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Le bovarysme et la littérature de langue anglaise

Yvan Leclerc
Nicole Terrien

Lost Lady Dreams

Cynthia Griffin Wolff

Texte intégral

Good-night, good-night sweet ladies, good-night good-night, good-night.
— William
Shakespeare, Hamlet

  • 1 Willa Cather, A Lost Lady, ed. Susan J. Rosowski with Kari A. Ronning, explanatory notes by Kari A. (...)

1Ophelia is not a major character in this tragedy, merely a minor player with ravaged expectations, a victim of failures not her own. Neither her king nor her father has kept her world from ruin; neither the prince nor her brother can restore it to order. However, in Cather’s novel, the “Lost Lady,” Marian Forrester, is the center of our interest: a woman whose “eyes, when they laughed for a moment into one’s own, seemed to promise a wild delight”; a woman who cries defiantly in the face of tragedy, and who feels “such a power to live in me.”1 Yet like Ophelia, Marian Forrester is a casualty and not a cause of the devastation in her land. The patriarchal pioneers have failed to ensure society’s order, and their sons have failed to repair the loss. Mrs. Forrester’s world has fallen into disarray; and the wreckage of her society is echoed in the undoing of her life.

2Willa Cather has become so firmly associated with her Prairie novels that it may be surprising to learn that during the years of her apprenticeship, she thought of James and Flaubert as her primary literary mentors. James’s explorations of the evil in ancient, enigmatic societies seem an unexpected model for the novelist who wrote about towns so new that they seemed in danger of “blowing away”; and Flaubert’s meticulous examination of consciousness—of different visions of a complex world—seems of little use to a novelist writing about a society still in its infancy. Willa Cather spent all of her formative years in the midst of unruly change. The Virginia of her childhood was recovering from a ruinous Civil War, and it would not be whole for at least half a century. On the prairie all the world was waiting to be exploited. Everything seemed possible on the prairie; everyone seemed free to pursue some self-defined personal destiny; even the grossest brutality could be shrugged away; and on the prairie, even the bravest ambition seemed available. Thus Cather’s curse as an artist would appear to be the fluidity of the societies that were her inescapable legacy. How then to continue the tradition she admired?

3The most important notion, of course, is “continue.” Although it took her many years to accept the fact, Cather could never replicate the work of the Masters she loved; she could only continue in some way that was appropriate to her situation; for even well-established societies had changed in radical ways, and art had begun to postulate new problems and new ways of looking at the world by the time Willa Cather was writing. She confronted them most clearly (and abruptly) in the spring 1913 Armory exhibition that opened in New York City at Lexington and 25th street, located just a brisk walk from her apartment; it was her country’s introduction to Matisse, Braque, Picasso, Du-Champ, and many others; and without question it was the most controversial artistic event that ever took place in America.

4An artist of the fauve movement had just painted a portrait of Cather s good friend Elizabeth Shepley Sargeant (who had been living in France), and Cather was so eager to learn about this new art that as soon as her friend arrived home, she began a barrage of questions.

  • 2 Elizabeth Shepley Sergent, Willa Cather, A Memoire (Athens, Ohio, University of Ohio Press, 1992), (...)

Willa was intrigued [by the new visions of experimental art, Sargeant remembered, and] especially by the Cubist. She determined [that] I should expound modern art to her. [And when the canvases of this “Fauve” were unpacked], she began at once to study [them] with interest, since they represented a new way of seeing.... She asked me many questions about the wild man from a Provencal vineyard, a petit bourgeois by birth, who had got to painting in this new and startling way.... In 1913, the story of le sauvage, as his mother called him, and above all, his new way of painting, piqued her interest.2

5Cather was already a close friend of John Sloan’s (one of “The Eight”) who had put the exhibition together, and the theories that lay beyond this multifaceted revolution in painting were not nearly so new to Cather as Sargeant suggests. Most important, however, Cather confirmed the connection between the art of painting and the art of fiction that she had already discerned.

6The cubists proposed a radical uncertainty in our perception of the world; thus they postulated that certainty and stability did not inhere in ordinary life experience and that it was the privilege of art either to provide that stability or to make the members of its audience aware of the treacherous turmoil of a world that they had always accepted as continuous and steady.

