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From Cather Studies Volume 9

"The Cruelty of Physical Things"

Picture Writing and Violence in Willa Cather's "The Profile"

Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself. Willa Cather, "The Novel Démeublé"

As one of her earliest works of fiction, Willa Cather’s “The Profile” reveals a great deal about what later became the consistent use of visual imagery and visual art reference in her work. This essay examines the visual semiotics in “The Profile,” assessing Cather’s knowledge of modern art discourses in relation to her participation in modernist cultural production. “The Profile” can be seen as a product of her interest in and understanding of the modernist experiment in relation to the neoclassic, romantic, and realist art movements. This particular change narrative of art values in conflict was one with which Cather, during her college years of writing art reviews, had become quite familiar, and she exploited it as a suggestive cultural setting for her disturbing tale of the brief marriage between a sensitive portrait painter and his visibly scarred wife. Even this early in her development as a writer, Cather deftly employed visual images and the critical discussion surrounding them in her narrative of the social inequities suffered by women of America and western Europe in the transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth.

In portraying the struggle between Aaron Dunlap and Virginia Gilbert over the significance of the latter’s facial scar, “The Profile” displays the principal visual strategy that Cather notably and consistently employed throughout her writing career. Borrowing her phrase from My Ántonia, I identify this strategy as her “picture writing” (chapter 14). Included in picture writing, as I am using the term, is her skillful use of the cultural narratives attached to well-known art images, such as the critical furor occasioned by Manet’s Olympia, mentioned briefly but with intention in this early short work of fiction. The scope of Cather’s picture writing, however, takes in her image making generally, and is dependent not just on her knowledge of art movements and their ideals but also on her understanding and use of visual semiosis—of the ways in which objects and materials, colors, marks, and forms all are used in the production of meaning. It was this profound understanding of the visual that she possessed and confidently drew upon, even in the early years of her career.

Since the mid-1990s, Cather’s use of the visual in her fiction has become a focus of interest among students of her work. Polly Duryea’s exhaustive “Catalogue Raisonné” traces Cather’s exposure to the world of images during her college years of extensive critical engagement with exhibits including the French and American impressionists and documents Cather’s experience with artists, such as Manet, who departed radically from the romantic and realist traditions (Duryea 6). In “The Observant Eye, the Art of Illustration, and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia,” Janis P. Stout points out Cather’s frequent creation of an additional visual layer for the pursuit of truth that escapes the written word. For Stout, Cather’s close involvement in the choice of illustrator for earlier editions of My Ántonia and her increasing reliance on “visual experience itself” are evidence of a highly developed visual acuity. In her introduction to Willa Cather and Material Culture, Stout argues that Cather’s embrace of the material culture of her narrative subjects locates her work firmly within the modernist scope (10–11). Catherine Morley also notes the developing importance of the symbol throughout Cather’s career in “Voice of the Prairies? Willa Cather and the International Modernist Scene” (9). These similarities of insight assume a paradigm of relationships among images, symbols, and words in a literary text that this essay seeks to revise. The general accord indicates, however, the trend of the ongoing discussion about Cather’s visuality, its relationship to her creations of language, and its “fit” within the scheme of modernist cultural production.

Cather’s use of visual elements in “The Profile” connects her story to the radical modernity of Manet’s Olympia, first exhibited in 1865. The story demonstrates her deep understanding of how layers of period and place are linked to art, and of the new forms of visual representation that had emerged in the late nineteenth century. Her commentaries on the public sculpture and painting she viewed during her first trip to Europe in 1902 are clearly founded on her knowledge about studio art practice and an understanding of developments in modern art. They reveal her easy recognition of expertise in the creation of line and composition, in the effective use of color, and in the “truth of tone,” a standard that she identified in the portraits of Edward Burne-Jones when she visited his studio (Willa Cather in Europe 73–74). As she toured the Barbizon countryside, she noted that the tiring women gleaners appeared “to look more and more as Millet painted them, warped and bowed and heavy” (122– 23). Cather consistently blends the visual and the historical for the Nebraska State Journal readers for whom she sketched her first experiences of Europe, enlivening her comments on Burne-Jones’s Venus panels or Millet’s darker perspectives on peasant labor with their accompanying cultural narratives.

