brien 425). But while Thea frees herself from the confining, fixed gender role prescribed for her by Victorian society and realizes the full integration of feminine and masculine qualities that ensures her success, her male supporters struggle with the images of woman which have hitherto secured their positions but are now, in Thea's case, inadequate. Cather's new definition of womanhood signals the need for a readjustment not just of the options granted to women but of the ways in which men construct and maintain their distinctively masculine identities.

Historically, masculinity has been identified with reason and control. John Shepard traces the beginnings of such an association to Post-Renaissance man, who thought himself into "the entirely mythical position of being separate from the world, of being able analytically to pin down physical, human and social existence as a unidimensional, static display having relevance only for the gaze of the beholder" (58). To protect these feelings of power and control, men have had to separate themselves from their natures (passions and desires), learning to act out of a sense of duty rather than in accordance with their feelings. Culture aids this process by teaching men that they are divided against themselves, (Griffin 140) that their minds/reason must dominate their bodies/passions. Victor Seidler points out a crucial consequence of defining masculine identity in terms of "a disembodied conception of reason"—man's systematic denial of his material and emotional self (96). Men construct their identities, then, by suppressing their need for dependency and connectedness, a negation of sexuality which Freud saw as producing "misery and unhappiness in the name of virtue and morality" (Seidler 100).2 Divorced from nature by a culture that identifies male identity/sexuality with self-control, men live in constant fear of the revelation of their true natures, their secret selves.

The degree to which four of the major male characters3 in The Song of the Lark succeed in negotiating a compromise between social definitions of masculine identity and their secret, second selves varies. Doctor Howard Archie and Professor Wunsch, both friends from Thea's childhood, desperately cling to the public masks society has provided them (doctor, husband, teacher, substitute-father, drunk) to ensure a strict separation between their minds/reason and bodies/passion. While Archie manages quite successfully to suppress his hidden desires and instead focus on his social obligations, Wunsch reveals his vulnerability prior to a self-imposed exile from Moonstone. Archie and Wunsch each demonstrate the debilitating nature of patriarchal society's script for men, a script that teaches men to fear intimacy and erotic passion because they threaten the sense of independence, rational control, and dominance so closely identified with masculinity. This denial of the need for connectedness fosters the creation of Archie's and Wunsch's secret, second selves—"others" who seek to resolve the conflict between nature and culture, between instinctual desires and socialized life by embracing the engulfment offered by intimate relationships. Andor Harsanyi, Thea's piano instructor in Chicago, fares much better than Archie or Wunsch; he succeeds in liberating his secret self primarily because of his understanding of and appreciation for music. Unlike vision, which emphasizes separation, objectification, and distance, sound stresses what Shepard calls "the integrative and relational"; it reveals the "world of depth surrounding us, approaching us simultaneously from all directions, totally fluid in its evanescence, a world which is active and constantly prodding us for a reaction" (159). So, the voice, as paradigm of sound, has the power to awaken man's secret self, bringing to his consciousness the buried knowledge of his connection to the world of nature. Thea herself consciously realizes music's unique power to recognize and call to the secret selves in her listeners: "How deep they lay, these second persons, and how little one knew about them, except to guard them fiercely. It was to music, more than to anything else, that these hidden things in people responded" (273). Giannone asserts that Cather shows music as revelatory of a previously unshared, buried self that longs for expression (240). Thea's music, her ability to enter "the very skin of another human being," (Sergeant 111) enables Harsanyi to release more fully that buried self. A confidant and artistic equal, Harsanyi shares one aspect of Thea's life—her passion for art—and so finds an expression for his hidden desires that Archie and Wunsch do not. While Harsanyi shares Thea's artistic passion, Fred Ottenburg, the young beer prince, earns her love by completely bridging the gap between inhibition and fulfillment. Cather's "new man," Fred meets the challenge of Thea's voice (inseparable from her self) by merging the worlds of nature and culture and revising the stifling gender role imposed on him by patriarchal society, a role characterized by denial and repression.

Cather symbolically portrays these male secret selves through images of locks and enclosure. The novel opens with Doctor Archie snapping the lock on the cupboard that hides his liquor. O'Brien, quoting Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, asserts that a closed box represents the human need for secrecy, for emotional hiding places, and a lock symbolizes a "psychological threshold"; in Cather's early fiction, O'Brien thinks "closed boxes signify both the female body with its sexual secrets and the creative or hidden self" (410). Content and secure alone in his office with his locked cupboard, Archie fears "being discovered and ridiculed" more than anything else. He refuses to divorce his estranged wife because a "divorced man was a disgraced man; at least, he had exhibited his hurt, and made it a matter for common gossip" (107). Physically and mentally confined to Moonstone's ideas of propriety, Archie receives no warmth from his wife and presumably little sex—Mrs. Archie prefers her "house" to be "clean, empty, dark, locked" (42). Lacking "the courage to be an honest thinker," comforting himself "by evasions and compromises" (108), Archie escapes his unsatisfying marriage and personal sense of failure by hiding behind his role as Moonstone physician. His neighbors are friendly and respectful of his position, but because he was "transplanted" from Michigan, Archie never truly belongs. Years later, after his wife has died and he has left the small Colorado town, Archie reflects on his life as the young country doctor and remembers his only comfort:

[W]herever his life had touched Thea Kronborg's, there was still a little warmth left, a little sparkle … when we look back, the only things we cherish are those which in some way met our original want; the desire which formed in us in early youth, undirected, and of its own accord.

(488, my italics)

Thea satisfies Archie's "original want," his need to be connected and part of something bigger than himself by offering him a "continuous sort of relationship" (487) and an outlet for the expression of his secret self.

Thea's bout with pneumonia provides Doctor Archie with the opportunity to indulge his secret self and fulfill his need for emotional connectedness. Archie touches and looks at Thea while she lies practically unconscious. Laura Mulvey describes such looking as "scopophilia," receiving pleasure by gazing at others as objects, usually of sexual stimulation (61). Reflecting on his unhappy marriage, Archie undresses Thea and thinks to himself "what a beautiful thing a girl's body was—like a flower. It was so neatly and delicately fashioned, so soft, and so milky white" (12). The doctor, experiencing a tension between his sense of duty and his desire, objectifies Thea, for in her childhood innocence lies his own memory of a wholeness associated with the knowledge of the body that culture has taught him to forget. Susan Griffin's study of pornography argues that in the child's world, we rediscover eros: "The beauty of the child's body. The child's closeness to the natural world. The child's heart. Her love. Touch never divided from meaning. Her trust. Her ignorance of culture" (254). At the end of the novel, Archie tells Thea, "When I dream about you, I always see you as a little girl" (549). As a ten-year-old girl, Thea represents the part of nature beyond Archie's control, the part of himself that lies hidden, and the "something" that he forever searches for and finds only in his memories of Thea's childhood.