  • 3 Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth Century Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1976), 13-14.

For the traditional distinction between solid form and the space around it, Cubism substituted a radically new fusion of mass and void. In place of earlier perspective systems that determined the precise location of discrete objects in illusory depth, Cubism offered an unstable structure of dismembered planes in indeterminate spatial positions. Instead of assuming that the work of art was an illusion of a reality that lay beyond it, Cubism proposed that the work of art was itself a reality that represented the very process by which nature is transformed into art....
For a century that questioned the very concept of absolute truth or value, Cubism created an artistic language of intentional ambiguity. In front of a Cubist work of art, the spectator was to realize that no single interpretation of the fluctuating shapes, textures, spaces, and objects could be complete in itself.

7Cubism became a powerful way of rendering the frittering formlessness of modern society, a world in which the old forms of coherence had been destroyed or devalued and in which no one had created new patterns of social order to replace them. Ironically in Cather’s case, the specific strategies of James and Flaubert were of little use in this blighted new world, for there were no longer complex, coherent social systems within which an individual’s motives and behavior could be analyzed. So just as new forms of visual art were required to render the truth about its subject, so new forms of fiction were needed to explore the meaning not merely of motive and behavior, but of “self.”

8Ironically, for all that Cather had lamented the barrenness of her prairie heritage, after World War I, she began to realize that nothing could be a more appropriate setting for the vacuity and jeopardies of this post-war world than the prairie. Cather had always known that the prairie was a perilous place; but when she reached middle age, she realized that it could house dangers just as subtle and lethal as those of any venerable civilization; and like the rattle-snakes that glide unseen through the seas of red grass, it could destroy without remorse. However, the Prairie’s distinctive danger lay not in some labyrinthine social system, but in the opposite condition—in an emptiness that amounted to abyss.

9Cather was brought to the Prairie in her tenth year, in many ways as much an immigrant as the “other” refugees from Germany or Sweden or Bohemia or France. Acutely aware of her own foreignness, she soon realized that even on the impassive prairie, there were no tabulae rasae. The settlers of the prairies did not compose a close-knit community; they had little cultural history in common. Instead, everyone had brought not only his or her own language, but also curious fables, parables and secrets, idiosyncrasies and prejudices, skills and talents, expectations, sorrows, and hopes. Everyone had fashioned an image of self that was founded on unique memories and a singular set of dreams. In 1883, the Nebraskan Prairie was a carnival of competing traditions and a kaleidoscope of possible identities.

  • 4 Willa Cather, O! Pioneers, ed. Susan Rosowski and Charles W. Mignon with Kathleen Danker & explanat (...)

10Henry James had worked with highly evolved societies, with civilizations that were mature—however enigmatic, ominous, and hazardous they may have been; under these circumstances, both “plot” and “character” could grow out of an individual’s need to understand the society in which he or she lived and to address the complex problem it presented. Cather confronted the opposite difficulty: the material available for her fictions was a stretch of land with no extended “record of human enterprise,” an expanse whose most depressing and disheartening fact was “the absence of human landmarks.4 Even though their missions seem antithetical, Willa Cather never fully relinquished her debt to Henry James, and ultimately, both assumed the task of exposing iniquity and pain. James discerned the hazards of an apparently ordered world; Cather probed the mysteries of an impassive, blank and billowing grassland where society itself was the stranger. Ultimately, Cather was James’s disciple, for their goals were essentially the same although their circumstances and tactics were entirely different. James’s mission had been analytical, and he had examined human problems played out within the confines of complex societies with long traditions. By contrast, the social realms of Cather’s fictions are so frail and new and sparsely organized that even though she was interested in the problems James and Flaubert addressed, she could not avail herself of their methods; in the absence of a coherent, well-established and shared world, the notion of a “point of view” is insufficient, and some more radical approach is necessary. Necessarily, then, working in the near-desert, formless expanse of the Nebraskan Prairie, Cather was often constrained to take the narrative one step back and focus on the primitive, generative processes by which “character” and “society” are formed and defined.

11In Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks discusses the relationship between character and plot; and he reminds us that

  • 5 Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1985), 3.

Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves in an episodic, sometimes semi-conscious, but virtually uninterrupted monologue. We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.5

12It is not difficult to understand the relevance of Peter Brooks’s observations to Cather’s dilemma. Insofar as external forms of order are lacking, the narrative descriptions of “self” that are constantly “reworked in [the] story of our own lives” become not merely explorations, but essential ways of discovering and defining our own identity, and of imparting order to our world. We could have no sanity unless we concocted such fables of our own existence; and because they play such a crucial role, we may risk almost anything to maintain them—or at least to maintain our illusion that they can still perform their original function.

13This process becomes critical, of course, for those who live where the most striking feature is the “absence of human landmarks.” Creating an enduring “story of self” is both emphatic and central for the prairie people in Willa Cather’s novels. Ironically, however, there is danger even in the very process that is essential to our lives. In this rudimentary, generative case, the running monologue of each individual that is, perhaps, coextensive with “life” and/or “character” may differ so drastically from person to person that each ultimately becomes isolated, encapsulated within his or her unique life-chronicle. And therein lies the deepest danger of this expansive new world.

  • 6 “Plot as we need and want the term is hence an embracing concept for the design and intention of na (...)

14In Cather’s case, instead of postulating that characters see the same world from multiple points of view, it is more accurate and useful for a reader to consider the possibility that within a given novel, the various characters each create singular and largely isolated fictional worlds for themselves. Thus although all characters in a novel necessarily share the same sequences of events (or narrative), in each case, the “plot” (that is, the selection, ordering, emphasis and interpretation of these events) becomes primarily a confirmation of the story that defines each separate self. And of course, it will not be the same story for each character. In the absence of an established community—without shared customs, expectations, values—the various plots that shape their separate life-stories may bear little relationship to each other.6 Thus instead of interacting coherently and effectively, the characters may coexist without genuine interaction. The result can be radical alienation or catastrophic destruction. Or, an unscrupulous character may recognize the narrative-self of another and manipulate it maliciously and in moments of crisis or malice, individuals may collide with the violence of brutal, but sightless animals, injuring or being injured by those whom they have never really perceived.

15It is this illusive nexus of self-definition, limitation and imprisonment that Cather examines in A Lost Lady.

  • 7 O, Pioneers! 64.

16When she began to write about the prairie, Cather’s first instinct was to repair the absence of community on the grasslands. Thus in various ways, the Prairie novels that precede A Lost Lady are preoccupied with the primal processes of Creation. O, Pioneers! marks an almost Biblical Beginning: “For the first time... since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning.”7 The Song of the Lark traces the evolution of an artist. My Antonia portrays a woman whose fertility becomes legend.

17However, Cather’s post-war novel, One of Ours, marks the beginning of a period of deep pessimism; isolation and alienation dominate her imagination, and the chaos of war seemed to continue as the world at large began to lose both traditional order and coherent protections. Instead of society’s civilizing the great plains, migration had worked in the opposite direction: the war had fatally damaged coherence, and the most sterile and lethal traits of the Prairie had appropriated our cultural orders. A Lost Lady, which followed hard upon the heels of One of Ours, continues the themes of destruction and loss in that vision of carnage and broken lives. This is Willa Cather’s most beautifully constructed novel; yet ironically, the themes of destruction and damage are just as powerful here as they had been in One of Ours.

18This novel opens with a description of the rudimentary social order that appears to “govern” the fictional world—those who were “there to make a living, and... [those who had come] to invest money and to ‘develop our great West.’” In short order, it presents compelling, but peculiarly jumbled bits of information about each of the four major characters. The novel suggests no relationship among the various schemes for life that constitute each character’s “life story.” Instead, we are offered no more than a concatenation of “plots”—four distinct stories by which each defines “self.” These people and their essential stories have no common heritage and no single set of standards. Each is fundamentally isolated from the others. Thus, interaction among them becomes at first awkward, and at length disastrous.

19The four of them fall into two groups: Captain and Mrs. Forrester comprise one. The Captain was one of the prairie’s great pioneers and an early governor of the state; his much younger wife seems the embodiment of all that is delicate, beautiful and gracious.