In much-noted disclosures on her own art, too, Cather applied her understanding of visual art to elaborate her theories of novelistic technique. She praised the practice of younger novelists whose minimalist ways of writing were parallel to the “suggestive” techniques of modern painters (“Novel Démeublé” 40). Her ability to extrapolate this painterly quality in the works of a coming generation of writers speaks of her ease with both modern visual arts practice and its wider aesthetic influence. In developing this into picture writing, she was able to create narratives that draw a significant portion of their meaning from the quality of her images. Her particular use of visual elements in “The Profile” places Cather firmly within the scope of the modern as revealed in Manet’s Olympia.

In investigating Cather’s modernism, Duryea and others have seen Cather’s stylistic development as increasingly informed by the art of the symbolist writers (“Catalogue Raisonné” 16–17). Considering the images in My Ántonia, Stout points to Cather’s “powerful symbolizing pictures like the plow against the setting sun” as evidence of symbolist influence, in which the simple, unadorned presentation of the object “makes the idea real” (“Observant Eye” 2). In Willa Cather’s Modernism, Jo Ann Middleton also sees that backlit plow as a symbol mediating Cather’s meaning with poetic technique, bringing our associations “of all that it took to tame the prairie” into the field of meaning that this image must suggest (60). Cynthia Griffin Wolff reads Virginia Gilbert’s scar as a symbol of general human vulnerability, something physical or material in the narrative that can represent a common understanding or experience for readers (13). These characterizations of Cather’s symbolism, or of Cather’s imagery as symbolist, are helpful initial approaches to her creative methods, but do not fully account for their specific effects. While the symbolists may have had their influence on her, Cather evolved original methods for communicating meaning visually within her narratives. The disturbing effect of her picture writing in “The Profile” derives not so much from its power to symbolize human suffering generally as from the more potent and specific signifying process by which she has infused her character’s physical scar with the particular meaning of the beauty standard’s inherent injustice to women.

In “The Novel Démeublé,” Cather discusses Tolstoy’s masterful infusion of meaning, by realist techniques, into a fictional object. She admired his creation of a numinous narrative in which the physical thing and its emotional significance are entirely integrated as a single, signifying entity. The clear result in Cather is a power of signification that is influenced as much by realist art and literature, such as Tolstoy’s, as it is by the symbolist movement. The effect of realist influences on Cather’s picture writing may escape us if we place her imagery in “The Profile” within a category of the symbol that is too broadly drawn.

A close consideration of Cather’s signifying method in “The Profile” should inquire first into the life experience that set it into motion. On the relationship between Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mark Madigan’s article “Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher: Rift, Reconciliation, and One of Ours” has related the meeting, through Fisher, of Cather and Evelyn Osborne, “a young woman with a prominent facial scar and a taste for extravagant clothes” (1). This history reveals the profound hold of the subject on the young writer, despite its resulting negative effects on her relationship with Fisher. Cather’s inquiry leads, in fact, to the more descriptive term for the type of sign she has placed on her character’s face. Virginia Gilbert’s scar does not have the requisite characteristics of a symbol: as a sign, it is better described as a type of index because it indicates or makes reference to the event that produced it. In the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce, it is “a sign which demonstrates the influence of its object.”[1] Cather deploys the scar as a signifier in a variety of ways in her narrative, but in early scenes involving Dunlap’s first painful reaction to seeing the affected side of Virginia’s face, it reminds him of “the cruelty of physical things” that haunted his childhood (187). It appears to him and to readers also as an indexical sign of an unspecified event of violence to her body, resulting in the theft of her beauty. Thus, Cather positions the criteria for beauty in relation to the idea of justice, moving her readers toward a new conception of their uneasy coexistence.

