Critics of Willa Cather seem confused by the narrative strategies in My Mortal Enemy (1926): the sometimes cursory vision of narrator Nellie Birdseye, the "unfurnished novel" technique, a complex system of cultural allusions, a difficult and contradictory heroine in Myra Henshawe, and (to some) an uncomfortable religious resolution. Approaches have focused on love, money, or religion-seldom all three-in grappling with Myra. The last category, religion, has divided critics into those who deny its seriousness or see it as a negative ingredient, those who conclude that it is essential, and those who idealize or condemn Myra according to their religious preference.
This study presumes Christian charity to be the novel's central issue, fusing the themes of religion and love and also money, which functions both as a material substitute for and a symbol of virtue. I use Thomas Aquinas's treatise on charity and, for more accessibility, C. S. Lewis to articulate traditional Christian concepts of love. My presumption does not preclude a thorough analysis of the text, however. Every chapter and scene is handled to avoid a selective treatment, and for clarity I divide the analysis into ten parts, first addressing techniques and critical perspectives.
The most helpful criticism has addressed technique. My Mortal Enemy illustrates the principles expressed in Cather's 1922 essay "The Novel Démeublé," a revisioning of the "popular superstition that 'realism' asserts itself in the cataloguing of a great number of material objects" (37), and also her significant dependence on webbed allusions. Cather's ideas on unfurnishing define the minimalist art Richard Giannone acknowledges as narrator Nellie's ability to communicate the "presence of the thing not named" ("Novel Démeublé" 41) in, for example, her conclusion to the New Year's party in part 1, which "recalls Cather's language in describing the unnamed things in the unfurnished novel" (Giannone 179). Reflecting on Emelia's singing of Bellini's "Casta Diva" from Norma, Nellie writes: "For many years I associated Mrs. Henshawe with that music, thought of that aria as being mysteriously related to something in her nature that one rarely saw, but nearly always felt; a compelling passionate, overmastering something for which I had no name, but which was audible, visible in the air that night, as she sat crouching in the shadow" (48, emphasis added). The introduction of this aria is an example of the related technique Bernice Slote describes as Cather's "secret web of connections and relationships that . . . illuminate and in many ways redefine [Cather] as a person and as an artist" (2).
This "web" technique, climaxing in My Mortal Enemy and adding complexity to brevity, should not be confused with Cather's unfurnishing technique, for such "webbing" typifies very "furnished" novels like Moby-Dick. The allusions in Cather's novel contain not merely what Nellie fails to know but what she presents indirectly. Harry B. Eichorn recognizes the "technique [as] usually associated with poetry[;] Miss Cather may have been providing a clue to it by making Nellie an admirer of the modern poets" (137). The "secret web" of classical allusions has been clarified in recent studies by Mary Ruth Ryder and Erik Ingvar Thurin, and the novel's symbolism of jewelry and gems has been interpreted by Kathryn T. Stofer.
"The Novel Démeublé" serves as the best introduction to the unfurnishing technique, which is thematically and formally relevant to My Mortal Enemy. Cather attacks the "property-man," who clutters the novel with "material objects and their vivid presentation" (35), before she distinguishes quantity from quality by relating the first to the disposable and temporal (36) and the second to art and the eternal: "Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present [art] must select the eternal" (40). Selection is the artist's access to divinity, and powers of observation and description "form but a low part of his equipment" (36). Cather wants to separate true realism from the cataloguing of "mechanical processes.... manufactories and trades.... physical sensations" (37). Such subjects are "unworthy of an artist" and indicate that "he defeated his end," the exploration of constantly vital moral issues rather than "their material surroundings" (38-39). The surroundings are of interest only as "the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves" (40). Cather then addresses execution, claiming that the "higher processes of art are all processes of simplification. The novelist must learn to write, and then . . . unlearn it, . . . disregard his accomplishment.... subordinate it to a higher and truer effect." Her most famous statement places artistic creation beyond language and in "whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there.... It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it . . . that gives high quality to the novel or the drama as well as to poetry itself" (41-42). The essay concludes with an extraordinary plea for an art of disembodiment, as far as that is possible, and for a room as bare "as that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended" (43). E. K. Brown called My Mortal Enemy Cather's "boldest experiment" and "a pure instance of. . . 'the novel démeublé" (250); it is so because it traces a journey from body to spirit, from life to ashes-the residue of divine contact.
Susan Rosowski offers the most complete assessment of secular love issues in My Mortal Enemy and relates them to technique. The novel is "an awakening" to sentimental notions of love, she argues, and Cather's "only novel devoted to romantic love" (146). Within the Cather canon it represents "a freeing of storytelling from those aspects of romanticism that had reached a dead end" (144): "When Myra speaks . . . it is as if a character from a fairy tale . . . were to . . . step forward . . . and say, 'Let me tell you what it was really like"' (150). Myra's final question is the climax of her revision and identifies the romantic love that failed to gratify her. Rosowski sees Myra as identifying in religion "a different kind of love . . . in which 'seeking is finding . . . desire was fulfillment"' (151) James Woodress complements Rosowski's reading with insights from Cather's letters. Cather revealed that Chicago Tribune critic Fanny Butcher "really stated what she was trying to get at in the story. Butcher had written: 'Under the flotsam of those lives [Myra's and Oswald's] there is a steady rhythm of the fundamental hatred of the sexes one for the other'" (385). In an application of Eric Fromm's Art of Loving Mildred Bennett concludes that Myra and Oswald's union is a "symbiotic" one in which the sadistic and masochistic partners "have fusion without integrity" (18). Myra's anguish is failure to find "unconditional love (which is God) through her relationship in marriage" (19).
We should expect that in 1926, the year between the faith crisis in The Professor's House and the pilgrimage that is Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather would explore religious complexities; however, critics are increasingly troubled by them. Hermione Lee finds "the religious feeling of My Mortal Enemy . . . disconcerting" (221), and Merrill Skaggs finds "Myra's latter-day Catholicism . . . not especially convincing" (108). Lee is disturbed by Myra's theatrics, "that nothing is real for her, not even her own death, unless it is dramatized" (z16), adding that religion operates as a form of determinism and emerges as superstition and vindictiveness (221-22). David Stouck fails to make religion central but recognizes this movement toward Christian reckoning (121-22) in judging Myra and her uncle unregenerate sinners (i126-27). Other critics encourage a religious approach but fail to follow one: E. K. Brown affirms that Myra's prototype was a woman "whose life and nature could be understood only by one whose religious sense had become acute" (248), and in their introductions to My Mortal Enemy Marcus Klein and A. S. Byatt acknowledge the essential religious mystery of Myra's story.