20An old-fashioned hero, Captain Forrester had led his crew across the treacherous planes in the push toward California. A member of the mighty “railroad aristocracy,” he has defined himself in Titanic terms. Even when his life has become diminished, nothing seems more real to him than this vanished past, his era of power—perhaps even of momentary greatness. And alone in this novel, Captain Forrester seems consciously to understand the dreams that inform his life.

My philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak—you will get. You will get it more or less....because a thing that is dreamed of in the way I mean, is already an accomplished fact. All our great West has been developed from such dreams We dreamed the railroads across the mountains, just as I dreamed my [estate] on the Sweet Water. [Lost Lady 52]

21Despite his affability, he nurtures a Titanic image of self, yet Titanic ambitions can entirely absorb a man’s vital forces; and while such men may be essential to the task of penetrating a wilderness, they are seldom gifted with the art of forging community, and visions that are exclusively Titanic can result in fatal tragedies. Daniel Forrester seems to have forgotten that the Titans were supplanted by a younger generation. Moreover, fate casts a dark shadow over even his determination to reify himself. He has styled himself a man of perfect honor, a hero in the noblest sense. These are the visions that give coherence and validation to his sense of “self”; and nothing is more important to Captain Forrester than maintaining the dreams that define and stabilize the identity he both claims and reveres. However, the eroding order of the world in which he lives makes this dream increasingly impossible too.

22His wife is a necessary presence in the Captain’s life; her role gives a chiaroscuro highlight to his manly, triumphant importance. “Whatever Mrs. Forrester chose to do was ‘lady-like’ because she did it. [One could not] imagine her in any dress or situation in which she would not be charming.” [Lost Lady 10]

23However, Marian Forrester has her own dreams. She construes the world in fairy-tale terms, dreaming herself into the role of captivating and compliant “princess.” However, in order to maintain this dream (and with it, her “self”), she requires the participation of someone else: a strong man who will save her from harm and elevate her as his consort. He will support her, meet her needs, and treat her with honor—providing the conditions within which she can be a lady. Under these circumstances, she is happy to enact the reciprocal function of accentuating and reenforcing her husband’s position: she will appreciate his power and acknowledge her debt to him; she will create an atmosphere of elegance and comfort in their home; and she will conserve her beauty as her husband’s greatest pleasure and his most delightful possession.

24The other two members of this concatenation are only adolescents when the novel begins. Cather’s rendering of the brutality that informs the nature of one boy, Ivy Peters, is unforgettable. Despite the two systems of order that are referenced in his name [Ivy: natural order and Peter(s): the order of the Church], he is intent upon defying all forms of harmony, and he wants to possess beauty only so that he can have the power to destroy it. Our introduction to his casual savagery is a triumph of brisk, brutal, concise exposition.

  • 8 Lost Lady 21-22. This scene is signal to the fact that in this novel, knives and other cutting inst (...)

Ivy’s red skin was flecked with tiny freckles, like rust spots, and in each of his hard cheeks there was a curly indentation, like a knot in a tree-bole, — two permanent dimples.... His eyes were very small, and an absence of eyelashes gave his pupils the fixed, unblinking hardness of a snake’s or a lizard’s....
[He captured a female woodpecker], held the woodpecker’s head in a vice made of his thumb and forefinger, enclosing its panting body with his palm. Quick as a flash, as if it were a practised trick, with one... tiny blade he slit both the eyes that glared in the bird’s stupid little head, and instantly released it.
The woodpecker rose in the air with a whirling, corkscrew motion, darted to the right, struck a tree-trunk,—to the left, and struck another. Up and down, backward and forward among the tangle of branches it flew, raking its feathers, falling and recovering itself.

25It would be easy (but mistaken) to identify Peters as one of those who have come west to make a forture; he is a home-grown product—perverse, pernicious product of the prairies. And as this vignette suggests, he may care about some things even more than money.

26Completing this quartet of characters is Niel Herbert, younger than Peters and of an altogether different nature. His name signals devotion and piety [Niel: kneel and Herbert: the religious poet of the same name]; it invokes an antique epoch when an aesthetic vision and a religious sensibility were conjoined. One afternoon while playing in the Forrester’s meadow, Niel falls and hurts himself. He is allowed to wait for the doctor in Mrs. Forrester’s bedroom.