The documented struggle between Cather and Fisher over the ethics of publishing a story centering on a character whose misfortune had been so obviously drawn from Osborne’s own is in itself illuminating. In supporting Cather’s vigorous resistance to Fisher’s claims, Isabelle McClung wrote the latter tellingly, “it is Willa’s scar now” (Madigan 3). McClung expressed a most penetrating insight into the creative process by which Osborne’s scar was born into Cather’s created narrative. When first meeting Evelyn Osborne, Cather herself may have struggled to construct the meaning of her scar in much the same way that Dunlap, and even the story’s readers, struggle with Virginia’s disfigurement. From unproductive reasoning backward about the unstated physical and temporal causes of Osborne’s scar, Cather might easily have been moved to explore in fictional form the psychological and social effects of disfigurement on an otherwise young, privileged, and attractive woman. Through her character’s facial scar, Cather develops an image of complex meaning. Virginia’s scar can intensify for the reader Dunlap’s sympathy and Virginia’s shame, but at the same time it may signify the horror and anger underlying their marital bond, thereby complicating the readers’ constructions of Cather’s intentions in this text. The semiosis of things visual and material in her story’s world enabled Cather to embed within “The Profile” a counternarrative that allows readers to better understand its violent climax.

Her creative process suggests the formation of a conceptual representation of the scar in Cather’s mind, one that would have captured for her as a complete visual sign Osborne’s inability to meet one of the primary criteria of female beauty during the time period: the smooth pallor of a flawless complexion.[2] As a young writer negotiating her own complex relationship to female beauty, Cather used the image of the scar as a sign of the unjust burdens of the beauty standard that must be carried by young womanhood. Thus, Cather reproduces in her character Dunlap her own movement from understanding a facial scar as an index to claiming it as a specific signifier for larger, if very different, representational purposes. In accounting for Cather’s conception and use of the scar as a particular created signifier, we must acknowledge the difficulties of specifying the relationship between thought, language, image, and word.[3] These are the very difficulties that Cather’s picture writing, as an independent semiotic dynamic, allows her readers to surmount. Because the visible scars of both Evelyn Osborne and Virginia Gilbert are saliently “unspeakable,” Cather melds them into a sign that can speak for itself.

Linguistic production of meaning is a paradigm for Cather’s picture writing. On one level, it is analogous to the word in both form and meaning: it is a sign, made up of material signifiers and a corresponding realm of signification. The word, however, is a symbolic convention: its semantic field is established and continuously renegotiated among its speakers. In her picture writing, Cather does not rely solely on this inventory of verbal signifiers and related significations that facilitates human communication. Instead, she invents her sign: the signifier as an image created of words, and its field of signified meanings as visually communicated, seemingly independent of those words. This perspective on her image making allows us to appreciate its originality and to see the difference between symbolism and picture writing. Symbolism makes various uses of the existing, socially assumed meanings of iconic or otherwise symbolic signifiers (in the way that language itself functions), while picture writing deploys images—a plow, a scar, a woman exercising naked, a handful of turquoises, a footprint—that Cather has ordained as signs, for which there are no signifying forms or assumed significations besides what she has invented. It is this distinction between the general operations of the symbolic and the process of specific visual semiosis resulting in Cather’s picture writing that leads me to propose the latter as a critical aspect of any approach to the presence of the visual in her art.

“The Profile” gives readers an early and compelling taste of Cather’s picture writing. The scar on Virginia Gilbert’s face does not function in the manner of a symbol: it functions as a picture writing on her countenance, claiming the significance of which is the central contest between the story’s two main characters. The scar is a visual/physical presence within the story, created by Cather out of language, in order to expand her text’s inventory of signs, and thus to enhance its semiotic reach, so that her readers’ understanding of her text may encompass “the thing not named” (“Novel Démeublé” 41). On the level of transformation from index to picture writing, the metamorphosis of meaning in Virginia’s scar constitutes Cather’s narrative. This image appears to her readers first as a physical fact of mysterious origin on her character’s body, and as the story progresses, the visible mark ultimately becomes a visual sign gradually disclosing its part in the story’s meaning. The scar does not invite readers to see or to see more of the nature of its structural referent; it is, rather, a visual signifier that merges with its referent for the reader, one that took total shape in Cather’s mind, and exists as a totality in the narrative, through which meaning has been “perfectly synthesized . . . in the emotional penumbra of the characters themselves,” one in which “literalness ceases to be literalness” (“Novel Démeublé” 40).