Archie controls his erotic feelings for Thea by playing the white knight to her fairy princess, by turning their relationship into a story-book romance;4 his mind cannot, however, always control his body, and his hidden desires often surface. When Thea talks with Doctor Archie about her frustrations and her fierce desire to get everything she wants out of life, Archie notices that she has grown up and is "afraid to touch her" (306). Unmistakably a woman, "goaded by desires, ambitions, revulsions that were dark to him," Thea threatens to awaken Archie's secret self by demanding an emotional response. While Thea's heart labors, Archie's mind struggles desperately to control the instinctual drive that seeks expression through his body. When Thea stands over Archie, her dress barely touching him, "she was breathing through her mouth and her throat was throbbing with excitement." Looking up at her, "Archie's hands tightened on the arms of his chair. He had thought he knew Thea Kronborg pretty well, but he did not know the girl who was standing here. She was beautiful, as his little Swede had never been, but she frightened him" (307). Archie had thought he knew himself pretty well; his own reaction to Thea frightens him more than anything else because it brings to consciousness his own sexuality. Doctor Archie, then, confronted with Thea's womanhood and his attraction to her "throbbing throat," maintains control by willing his body to be silent. Archie's advice to Thea dramatically illuminates his understanding of his own inability to break the chains of culture as well as his castration anxiety. Feeling the sharp edge of his paper-cutter, Archie murmurs half to himself,

He either fears his fate too much
Or his deserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch
To win … or lose it all. (306)

Afraid to "touch" the womanly Thea, Archie loses the chance to merge with something larger than himself. His secret self, his memory of a wholeness before culture separated him from others, remains carefully hidden, and he carries on with the business of denial and repression.

To suppress his sexual attraction to Thea, Archie casts himself in the role of substitute father; playing benefactor provides him with a socially acceptable image to hide behind while he indulges his secret self. Before Thea leaves to study voice in Germany, she writes to Archie for money, advice, and friendship. Archie immediately buys a train ticket to New York, shoving his money "under the grating of the ticket window as if he could not get rid of it fast enough" (435). He realizes that, at forty, he has never traveled farther east than Buffalo and that his pursuit of material wealth has prevented him from satisfying his own, personal interests. Glad "that his first trip had a human interest, that he was going for something, and because he was wanted," Archie thinks "it's worth paying out to be in on it—for a fellow like me. And when it's Thea—oh, I back her!" (436). Unable to completely suppress the part of himself that yearns for human connections, Archie looks forward to rescuing Thea and filling his own emptiness. His natural instincts once again betraying his mind's precarious control over his emotions, Archie rushes to get a new suit because he doesn't want "to look different to her from everybody else there," and he knows his tailor, Wan, will "put him right." Noticing his client's exuberance, Van calls Archie a bridegroom who must have a date in New York; his comment "made [Archie] remember that he wasn't one" (436). Catching him with his public mask off, the tailor makes Archie aware of the secret self that seeks union with Thea.

Archie's need for emotional nurturance and connectedness cannot be openly acknowledged, but it cannot be obliterated either. Years later, when the doctor talks about perhaps going to Japan or Russia and then blurts out that he wants to go to New York, Fred asks him if he will see Thea, and the older man replies, "'I suspect I am going exactly to see her'" (482). Thea represents the "something" Archie wants for himself, the connection to others that he cannot experience because culture denies him access to the emotional selves of others. Offered no acceptable means of expressing his hidden desires, Archie seeks pleasure in watching Thea perform. Overwhelmed first by the largeness of Thea's downtown apartment building and then by the enormous height of the audience room in the Metropolitan Opera House, Archie expects Thea "to appear and sing and reassure him," but when she does enter the stage, "her face was there … and he positively could not see it. She was singing, at last, and he positively could not hear her … whatever was there, she was not there—for him" (499). Archie was so intent on seeing the Thea who was his fairy princess, that when "Kronborg" the opera star appeared, he could see only "this new woman" who had "devoured his little friend" (500). Unable to integrate culture and nature as Thea has done, Archie remains the spectator firmly entrenched in a society which objectifies, separates, and mystifies human relations. He realizes that "the ocean he could cross, but there was something here he could not cross"—at least not while he lived in this world:

[P]resently he found that he was sitting quietly in a darkened house, not listening to, but dreaming upon, a river of silver sound. He felt apart from the others, drifting alone on the melody, as if he had been alone with it for a long while and had known it all before … he seemed to be looking through an exalted calmness at a beautiful woman from far away, from another sort of life and feeling and understanding than his own, who had in her face something he had known long ago, much brightened and beautified. As a lad he used to believe that the faces of people who died were like that in the next world; the same faces, but shining with the light of a new understanding.


Rich with images of birth and death, of engulfment and isolation, this passage exposes Archie's unconscious memories of a wholeness associated perhaps first with his mother and later with Thea. In his dreams, Archie remembers, but only in death, when culture releases its grip on his mind, body, and soul, will he embrace the full knowledge of his secret self. During the second act, "the doctor's thoughts were as far away from Moon-stone as the singer's doubtless were … he [feels] the exhilaration of getting free from personalities, of being released from his own past as well as from Thea Kronborg's" (501). While he witnesses Thea's theatrical "marriage," Doctor Archie gives his little girl to the world, his mind finally conquering his body and restoring the control that was constantly threatened by his intimate, secret feelings for Thea. Archie joins the others in applauding Kronborg's performance, "but it was the new and wonderful he applauded, not the old and dear. His personal, proprietary pride in her was frozen out" (502). Archie's revision of traditional manhood, then, amounts to his public recognition of Thea's identity separate from his fantasies and his private recognition of his own inability to embrace the world of nature.

If Thea's first piano teacher, Professor Wunsch, could have heard the "new and wonderful" Kronborg, his faith in the power of hope might have been restored, for Thea certainly fulfills the dreams Wunsch fears to covet for her when she's his young pupil in Moonstone. Like Archie, Wunsch feels a "natural" attraction to Thea, her "fierceful nature" recalling to him hidden desires and memories of a time when life was "wild with joy" and culture hadn't yet demanded the suppression of his secret self. Wunsch "had been a musician once, long before he wandered into Moonstone, but when Thea awoke his interest there was not much left of him" (219). Walking the wet streets of Moonstone without an overcoat or overshoes, poor, drunk, and starving for nurturance, Wunsch finds little to rejoice about until the Kohlers, a German couple, take him into their home. While Doctor Archie escapes his troubled life by hiding behind his professional mask, Wunsch escapes into the Kohlers' garden. Separated from the rest of Moonstone by the railroad tracks and a deep ravine, the Kohlers' home and garden provide Wunsch with a sanctuary, an enclosure which shields Wunsch from the penetrating light of self-reflection and the burning heat of desire. The Edenic garden stands in marked contrast with the harsh desert, a place Cather thought of as the locus for "celibate withdrawal" as well as "primitive passion," "sensual indulgence," and "spiritual and aesthetic revelation" (O'Brien 407). When Thea, as a child of the desert, enters the Kohlers' garden, she threatens to expose the secret self that Wunsch tries so desperately to silence:

And there was always the old enemy, more relentless than others. It was long since he had wished anything or desired anything beyond the necessities of the body. Now that he was tempted to hope for another, he felt alarmed and shook his head.


Like Doctor Archie, Wunsch struggles to maintain a strict separation between his mind and body, silencing the voice of nature within in order to avoid his secret self. Wunsch cannot win this battle, though, because while bodily needs and material wants can, in fact, be satisfied, "a symbolic need of the mind perpetually hungers if in reality that need is to silence the body … such insatiability [arising] precisely because the mind contrives against nature" (Griffin 102). Culture forcing him to act out of a sense of duty rather than according to instinctual desires, Wunsch responds coldly to Thea's aversion to the way he has marked the fingering of a particular passage by saying, "'It makes no matter what you think,… [t]here is only one right way'" (33). And yet Wunsch's passions, deep and powerful, refuse to be controlled by reason (the one right way) and continually seek expression. Rather than embracing the vitality which Thea rekindles in him, Wunsch represses such emotions, labelling them shameful, deviant, and necessarily sexual in nature because they arouse his hidden, "evil" nature.