Ironically, some of the critics who focus on the novel's religious issues are overly judgmental. Stephen Tanner perceptively sees as "the primary problem of interpretation . . . the evaluation of Myra's religious conversion" but accuses Myra of failure to demonstrate "essential" Christian qualities (30). He accepts Nellie's gloss of Myra's definition of religion as Myra's meaning and uses Paul Tillich to discredit it (34). In order to conclude that Myra's deathbed conversion is a travesty, Tanner is forced to dismiss the young priest as "'boyish,' impressionable, and consequently pliable" (33). Eugene England offers a tag to the Tanner reading and, with the help of René Girard, arrives at Tanner's conclusion that Myra's religion is the antithesis of Christ's (129). However, Dalma Brunauer and June Klamecki consider Myra's mortal-enemy question as paralleling "the anguished cry of Jesus in Gethsemane" (34). The best treatment of religion in My Mortal Enemy is by Michael Murphy, who alone stresses the importance of the tension caused by marriage outside the church (42). He commends Cather's unusual sophistication in viewing the spiritual struggles of an older Catholic woman from the perspective of a young and impressionable Protestant observer- who only dimly perceives. Myra is not modern, in that she challenges sentimental American approaches to mortality (48) and "hopes to regain some dignity in Roman rituals that acknowledge mortality and consecrate suffering and death" (46). Murphy reminds us that Myra refuses to deny her guilty past and responsibility for abandoning her faith for romantic love.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis reiterates the needs of natural loves to be guided by "something more, and other" (55), in order to serve as "preparatory imitations of . . . the spiritual muscles which Grace may later put to a higher service" (24). Discussing sex (Venus) in love (Eros), Lewis cautions against worship of either or their combination. Sex is a "Pagan sacrament" in which the participants represent "forces older and less personal" than themselves: "the masculinity and femininity of the world.... The man does play the Sky-Father and the woman the Earth-Mother.... But we must give full value to the word Play" (103). "St. John's saying that God is love," continues Lewis, "has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis de Rougemont) that 'love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god'; which of course can be restated in the form 'begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.' This balance seems . . . an indispensable safeguard" (6-7). Platonic romanticism canonizing "falling in love" as "the mutual recognition of earth souls . . . singled out for one another in a previous and celestial existence" cannot help Christians, who must use Eros merely as an approach, "a paradigm . . . built into our natures, of the love we ought to exercise toward God and Man" (107-8).
Rosowski's view of My Mortal Enemy as a "freeing of storytelling from those aspects of romanticism that had reached a dead end," specifically "romantic love . . . by definition sentimental, an excessive emotion for which death is the happiest ending" (144-45), resembles Lewis's conclusions about romantic love vis-à-vis nature religion. Nature is an incarnation of God's glory, he argues, but "we must make a detour" in order to reach God; "nature 'dies' on those who try to live for a love of nature" (20-22). Eros gives content to the word charity, as nature does to the word glory, but must be "chastened and corroborated by higher principles" for the approach to God (110). The mortal lover-god's tinseled crown must be replaced by a crown of thorns: "The chrism of this terrible coronation is to be seen not in the joys of marriage but in its sorrow, in the sickness and sufferings of a good wife or the faults of a bad one, in [the husband's] unwearying . . . care or his inexhaustible forgiveness" (105). In Christian marriage the Sky-Father and Earth-Mother are replaced as models by Christ and the church: "Husbands shoud love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy" (Ephesians 5:25). Without the grace to accomplish this transition the marital relationship wit collapse into "a sort of disredemption" (114), each partner "ravenous to receive and implacably refusing to grow, jealous, suspicious, resentful, struggling for the upper hand, determined to be free and to allow no freedom, living on 'scenes'" (115).
The retrospective second chapter of My Mortal Enemy establishes Myra's guilt in marrying Oswald, Oswald's innocence in marrying Myra, and Nellie's bias, naiveté, and arrangement in relating their romance. It opens with a description of the Driscoll estate, which Myra has distinguished as the "best [thing] in Parthia" (7). The park of trees, later identified as apple (15), surrounded by a "high, wrought-iron fence" (11) where the Sisters of the Sacred Heart now pace "two and two" (15), suggests a forbidden precinct, the Eden from which Myra Driscoll was expelled for eloping. This forfeiture is the price she must pay for rejecting John Driscoll's ultimatum: "If she married young Henshawe, he would cut her off without a penny" (14-15). Driscoll is "a coarse old codger, so unlettered that he made a poor showing with a pen" (13). His story resembles that of Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen: he began as a poor boy, made a fortune employing peons in the Missouri swamps, built a great house, kept fast horses, and became the town's first citizen. But in Myra's mind, perhaps because of his association with the church, he confuses with God, and the meaning of his given name, "God is gracious," relates his money and gifts to saving grace. Encouraged and sustained in her romance by Nellie's Aunt Lydia and with head high (her typical proud gesture), Myra left "a great fortune behind her" (16). She had been "very fond" of old John and "a good deal like him" (12-13), but she chose Oswald.
Myra's motives are confusing. Did she fall in love to demonstrate her independence, because Oswald's father was "an Ulster Protestant whom Driscoll detested" (13)? Did she react to her uncle's persecution of Oswald, which drove the young man away to New York, or did she resent the ultimatum? Did she marry civilly because it was a quick process, or did she break with the church because Driscoll's money seemed to put him on the side of God? "A poor man stinks, and God hates him" (15), her uncle had warned her. Over thirty years later Myra laments to Nellie, "I broke with the Church when I broke with everything. else and ran away with a German free-thinker; but I believe in holy words and holy rites all the same" (85). The church is lumped with "everything else": Driscoll, his fortune, the community. However, Oswald was not the alternative to these, and Myra condemned herself by construing him as such. Oswald clarifies this near the end: "It is one of her delusions that I separated her from the Church. I never meant to" (99). Nor was the freethinking a cause of Driscoll's opposition to the match; the old man seemed motivated by Irish hate for an Ulster man. In effect, Myra constructed her own alternatives and set romantic love against God. "The real question," writes Lewis, "is which do you serve . . . ? To which claim does your will, in the last resort, yield?" (122-23)
According to the religious conscience surviving her break with the church, which she associates with her Irish heritage (including old Driscoll), Myra is living in sin and cannot transfigure her relationship with Oswald from natural love to charity. Aquinas clarifies her alienation metaphorically: "just as the light would cease at once in the air, were an obstacle placed to its being lit up by the sun, even so charity ceases at once to be in the soul through the placing of an obstacle [sin] to the outpouring of charity by God" (24:12). Myra's civil marriage puts her in darkness, becomes a spiritual death, which explains Nellie's juxtaposing it with Driscoll's funeral, the extravagant religious ceremony the wedding should have been. Nellie admits that "John Driscoll and his niece had suddenly changed places in my mind, and he had got, after all, the romantic part" (19). Ironically, Oswald, freethinker that he is, suffers no such spiritual impediment.