In a number of her other works, such as My Ántonia, “Coming, Aphrodite!,” The Professor’s House, and Lucy Gayheart, Cather’s use of picture writing, which includes her related manipulations of pictorial or other historical referents, creates an additional—and sometimes oppositional—layer of meaning for her narratives, one that is communicated to the reader by the primacy of the visual in the text. This presence of the visual supports our exploration of the complex, the contradictory, and the unnamed within her narrative, and thus offers us the possibility of closing a gap within it. Cather makes us see that the scar on Virginia’s face signifies the pathology of women’s common struggles with the beauty standard at the turn of the twentieth century.

The central conflict Cather puts before us in “The Profile” is located equally within the art salon and the domestic life of two expatriate Americans who have met and married in Paris. It arises both from the standards of painting practice and from the standards by which women were then judged to be beautiful. Dunlap’s immediate horror at the disfigurement of Virginia’s otherwise perfect face is a reaction not just to her flesh but to the injustice of her beauty having been despoiled in this manner: “His heart ached at the injustice of it; that her very beauty . . . should, through an inch or two of seared flesh, seem tainted and false” (184). The standard definition of female beauty, as it is recognized among the wealthy classes and the artists of Cather’s imagined Paris, has been utterly betrayed for the painter by the sight of the disfigured half of Virginia’s face. That the other half of this face meets the standard of beauty Cather makes clear: “a girlish profile, unusually firm for a thing so softly colored; oval, flower-tinted, and shadowed by soft, blonde hair that wound about her head and curled and clung about her brow and neck and ears” (184). That Olympia’s harsh charcoal outlines violated this criterion of female beauty Manet’s furious critics also made clear. Her embedded mention of Olympia in “The Profile” is a subtle signifier: Cather appropriated Manet’s challenge to both the beauty and the painting standards of post-Napoleonic Paris in order, similarly, to ask pointed questions about their impact on the women who lived there.

How was the phenomenon of beauty recognized in the Paris of this fateful portrait sitting? In Face Value: The Politics of Beauty, Robin Lakoff and Raquel Scherr trace the debate among philosophers as to whether beauty is dependent on overall harmony of physical features (as Aristotle proposed) or on a specific set of properties identifiable as the delicate, soft, and small (as argued by Edmund Burke), and conclude that the idea of beauty is culturally constructed, and therefore varies with time and place (54–55). Cather’s turn-of-the-century France, it should be noted, shared many basic cultural assumptions about female beauty with those of Americans of the time period. Cather seems to have caught her female protagonist in a snare of three types of feminine beauty identified by Lois Banner in American Beauty, each embodying to the world American national values and international standing as it entered the twentieth century. Virginia’s pallor, smallness, and softness are characteristic of the “steel-engraving lady” of the pre–Civil War era, a female type whose physical delicacy and corseted dress were understood as signs of moral rectitude (45). Banner notes that American fashion of the time took its style guidelines from those of the French, and indeed, Cather seems to have modeled the more flamboyant, sensuous style of dress that Virginia was known for in Paris on a slightly later nineteenth-century type that Banner calls “the voluptuous woman,” whose fuller figure was the female model preferred by French academic artists commonly exhibiting in America (5). Virginia is typical of American women in having embraced the bolder and more body-conscious fashion of this type, a style that ran to frank emphases of the bosom and buttocks. A third type described by Banner is the well-known Gibson girl of the 1890s, the time period closest to that of the setting of “The Profile.” Her tall, slender athleticism and patrician good health, widely popularized in easily reproduced graphic arts, were understood on both sides of the Atlantic to exemplify the “New Woman,” who ushered in the new century as the predominant female symbol of American pride and strength (5).