Try as he might to suppress them, Wunsch's repressed feelings nevertheless resurface, just as Archie's do. On Thea's thirteenth birthday, Wunsch's struggle with his divided self comes to a climax, leading ultimately to a drunken rampage and his final retreat from Moonstone. After giving Thea her piano lesson, Wunsch leads his pupil out to the garden where they walk hand-in-hand among the flowers and plants. Wunsch has Thea repeat in German a favorite song:

In the soft-shining summer morning
I wandered the garden within.
The flowers they whispered and murmured,
But I, I wandered dumb.
The flowers they whisper and murmur,
And me with compassion they scan:
'Oh, be not harsh to our sister,
Thou sorrowful, death-pale man!' (96-7)

Associating Thea with the flowers in the garden, Wunsch paces the garden, recalling his past years teaching girls who had nothing inside them compared to Thea, pseudo-musicians unable to elicit any emotional response from him. Breathless and upset, without even saying goodbye, the old teacher storms out of the garden when Thea will not discuss the song's significance to their relationship. Wunsch's sudden outburst represents more than simple frustration over a pupil's refusal to answer a question. If, as Griffin argues, "the body speaks the language of the soul," the body's fevered longing unmasking "a deep desire for that part of the self to come to consciousness [and] be remembered," (88) Wunsch's tantrum reveals his inner-struggle with the secret self which seeks union with others. Since sexual imagery pervades the birthday scene (the prickly-pear blossoms with their thousand stamens, the two symmetrical linden trees standing proud, the purple morning-glories that ran over the bean poles, the wild bees buzzing, the green lizards racing each other), Wunsch undoubtedly associates these longings with eros. After the German's outburst, Thea "felt there was a secret between her and Wunsch. Together they had lifted a lid, pulled out a drawer, and looked at something. They hid it away and never spoke of what they had seen; but neither of them forgot it" (100). O'Brien identifies the hidden drawer Wunsch and Thea look into as either Pandora's box of sexuality or a "container of unexpressed but potential activity" (202). Once he peers inside, Wunsch finds it impossible to deny his emotional starvation and dire need to merge with another and so drinks himself into oblivion.

Unable to continue following society's script for manhood and yet terribly frightened of his secret self, Wunsch decides to destroy both his selves (cultural and secret) and end his torment. Awakening from his drunken coma, Wunsch rises "to avenge himself, to wipe out his shame, to destroy his enemy" (116). Dressed in only his undershirt and drawers, the old German, "his face snarling and savage, his eyes … crazy," stumbles to the garden and chops down the dove-house (117). When Wunsch faces humiliation and risks his already questionable reputation in Moonstone, he destroys the false/public/cultural image of himself which requires the denial of desire and dependence. Society, which characterizes such displays of emotion as insane, even criminal, then condemns him to a wanderer's life. Forced to leave Moonstone, Wunsch severs his relationships with the Kohlers and his prized pupil, thereby eliminating the possibility of a further encounter with his secret self. On her next birthday, Thea receives a greeting from her old teacher, a postcard from an obscure mid-western town with "a white dove, perched on a wreath of very blue forget-me-knots (135). Apparently, Wunsch didn't forget the day he looked inside himself and discovered the same "fierceful nature" he recognized in his extraordinary pupil even though he realizes that his desires must remain forever hidden if he is to function at all.

Thea's second piano teacher, Andor Harsanyi, looks forward to his meetings with Thea "for the same reason that poor Wunsch had sometimes dreaded his; because she stirred him more than anything she did could adequately explain" (240). His hour with Thea "took more out of him than half a dozen other lessons … [she] set him vibrating" (220-21). Unlike the old, discouraged German who believes that if he hopes for another, disaster will follow, Harsanyi lives for such opportunities. He tells his wife, "'All this drudgery will kill me if once in a while I cannot hope something, for somebody! If I cannot sometimes see a bird fly and wave my hand to it'" (268). A true artist, secure and happy with a wife and children, Harsanyi embraces the world of nature in a way that Wunsch and Archie cannot.

But while Harsanyi finds expression for his secret self in his own artistry, Theas's passion elicits an emotional response from her teacher that, nonetheless, disturbs him because it threatens the delicate balance of mind/body that protects him from confronting his own sexuality. When Harsanyi first hears Thea sing, he sits mesmerized, "looking intently at the toes of his boots, shading his forehead with his long white hand" (235). When she finished, the young Hungarian "sprang from his chair and dropped lightly upon his toes, a kind on entre-chat that he sometimes executed when he formed a sudden resolution, or when he was about to follow a pure intuition, against reason" (236, my italics). Not afraid to follow his instincts, Harsanyi puts his hands to Thea's throat, feeling it throb and vibrate. Excited over his discovery, Harsanyi entertains the idea "that no one had ever felt this voice vibrate before" (237). Like Archie and Wunsch, Harsanyi experiences a tension between his sense of duty and his desire; he resolves this conflict later when he turns Thea over to a voice specialist, but first he indulges his own fantasies by giving up one-half hour of his own time at the end of her lesson to teach her some songs:

He found that these unscientific singing lessons stimulated him in his own study … He had never got so much back for himself from any pupil as he did from Miss Kronborg. From the first she had stimulated him … She often wearied him, but she never bored him. Under her crudeness and brusque hardness, he felt there was a nature quite different … It was toward this hidden creature that he was trying, for his own pleasure, to find his way. (239-40)

Harsanyi differs from Archie and Wunsch in that he actively, consciously seeks the engulfment that the other men associate with dependency and emasculation. His secret self not nearly as frightened of or starved for intimacy as Archie's or Wunsch's, Harsanyi thrives in his relationship with Thea because her passion renews rather than awakens him, though her voice often overwhelms him. For example, when Thea sings 'Die Lorelei,' Harsanyi feels the room so "flooded" that he has to open a window, imploring her to stop singing. Later, he tells his wife, Miss Kronborg "'had my room so reeking of a song this afternoon that I couldn't stay there,'" adding that he's glad "'there are not two of her'" (243). Harsanyi's secret self surfaces in response to Thea's "summons" while his "cultural self" gasps for air in the study which has now become the world of nature devoid of the social conventions which inhibit men from giving in to their hidden desires. Giannone argues that "when she grasps the idea of a river enduring beneath the havoc above it, Thea gives the end of 'Die Lorelei' an 'open flowing' tone to suggest continuity" (91). Thea's interpretation leaves her listener breathless but exhilarated, both his mind and body struggling to embrace the "stream of life" gushing from the singer's vessel/throat. Harsanyi manages to harness such intensity of feeling for his own artistic use before joining Archie and Wunsch in their renunciation of any claim to Thea herself. When Harsanyi sends her away to a new instructor, he "took one of her hands and kissed it lightly upon the back. His salute was one of greeting, not of farewell, and it was for someone he had never seen" (267). Unlike Archie and Wunsch, each frightened and enervated by Thea's womanhood, Harsanyi feels privileged to have witnessed her flowering and shared her passion—what he later calls "an open secret."