The windows went almost down to the baseboard, like doors, and the closed green shutters let in streaks of sunlight that quivered on the polished floor and silver things on the dresser. The heavy curtains were looped back with thick cords. [Lost Lady 26]

27Seen through the filter of Niel’s dream, the room resembles a church, a hallowed place. The boy does not realize that even as a young adolescent, he feels a powerful sexual attraction for Marian (although his reaction to her nursing care reveals it clearly to the reader). However, she belongs to a man of sufficiently heroic proportions to assure Niel that her passionate energies are safely out of reach. Thus in order to shape his complicated reactions to the lovely lady, Niel concocts his own vision of her entirely along religious lines. Indeed, the dream that pervades his perception of the world closely resembles The Romance of the Rose.

28Unexpectedly, perhaps, Cather arranges the novel so that the reader views the fictional world largely through the appealing filter of Niel Herbert’s observations and beliefs. The conventions of the legend that shapes his vision present a beautifully ordered image of the world in general, and although they insist upon her absolute chastity, any “Lady” who has been honored as its moral and aesthetic center holds a place of unparalleled esteem. The reader is in great peril of being seduced into believing that only Niel can see the “reality” of his surroundings, perhaps because unlike the others, his vision is coherent, familiar, and morally commendable.

29Yet the reader ought not to be diverted by the terms of Niel’s vision; instead, it is the treacherous interplay among these four radically different conceptions of organization that should command the reader’s attention—the unique, interior “plot” that each concocts from the same chain of events. Each “dream” embodies the appearance (but not the fully developed authority) of some cultural tradition; each is hostage to different expectations; and because they honor no common heritage, no single set of shared standards, not one of them is viable on the great plains of the prairie. Each dream (and its author) is fundamentally isolated. Interaction among them becomes at first awkward, and at length disastrous.

30There was a period before the beginning of the novel when Captain Forrester’s dream of the world and that of his wife could coexist in harmony, could even seem to reinforce each other. The Captain’s image of his own invulnerable strength and heroism was plausible, and Marian’s notions of herself as beloved and honored consort seemed secure. However, time and adversity had not yet fully tested them. Neither of the pair had taken account of the fact that an inconstant society will give little lasting support to the hero and heroine of the moment.

  • 9 Niel realizes this fact only many years later: “Niel had often wondered just how much the Captain k (...)

31By the time the novel begins, when the Captain is well beyond middle-age and long past the days when he “dreamed” a railroad across the west, the dissonance of their illusions has begun to appear in ways that are at best distasteful and at worst corrosive. Several decades older than his vibrant wife, the Captain seems impotent in many ways, not the least of them sexual; Marian is still devoted to her husband—still presides over his home with grace and kindness. Nonetheless, she is also vital and still desirable. She will clearly out-live her elderly husband, and she begins to search out new ways to sustain the defining “plot” of her own life by finding another man whom she can construe as potential rescuer. With great discretion she has taken a lover, a man named Frank Ellinger. Moreover, although the Captain never discusses the matter with his wife, he apparently knows about the liaison and ignores the arrangement so long as the appearance of propriety is sustained.9 In fact, the passionate attentions of another man even confirm the Captain’s own self-esteem: he still owns a beautiful wife. The duplicity allows both to retain their separate dreams. It is an erosion that anticipates a flood.

32Niel Herbert chances to discover the arrangement, and although he finds no fault with the Captain, he deeply disapproves of Marian, principally because she has violated his idealized image of her.

33Swiftly now, the novel moves forward: the Captain has begun to deteriorate badly; other men now have authority in the railroad; the Forresters have suffered monetary reverses; the big-city vacations that had given them respite from the prairie are no longer available; fewer people come to call; and the Captain grows ever more debilitated. Still, husband and wife remain entirely cordial, and they remain wedded not so much to each other as to the effort of perpetuating the vanishing vision of two inter-dependent dreams that had once seemed so vibrant.