I argue elsewhere ("Alembic" 48-55) that My Ántonia, Cather's only other first-person novel, should be approached as narrator Jim Burden's arrangement, that his picture making often diverges from what Cather would have produced in a thirdperson narrative, that in fact some scenes parody Jim's blind sentimentality. Nellie's narrative must be approached similarly, as the product of her own sophistication and a mixture of insight and blindness, and its brevity enables Cather to make the ordering obvious. For example, Nellie begins and ends with the string of amethysts; she balances the topaz-bestowing rich girl from "a breezy Western city" (33) in part 1 with the young woman journalist for whom Oswald "still wore his topaz sleeve-buttons" in part 2 (78), and she contrasts romantic Ewan Gray, who confesses to Myra about love, with Father Fay, the young priest to whom Myra confesses before her death (their names even rhyrne!). Saint Gaudens's copper image of naked Diana and the allusions to Norma in part 1 have their counterparts in the ivory corpus on Myra's crucifix and allusions to King Lear in part 2. Tensions are revealed through descriptions skillfully reducing setting to "the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves" ("Novel Démeublé" 40). The Henshawes' stellar phase, when they were "throwing off sparks like a pair of shooting stars" (64), is embodied in Nellie's rendering of Madison Square, "so neat after our Western cities; so protected by good manners and courtesy" (14), and in the "solidly built" "old brownstone on the north side of the Square" with chairs and curtains of "wonderful plum-colour" velvet (26) This is dramatically positioned against what Myra calls their "temporary eclipse" (62) in a new hotel "wretchedly built and already falling to pieces" in a sprawling California city tumbling "untidily into the sea" (57-58). The "high-ceilinged" openness and "manners and courtesy" are replaced by "palavery" Southerners tramping overhead, whose "stupid, messy existence [is] thrust upon [Myra] all day long, and half of the night" (66-67). Emphasizing the decline of all three principals (for "things had gone badly with [Nellie's] family" 1571) are the peeling and cracked furnishings and the fading "dear plum-coloured curtains" (63). Unsubstantial is the word Nellie uses to characterize the new setting (58). What she cannot realize, however, is the narrative strategy beyond her own that locates the temporal in the "solidly built" and the eternal in the flimsy.
But let us return to the retrospective second chapter, where the narrator's limitations and creativity, as well as her subject's guilt, are introduced. The extravagant funeral she remembers "very vividly" as a six-year-old is a coronation: "Driscoll did not come to the church; the church went to him" (18). The celebrant meeting the coffin at the door and the incensing become for Nellie special privileges, although this is routine for Catholic funerals (O'Connell 2-91). Nellie's memory strains her style, generates a series of ever-lengthening, repetitious clauses punctuated by breathless stops: "They surrounded, they received, they seemed to assimilate into the body of the church, the body of old John Driscoll. They bore it up to the high altar on a river of colour and incense and organ-tone; they claimed it and enclosed it" (18). This and the "thought of John Driscoll as having escaped the end of all flesh . . . as if he had been translated . . . to the pageant" mark a wishful thinker who will be severely disturbed by Myra's final question about dying alone with her mortal enemy. Indeed, even Lydia's comment that the Henshawes are only "as happy as most people" (17) is "disheartening" for Nellie.
Lydia is an intriguing influence. She has instructed her niece in the school of
romance and encouraged Myra's defection. After Oswald was shut out of the Driscoll
house, he and Myra courted at Nellie's grandfather's "under the protection of Aunt
Lydia" (14), who on the night of the elopement prudently packed Myra's toilet
articles and linen, as if they would relieve her destitution. Lydia repeatedly takes
her young niece to the fenced-in Driscoll grounds and relives for her "that thrilling
night (probably the most exciting in her life), when Myra Driscoll came down that
path, and out of those big iron gates, for the last time" (16). Lydia develops in
Nellie a propensity to seek her thrills in other lives, and as a teenager Nellie
regularly visits the Driscoll place alone and adjusts reality to fit her craving for
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.... I knew that this was not literally true; old John Driscoll had lived on there
for many years after the flight of his niece.(17)
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....
I knew that this was not literally true; old John Driscoll had lived on there for many years after the flight of his niece.(17)
This passage encompasses Lydia's legacy: the frustration with real events constantly straining her niece's narrative, and Myra's fatal decision to make love her god.
The novel's opening chapter increases in meaning after a review of the second. The use of the first person four times in the first sentence, noticed by Skaggs (98), confirms the egocentric nature of Nellie's narrative, while Myra's first glimpse of Nellie in Lydia's mirror suggests that Nellie exists essentially as a response to other lives. The reflection also suggests, as Skaggs notes (99), that Nellie is Myra's duplicate, spoiled by relatives and suffering youthful illusions. This explains Myra's abrupt "Does this necklace annoy you?" (6) when Nellie stares at the string of amethysts that is ultimately associated with Myra's mortal-enemy question. "I prod you," says Myra, "because I'm certain that Lydia and your mother have spoiled you a little" (7). Nellie is intimidated because Lydia has made Myra a celebrity, "the brilliant and attractive figure among the friends of [my mother and aunts'] girlhood" (3-4). When the "short, plump woman" rises to meet Nellie, it is "as if to remind [the girl] that it was [her] business to get to her as quickly as possible" (5); when Myra's eyes search Nellie, she feels "quite overpowered . . . and ... hopelessly clumsy and stupid" (6). Even after Myra throws her arms about Nellie, who wants desperately to be liked, the girl is bewildered: "I felt I didn't have half a chance with her.... I was never sure whether she was making fun of me.... Her sarcasm was . . . like being touched by a metal so cold that one doesn't know whether one is burned or chilled" (7). Nellie is relieved by the arrival of Oswald, by his comforting if "perplexing combination" of military durability and soft lunar eyes, "of something hard and something soft" (10). Anxiety and relief become a pattern in her relationship with characters she imagines as larger than life. This apotheosis is helped by Oswald's name (from the Old German words for "god'' and "power") and demeanor and by the lightninglike zigzags of glistening white in Myra's black hair, "which made it look like the fleece of a Persian goat" (6), a comparison suggesting divine contact as well as eroticism and perhaps even associating Myra with those deficient in charity on God's left hand (Matthew 25:32-45)
The first sign of the discord obliterating Nellie's illusions comes near the end of this chapter. Nellie marvels at the "kind of feeling" between these lovers when Oswald enters and Myra rises to kiss him, "clearly glad to see him" (8); but the strain of Myra's possessing her love object is immediately clear in an exchange over the new shirts Myra gave away because they gave Oswald a bosom. "I can't bear you in ill-fitting things," she says, "not if we go to the poorhouse" (9). Oswald's response anticipates the quarrel that devastates Nellie at the end of part 1: he looks at his wife "with amusement, incredulity, and bitterness" (9, emphasis added). Lee sees "the whole history of [the Henshawes'] relations . . . latent in [this] brief exchange" (213), and the reversal of sex roles Stouck notices later in the New York apartment (12 4) has its genesis here, although Nellie seems oblivious to the evidence of this she offers: Oswald's nursing of Myra in California, Myra's comment that hers "was no head for a woman . . . but would have graced one of the wickedest of the Roman emperors" (63), Oswald's uncertainty about courting or being courted (29), and Sarah Bernhardt's controversial 1900 tour as Hamlet. Skaggs's reading of this "power relationship," in which "Oswald plays a subservient and therefore (judged by patriarchal standards) a female role," as "appropriately assumed in a . . . pagan context instead of a Christian and Western patriarchal one" (95), describes a marriage in which love has become both god and demon.