Of all her teachers, Thea feels closest to Harsanyi, but of all the men in her life, she wants Fred Ottenburg for a sweetheart: "Certainly she liked Fred better than anyone else in the world. There was Harsanyi, of course—but Harsanyi was always tired" (381). Fred's youth and personality enable him to respond to Thea and her voice in a more open, socially acceptable way even though his secret marriage prevents him from publicly acknowledging his love for her. Like Archie, Wunsch, and Harsanyi, Fred feels a "natural" attraction to Thea because she represents the wholeness that he desperately craves but finds lacking in a patriarchal society whose survival depends on separation, not integration, on reason divorced from desire. Unlike the other men, however, Fred feels so uncomfortable with such notions that he is "always running away" (334) from his work in the Ottenberg brewing business to gratify the secret self that finds expression in his relationship with his mother, his love for sports, parties, and music, and his affair with Thea. A sensuous man, Fred lives for the moment; Thea likes him because "with Fred she was never becalmed. There was always life in the air, always something coming or going, a rhythm of feeling and action—stronger than the natural accord of youth" (392). Fred, in turn, enjoys Thea's vivacity, "brilliancy of motion," and "direction." Finally, Cather shows a man who does not find Thea's ''fierceful nature" threatening, a man secure enough with himself and his own sexuality to welcome the engulfment which to others means loss of control. Although already married, Fred convinces himself that he is the best match for Thea because he will not hold her back to satisfy his own ego or any conventional notions of masculinity:

He meant to help her, and he could not think of another man who would … The clever ones were selfish, the kindly ones were stupid. 'Damn it, if she's going to fall in love with somebody, it had better be me than any of the others—of the sort she'd find. Get her tied up with some conceited ass who'd try to make her over, train her like a puppy!'


Challenging the idea that a woman must follow the script of a sexist society, Fred later tells Thea, "'You will never sit alone with a pacifier and a novel. You won't subsist on what the old ladies have put into the bottle for you. You will always break through into the realities. That was the first thing that Harsanyi found out about you; that you couldn't be kept on the outside'" (444). Fred wants to be on the inside with Thea; he confides to her, "'I've had a lot of sweethearts, but I've never been so much—engrossed before'" (403). Torn between his social obligation to an estranged wife (he desperately wants a divorce, but she promises a disastrous scandal) and his desire to complete himself by merging with Thea, Fred reveals his secret marriage but doesn't disengage because "nobody could look into her face and draw back, nobody who had any courage" (425). In the Epilogue, we learn that Thea has married Fred after all—not surprising considering Fred's intuitive understanding of and respect for Thea's ambition, independence, and "natural rhythm"—although Cather never explains how Fred was able to free himself from his wife. Because Fred knows that his existence depends not on his ability to control nature or deny his feelings of dependency but on whether he can construct his identity in relation rather than in opposition to others, he represents Cather's alternative to patriarchy's definition of masculinity.

In her article on Katherine Mansfield, Cather remarks that in his mind each member of a social unit constantly escapes, runs away, and tries "to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him" (136). The male characters in The Song of the Lark demonstrate the devastating effects the patriarchal net of repression and denial can have on the individual, perhaps offering their creator a chance to explore her own sexuality while hiding behind the role of novelist.


  1. Much criticism of The Song of the Lark focuses on the feminist aspect of the novel. Besides Foster, Huf, and Peck, see Susan Rosowski, "The Pattern of Willa Cather's Novels," Western American Literature 15 (1981): 243-63; Linda Panill, "Willa Cather's Artist-Heroines," Women's Studies 11 (1984): 223-30; Susan Leonardi, "To Have a Voice: The Politics of the Diva," Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 13 (1987): 65-72; and Susan Hallgarth, "The Woman Who Would Be Artist in The Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart," Willa Cather: Family, Community, and History, ed. John J. Murphy (Provo: Brigham Young, 1990) 169-173.
  2. Besides Seidler's study of masculinity, see Harry Brod, "Pornography and the Alienation of Male Sexuality," Men, Masculinities & Social Theory, ed. Jeff Hearn & David Morgan, (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990) 124-39.
  3. My study is necessarily limited to only four men in an attempt to provide an in-depth analysis of each rather than a general survey of every male character in the novel. Strong arguments could be made, however, for including Spanish Johnny, Ray Kennedy, Peter Kronborg, and Oliver Landry as males whose relationships with the heroine demonstrate Cather's challenge to traditional definitions of masculinity.
  4. Marilyn Berg Callander devotes the first chapter of her book Willa Cather and the Fairy Tale (Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1989) 7-18, to The Song of the Lark. Recognizing Archie's sexual attraction to Thea, Callander labels the older man one of Thea's various "father/Kings" and discusses his and Thea's relationship in terms of the Oedipal complex.

Works Cited

Cather Willa, "Katherine Mansfield." Not Under forty. New York: Knopf, 1953. 123-147.

——. The Song of the Lark. London: Virago, 1982.

Foster, Shirley. "The Open Cage: Freedom, Marriage, and the Heroine in Early Twentieth-Century American Women's Novels." Women's Writing: A Challenge to Theory. Ed. Moire Monteith. Great Britain: Harvester P, 1986. 154-74.

Giannone, Richard. Music in Willa Cather's fiction. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1968.

Griffin, Susan. Pornography and silence: Culture's Revenge Against Nature. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Huf, Linda. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman. New York: Frederick Unger, 1983. 81-102.

Mulvey, Laura. "Vision Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1988. 57-68.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Peck, Demaree. "Thea Kronborg's 'Song of Myself': The Artist's Imaginative Inheritance in The Song of the Lark." Western American Literature 26 (1991): 21-38.

Rosowski, Susan J. "Writing Against Silences: Female Adolescent Development in the Novels of Willa Cather." Studies in the Novel 21 (1989): 60-77.

Seidler, Victor J. "Reason, Desire, and Male Sexuality." The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. Ed. Pat Caplan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1987. 82-112.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1953.

Shepard, John. Music as Social Text. Cambridge: Polity P, 1991.

Slote, Bernice. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements 1893-1896. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.

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SOURCE: Lambert, Deborah G. “The Defeat of a Hero: Autonomy and Sexuality in My Ántonia.” American Literature 53, no. 4 (January 1982): 676-90.

In the following essay, Lambert asserts a lack of character development in Cather’s My Ántonia attributable to the author’s personal distress about her sexuality at the time she wrote the novel.

My Ántonia (1918), Willa Cather’s celebration of the American frontier experience, is marred by many strange flaws and omissions. It is, for instance, difficult to determine who is the novel’s central character. If it is Ántonia, as we might reasonably assume, why does she entirely disappear for two of the novel’s five books? If, on the other hand, we decide that Jim Burden, the narrator, is the central figure, we find that the novel explores neither his consciousness nor his development. Similarly, although the narrator overtly claims that the relationship between Ántonia and Jim is the heart of the matter, their friendship actually fades soon after childhood: between these two characters there is only, as E. K. Brown said, “an emptiness where the strongest emotion might have been expected to gather.”1 Other inconsistencies and contradictions pervade the text—Cather’s ambivalent treatment of Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball, for example—and all are in some way related to sex roles and to sexuality.

This emphasis is not surprising: as a writer who was also a woman, Willa Cather faced the difficulties that confronted, and still do confront, accomplished and ambitious women. As a professional writer, Cather began, after a certain point in her career, to see the world and other women, including her own female characters, from a male point of view. Further, Cather was a lesbian who could not, or did not, acknowledge her homosexuality and who, in her fiction, transformed her emotional life and experiences into acceptable, heterosexual forms and guises. In her society it was difficult to be a woman and achieve professionally, and she could certainly not be a woman who loved women; she responded by denying, on the one hand, her womanhood and, on the other, her lesbianism. These painful denials are manifest in her fiction. After certain early work, in which she created strong and achieving women, like herself, she abandoned her female characters to the most conventional and traditional roles; analogously, she began to deny or distort the sexuality of her principal characters. My Ántonia , written at a time of great stress in her life, is a crucial and revealing work, for in it we can discern the consequences of Cather’s dilemma as a lesbian writer in a patriarchal society.


