The Willa Cather Archive


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From Cather Studies Volume 7

Shadows on the Rock

Against Interpretation


In an early scene in Shadows on the Rock, Cécile Auclair has prevailed upon Mother Juschereau to tell her a story of the exemplary piety of her predecessor, Sister Catherine de Saint-Augustin. As the story comes to an end, Mother Juschereau is preparing to deliver the appropriate moral lesson when she is interrupted by a cry from her young listener: "N'expliquez pas, chère Mère, je vous en supplie!" ("Don't explain, dear Mother, I beg you!"). The nun takes this emphatic wish for delivery from interpretation as a sign that Cécile "certainly has no vocation" (39). I hope to use this plea to get at what Shadows shows us about the way Cather practiced hers. In my view, the book shares with its main character a resistance to interpretation, and it is in that resistance, I will be arguing, that this unobtrusive novel illuminates the ambitions and values that shape Cather's work.


"N'expliquez pas, cher Monsieur, je vous en supplie!": Of course, the first thing I am going to do is a little explication. But my goal will be to describe a feature of the experience of reading Shadows on the Rock, and to specify and explore the significance of what I take to be the book's dramatized resistance to our customary habits of attention (particularly if we are in the habit of being English professors). Let me begin with some polemical definitions, taken from Susan Sontag's famous 1964 essay, "Against Interpretation": Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says, Look, don't you see that X is really—or, really means—A? That Y is really B? That Z is really C? . . . The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs "behind" the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. (5, 6-7)

My point about Shadows on the Rock—and I would suggest that it is representative of a strong strain or impulse within Cather's fiction as a whole—is that it seems to have been designed, as Cécile's cri de coeur hints, to resist the kind of interpretive, explanatory practice that Sontag describes. To read Shadows is to be forced by the text to throw away one's interpreter's shovel, to stifle one's inner Mike Wallace (ever on the lookout for the next stage-managed exposé), and to exchange that habit of mind for a form of responsiveness more descriptive and more observatory: a kind of witnessing. In the realm of character, for instance, what could be more fruitless than to psychoanalyze Cécile or Auclair? What could be more irrelevant than to posit on behalf of this novel's inhabitants elaborate schemes of self-recognition or maturation? Characters in this text do not develop in the manner of characters from traditional novels but instead on occasion make evident or transparent their natures, or come to see their own lives in a definitive or characteristic way. My point is not that readers want to treat the book's characters in the customary, explanatory way, but that the book, in its way of attending to its characters, pointedly disaffiliates itself from the "depth" model of character and from the interpretive procedures which that model customarily calls forth from its readers.

Similarly, if we think in terms of plot, the text's key moments or events are not revelatory transformations but quieter acts of heightened or illuminated witnessing: the observation of a particular quality of winter light, say, or the apprehension of a weight of meaning as it is gathered up by an object or a ritual. One of my favorite instances of such a moment of post- or anti-interpretive "taking in" is Cather's rendering of Jacques's regard for Cécile's cup: Much as Jacques loved chocolate . . . there was something he cared more about, something that gave him a kind of solemn satisfaction,—Cécile's cup. She had a silver cup with a handle; on the front was engraved a little wreath of roses, and inside that wreath was the name, Cécile, cut in the silver. Her Aunt Clothilde had given it to her when she was but a tiny baby, so it had been hers all her life. That was what seemed so wonderful to Jacques. His clothes had always belonged to somebody else before they were made over for him; he slept wherever there was room for him, sometimes with his mother, sometimes on a bench. He had never had anything of his own except his toy beaver,—and now he would have his shoes, made just for him. But to have a cup, with your name on it . . . even if you died, it would still be there, with your name. More than the shop with all the white jars and mysterious implements, more than the carpet and curtains and the red sofa, that cup fixed Cécile as born to security and privileges. . . . Cécile had suggested that he drink his chocolate from it, and she would use another. But he shook his head, unable to explain. That was not at all what her cup meant to him. Indeed, Cécile could not know what it meant to him; she was too fortunate. (86-88) Although the meaning of the cup has everything to do with eco-nomic privilege—with class, as it was manifest in seventeenth-century Quebec—such a restating of the already apparent would hardly qualify as an interpretive claim of any use or moment. Rather, one's attention is drawn to the process by which the cup accrues meaning for Jacques, situated as he is; that is what qualifies as a significant event within the plot-logic of Shadows on the Rock. This characteristic emphasis—not on the emergence of hidden, explanatory meanings but on the ways meanings are made—is also evident in the text's most dramatically clarifying moment (the climax, one would have to say, of its extremely low-key plot), as Cécile re-sees her own domestic world upon returning from her visit to the Île d'Orléans: "These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days,—the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life" (198).