Virginia’s scar is a sign of morbidity effectively canceling her young body’s health. We are acutely aware of her inability to embody the ideals of the older antebellum or the fresh, new Gibson paradigms of femininity. Despite being a privileged American, she is notorious for following the clothing style of the voluptuous woman precisely because its seductive message creates a grotesque contrast: “Look at my body and desire; look at my face and pity.” Within Cather’s narrative, modeled on a world awash in images of perfect female beauty, the pain of this frustration must be very difficult for Virginia to bear. Virginia’s disfigurement prevents her from fully meeting the standard prescribed by any of these images of woman used by Cather as cultural references to inform her narrative.

Lakoff and Scherr follow the ideal of female beauty through ages of its varied representation by artists, noting the voluptuousness of the standard photographer’s or painter’s model in 1895, women with “corseted hour-glass figures” who were “round, plump, [and] rosy cheeked.” They point out the “static, immobile, frozen, remote faces” of these models, suggesting that an ideal of both physical and emotional restraint was an additional aspect of late-nineteenth-century conventions in portraiture (70). As a conventional aspect of pose, the depicted cool affect of these models must have produced, for viewers of the time, a tension contrasting with their seductive, “voluptuous” style of dress. In Cather’s story, this tension is also present, produced by Virginia’s emotional distance in contrast with the beckoning effect of her “toilet.”

The pair of illustrations by Walter Taylor on the first and last pages of the story’s original publication in McClure’s Magazine extends these tensions within the narrative. Taylor’s images create an additional irony between what we see as viewers of his images and what we know as readers of Cather’s story. At her first sitting, Virginia turns the flawless side of her face to Dunlap’s view and hides from his painter’s eyes the grotesque other side, arranging herself for him in the conventional late nineteenth century profile pose (fig. 1). Taylor’s first image, however, marks the moment in the narrative when she has failed to hide her scar from Dunlap, who, on the pretext of adjusting the room’s light, has examined it. It is, instead, the readers who view Virginia’s unmarked profile in Taylor’s image, and who “read” Taylor’s first illustration for “The Profile” in McClure’s Magazine June 1907: 135.Fig. 1. Taylor’s first illustration for “The Profile” in McClure’s Magazine June 1907: 135. it in narrative terms as providing high contrast to the scar which Dunlap scrutinizes.

The last image visualizes the volcanic anger between the two characters. It replicates their positions in the first illustration, again focusing the reader’s eye on Virginia’s perfect profile and luxurious décolletage, contrasted with Dunlap’s horrified gaze at the scar, which heightens the effect of her “defiant” new gown (141) (fig. 2). In emphasizing the story’s ironies of the invisible and unspoken, Taylor’s visual effects are similar to Cather’s picture writing. A principal irony that Taylor brings to light hints at Virginia’s tragic psychological strategy: she perhaps sees herself as a profile portrait of a beautiful woman, an eternal type such as Sargent’s Madame X.

If the beautiful, high-class woman of fin de siècle Paris had to meet strict codes for her appearance, then her painted likeness was similarly accountable. As Martha Banta has observed in Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History, the Platonism of many artists created standards for representational practice (xxxi). She notes that the resulting images of women, whether on view in print, paint, sculpture, or graphic arts, proliferated among viewers who increasingly took the meanings of these forms to have broader social and cultural significance (xxviii). One symbolic type Banta discusses—“the Taylor's last illustration for "The Profile" in McClure's Magazine June 1907: 141.Fig. 2. Taylor's last illustration for "The Profile" in McClure's Magazine June 1907: 141. American Girl”—is a model of femininity widely recognized to be physically attractive and pure of heart, but also independent, willful, impulsive, and spoiled (48). Apart from the facial flaw, Virginia Gilbert might have embodied this model. Banta notes that many artists worked from an ideal of a female form they sought to discover in the physical characteristics and poses of their models (178). Cather imprints obliterating complications onto the easily recognized type of the American girl. She creates a character who assuages her psychic pain by seeing herself in her mind’s eye and presenting herself in society as the ideal painter’s model. This produces a contradictory array of physical and material female signs that amount to an insistent denial of “[t]he comfort offered by Eternal Types in a world of uncertain equilibrium” (411).