Many, if not all, achieving women face the conflict between the traditional idea of what it is to be a woman and what it is to achieve. Achievement in most fields has been reserved for males; passivity—lack of assertiveness and energy, and consequent loss of possibility of achievement— has been traditionally female. When the unusual girl, or woman, rebels, and overcomes the limitations imposed on women, she suffers from the anxiety produced by conflict. Although such a woman is, and knows she is sexually female, in her professional life she is neither female nor male. Finding herself in no-woman’s land, she avoids additional anxiety by not identifying herself professionally as a woman or with other women. Carolyn Heilbrun, who diagnoses and prescribes for a variety of women’s dilemmas, writes: “Sensing within themselves, as girls, a longing for accomplishment, they have, at great cost, with great pain, become honorary men, adopting at the same time, the general male attitude towards women.”2

From childhood, Willa Cather was determined to achieve and she perceived, correctly, that achieving in the world was a male prerogative. When she decided as a child to become a doctor, she also began to sign herself “William Cather, MD,” or “Willie Cather, MD,” and she pursued her vocation seriously, making house calls with two Red Cloud physicians, and on one occasion giving chloroform while one of them amputated a boy’s leg. She also demonstrated her clear understanding of nineteenth-century sex roles and her preference for “male” activities when she entered in a friend’s album two pages of “The Opinion, Tastes and Fancies of Wm. Cather, MD.” In a list that might have been completed by Tom Sawyer, she cites “slicing toads” as a favorite summer occupation; doing fancy work as “real misery”; amputating limbs as “perfect happiness”; and dressing in skirts as “the greatest folly of the Nineteenth Century.”3 At college in Lincoln, her appearance in boyishly short hair and starched shirts rather than the customary frilly blouses— like her desire to play only male roles in college dramatic productions—continued to reflect her “male” ambition. James Woodress, Cather’s biographer, speaks of a “strong masculine element” in her personality, a phrase that may obscure what she saw clearly from childhood: that womanhood prohibited the achievement she passionately sought.4

After some measure of professional success, Cather began to identify with her male professional peers, rather than with women. Her review of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899) is a poignant example of the troubling consequences of this identification. First, Cather describes Edna Pontellier’s struggle towards identity as “trite and sordid” and then, comparing Edna to Emma Bovary, adds contemptuously that Edna and Emma “belong to a class, not large, but forever clamoring in our ears, that demands more out of life than God put into it.” In a final irony, Cather writes of Chopin that “an author’s choice of themes is frequently as inexplicable as his choice of a wife.” Like Flaubert and other male authors with whom she identifies, Cather fails to understand, let alone view sympathetically, the anguish that Chopin brilliantly portrays in Edna’s life and death.5

Nevertheless, in two novels written before My Ántonia , she accomplished what few women authors have: the creation of strong, even heroic, women as protagonists. Cather succeeded in this because she could imagine women achieving identity and defining their own purposes. The woman author, whose struggle toward selfhood and achievement is marked by painful conflict, rarely reproduces her struggle in fiction, perhaps finding its recreation too anxiety-producing, or perhaps simply not being able to imagine the forms that a woman’s initiation might take. George Eliot and Edith Wharton, to mention only two familiar examples, never created women characters who possess their own intelligence, ambition, or autonomy. Characteristically, women authors transpose their own strivings to their male characters and portray women in conventional roles. (In this case, the roles ascribed to women in fiction are the same as those ascribed to them in society.) The occasional male author—E. M. Forster, James, and Hawthorne are examples—will create an independent, even heroic, female character, perhaps because male progress toward identity, demanded and supported by society, is generally a less anxious process.

Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers ! (1913) and Thea Kronberg in The Song of the Lark (1915) are female heroes, women not primarily defined by relationship to men, or children, but by commitment to their own destinies and to their own sense of themselves. Alexandra inherits her father’s farm lands and grandfather’s intelligence: although her father has two grown sons, he chooses Alexandra to continue his work, because she is the one best-suited by nature to do so. Developing Nebraska farmland becomes Alexandra’s mission, and she devotes herself to it unstintingly. She postpones marriage until she is nearly forty years old, and then marries Carl, the gentle and financially unsuccessful friend of her childhood. Ultimately, Alexandra has success, wealthy independence, and a marriage which, unlike passionate unions in Cather’s fiction, will be satisfying rather than dangerous. In this portrait of Alexandra, Cather provides a paradigm of the autonomous woman, even while she acknowledges, through the images of Alexandra’s fantasy lover, the temptations of self-abnegation and passivity.

Thea Kronberg dedicates herself to music, and her talent defines and directs her life. Born into a large frontier family, she clear-sightedly pursues her goals, selecting as friends those few who support her aspirations. Subordinating personal life to the professional, Thea, like Alexandra, marries late in life, after she has achieved success; and her husband, too, recognizes and accepts her special mission. There is never a question of wooing either of these women away from their destinies to the conventional life of women. Marriage, coming later in life, after identity and achievement, is no threat to the self; moreover, Cather provides her heroes with sensitive, even androgynous, males who are supportive of female ambition. But Alexandra and Thea are unusual, imaginative creations primarily because they embody autonomy and achievement. In these books, Cather does not transpose her struggle for success to male characters, as women authors often have, but instead risks the creation of unusual female protagonists.

What Cather achieved in these two early novels she no longer achieved in her later works. Indeed she stopped portraying strong and successful women and began to depict patriarchal institutions and predominantly male characters. Although she wrote ten more novels, in none of them do we find women like Alexandra and Thea. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931) are Cather’s bestknown late novels, and in the former there are virtually no women, while in the latter, women are relegated to minor and entirely traditional roles. Cather’s movement toward the past in these novels—toward authority, permanence, and Rome—is also a movement into a world dominated by patriarchy. The writer who could envision an Alexandra and a Thea came to be a celebrant of male activity and institutions.6

In this striking transformation, My Ántonia is the transitional novel. Given the profound anxieties that beset women authors when they recreate their search for selfhood in female characters, it is not surprising that Cather turned to a male narrative point of view. She rationalized that the omniscient point of view, which she had used in both O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, was not appropriate for her subject matter and continued to ignore the advice of Sarah Orne Jewett, who told her that when a woman tried to write from a man’s point of view, she inevitably falsified.7 Adopting the male persona was, for Cather, as it has been for many other writers, a way out of facing great anxiety. Moreover, it is natural to see the world, and women, from the dominant perspective, when that is what the world reflects and literature records. Thus, in My Ántonia , for the first time in her mature work, Cather adopts a male persona, and that change marks her transition to fiction increasingly conventional in its depiction of human experience.8


Cather was not only a woman struggling with the dilemma of the achieving woman: she was also a lesbian, and that, too, affected the fiction that she wrote. Early in life she had decided never to marry, and in reviews and letters she repeatedly stressed that marriage and the life of the artist were utterly incompatible. She seems always to have loved women: indeed her only passionate and enduring relationships were with women. Her first, and probably greatest, love was Isabel McClung, whom she met in Pittsburgh in 1898. Moving into the McClung family home, Cather lived there for five years and worked in a small room in the attic. There she wrote most of April Twilights (1903), her book of poems; The Troll Garden (1905), a short story collection; and major parts of O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. Her affair with McClung continued until 1916, when McClung suddenly announced that she was going to marry the violinist Jan Hambourg. At this point, Cather’s world seems to have collapsed. She was first stunned and then deeply depressed. Her loss of McClung seems to have been the most painful event of her life, and it was six months before she could bring herself to see the couple. After a long visit to Red Cloud, and a shorter one to New Hampshire, she eventually returned to New York.9 There she took up her life with Edith Lewis, with whom she was to live for forty years in a relationship less passionate than that with McClung. But clearly, throughout her life, Cather’s deepest affections were given to women. During the troubled period when she felt abandoned by McClung, Cather was writing My Ántonia: both her sense of loss and the need to conceal her passion are evident in the text.