This is not the whole story on meaning-making in Shadows. There are characters who have a different kind of presence in the novel, a different relation to meaning. I am thinking here of Mother Catherine de Saint-Augustin, of the recluse Jeanne Le Ber, of Noël Chabanel, and Chabanel's later, intriguingly urbane imitator, Father St. Cyr—a group of characters I want to call "auto-icons." Unlike the book's other characters, members of this group have an extremely self-conscious relation to their own lives, each firmly in the grip of a teleological narrative of his or her own invention. They are, in a sense, people determined to become icons, to become interpretable in Sontag's sense as something other than, more than, themselves. They are, accordingly, associated with extreme, "hypernarrative" (and, intriguingly, performative) forms of language or action: writing in blood ("I will die in Canada"), the irrevocable vow ("I will be that lamp, that shall be my life," says Jeanne Le Ber), the sacred farce that composes Chabanel's career as the world's lamest missionary. There would be much to say about these figures, and I think the book's treatment of them is complex: contained in the bubble of their iconic self-conception, they nevertheless generate narratives that circulate pleasurably through the larger community. Still, one of their effects—their narrative function, I would argue—is to make evident by contrast, through their narrative extremity, their intense commitment to interpretability, the muted and reticent aesthetic of witnessing that is in effect all around them.

Toward the end of her essay, Sontag sets out to answer the two questions necessarily raised by her attack on the culture of interpretation: What kind of art might free the denizens of that culture from their depth-seeking habit of mind? And (in Sontag's own words) "What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today?" (12). The great mission of contemporary art, as Sontag saw it in 1964, is the evasion of interpretation. This project or purpose is relatively evident and easy to achieve in some art forms—abstract painting, avant-garde experiments that foreground form—but it is also possible, she hopes, in more ostensibly conventional artistic practice: "Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is" (11). (Is there a better brief description of Cather's style?) Or, as she puts it a little later in the essay: "Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art . . . today" (13). Here is her reciprocal recommendation for those of us who write about art: "Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means" (14).

My point in citing Sontag's essay here is less to celebrate her work than to make a point about Cather's. In its "transparency," in its sustained and wittily dramatized resistance to the interpretive habits we bring to it, Shadows on the Rock is already "against" or "beyond" interpretation, making possible for us, through its refusal of our habits of attention, new forms of response and the new possibilities of feeling that attend them: "N'expliquez pas, cher lecteur, je vous en supplie!"


If I am right about the interpretation-resistant experience of reading that Cather creates and dramatizes in Shadows on the Rock, we are left with a question. What is the force of that accomplishment, that recasting of the novel and the attendant reshaping of our affective response to it? Why and how does this experience of redistributed interest, of a different kind of imaginative investment, matter? For Sontag, one must resist interpretation as a guard against some aspects of the experience of modern life, as part of an imaginative practice devoted to recovering sensory experience: "Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life—its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties" (13). We need interpretation-resistant art and criticism because "What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear, more, to feel more" (14).

For Cather, I think, the stakes of the redistribution of readerly emotion her works attempt are different, because, as an "early" modernist, her understanding of the historical pressures on life and on the novel is different from the "late" modernist Sontag's. The resistance to interpretation mounted in Cather's work is less a refuge from the modern than an espousal of it (though The Professor's House, with its rendering of a fully formed commodity culture, seems to be an exception to this claim). If Sontag's enemy is a content-saturated modern culture, Cather's enemy is the resilient power of American Victorianism: a resolutely interpretive culture and sponsor of the nineteenth-century novel, whose trajectories of plot and character, whose management and instruction of its readers' responses continue to be the energizing antagonists of Cather's fictive practice.