34The Captain’s life is disrupted by a business crisis: to most people, it would have seemed a calamity; paradoxically, the old Captain, sees it as one last chance, one final opportunity to affirm his heroism. Once president of a bank which is in Denver, he is now only one of its Directors; suddenly, it has been caught in a nation-wide panic, and there is a run on the bank. When the Captain and his friend Judge Pommeroy arrive in Denver, the depositors are clammoring for their money, and the directors are prudently attempting to decide how much on the dollar to pay. Captain Forrester will have none of it. With a grand gesture, he calls his private steel box out of the vault, and stands at the table counting out greenbacks. The Captain will augment the director’s agreement; and cover all deposits one hundred percent. The gesture virtually bankrupts him.

35In a curious reversal, this moment explains the use and legendary implication of their names—Forresters (Robinhood and Marian). The legendary Robinhood had robbed from the rich to give to the poor. The Captain was no longer rich; and in this case, he has robbed from the wife he had pledged to protect, thus reducing her to penury and drudgery. Anyone might have anticipated this curious reversal. Forresters do not belong on the plains; there are no trees.

36There were two ways in which Captain Forrester might have quite honorably sheltered some of his money: “‘I am an unmarried man,’” Judge Pommeroy reports to Marian. “‘There were certain securities, government bonds, which Captain Forrester could have turned over to you.’” [Lost Lady 85] Or — the Captain could have followed the customary practice and settled for so much on the dollar. Instead, he sought to recapture heroism with an action befitting his name: a man in straitened circumstances, he nonetheless turned all of his money over to settle with the depositors (taking from the “rich” to give to the poor). In less than an afternoon, he had all but destroyed his wife; immediately afterward, he suffered a stroke and dwindled slowly away.

37After he dies, there is a grand funeral: “Old settlers and farm folk came from all over the county to follow the old pioneer’s body to the grave.” [Lost Lady 138] For a little while, he was something of a legend.

38Yet his wife is still living, and she must survive, somehow; as her husband became ever more helpless—and in the absence of outside help she had taken on the work of cook, cleaner, and nurse. Before the Captain’s death, whenever he had required her presence, even if just to reassure him, she complied gracefully; both maintained their courteous, courtly manner toward each other. Marian’s reaction to her shockingly reduced condition could not have been more praiseworthy; yet no one, it seems, was capable of conceiving her as anything other than ‘the Captain’s spoiled wife’: the women in town spitefully rejoice in her reversal; and Niel has no category but “chastity” as a measure of her excellence.

39Marian, too, falls back on out-dated dreams: she obsessively reenacts her old, old notions of self and seeks a strong man who will make her his consort. Her first resort is the man who has been her lover, Frank Ellinger. She expects a reciprocal gesture; however, she has overlooked the telling signs of the legends that organize his narrative:

His black hair was coarse,...[and] his curly lips seemed very muscular, very much under his control and, with his strong white teeth... gave him the look of a man who could bite an iron rod in two with a snap of his jaws.... [He had] a restless, muscular energy that had something of the cruelty of wild animals. [Lost Lady 43-44]

40When he removes his gloves, he takes them off “with his teeth,” and his eyes have “something wolfish” about them [62]. He has styled himself as the classic predator, more likely to attack young women than to take them as consort. In her desperation, Marian finds that he is about to capture a fortune by marrying a dull but immensely wealthy young woman; and the betrayal, as she construes it, drives her into hysteria—either from frustrated passion or terror or both. She cannot leave town until she sells her homestead at a good price; and because the Captain died in the midst of a nation-wide financial panic, her property, the only thing that remains of his fortune, has lost its value.

41So she turns to the one man in town whom she supposes can take care of her. Ivy Peters, who has now become a young man with money and immense, offensive self-assurance. She could scarcely have chosen a less suitable audience.

42Once again, she attempts to play out her dream of self (now a grotesque charade). From time to time, she urges Ivy Peters to bring a few of his friends over for dinner; she sets the table with propriety, suggests which implements to use, and in general attempts to teach good manners to a group of coarse farmboys. Niel is generally invited to these affairs, and he finds them both painful and pathetic. Ivy Peters finds them an opportunity for humor and humiliation.