Cather never adequately dealt with her homosexuality in her fiction. In two early novels, the question of sexuality is peripheral: Alexander’s Bridge (1912) and The Song of the Lark concern the integration of identity, and the expression of sexuality is limited and unobtrusive. Yet Cather began to approach the issue of homosexuality obliquely in subsequent novels. Many, although not all, of the later novels include homosexual relationships concealed in heterosexual guises. Joanna Russ points out that these disguised relationships are characterized by an irrational, hopeless quality and by the fact that the male member of the couple, who is also the central consciousness of the novel, is unconvincingly male—is, in fact, female and a lesbian.10 The relationships of Claude and Enid in One of Ours (1922) and Niel and Marian Forrester in A Lost Lady (1923) are cases in point. In O Pioneers! , the novel which preceded My Ántonia , the love story of Alexandra’s brother Emil and Marie, is also such a transposed relationship: to consider its treatment is to notice, from another perspective, the significant changes that occurred in Cather’s writing at the time of My Ántonia .11

In the subplot of Emil and Marie’s love, which unexpectedly dominates the second half of O Pioneers! , Cather implies the immense dangers of homosexual love. The deaths of Emil and Marie at the moment of sexual consummation suggest more than a prohibition against adultery: their story expresses both a fantasy of sexual fulfillment and the certainty that death is the retribution for this sort of passion. Seeing the story of Emil and Marie in this way, as the disguised expression of another kind of passion, becomes increasingly plausible when one examines Emil’s character and behavior and observes that he is male in name only; moreover, it offers a convincing explanation for the sudden and shocking intrusion of violence in this otherwise uniformly elegiac novel. But what is most important here is that Alexandra, Cather’s hero, is not destroyed by the consequences of Emil’s passion; instead, passion vicariously satisfied, Alexandra retreats to the safety of heterosexual marriage. Thus the fantasy of homosexuality, and the fear of it, are encapsulated and controlled, only slightly distorting the narrative structure. Three years later, Cather’s fear is pervasive and dominates the development of My Ántonia , so that the narrative structure itself becomes a defense against erotic expression.

The original of Ántonia was Annie Sadilek Pavelka, a Bohemian woman whom Cather had loved and admired from childhood, and with whom she maintained a lifelong, affectionate friendship. In 1921, after completion of the novel, Cather wrote of her feeling for Annie and her decision to use the male point of view:

Of the people who interested me most as a child was the Bohemian hired girl of one of our neighbors, who was so good to me…. Annie fascinated me and I always had it in mind to write a story about her…. Finally, I concluded that I would write from the point of view of the detached observer, because that was what I had always been. Then I noticed that much of what I knew about Annie came from the talks I had with young men. She had a fascination for them, and they used to be with her whenever they could. They had to manage it on the sly, because she was only a hired girl. But they respected her, and she meant a good deal to some of them. So I decided to make my observer a young man.12

Here Cather suggests the long genesis of this tale and, significantly, her own replication of the “male” response to Annie, reflected in the language of the passage: “Annie fascinated me”/“She had a fascination for them.” The fascination here seems to imply not only a romantic and sexual attraction, but also horror at the attraction. Cather suggests that the young men’s response to Ántonia is ambivalent because Annie is forbidden; she is a hired girl, with all of that phrase’s various suggestions, and so they see her “on the sly.” For Cather that fascination is more complex. Identifying with the young men in their forbidden response to Annie, her impulse is that of the lesbian. Yet, when she wrote the novel and transposed to Jim her own strong attraction to Annie/Ántonia, she also transposed her restrictions on its erotic content. Although she adopts the male persona, she cannot allow him full expression of her feelings. Thus, what would seem to be Jim’s legitimate response to Ántonia is prohibited and omitted: its homosexual threat is, evidently, too great, and so we find at the heart of the novel that emptiness noted by Brown.

The avoidance of sexuality (which does not extend beyond the Jim-Ántonia relationship, however) must be seen in connection with McClung’s desertion of Cather, which occurred after she had composed the first two or three chapters of My Ántonia . During this time of grieving, she seemed not to trust herself to write of her own experience of love and sex. For the Cather persona and the beloved woman are not only separated: both are actually denied sexuality, although sexuality arises in distorted, grotesque forms throughout the novel.

During the writing of My Ántonia , Cather’s grief coincided with the already great burden of anxiety of the woman who is a writer. After this time, her heroic stance in her fiction could not continue, and she abandons the creation of strong fictional women. In My Ántonia she denies Jim’s erotic impulses and Ántonia’s sexuality as well; and she retreats into the safety of convention by ensconcing Ántonia in marriage and rendering her apotheosis as earth mother. She abandons Ántonia’s selfhood along with her sexuality: as Mrs. Cuzak, Ántonia is “a battered woman,” and a “rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”13 Interestingly, critics have recognized the absence of sexuality in Jim, although not in Ántonia, and focus their analyses on the male in the case, as though the novel had been written about a male character by a male author—or, as if the male experience were always central.

The most complex and instructive of the psychological analyses of Jim is by Blanche Gelfant, who sees Jim as a young man whose adolescence “confronts him with the possibility of danger in women.”14 He cannot accept the “nexus of love and death,” and so retreats to perpetual boyhood. Noting many of the novel’s ambiguous elements, Gelfant assumes that male fragility and male fear of womanhood is the crux of the problem. In her view, Jim is the protagonist and Ántonia is his guide: she is responsible for his failed initiation and, later, for his sexual humiliation and confusion.15 Gelfant’s analysis assumes traditional sex roles as normative: Jim’s experience is central and Ántonia’s is the subordinate, supporting role in his adventure. Yet, to understand the ambiguity in this, and perhaps in other texts by women writers, requires the reversal of such assumptions. If we assume the centrality of Ántonia and her development in the novel, we can observe the stages by which Cather reduces her to an utterly conventional and asexual character.


In childhood, Ántonia is established as the novel’s center of energy and vitality. As a girl she is “bright as a new dollar” (p. 4) with skin “a glow of rich, dark colour” and hair that is “curly and wild-looking” (p. 23). She is always in motion: holding out a hand to Jim as she runs up a hill, chattering in Czech and broken English, asking rapid questions, struggling to become at home in a new environment. Wanting to learn everything, Ántonia also has “opinions about everything” (p. 30). Never indolent like Lena Lingard, or passive like her sister Yulka, or stolid like the Bohemian girls, Ántonia is “breathless and excited” (p. 35), generous, interested, and affectionate. By the end of her childhood, however, intimations of her future social roles appear.

When Ántonia reaches puberty, Cather carefully establishes her subordinate status in relation to three males, and these relationships make an interesting comparison with Alexandra’s and Thea’s. First, Ántonia’s brutal brother, Ambrosch, is established as the head of the house and the “important person in the family” (p. 90). Then Jim records his need to relegate Ántonia to secondary status and receive deference, since “I was a boy and she was a girl” (p. 43), and in the farcical, pseudo-sexual snake-killing episode, he believes he accomplishes his goal. In fact, he and Ántonia enact a nearly parodic ritual of male and female behavior: in his fear, he turns on her with anger; she cries and apologizes for her screams, despite the fact that they may have saved his life; and she ultimately placates him with flattery. Forced to leave school, she soon relinquishes all personal goals in favor of serving others. No longer resentful or competitive, she is “fairly panting with eagerness to please” (p. 155) young Charley Harling, the son of her employers: “She loved to put up lunches for him when he went hunting, to mend his ball-gloves and sew buttons on his shooting coat, baked the kind of nut-cake he liked, and fed his setter dog when he was away on trips with his father” (p. 155). Cather’s protagonist has been reduced to secondary status, as Alexandra and Thea were not: having challenged our expectations in earlier works, Cather retreats in this novel to the depiction of stereotypical patterns.