A constellation of signs insistently disrupting the comfort of viewers is, according to T. J. Clark, what Manet’s public reacted to on their initial experience with his Olympia. In The Painting of Modern Life, Clark explains that the painted representation of the female body was bound by rules regarding the pose of the figure, the composition of other pictured objects, and, equally important, the production of the brushstrokes that finally negotiate the total image: “all the normal ways in which pigment, texture, and tone declare a likeness” (100). These rules of practice make up the visual grammar within which the meaning of the female image is signified. “The painter’s task was to construct . . . a relation between the body as particular and excessive fact . . . and the body as a sign, formal and generalized, meant for a token of composure and fulfillment” (126). Be she society matron dressed to receive or undressed Venus, the image of the female was understood broadly among the bourgeoisie of Second Empire Paris as a sign. Clark’s observation, parallel to those of Banner and Banta, is that these icons of womanhood were deeply if not consciously understood by their viewers as icons of the metropolis. Speaking specifically of Manet’s painterly discoveries of the emergence of modern Paris, Clark argues that the effect of his paintings on the world they sought to investigate “may [have laid] hold of the grammar of appearance in the culture at large, . . . as specific forms of visualization” (xxiv). Granting Clark’s point, the female image may be understood as a specific signifier of a city in the process of redefining itself, such as Paris was in the mid-nineteenth century.

Clark explains that the common Parisian reaction to the 1865 exhibition of Manet’s Olympia was outrage at the perception that the nude’s flesh had been disgraced and disfigured (134). He quotes a reviewer whose response is typical of the general outcry: “The naked body is the abstract being, and thus it must preoccupy and tempt the artist above all; but . . . to give the facial features all those expressions which are not spoken of, that is to dishonour the nude and to do something disreputable” (128) (fig. 3). Yet Émile Zola defended Manet’s technique by asking, “When other artists correct nature by painting Venus, they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth?” (qtd. in Williams 2).

But the risks in telling the truth are manifold in both Manet’s and Cather’s Paris. The agon of “The Profile” is located in the two central characters’ differing ideas of the truthful representation—either in the form of the image or of the word—of the face of Virginia Gilbert. It dramatizes the ongoing battle between Dunlap and his wife over representative rights to the scar, in word and image. Although neither refers to or names Virginia’s disfigurement until late in the story, and Dunlap does not ever give form to it in his portrait, these two modes of representation lie at the polar ends of the increasing line of tension between them, caused by the scar’s unnamable presence. The spoken word and the visual image as possible modes of signification for it are equally forbidden. Their ultimate confrontation over the scar results in each invading the other’s customary expressive ground—he speaks the word and she makes the mark—in a terminal clash that perpetuates, rather than resolves, their battle over opposing notions of social and personal justice.

Manet’s Olympia, 1865. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.Fig. 3. Manet’s Olympia, 1865. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. © RMN (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.