The allusions to Diana in the third chapter clearly establish the novel's "pagan context." The New York section is dominated by Augustus Saint-Gaudens's statue of the goddess, which Nellie sees on the tower of Madison Square Garden through light snow. Diana, moon goddess of chastity, awakens guilt in Myra when she sees the moon rising behind the tower. Myra has been helping a young friend with a past, Ewan Gray, to romance another friend, Esther Sinclair, "the daughter of an old New England family . . . properly brought up" (23). The affair is roughly analogous to Myra's own, and she suspects that "very likely hell will come of it" (31), a clue to her life with Oswald. But Myra's guilt is outweighed by her dedication to Venus (perhaps misery wants company), and her trademark, like Venus's, is the variegated laughter that punctuates her fortunes. The moon here is a complex symbol and seems to relate to Venus and love as much as to Diana and chastity: when Myra discovers Nellie daydreaming in the square, she laughs, "Why, you're fair moonstruck, Nellie!" (26); and Oswald has "eyes . . . like half moons" (8, also 37 and 52), a romantic softness perplexing Nellie and suggesting failure. Erik Thurin acknowledges that Diana-Cynthia is sometimes a symbol of romantic love but that this is not the case here, where the moon instead relates to the threatening underworld goddess Hecate (287), whom Myra embodies when her mouth curls and twists "like a little snake" (40, 54, 89).
The Diana-Hecate axis that Thurin discovers indicates Cather's complex doubling of Christian and pagan contexts, although romantic love is represented here. Diana-Hecate anticipates and complements the Christian principles that contribute to Myra's reconciliation with the church in part 2. Nor Hall associates Diana-Hecate with female liberation and untamed instinct, which only at first seem to be the antithesis of Christianity. The adventure generated by the goddesses, "often ... inconveniently in mid-life [and involving] leaving the security of the city, home, family, and possibly even relationships, and finding a place where the only company is oneself" (124), is similar to Myra's subsequent religious journey. In the story of Demeter and Persephone, Hecate satisfies the hunger for reunion with parts of self surrendered in marriage. "The Artemis [Diana]-Hekate women . . . are able to welcome women out of marriages that kept them too much in the dark," writes Hall. "Coming up out of the darkness.... a woman needs to find her own capacity for illuminating and focusing in on unfamiliar surroundings-the tools she needs to find are Hekate's torch and the arrows of Artemis" (125). We should note that Myra herself compares love to distraction and sleepwalking in describing Ewan Gray's affair (23-24). Hall distinguishes Hecate at one point as "the part of [the emerging woman] that never left home and can therefore direct her returning steps" (13). Myra's marriage and her service to Venus seem to violate both the rules of Diana-Hecate and John Driscoll's Catholicism, for in both systems Venus-based relationships are dark relationships that lead one astray.
The local history of the Diana that Cather chose for My Mortal Enemy supports the alternative erotic nature of the moon. The Diana Nellie sees is the smaller, 1893 version of the original, which the architect Stanford White and the sculptor Saint-Gaudens considered too large for the tower that White had "adapted" from an original in Seville graced with a female figure representing Faith (Tharp 2-55). Both versions depicted the goddess nude and were considered sexually stimulating. The square, according to one journalist, was transformed from a gathering place for children to one of club men armed with field glasses. A policeman is supposed to have said, "'It's all along of her,' pointing to the summit . . . where Diana, adorned with only her beauty and a thin veneer of gilt, blazed in the sun People as has kids, says how she's immoralizing.... I don't think no such statue should be allowed myself, not in a public place"' (Tharp 257).
The contradictory nature of Cather's text regarding the goddess is repeated in details filtered through the narrator. The "fine, reluctant snow blurred" Nellie's first glimpse of New York (22), a description resembling a Childe Hassam painting in its muted outlines and use of reflected light. The details selected, however, are incongruous to the fairyland atmosphere Nellie seems to intend. The ice-covered liner Wilhelm der Grosse, being tugged upriver after a stormy crossing, was later armed as a commerce raider and sunk in 1914. Military imagery dominates the skyline behind the snow curtain: "the buildings on the Battery all ran together-looked like an enormous fortress with a thousand windows" (22-23). But the passage concludes fittingly for a "moonstruck'' observer: "From the mass, the dull gold dome of the World building emerged like a ruddy autumn moon at twilight." This detail anticipates the rising of the moon behind Diana at the chapter's end and Myra's confession of guilt about Gray's romance, while the military images anticipate the Henshawe conflict that will conclude part i. Similarly, Madison Square in falling snow seems "protected by good manners and courtesylike an open-air drawing-room" (24), although the concluding figure contains a threat: "Here, I felt, winter brought no desolation; it was tamed, like a polar bear led on a leash by a beautiful lady" (2-5). Gray's past is contradicted by his appearance: "he looked, that night, as fresh and undamaged as the flowers he wore" (28). These flowers, however, contradict themselves; the "few sprays of white hyacinth" (27) suggest loveliness only because they are white; the common purple variety, which immediately comes to mind, indicates sorrow.
Without ambiguity are the opals Gray intends to present to Esther. Myra recognizes them as omens of bad luck and perhaps inconstancy (Stofer 21). She exclaims, "Love itself draws on a woman nearly all the bad luck in the world; why, for mercy's sake, add opals?" (28). Yet almost immediately Oswald confesses to Lydia, "Myra is so fond of helping young men along. We nearly always have a love affair on hand" (28). Surely Myra is false to Diana, which she recognizes: "Hush! I hate all women who egg on courtships." This talk occurs on Christmas Eve, a time when Myra would remember all she sacrificed for love. Earlier an Irish pennywhistle piper delays Myra's return to Oswald. "They always find me out" (26), she admits as the boy pursues her with "The Irish Washerwoman" and thoughts of her forebears. Being lavish as if she still had John Driscoll's fortune is a way to ignore her defection. Myra selects the most extravagant holly tree in the florist shop for Modjeska, gives a dollar to the florist's helper, and chides Oswald's pettiness before admitting her guilt as a servant of Venus.
In chapter 4 Christmas dawns in blinding light, anticipating the dawn Myra hopes for on the headland in part 2 and in contrast to the growing darkness in chapter 3. Oswald takes Nellie and Lydia to a service, and church and goddess are placed side by side: "the gold Diana flashed against a green-blue sky. We were going to Grace Church" (32). Myra's absence seems more than a strategy to allow Oswald to connive with Lydia about the cuff links; it suggests Myra's failure to accommodate her religious defection by substituting another church. The clear light also reflects a truth about Oswald, that he seeks the favor of young women. His young woman at this time, a rich girl from a breezy Western city, is not seeking advice on love or jewelry but wants to adorn Oswald. He asks Lydia to lie that the cuff links are a gift from her so he can wear them comfortably before Myra. His excuse is pathetic: returning the gift might contribute to the "hard knocks" the young woman will inevitably suffer in New York, and Myra would "punish herself and everybody else for this young woman's questionable taste" (33). Stofer recognizes the cuff links as reflecting Oswald's contradictory nature: topaz symbolizes divine goodness and faithfulness, but yellow on a man denotes secrecy, appropriate for the silent lover (20).
Contributing to the failure of the Henshawes' relationship, Lydia refuses the "out" Oswald provides her, that she can give the cuff links to some boy in Parthia. She resents Myra as "most unreasonable" with Oswald (34-35) and decides to go along with the deceit. Nellie is wiser in this situation. Reflecting on the Henshawes peacefully together in their front window, she says: "There was something about them, as they stood in the lighted window, that would have discouraged me from meddling, but it did not shake my aunt" (35). Christmas peace is disturbed by the gift, and Myra's exclamation that topaz is "exactly right for him" (36) is nasty, for Myra understands the language of jewelry. Stofer is perceptive about Myra's subsequent sarcasm at the opera: "Oh, Oswald, I love to see your jewels flash!" (37). According to Stofer, the remark "insinuates . . . an ironic, bawdy, double entendre aimed at his sexual organs and at what she implies to be his sexual infidelities" (20).