The cultural force of Cather's enterprise in Shadows can be felt by recalling the qualities of that predecessor culture. Here I will be following closely the work of the cultural historian Daniel Joseph Singal. In "Towards a Definition of American Modernism," Singal argues that we should think of modernism not as a collection of compositional techniques or avant-garde ideas about art but as a "full-fledged historical culture" (8)—a set of intellectual, moral, and emotional commitments and attitudes that do indeed find powerful expression in aesthetic strategies. If we do this kind of thinking, we see that "modernism" must be defined in relation to—against, really—what might be called "American Victorianism," its precursor culture, which was the dominant value system in America from the 1830s into the early twentieth century. Here is Singal's lucid description of it: At the core of this . . . culture stood a distinctive set of bedrock assumptions. These included a belief in a predictable universe presided over by a benevolent God and governed by immutable natural laws, a corresponding conviction that humankind was capable of arriving at a unified and fixed set of truths about all aspects of life, and an insistence on preserving absolute standards based on a radical dichotomy between that which was deemed "human" and that regarded as "animal." It was this moral dichotomy above all that constituted the deepest guiding principle of the Victorian outlook. On the "human" and "civilized" side of the dividing line stood everything that served to lift man above the beasts—education, refinement, manners, the arts, religion, and such domesticated emotions as loyalty and family love. The "animal" or "savage" realm, by contrast, contained those instincts and passions that constantly threatened self-control, and which therefore had to be repressed at all cost. (9) As Singal also points out, this dichotomizing habit of mind applied to people as well as values: "Victorians characterized societies as either civilized or savage, drew a firm line between what they considered superior and inferior classes, . . . divided races unambiguously into black and white," and placed the sexes in "separate spheres" based on a now-familiar set of supposedly "natural" characteristics (9-10).

In Singal's view, then, Victorian culture built its sense of stability upon a set of clear, simplifying oppositions. What I would add to Singal's description is this: the sense of the world just described is implemented and sustained by narratives, by the stories about life that put its interpretations of experience into force and proclaim their explanatory power. That is: this was a profoundly and characteristically allegorical culture, committed to grand narratives that reached both out into the social and political world and inward into the self. Such definitive Victorian allegories would include outward-turning story lines like "the march of progress," the benevolent triumph of the civilized, and the noble mission of educating the savage, as well as inward-focused story lines like the narratives of maturation, disciplined self-recognition, and interior enlightenment via difficult experience that are recognizable as the master plots of the Victorian novel. In emphasizing this Victorian commitment to a certain kind of big narrative, I do not want to deny that, in both England and America, this could be an admirably self-critical, self-challenging culture. There was no shortage of Victorian critics of Victorian hypocrisy, or Victorian exclusions, or Victorian injustices. Yet these challengers tend to share the sense of story line, of the allegorical shape belonging to experience, with the culture they criticize. They seek a more enlightened selfhood, a still more elevated cultural life, a more vigorous manhood or womanhood. This last point—that defenders and critics of the Victorian status quo share a sense of "the story," of the goals and end points of their culture's cherished narratives—enables us to see that a differently imagined American culture—an authentic modernism—will need not only to challenge Singal's dichotomies but to reinvent the very shape of its central narratives, its routes toward meaning.

And to see that, finally, is to see the importance and ambitiousness of the kind of radical recasting of narrative—which I tried to demonstrate in the first part of this essay—that Cather is unobtrusively accomplishing in Shadows on the Rock and in much of her other work. From a historical point of view, then, the great ambition and the great accomplishment of a book like Shadows is its radical act of refraining from the customary pleasures and procedures of the novel and its culture (what Sontag calls "interpretation") and the opportunity it hence affords us to feel differently our encounter with this text. Shadows on the Rock is a central book in Cather's oeuvre because it exemplifies the way her fiction aspires to the condition of uninterpretability: to bring its readers to a place where our customary habits of attention, our usual forms of feeling, and our orthodox life narratives might be discarded. Insofar as our own response to this novel and to Cather's fiction generally is "interpretive" in Sontag's sense—insofar as we address it allegorically, seeking out the deeper layers of explanatory meaning it resolutely withholds from us—we ourselves betray what is most interesting and refreshing about it.


Cather, Willa. Shadows on the Rock. New York: Knopf, 1931. Rpt. New York: Vintage, 1971.
Singal, Daniel Joseph. "Towards a Definition of American Modernism." American Quarterly 39 (1987): 7-26.
Sontag, Susan. "Against Interpretation." Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Anchor Books, 1990. 3-14. Originally published, 1966.