In the opening scene of “The Profile,” the Second Empire painter’s commentary on Circe’s Swine speaks directly to the power of the human image to affront the general sensibilities of the viewer: “They are all errors, these freakish excesses!” (180). As Clark has observed, the art community of the Second Empire placed the ultimate value of the human form in its broader iconic value: any abridgment of this purpose by the disruption of its formal purity was considered a violation not only of the form but of all it represented. Assumed in the old painter’s critical values is a link between the realist formal representation of natural form and an idea of the justice that such form must corroborate. His observation that a painter straying from these standards might offend against the “law” that gives primacy to it raises the question of a moral balance between what is right (“The body, as Nature has evolved it”) and wrong (“lop away so much as a finger, and you have wounded the creature beyond reparation” [180]).[4] Cather’s old painter discusses the whole human figure within the framework of justice values, and the damaged or abridged form as a signifier of justice’s failure. His commentary is focused on the distorted male figures, although the pure female form had for centuries been the preferred subject of painters. In reversing the subject of the painted form from female to male, Cather hints at a reversal of justice parallel to the myth’s, in which Circe metes out the gods’ justice to Odysseus’s men. Thus the story’s first painting connects purity of the human form and justice, while setting men and women in opposition to one another on the subject of justice.

Presentation of the second painting entailed in this story is embedded as a detail within the early chance meetings of Dunlap and the American millionaire Mr. Gilbert, who is found “standing in a state of abject bewilderment” before Manet’s notorious image of a bold-faced, reclining nude. The phrase indicates confusion at the least, or worse, a quality of debasement. Cather is clearly aware of and exploiting public knowledge about the angry rejection of Manet’s depiction of his longtime model, Victorine Meurent. Despite the passage of more than three decades, her characters apparently continue to feel the revulsion typical of Olympia’s initial critical reception.

The two paintings that appear, however briefly, in “The Profile” are, I would argue, deliberately juxtaposed by Cather to her story’s central theme in order to provide it with subtle support. Within this story, she evokes two paintings, both trailing associated cultural narratives. Circe’s Swine makes visual reference to the narrative of Homer’s witch, as she distorts the forms of Odysseus’s men in retribution for their flagrant disobedience to the gods in earlier scenes of the Odyssey. Manet’s nude brings with it the narrative of the scandal that it caused on first showing. Jo Ann Middleton would encourage us to identify the subterranean “stories” attending these two works of art as gaps, or “vacuoles.” My perspective on them is slightly different: I see Cather as having brought to light and then exploited an indexical relationship existing between these two icons and their respective “histories,” whereby each is used as a sign of that particular associated narrative, casting her paired subjects of beauty and justice in an alternate frame. Cather uses the first image as an index of retributive justice meted out against men by a woman; she deploys the second as an index of the attack of truth on a false ideal of feminine beauty.

To these documented cultural contexts Cather opens a door into her narrative, admitting nineteenth-century rules of representation in art, in their relation to the stable, fiercely defended categories of sexuality and of the gender identities of that time period. In Clark’s view, Olympia suggested that its reclining subject could be either a courtesan or the idealized female figure, presenting its viewers with mutually irreconcilable signs that “altered . . . identities the culture wished to keep still, pre-eminently those of the nude and the prostitute” (100). Clark’s ultimate insight into the effect of Olympiaon Paris is that the image of an aberrant female form had been posed in relation to the widespread sense of social unease and disrupted certainties suffered by a society engaged in redefining itself on a capitalist model (87– 88). Clark thus characterizes the negativity of Manet’s critics as stemming from a displaced preoccupation with a “specific form of visualization” (118). In her inquiry into the relationship between beauty and justice, Cather has created a female character whose tragic facial disfigurement is similarly read by her society as a specific visualization of disrupted social values.

Cather sets her story in a Parisian critical establishment still nervous about modern painting. That establishment shares the general public repulsion at the image of despoiled female flesh. In a culture that casts privileged women as emblems of social stability, Virginia’s scar makes her vulnerable to reactions of horror and self-loathing on the part of men, in an effect similar to that of Manet’s Olympia. Her scar is a sign of morbidity, contradicting the significance of her youth and beautiful features, and as with Olympia, it can provide a displaced focus for the unconscious fears among those who encounter her.