The infidelity issue contributes to Myra's restlessness in chapter 5, for it spoils the object of her sacrifice. Her visits with Nellie during Christmas constitute a study of the effects of loss of virtue. Like Augustine before conversion, she is "pulled in different directions by different wills" (Confessions 178), preoccupied with material luxuries she resents not having but feels will restore her to privilege, generally driven by concupiscence, which Augustine defines as "love of the world, the love of this life" (Synthesis 341) and Karl Rahner nuances as "the resistance of the sensitive to the spiritual part of man" (364). As if convinced of her sinfulness, Myra is incapable of freeing herself from a worldly level and is not her own person (Rahner 365). Her confusion is evident in her attempt to sophisticate Nellie by revealing her own hate for her, 'moneyed friends." Myra "took on her loftiest and most challenging manner" (39) among these people, notes Nellie; "the rich and powerful irritated her" (40). The curl at the corners of her mouth is not Hecate's serpent but that of envy. When she and Nellie jog by a wealthy acquaintance in a carriage, Myra is consumed by jealousy: "That's the last woman I'd care to have splashing past me, and me in a hansom cab!" she confides to Nellie, who evaluates this as "insane ambition" (41). The excuse of insanity is reserved in Aquinas's system for those who are envious of people far above them, but Myra's grief over the good fortune of friends she would rival or surpass is inexcusable, sinful, a violation of charity (Aquinas 36:2). Myra's comment after she tips the cab driver extravagantly-" It's very nasty, being poor!"---echoes John Driscoll's comment that "a poor man stinks, and God hates him" (15). These words have implications never intended by that crude old man, namely, that she is out of God's favor. Myra's perception of this, however dim, explains her frustration and ambition.
Cather's exemplurn. assumes sonata form: envy and hate, friendship and kindness, hate and bitterness. In the second "movement" Myra takes Nellie to visit a young poet friend, Anne Aylward, who is dying of tuberculosis. Myra now shines: "Never had I seen her so brilliant and strangely charming as she was in that sunlit study up under the roofs," recalls Nellie (42-). Although tenderness chokes Myra as she explains her friend's situation, this is really another form of worldliness. "I saw that her chief extravagance was in caring for so many people and in caring for them so much" (43), Nellie says immediately before describing Myra's equally choking bitterness toward a writer at the theater who once abandoned Oswald in a difficulty. "I could feel the bitterness working in her," writes Nellie before quoting Myra, who says: "It's all very well to tell us to forgive our enemies; our enemies can never hurt us very much. But oh, what about forgiving our friends? . . . that's where the rub comes!" (44-45)——. This incident qualifies the visit to the poet. Aquinas would not view the sympathy Myra feels as virtue, but as passion, a sensitive response (Aquinas 30:3).
The Henshawes' New Year's party, which concludes chapter 5, gathers Christian and pagan strains to emphasize Myra's situation. Central in this scene is the Polish actress Helena Modjeska, described by Nellie as "a woman of another race and another period" whose "long, beautifully modelled hands . . . were . . . fashioned for a nobler worldliness than ours . . . to hold a sceptre, or a chalice-or, by courtesy, a sword" (45-46). The actress calls attention to the Diana context: "See, Myra.... the Square is quite white with moonlight" (47). She has moved from a chair by the fire, cloaked herself, and taken a seat by the window, "the moonlight falling across her knees" (47), to listen to the " Casta Diva" aria from Norma. Oswald stands behind her "like a statue." Modjeska resembles the old priestess figure to whom a young woman kneels in the Pompeii fresco described by Hall of a female initiation ritual involving Hecate (130-311). The actress embodies what Myra would reconnect to or become, and Oswald embodies what has separated her from both the chaste goddess to whom the aria is addressed and the church represented in the chalice image, in Modjeska's roles as the notoriously Catholic queens Catherine of Aragon and Mary Stuart, and in her own lofty faith. In part 2, a year after Modjeska's death in 1909, Myra has a Mass said for her. (As a young journalist, Cather wrote that Modjeska combined the dignity of cloister and court: "When I see her play I can understand how Dante loved Beatrice" [World and Parish 459].) During the singing Myra crouches beside the singer, "while the song grew and blossomed like a great emotion" (48).
Eichorn and Giannone speculate on Myra's thoughts in this tableau. Giannone emphasizes the duplicity of the aria: "All the while Norma reverently invokes the chaste moon and bids the divine rays to penetrate her life, she is herself unchaste" (181). Norma had violated her vows as high priestess by bearing sons to Pollione, proconsul of the hostile Romans, who subsequently fell in love with a young virgin. In the aria's second part Norma longs for an indication that Pollione's love for her has reawakened. Eichorn relates Cather's scene to the night in part 2 when Myra questions dying alone with her mortal enemy. He sees a resemblance between Myra and Norma "in the conflict of loyalties that both women find between religion and romantic love.... Norma is aware that her love for Pollione has brought her in conflict with both her religion and her country. She says at one point that Pollione's heart would be, for her, a substitute for life, fatherland, and heaven" (Eichorn 134). Myra's suspicions about Oswald renew her own losses, and Nellie is astute in relating the aria "mysteriously . . . to something in [Myra's] nature . . . a compelling, passionate, overmastering something . . . which was audible, visible in the air that night, as she sat crouching in the shadow" (48).
Part 1 ends in the explosion sparked on Christmas by Oswald and Lydia and hinted at
in the conclusion (not sung at the party) of the Bellini aria, when the Druids plead
for vengeance against the Romans and Pollione. The argument Nellie interrupts
contrasts with the peaceful couple in the lighted window. Cather's interest seems to
be the shattering of romantic fantasies. The tame beast of the Madison Square winter
has reverted and become unleashed: "Mrs. Henshawe's angry laugh, and a burst of rapid
words . . . stung like cold water from a spray" (49); the charming plum-purple velvet
shelter has been invaded by the reality of a collapsing marriage, what Lewis refers
to as "a sort of disredemption." The fight over the key dramatizes a poisoned
union, each partner "ravenous to receive and implacably refusing to grow, jealous,
suspicious, resentful, struggling for the upper hand, determined to be free and to
allow no freedom, living on 'scenes"':
"How dare you lie to me, Oswald. How dare you? They told me at your bank
that this wasn't a bank key... I stopped and showed it to them. . . ." "The hell
you did! . . . Then it was you who took my keys out of my pocket? and made me and
yourself ridiculous. " (50)
"How dare you lie to me, Oswald. How dare you? They told me at your bank that this wasn't a bank key... I stopped and showed it to them. . . ."
"The hell you did! . . . Then it was you who took my keys out of my pocket? and made me and yourself ridiculous. " (50)
"Now everything was in ruins," bemoans Nellie. "Everything about me seemed evil" (51).