43One day Ivy was telling Marian a joke, and when he had finished, Marian picked up the pail she had been carrying. “She bent a little with its weight, but Ivy made no offer to carry it for her” [113]. Ivy’s business practices have earned him the reputation of a scoundrel; Niel vents his disapproval of Marian’s association with Peters, but in her desperation she cries:’” We have to get along with Ivy Peters, we simply have to!” [117], and as he scrutinizes her life, Niel increasingly wonders just how much more than civility Marian has granted Ivy Peters.

It happened like this....It was nothing, and yet it was everything....One summer evening [Niel] stopped a moment by the dining-room window The dining-room door was open into the kitchen, and there Mrs. Forrester stood at a table, making pastry. Ivy Peters came in at the kitchen door, walked up behind her, and unconcernedly put both arms around her, his hands meeting over her breast. She did not move, did not look up, but went on rolling out pastry. [161]

44It is difficult to believe that Marian has actually taken Ivy Peters into her bed; it is even difficult to suppose that “love” is what he wants from her. He wants the freedom to affront her—to be insolent—and most of all, to violate the rules of courtesy that had characterized her relationship with the Captain.

45Nonetheless, in Niel’s eyes, this momentary glance once and for all strips Marian of her unique grace.

He had seen the end of an era, the sunset of the pioneer.... It was already gone, that age; nothing could ever bring it back. The taste and smell and song of it, the visions those men had seen in the air and followed, these he had caught in a kind of after-glow in their own faces,—and this would always be his.
It was what he most held against Mrs. Forrester; that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms. [
Lost Lady 160-161]

46When the lady can no longer sustain dreams, Niel’s interest in her dies. This moment is the last vision he has of her.

47It is not difficult for most readers to despise Ivy Peters, with his crude arrogance and his casual, efficient brutalities. But one cannot deny the fact that like locusts, these ravenous upstarts have begun to take over the Prairie. Casting honor aside, they respect only money and power; and as the pioneer generation weakens, the new breed is poised to vandalize their kingdoms. Thus Ivy takes his pleasure in toying with Marian—just as he had toyed with the bird—and when having power over her no longer amuses him, he discards her.

48At length, Ivy Peters buys Marian’s property, and she leaves Sweet Water to go to California. Niel hears nothing about her for many years until one evening a friend who has talked with her recounts the conclusion of her story to him. In California, she met a wealthy Englishman who had taken up residence in Argentina, married him, and moved to South America. There were those who claimed that although he was rich, he was also “quarrelsome and rather stingy.” However, Marian had taken pains to request Niel s friend to give him a message: “‘Tell him things have turned out well for me. Mr. Collins is the kindest of husbands.’” [Lost Lady 165]

49At the end, the reader is left unbalanced: how are we to assess the several stories that swirl through this novel? Ellinger’s is the simplest and most trivial: he is a self-styled scoundrel. Ivy Peters may be more complex than he initially appears. There is nothing redemptive about his relationship with Marian; however, the scope of Peters’s plunder is still only a conquest in progress. With all his duplicity, vulgarity, and crude energy, little by little he appears to be dominating the vast Grasslands, giving us a new and nightmarish definition of “Pioneer.” And although we cannot be absolutely certain of Peters’s future success, we can be sure of his amorality and power.

50Distaste for Peters may beget nostalgic memories of the old Captain. However, there can be only one original force: a country can be “dreamed” into existence only once. Moreover, the stark contrast between Dan Forrester and Ivy Peters may obscure the implications of Captain Forrester’s absolute preoccupation with his own reputation for heroism, a preoccupation that ultimately overshadows every other duty.

51Niel Herbert’s vision of this world is the most enticing—in part because he is responsive to Marian Forrester’s rare grace, but even more because the novel’s events are filtered through his sensibilities. Yet if Captain Forrester’s era has recently passed away, the era of Niel Herbert’s values ended almost four centuries ago. As his name suggests, Herbert belongs with the poets of another age, and he narrates this unhappy tale as if he were rehearsing The Romance of the Rose. According to the terms of his story, Marian Forrester must represent something inviolable and static. Thus although he is bewitched by her vigor and charmed by her graceful acceptance of the Captain’s infirmity, when the Captain dies, Niel resents the fact “that she... was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of [other] great men.” [Lost Lady 161] More admirable than Ivy Peters and more alert to change than Dan Forrester, in the end, Niel Herbert would be no better than either of them at the task of creating a viable, orderly community on the desolate Grasslands.