The second book of My Ántonia , with its insinuative title “The Hired Girls,” dramatizes the emergence of Ántonia’s intense sexuality and its catastrophic effects on her world. Now a beautiful adolescent woman, Ántonia is “lovely to see, with her eyes shining and her lips always a little parted when she danced. That constant dark colour in her cheeks never changed” (p. 223). Like flies the men begin to circle around her—the iceman, the delivery boys, the young farmers from the divide; and her employer, Mr. Harling, a demanding, intimidating, patriarch insists that she give up the dances where she attracts so much attention. When she refuses, he banishes her from his family. Next becoming the object of her new employer’s lust, Ántonia loses Jim’s affection and, by the end of the summer, has embarked on a disastrous affair with the railroad conductor, Donovan. Ántonia’s sexuality is so powerful, in Cather’s portrayal, that it destroys her oldest and best friendships and thrusts her entirely out of the social world of the novel.

Jim’s intense anger at Ántonia once again reveals his fear, this time a fear of her sexuality that is almost horror. When Cutter attempts to rape her, Jim, the actual victim of the assault, returns battered to his grandmother’s house. He then blames Ántonia and her sexuality for Cutter’s lust, and recoils from her: “I heard Ántonia sobbing outside my door, but I asked grandmother to send her away. I felt I never wanted to see her again. I hated her almost as much as I hated Cutter. She had let me in for all this disgustingness” (p. 250). This eruption of sexuality marks the climax, almost the end, of the friendship between Ántonia and Jim, and after this, Ántonia is virtually banished from the novel.

At this point, Cather, evidently retreating from the sexual issue, broadens the novel’s thematic focus. Jim and Ántonia do not meet again for two years, and all of Book III is devoted to Jim’s frivolous, romanticized affair with Lena Lingard, with which he and the reader are diverted. Moreover, the events of Ántonia’s life—her affair with Donovan, her pregnancy, her return home, the birth of her daughter—are kept at great narrative distance. Two years after the fact, a neighbor describes these events to Jim as she has seen them, or read about them in letters. Yet, as though banishing Ántonia and distracting Jim were not sufficient, her sexuality is diminished and then, finally, destroyed. After a punitive pregnancy and the requisite abandonment by her lover, she never again appears in sexual bloom. The metaphoric comparisons that surround her become sexually neutral, at best. In one example her neck is compared to “the bole of a tree” (p. 122), and her beauty is cloaked: “After the winter began she wore a man’s long overcoat and boots and a man’s felt hat with a wide brim” (p. 316). Her father’s clothes, like Mr. Harling’s ultimatum, seem well designed to keep Ántonia’s sexuality under wraps.

After a two-year separation, during which Ántonia returns to her brother’s farm, bears her child, and takes up her life of field work, Jim and Ántonia meet briefly. Dream-like and remote, their meeting is replete with nostalgia not readily accounted for by events; as Jim says, “We met like people in the old song, in silence, if not in tears” (p. 319). Inappropriately, though in a speech of great feeling, Ántonia compares her feeling for Jim to her memory of her father, who is lost to her for reasons that the text does provide:

“… you are going away from us for good…. But that don’t mean I’ll lose you. Look at my papa here, he’s been dead all these years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else. He never goes out of my life.”

(p. 320)

Jim’s response expresses similar nostalgia and an amorphous yearning:

“… since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother, or my grandmother, or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man…. You really are a part of me.”

(p. 321)

The seductive note of sentiment may blind us as readers to the fact that Jim might offer to marry Ántonia and instead abandons her to a life of hardship on her brother’s farm with an empty, and ultimately broken promise to return soon. Cather forcibly separates Jim and Ántonia because of no logic given in the text; we have to assume that her own emotional dilemma affected the narrative and to look for the reasons within Cather herself.

Following this encounter is a twenty-year hiatus: when Jim and Ántonia finally meet again, the tensions that have lain behind the novel are resolved. Ántonia, now devoid of sexual appeal, no longer presents any threat. In addition, she has been reduced to a figure of the greatest conventionality: she has become the stereotypical earth mother. Bearing no resemblance to Cather’s early female heroes, she is honored by Jim and celebrated by Cather as the mother of sons. By the novel’s conclusion, Cather has capitulated to a version of that syndrome in which the unusual, achieving woman recommends to other women as their privilege and destiny that which she herself avoided. While recognizing the conflict that issues in such self-betrayal, one also notes the irony of Cather’s glorification of Ántonia.

Autonomy and unconventional destiny are available only to the subordinate characters, Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball, two of the hired girls. Lena, having seen too much of marriage, childbearing and poverty, has established a successful dress-making business and, despite her sensuous beauty, refrained from marriage. Her companion, Tiny, made her fortune in the Klondike before settling down in San Francisco. They lived in a mutually beneficial, supportive relationship: “Tiny audits Lena’s accounts occasionally and invests her money for her; and Lena, apparently, takes care that Tiny doesn’t grow too miserly,” Jim tells us (p. 328). Both Lena and Tiny are independent and unconventional; Lena particularly understands and values the single self. In a revealing detail, she instructs her brother to buy handkerchiefs for their mother with an embroidered “B” for her given name, “Berthe,” rather than with an “M” for mother. Lena, who describes marriage as “being under somebody’s thumb” (p. 229), says, “It will please her for you to think about her name. Nobody ever calls her by it now” (p. 172). Although relegated to subordinate roles, these women are initially presented favorably; but, by the end of the novel, Cather simultaneously praises Ántonia’s role as mother and demeans the value of their independent lives.

In her concluding gesture, Cather offers a final obeisance to convention. Her description of Lena and Tiny undercuts their achievement and portrays them as stereotypical “old maids” who have paid for their refusal of their “natural” function. Thus, Tiny has become a “thin, hard-faced woman, very well dressed, very reserved” (p. 301) and something of a miser: she says “frankly that nothing interested her much now but making money” (p. 301). Moreover, Tiny has suffered the “mutilation” of her “pretty little feet” (p. 301)— the price of her unnatural success in the Klondike. Though a little more subtly, Lena is similarly disfigured, physically distorted by her emotional aberration. Jim presents her as crude and overblown in a final snapshot: “A comely woman, a trifle too plump, in a hat a trifle too large …” (p. 350). So it is, too, with their friendship. Jim’s barren account stresses unpleasantness about clothes and money and implies that an edge of bitterness has appeared. So much for female independence and success; so much for bonds between women. Cather, through Jim’s account of them, has denigrated Tiny and Lena and their considerable achievement. In betraying these characters, versions of herself, Cather reveals the extent of her self-division.

Equally revealing is the transformation of Ántonia in the concluding segment. Now forty-four, she is the mother of eleven children, a grandmother without her former beauty. So changed is she that Jim at first fails to recognize her. She is “grizzled,” “flat-chested,” “toothless,” and “battered” (pp. 331-32), consumed by her life of childbearing and field work. The archetypal mother, Ántonia now signifies nourishment, protection, fertility, growth, and abundance: energy in service to the patriarchy, producing not “Ántonia’s children” but “Cuzak’s boys” (despite the fact that five of the children mentioned—Nina, Yulka, Martha, Anna, and Lucie—are girls). Like Cather’s chapter title, Jim recognizes only the male children in his fantasy of eternal boyhood adventure, forgetting that in an earlier, less conventional and more androgynous world, his companion had been a girl—Ántonia herself.