In the coda Lydia and Nellie meet Myra on the train back to Chicago. She has left Oswald for a cooling off in Pittsburgh, her mouth twisting about "like a little snake" (54). Her parting shot is at Lydia, that she "needn't have perjured [herself] for those yellow cuff-buttons." But then she acknowledges her own failing powers, a desire for pearls, the moon-gem under the influence of Venus: "It's disgusting in a man to lie for personal decorations. A woman might do it, now, . . . for pearls!" The garnet-red feather on her fur hat, which Nellie earlier described as "sticking out behind" (20), is now "drooping behind." Its hue, supposed to safeguard friendship and remedy discord and anger, has not lived up to its reputation. "I'm sick of Myra's dramatics," declares Lydia. "I've done with them" (54).
Part 2 takes up the Henshawes' decline and the shattering of Nellie's world after a ten-year hiatus. The journey of all three principals, according to Bernice Slote, has moved "from romance to tragedy, from youth to age,... from East to West, from pagan to Christian.... (like Donne, a 'going Westward')," from "Christmas and New Year's . . . [to] spring-and . . . Easter" (18-iq). The picture of the Henshawes in the window of their New York apartment, with Myra "like a dove with its wings folded" (35), is a picture of an irreparable past. They now occupy separate rooms in a shabby hotel. Myra is dying, but Oswald, whose face Nellie reads as that "of one who has utterly lost hope" (61), manages to keep up enough spirit to clean his neckties, wear his topaz cuff links, and be overheard humming Schubert's "Fruhlingsglaube": "O fresh scent, o new sound! / Now, poor heart, be not afraid, / Now everything must change." Giannone sees the song as expressing Nellie's and Oswald's mixed feelings; he says that Cather uses it ironically to indicate change for the worse (177-78). However, Nellie's (if not Oswald's) romantic notions are being challenged, and the Henshawes' relationship is soon to be stripped to its reality. Myra and Oswald need to achieve a level of love beyond that from which they have fallen. For all three, opportunities for improvement lie in the future.
True to character, Oswald warns Nellie not to "speak . . . nor seem to know" of Myra's illness (60), and there is evidence that Myra has failed to face the reality of her condition. "We are in temporary eclipse," she tells Nellie. "I gain strength faster if I haven't people on my mind" (62). But reality is difficult to avoid; it is evident in the faded condition of their furnishings and in the tramping overhead of the Poindexters. Myra blames her vulnerability on impoverishment. "Oh, that's the cruelty of being poor; it leaves you at the mercy of such pigs" (68), she angrily complains as those above run about "beating [her] brains into a jelly" (67). Her situation seems to prove the truth of old Driscoll's warning that God scorns the poor. She blames Oswald, who has been bumped from his last two jobs and now has a "humble position, poorly paid, with the city traction company" (69). Whenever she hears the tramping above, Myra "turn[s] sharply to her husband" (66).
Suffering has not reformed Myra, although the religious verticalism and Irishisms that have survived alongside her negative traits will become her channels of reform and refining. Her sincere happiness in seeing Nellie, whose appearance seems to fulfill the prophecy of the queen of hearts, is marred by Myra's uncharitable pronouncements about teaching as a profession fit only for "the stupid and the phlegmatic" (64), her impatience with generous youth, and her cutting remark that "half of [Nellie's grandfather's portrait] would be enough for anybody!" (65). Ironically, the portrait of perversity that Nellie makes of Myra ("She put my two hands to her cheeks, making a frame for her face" ) is overwhelming: "she 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" (65). The portrait comes with sound, the angry laugh that seemed to say, "Ahha, I have one more piece of evidence . . . against the hideous injustice God permits in this world!" (65). Even Nellie can detect verticalism in the resentment of divine justice that Aquinas attributes to loss of charity (34:1, 5-6). In Myra's view, if the immediate cause of indignity is Oswald, the ultimate cause is God's hideous injustice."
Myra's comparison of the Poindexters to the stalled ox makes clear this double blame. While she turns "sharply" to Oswald when she hears the tramping, she uses imagery from Proverbs 15:17 to describe it: "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith." This verse ironically reflects a condition her materialism and bitterness prevent her from turning into benefit: her stalled ox is not riches interfering with charity but the chastisement of poverty offered to enable the dinner of herbs to be eaten in love. Mrs. Poindexter becomes an instrument of evil: "the wicked are deaf like the adder. And . . . she has the wrinkled, white throat of an adder . . . and the hard eyes of one" (74). In Psalm 58:4-5, the deaf, adder-like wicked are instruments of demonic forces imagined to control human destinies (Clifford 767). These allusions develop from Nellie's comment "that the Henshawes had come on evil days" (60) and from references to obscure light: Myra's brave explanation that "we are in temporary eclipse" and Nellie's observation that the electric bulbs in Myra's room are "shrouded and muffled" (62). In the next chapter the Henshawe eclipse will slowly begin to pass to reveal Christ rather than Diana-Hecate. The inevitable fall into darkness before this dawn is implied in Myra's recollections: "Ah, we wouldn't be hiding in the shadow, if we were fiveand-twenty! We were throwing off sparks like a pair of shooting stars, weren't we, Oswald?" (64). Eichorn (129) recognizes Salisbury's contemplation of the king's defeat in Richard II---"I see thy glory like a shooting star / Fall to the base earth from the firmament" (2.4.19-20)---as the source for Myra's speech. In this context the shooting stars Myra and Oswald have been are doomed ones.
Chapters 2 through 4 develop each partner's opportunities for change. Nellie begins chapter 2 by listing Oswald's daily services to his wife: he rises at five in the morning to bathe her, make her bed, and give her breakfast; he leaves work for two hours at noon to give her lunch; and so on. These seem to be acts of charity, of virtue operating in freethinking Oswald. Lewis observes that the subject of such acts may be offering love to God unintentionally: "Love Himself can work in those who know nothing of Him" (129). Divine love enables the subject to serve God and neighbor through the same operation: "it is not . . . that we love God and because of this by a further and imperated act love our neighbor, as if one were our end and the other our means" (Gilby 468). The nature of Oswald's service lies in his motivation toward and understanding of the love object. Is the source of motivation obligation or, as Aquinas specifies, "delight and readiness" (32:1), marks of the act of charity? Oswald's gentleness and patience with Myra seem to indicate the operation of divine love, but Cather complicates his motives by blurring the object of his love.
While chapter 2 opens with a list of apparently charitable acts, chapter 3 opens with the "evident pleasure" he takes in the attentions of the young girl journalist with whom he frequently dines (77). Nellie's loaded comment that "he still wore his topaz sleeve-buttons" (78) reminds us of the quarrel about infidelity and anticipates Cather's final coda, where we confront the possibility that Oswald's love for Myra had somehow ossified or, rather, only avoided this through substitutes: the rich girl who bestowed the sleeve-buttons, the journalist who now gives him refreshment, and even Nellie herself, to whom Myra indicates that "it was a pleasure to him to have [Nellie] come into their life again" (90-91). "He was always a man to feel women, you know, in every way," Myra concludes. In his last conversation with Nellie, Oswald confides that "it's seemed to me that I was nursing the mother of the girl who ran away with me. Nothing ever took that girl from me. She was a wild, lovely creature" (104). This perspective undermines the transfiguration of his marriage, frustrates his opportunity to move beyond Venus-Eros. If charity operates in him, and I believe it does, it is not toward his wife but toward the maternal figure he serves.