52Before we even begin the novel, its title informs us that the Lady is “Lost.” But in what way is she lost? “Lost” merely from Niel’s personal narrative (a story that would require immaculate loyalty to a dead dream)? “Lost” because of her compromised chastity? “Lost” because she strayed from the path of conventional safety? Or “Lost” because she is doomed to some final destruction?

53At different moments in the novel, each of these seems a possible answer. In the end, however, the novel’s greatest irony is the “Lost Lady’s” ultimate “Success.” Her feat has nothing to do with establishing a new community in the American Mid-West: the realm of a woman’s creativity cannot extend to founding communities. Marian Forrester’s strength is in her resilience, in the vitality that refuses to be crushed by an old man’s death or a vicious man’s barbarities. Always, she reveals such a passion for “life,” such a steadfast will to endure. Ravaged by the “new” world, Marian must go to an older world if she is to find safety and affirmation—a world where once again she can be “herself,” where there is a man to save her from hardship and elevate her as his consort. Thus she leaves the undeveloped Prairie. Remarkably, she revives her identity in a realm that might once have belonged to Henry James: she marries a wealthy Englishman who, though married twice before, is, by her account, “‘the kindest of husbands.’” [Lost Lady 165]

54Thus we come full circle, and the story ends. Is it a “happy ending”? The dangers of the Prairie have been neither eliminated nor controlled. The energy and savage greed of Ivy Peters is the unfinished adventure of an antihero. But as for Marian Forrester Like Henry James, Willa Cather provides only partial information and unreliable surmises.


1 Willa Cather, A Lost Lady, ed. Susan J. Rosowski with Kari A. Ronning, explanatory notes by Kari A. Ronning, Textual editing by Charles W. Mignon & Frederick M. Link with Kari Ronning (Lincoln and London: Unitersity of Nebraska Press, 1997), 163, 119. Further quotation will be cited in the text.

2 Elizabeth Shepley Sergent, Willa Cather, A Memoire (Athens, Ohio, University of Ohio Press, 1992), 108. As she grew older, Cather retained her interest in the subtleties of cubism. She respected D. H Lawrence more than any other “modern” artist, and in later years asked Sergeant, “‘Have you ever read Sea and Sardinia? Lawrence there used the language of cubism’” [Sargeant, 210].

3 Robert Rosenblum, Cubism and Twentieth Century Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1976), 13-14.

4 Willa Cather, O! Pioneers, ed. Susan Rosowski and Charles W. Mignon with Kathleen Danker & explanatory notes by David Stouck (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press 1992) 25 Of course, there had been another civilization—that of the Native Americans, whose great Chief, Red Cloud, had given his name to Willa Cather’s own home town. Eventually (in novels like The Song of the lark), Cather would recognize the need to acknowledge a heritage of pre-Columbian civilizations and even attempt to understand their meaning for later cultures. However, in her first Nebraskan novel, the endless Prairie seemed a wilderness that was devoid of useful instruction for a later day.

5 Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1985), 3.

6 “Plot as we need and want the term is hence an embracing concept for the design and intention of narrative, a structure for those meanings that are developed through temporal succession, or perhaps better: a structuring operation elicited by, and made necessary by, those meanings that develop through succession and time. A further analysis of the question is suggested here by a distinction urged by the Russian Formalists, that between fabula and sjuzet. Fabula is defined as the order of events referred to by the narrative, whereas sjuzet is the order of events presented in the narrative discourse.” [Brooks 12]

7 O, Pioneers! 64.

8 Lost Lady 21-22. This scene is signal to the fact that in this novel, knives and other cutting instruments are always associated with sexuality: in the case of Ivy Peters, the link is vicious; with Frank Ellinger, the connection is mixed (Marian’s inescapable satisfaction counterpointed against Frank’s rhymic pounding to cut the boughs they have been sent to gather; and with Niel Herbert, cutting roses to take to “his lady” is the prelude to his ultimate disgust.

9 Niel realizes this fact only many years later: “Niel had often wondered just how much the Captain knew. Now... he felt sure that he knew everything; more than anyone else; all there was to know about Marian Forrester.” [Lost Lady 111]


Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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