Now Ántonia is glorified as a mythic source of life. Not only the progenitor of a large, vigorous family, she is also the source of the fertility and energy that have transformed the barren Nebraska prairie into a rich and fruitful garden. From her fruit cellar cavern pour forth into the light ten tumbling children—and the earth’s abundance as well. In the images of this conclusion, she, no longer a woman, becomes Nature, a cornucopeia, a “mine of life” (p. 353). Representing for Jim “immemorial human attitudes” which “fire the imagination” (p. 353), she becomes an idea and disappears under a symbolic weight, leaving for his friends and companions her highly individualized male children.

The conclusion of My Ántonia has usually been read as a triumph of the pioneer woman: Ántonia has achieved victory over her own hard early life and over the forces of Nature which made an immense struggle of farm life in Nebraska. But in fact, as we have seen, Cather and her narrator celebrate one of our most familiar stereotypes, one that distorts and reduces the lives of women. The image of the earth mother, with its implicit denial of Ántonia’s individual identity, mystifies motherhood and nurturing while falsely promising fulfillment. Here Cather has found the means to glorify and dispose of Ántonia simultaneously, and she has done so in a way that is consonant with our stereotypical views and with her own psychological exigencies. The image of Ántonia that Cather gives us at the novel’s conclusion is one that satisfies our national longings as well: coming to us from an age which gave us Mother’s Day, it is hardly surprising that My Ántonia has lived on as a celebration of the pioneer woman’s triumph and as a paean to the fecundity of the American woman and American land.

Cather’s career illustrates the strain that women writers have endured and to which many besides Cather have succumbed. In order to create independent and heroic women, women who are like herself, the woman writer must avoid male identification, the likelihood of which is enhanced by being a writer who is unmarried, childless, and a lesbian. In the case of My Ántonia , Cather had to contend not only with the anxiety of creating a strong woman character, but also with the fear of a homosexual attraction to Annie/Ántonia. The novel’s defensive narrative structure, the absence of thematic and structural unity that readers have noted, these are the results of such anxieties. Yet, because it has been difficult for readers to recognize the betrayal of female independence and female sexuality in fiction—their absence is customary—it has also been difficult to penetrate the ambiguities of My Ántonia , a crucial novel in Cather’s long writing career.


1. E. K. Brown and Leon Edel, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (New York: Knopf, 1953), p. 203.

2. Reinventing Womanhood (New York: Norton, 1979), pp. 31-32. This essay grew out of a 1979 NEH Summer Seminar entitled “The Woman as Hero: Studies in Female Selfhood in British and American Fiction” directed by Professor Heilbrun.

3. Mildred Bennett, The World of Willa Cather (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1961), pp. 110-14.

4. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970), pp. 45, 53, 176.

5. Willa Cather, rev. of The Awakening, in Kate Chopin, The Awakening, ed. Margaret Culley (New York: Norton, 1976), pp. 153-54.

6. Two lesser late novels, Lucy Gayheart (1935) and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), are devoid of heroes of either gender. Instead they present women, trapped in traditional situations, who are weak or cruel and who end in suicide and paralysis. Lucy Gayheart can usefully be compared to The Song of the Lark, since it is a weaker and conventional version of similar, if not identical, subject matter.

7. Woodress, Willa Cather, p. 132.

8. Heilbrun, Reinventing Womanhood, pp. 81-92.

9. Woodress, Willa Cather, pp. 172-74, 178-79.

10. “To Write ‘Like a Woman’: Transformations of Identity in Willa Cather,” unpublished paper presented at 1979 MLA meeting; Judith Fetterley argues similarly in “My Ántonia, Jim Burden and the Dilemma of the Lesbian Writer,” unpublished paper presented at SUNY Conference, “Twentieth Century Women Writers,” June 1980 Professors Russ and Fetterley were both kind enough to send me copies of their essays.

11. Referring to McClung’s marriage, Leon Edel wrote in Literary Biography (London: Rupert Hart Davis, 1957), p. 75, that “it is from this moment that the biographer can date a change in Willa Cather’s works.”

12. Bennett, The World of Willa Cather, pp. 46-47.

13. Willa Cather, My Ántonia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954), p. 4. All references to this edition, and page numbers will be supplied in parentheses in the text.

14. “The Forgotten Reaping Hook: Sex in My Ántonia,” American Literature, 43 (1971), 61-82.

15. Ibid., pp. 66, 64.

Further Reading

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Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather: A Reference Guide Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall, 1986., 415 p.

Bibliography of Cather from the "Reference Guide to Literature" series.

Crane, Joan. Willa Cather: A Bibliography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

Lists secondary sources on Cather.

Lathrup, JoAnna. Willa Cather: A Checklist of Her Published Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975, 118 p.

Bibliography of Cather and her works.


Bohlke, L. Brent and Sharon Hoover. Willa Cather Remembered, edited by Sharon Hoover. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002, 217 p.

Provides reflections on Cather's life and career.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up. London: Virago, 1989, 409 p.

Offers an alternative interpretation to what has traditionally been described as Cather's conservatism, examining her life, language, and landscapes.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992, 312 p.

Biography of Cather, written as a memoir by a friend and admirer.

Stout, Janis P. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000, 381 p.

Examination of Cather within the context of her era.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Willa Cather. New York: Continuum, 1994, 203 p.

A respected biography accompanied by lengthy analysis of Cather's fiction.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, 583 p.

Utilizes Bernice Stole's noted collection of primary sources, alternating between details of Cather's life and examinations of her writing.


Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Explores how various branches of literary criticism, including feminist criticism, have at times claimed Cather as their own for political reasons.

Carlin, Deborah. Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

Argues that Cather's later works have been ignored due to her unconventional use of fictional forms and unsettling questions raised about sex, power, race, and class.

Gelfant, Blanche H. "The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Ántonia." American Literature 43, no. 1 (March 1971): 60-82.

Views Jim Burden as an unreliable narrator in My Ántonia, arguing for a new reading of the novel that includes discussion of Cather's ambivalence about sex.

Kaye, Frances W. Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women. New York: Peter Lang, 1993, 204 p.

Discusses Cather's portrayal of women's experiences with men as mostly negative.

Motley, Warren. "The Unfinished Self: Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and the Psychic Cost of a Woman's Success." Women's Studies 12 (1986): 149-65.

Argues that Alexandra must become isolated and "psychologically deadened" to achieve success as a female pioneer.

O'Brien, Sharon. "'The Thing Not Named': Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer." Signs 9, no. 4 (1984): 576-99.

Examines evidence of Cather's lesbianism and explores how her need to hide her sexuality affected her fiction writing.

Rosowski, Susan J. "Willa Cather's Women." Studies in American Fiction 9, no. 2 (autumn 1981): 261-75.

Explores the ways in which Cather portrays her female characters not only as feminine archetypes, but also as individual women.

——. "Writing against Silences: Female Adolescent Development in the Novels of Willa Cather." Studies in the Novel 21, no. 1 (spring 1989): 60-77.

Provides discussion of Cather's treatment of adolescence as a uniquely female experience.

Wasserman, Loretta. "The Lovely Storm: Sexual Initiation in Two Early Willa Cather Novels." Studies in the Novel 14, no. 4 (winter 1982): 348-58.

Finds Cather to have been a reticent person but not, as many critics have suggested, devoid of sensual feeling and interest.

Women's Studies 11, no. 3 (1984): 219-372.

Issue devoted to the study of women in Cather's works.


Additional coverage of Cather's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 128; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 54, 78, 256; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 7, 16; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 50; Something about the Author, Vol. 30; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 11, 31, 99, 132; 20th Century Romance and Historical Writers; Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2; and World Literature Criticism.

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Cather, Willa (Short Story Criticism)


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