Myra's situation is more complicated. The dingy room beneath the tramping Poindexters forms a penumbra for her ruined marriage, relieved by Nellie with cakes, flowers, and visits to the shore. During the first of these visits Myra discovers a headland topped with a twisted cedar. She christens the place "Gloucester's cliff," the imaginary place in King Lear where deere deluded Gloucester attempts to shake his "great affliction off" to avoid quarreling with the divine will (4.6-35-40). Here, after being "miraculously" saved from a "fiend" by "the clearest gods," he submits to his fate: "Henceforth I'll bear / Affliction till it do cry out itself /'Enough, enough,' and die" (75-77). Instead of escaping as he had intended, Gloucester sees and accepts. His opportunity begins to operate in Myra in this scene above the Pacific.
The tree and the intensity of the afternoon sun generate a mysterious aura typical of Flannery O'Connor's fiction and transcending the general realism of Nellie's text: "From a distance I could see her leaning against her tree and looking off to sea, as if she were waiting for something.... The afternoon light grew stronger and yellower, and when I went back to Myra it was beating from the west on her cliff as if thrown by a burningglass" (72-73). A burning glass, which focuses the sun's rays to set objects on fire, in this context becomes an obvious symbol of grace. Myra is affected: her smile is "soft," her face "lovely." "Light and silence . . . heal all one's wounds . . . but one, and that is healed by dark and silence," she tells Nellie, anticipating death's cure. "It's like cold water poured over fever" (73). The relief mediates guilt and then hope as the sun lowers into the sea, the traditional crucifixion image: "'I'd love to see this place at dawn,' Myra said suddenly. 'That is always such a forgiving time.... it's as if all our sins were pardoned, as if the sky leaned over the earth and kissed it and gave it absolution" (73). The imagery is strategic in evaluating Myra's reconciliation, as is her desire, implied in her conclusion, to return to old Driscoll in returning to God: "You know how the great sinners always came home to die in some religious house, and the abbot or the abbess went out and received them with a kiss?" (73)
Myra lapses when she returns to her room beneath the tramping Poindexters. She is aware of what she calls "two fatal maladies" (74), one physical and one spiritual, which mix in her complaints. As her neighbors become demons, her confession of greed, that she should have stayed with her moneyed uncle, combines the sins of defection and profligacy. Youth has "been the ruin of us both. We've destroyed each other" (75), she tells Oswald without bitterness. She smooths the hair of her god and then closes her eyes and covers them with her hands, remembering perhaps her youthful preoccupation, Eros "taking over and reorganizing" (Lewis 93-94). After receiving news of a friend's son who shot himself over love, Myra confides to Nellie, "Oh, how youth can suffer! I've not forgotten; those hot southern Illinois nights, when Oswald was in New York . . . and I used to lie on the floor all night and listen to the express trains go by" (87). In the same vein are her responses to two Heine poems. "Was will die einsame Trane" does her "good. You see, I was crying about things I never feel now; I'd been dreaming I was young, and the sorrows of youth had set me crying!" (79). The poem's opening lines suggest that Myra is ridding herself of her last impediments to vision: "Why does this lonely tear drop / Still dim my visionwhy?" Listening to the other poem, "Am Kreuzweg wird begraben," she identifies with the suicide buried at the crossroads; the blue flower of the sinner is her flower: "Oh, that's the flower for me, Nellie" (80). References to the night sky and the moon in both poems connect them to the pagan strain in the New York section. Hecate, the underworld Diana of eclipse, is also the goddess of crossroads.
Myra's "cruelty" to Oswald, generated by "the harm [she] did him" that "perhaps [she] can't forgive him for" (88), is an attempt to disillusion him, make him accept her reality and their ruined marriage: "We've destroyed each other.... We were never really happy. I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman; I wanted success and a place in the world. Now I'm old and ill and a fright" (75). She "can't help" trying to "spoil the past" for him because "he's a sentimentalist, always was; he can look back on the best of those days when we were young and loved each other, and make himself believe it was all like that. It wasn't" (88). This is both a confession of guilt and a plea for recognition. Oswald's fantasy that he had been nursing the mother of the young girl who had eloped with him, that nothing had ever taken that girl from him, provides a meaningful context for Myra's most disillusioning statement: "People can be lovers and enemies at the same time....
A man and a woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other." What Oswald has done is romanticize his wife; what he has failed to do is cherish her for herself. She has constantly reminded him of her imperfections, complained about their poverty, both spiritual and material, flown into rages of jealousy when she suspected that female substitutes were sustaining the fantasy girl he would "rather have been clawed by . . . than petted by any other woman" (104). What is unhealthy is their preoccupation with the relationship itself, the failure to get beyond it. Myra recognizes as much when she concludes, "When there are children, that feeling goes through natural changes. But when it remains so personal . . . something gives way in one. In age we lose everything; even the power to love" (88-89).
Facing the reality of failure, Myra grows increasingly nostalgic for the heritage she gave up. She reflects on old Driscoll, on how unusual he was; his violent prejudices seem virtues "in these days when so few people have any real passions, either of love or hate" (81). She admires the satanic perversity of the clause in his will providing care for her in an institution for women in Chicago. She hopes he died with a decent feeling for her: "If he'd lived till now, I'd go back to him and ask his pardon.... as we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forebears put into us"(82). The imagery here repeats that at Gloucester's cliff: the sky and the abbott bestowing the kiss of absolution. We are reminded of the Irish lads who "always found [Myra] out" and piped "The Irish Washerwoman" for her (2-6). At the opposite end of her art life, Myra repeats "long declamations from Richard II or King John" (83), reminders of both strained and compliant uncle-nephew and uncle-niece relationships (Eichorn 128-32). Of course, the "stuff" put into Myra includes the church, and after these declamations she sends Nellie to Father Fay to request an anniversary Mass for Helena Modjeska, reminding Nellie that although she married before a justice of the peace, "I believe in holy words and holy rites all the same" (85). In the money she keeps in an old glove "for unearthly purposes," she reveals her usual confusion between money and God's grace.
Chapter 5 is the heart of Myra's struggle. She faces a process that Lewis calls "so difficult that perhaps no fallen man has ever come within sight of doing it perfectly" (134): she must transform (by acceptance) the mortal lover she suspects has been unfaithful into a mode of charity. Myra's condition deteriorates after her repeated visits to the headland and the growth of a tumor, making her physically and spiritually vulnerable, as dependent as she was self-assertive in the novel's first chapter. She now turns toward the church, ceases to complain, and adopts a "strange and dark" manner toward Oswald: "She had certain illusions; the noise overhead she now attributed entirely to her husband. 'Ah, there, he's beginning it again,' she would say. 'He'll wear me down in the end. Oh, let me be buried in the king's highway!"' (92). Eichorn identifies this request as from Richard II but falls to develop its meaning in either the Cather or the Shakespeare context. Both Richard and Myra are greedy actor-philosophers with a vertical view of Providence and bad relations with an uncle, and Richard's request, spoken in regret over imminent deposition, is part of a catalog of loss and repentance: I'll give my jewels for a set of beads, My gorgeous palace for a hermitage, My gay apparel for an almsman's gown, My Figured goblets for a dish of wood, My sceptre for a palmer's walking-staff, My subjects for a pair of carved saints, And my large kingdom for a little grave, A little little grave, an obscure grave, Or I'll be buried in the king's high way ... (3.3.147-55)
The first and sixth lines are echoed in Myra's attachment to "an ebony crucifix with an ivory Christ," which she unkindly demands when Nellie removes it from the bed: "Give it to me. It means nothing to people who haven't suffered" (92).
Myra's identification with the corpus (the icon balancing gilt Diana in part 1) relates to divine demands for atonement, and her changed attitude toward Oswald results from construing him as the divine power. She says "accusingly, at him rather than to him: 'At least let me die by candlelight; that is not too much to ask'" (93). Oswald is also the instrument of the charity she must accept: "It's bitter enough that I should have to take service from you-you whom I have loved so well" (92). Nellie records these words without understanding, or else they would prepare her for the question, "Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?" (95). Myra's bitterness is knowing that because of Oswald she had rejected the charity now being offered through him, that he refuses to accept her as herself, that whatever virtue he is capable of is being offered to "tha mother of the girl who ran away with [him]" (104) and must be accepted by her (Myra) as from a neighbor rather than as from a husband. Myra is no model, despite Father Fay's misleading accolade about "some of the saints of the early church [being] a good deal like her" (93), but she struggles to accept the inevitable, even as she punctuates it with dramatics. "We . . . draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves," writes Lewis, "but by accepting them and offering them to Him.... If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they shall break, so be it" (122).
The drawing near occupies Myra's last days, when her mind is "abnormally active"
(93). She repeats her discussion with the young priest about the search for God,
reflected in her desire for candlelight and dawn: "Ah, Father,.. . Religion is
different from everything else; because in religion seeking is finding" (94).
This echoes a cluster of biblical passages, the most familiar being Matthew
7:7-8---"Seek, and ye shall find . . . he that seeketh findeth." Proverbs 8: 17 puts
these words into the mouth of Wisdom: "those that seek me early shall find me." In
Jeremiah 29:13 Yahweh adds the condition of intense love in addressing the exiles in
Babylon: "And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all
your heart." In all three passages, finding, having, and arriving depends on
disposition. Nellie's gloss, that "in religion, desire was fulfillment, it was the
seeking itself that rewarded" (94), is only partially perceptive because it dispenses
with the object of the quest. Myra's difficulty in accepting her situation is what
motivates what Nellie distinguishes as "the burden . . . telling the tale":
The candles were burning as usual. . . . The sick woman began to talk to
herself, scarcely above a whisper. . . .I seemed to hear a soul talking. "I could
bear to suffer . . . so many have suffered. But why must it be like this? I have not
deserved it. I have been true in friendship; I have faithfully nursed others in
sickness.... Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?" (95)
The candles were burning as usual. . . . The sick woman began to talk to herself, scarcely above a whisper. . . .I seemed to hear a soul talking.
"I could bear to suffer . . . so many have suffered. But why must it be like this? I have not deserved it. I have been true in friendship; I have faithfully nursed others in sickness.... Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?" (95)
Myra's problem is evident in her statement that "I have not deserved it," that is, to have to respond to charity from Oswald, the idol until lately separating her from the church and its sacraments. At the theater in New York Myra had told Nellie that enemies were easier to forgive than friends; in Oswald she has to grapple with both.
Nellie looks at Oswald "in affright" after the whispered question, "but he did not move or shudder." Perhaps he comprehends more than Nellie, who at first interprets the words as "a terrible judgment upon all one hopes for" (95). Her subsequent idea is more thoughtful: "Violent natures like [Myra's] sometimes turn against themselves . . . and all their idolatries" (96). Oswald had been violently possessed, but now Myra would avoid him. The demand made on her or rather the invitation offered her (to use Lewis's term), is to turn idolatry into virtue, a transformation "so difficult that perhaps no fallen man has ever come within sight of doing it perfectly." Thurin recognizes the source of Myra's words in a phrase used by Euripides' Medea in addressing Jason (185), and he draws pertinent parallels between the two "violent" women: Medea is a moon worshiper who sacrifices a great position to marry a man who proves unfaithful and whom she tortures. If Thurin is correct, Cather's borrowing complements the Norma material similarly placed in the other part of he novel.
Bennett and Tanner are among critics who discredit Myra's religious reconciliation because she is unforgiving. When Myra expounds on lovers as enemies and tells Nellie, "Perhaps I can't forgive [Oswald] for the harm I did him," it is essentially her confession of jealousy, extravagance, and guilt that Oswald's "life had not suited him.... he ought to have been a soldier or an explorer" (52). But Bennett cites this confession as proof that Myra is inconsistent because she herself wants forgiveness (118). Bennett caps her argument with 1 John 4:20-21: "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: and he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also." Tanner uses the same passage to verify "that Myra's conversion is more a matter of aesthetics than of theology" (35). Both critics fail to consider reconciliation as a process. For example, Myra admits her inability to forgive in the chapter previous to the one in which Nellie notices that she changes, that she stops complaining and lamenting. Tanner claims that "not even in her final hours-even after receiving the Sacrament-does Myra demonstrate ... essential [Christian] qualities"-" love, humility, repentance, forgiveness, and the renunciation of worldly values" (30). 1 suggest a closer consideration of the text and what Cather leaves out of it. Chapter 6 begins, "On the following day [after the question about her mortal enemy] Mrs. Henshawe asked to be given the Sacrament. After she had taken it she seemed easier in mind and body" (97). Subsequently she desires solitude and makes her way to the headland, where she dies. Has she failed to repent, forgive, love the way Christians are supposed to? What does her "ease" in mind and body mean? Might it be that freedom peace that quiets the confusion in and transfigures humanity? When Myra questions why she must take service from her mortal enemy and die alone with him, is she struggling with the grace to accept or, in the Christian sense, love that enemy?
In his treatise on charity Aquinas grapples with the passage from John's letter and an apparently contradictory one in Luke (14:26): "If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters . . . he cannot be my disciple." Aquinas clarifies John's argument as meaning that the love process first involves the visible rather than the most lovable, that the soul learns from things it knows to love what it knows not. The argument in Luke is that "we ought to hate our neighbor for God's sake, if . . . he leads us astray from God.... Therefore we ought to love God, out of charity, more than our neighbor" (Aquinas 26:2). Lewis defines hate here as rejection rather than aversion or wishing harm; it means "to reject, to set one's face against, to make no concession to" whatever or whoever interferes with or becomes an alternative to God (123). Through Nellie's evidence we merely approach a mystery that Cather presents the way she does because it is beyond language, must be "felt upon the page without being specifically named there." Aquinas explains that "what we ought to love in our neighbor is that he may be in God.... or love him on account of what he has of God" (25:1). Cather uses Nellie to distance us from that salvific movement from natural loves and hates to loving one's neighbor under the aspect of God. Myra's acceptance of Oswald's charity would be loving Oswald "on account of what he has of God," the gift of love.
There are still threads that need tying. Myra's cremation is a variation on Norma's death by fire and emphasizes, I believe, Myra's consummation in the divinity reflected in candles and at dawn. Oswald's Alaskan adventure indicates perhaps the awakening of the potential Nellie imagined in him. Nellie's chill from the string of amethysts is hopeful, keeps her disillusionment fresh, and motivates her narrative; it reveals that she has yet to fathom Myra, whose mystery has become an ongoing invitation, a grace, for transcendence.