“The Profile” terminates with striking violence. Dunlap is ultimately driven to violate his wife’s silence with words that wound as if with the brutality of his grandfather’s strap. In response, Virginia arranges an explosion of the alcohol lamp to mark her niece’s face with a disfigurement similar to her own. He succumbs to his revulsion; she to her rage and the only act that will allow her to signify the truth about the cruelty of the ideal of female beauty. Among the story’s elements of character and art historical setting, Virginia’s scarring of Eleanor is parallel to Manet’s manner of depiction in Olympia: it corrects the injustice of an ideal of beauty that is not aligned with the truth of human experience.

Dunlap finally sounds one passionate, critical comment, the verbal sign of despoilment that Virginia had so long been able to protect herself from hearing. To match her husband’s violence, she transforms herself from a model in a romantic portrait to a painter with a savagely truthful modernist vision. Virginia has marked the youthful purity of Eleanor’s face with a sign of the ongoing injustice to women that cannot be modified or erased by the portrait artist’s created image of beauty. Dunlap’s violence toward her is justified in his mind by his marital expectation of intimacy with his wife; her violence toward him (through Eleanor) is socially unjustified, yet also motivated by the same unjust standard for women that he unknowingly—and on some level, unwillingly— perpetuates. Virginia’s redress for the injustice that she has suffered returns us to a gender-reversed version of Circe’s harsh punishment of Odysseus’s men. Through its development in the story as a focal point for various issues of social and cultural justice (in marriage and in artistic representation), Cather’s ultimate semiotic of the scar on a female face comes, at last, to signify injustice to women, broadly defined. This replicated sign on Eleanor’s face is a constant reminder to Dunlap of his own part in “the necessity and destiny to suffer, . . . so essential in a woman” (187).

The narrative’s ending violence makes readers aware that, as a sign, the scar is Cather’s writing about injustice to women, too. Cather proposes through this sign a counternarrative to established justice formulations, along with an alternate standard of justice for those betrayed by such formulations. Her covert argument is silently advanced by the meaning that Virginia’s scar gradually accrues as the narrative progresses. Finally, the story will not allow escape from the scar’s form as Cather’s meaning, no matter how much Virginia seeks to suppress language, or Dunlap avoids his canvas.

Cather’s picture writing operates with profound effect, giving readers fascinating images that snag their minds directly and that bear within them subtle arguments. An examination of the picture writing in “The Profile” reveals to us that Cather’s distinctive image making was the result of a process of visual semiosis that resulted from her having worked outward toward her final created narrative from an indexical sign of great resonance to her. Like Manet’s crudely dark outlines of Olympia’s form, Cather’s picture writing in “The Profile” results in a visual image that starkly reframes dominant social assumptions by proposing an alternate truth in the matter of women’s value. Her invention of this technique and the expressive purposes she sought with it seem to have been significantly parallel to those of Manet. Cather’s visual acuity is evident in her deep engagement with the visual arts and with visual form, but it was in her discovery and use of picture writing that she created a modern way to exploit her own process of visual semiosis for the intensification of her narrative art.


 1. The category of “sign,” according to Peirce, holds within it three basic subcategories: the symbol, the icon, and the index (Atkin). (Go back.)
 2. In American Beauty, Lois Banner describes the pale tone and unblemished skin surface that were two paramount attributes of beauty as defined at the turn of the twentieth century. (Go back.)
 3. W. J. T. Mitchell has called this visual totality a “verbal icon,” connecting it to notions of “pure form” as they were conceived by the imagist poets. Mitchell proposes an intermediate visual form for the thought that precedes its formal manifestation, whether in word or image. Opposing Mitchell’s notion of the preverbal image, Derrida’s idea of “writing” admits of no formless thought or verbal icon to which created language or image gives form. Within the scope of his claim that there is no thought without language, both conceptual and manifest forms are a species of linguistic phenomenon. (Go back.)
 4. Duryea speculates that Cather’s source for her fictional painting, Circe’s Swine, may have been a work by the French symbolist painter Gustav Moreau (119). (Go back.)


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Banner, Lois W. American Beauty. New York: Knopf, 1983.
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Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Charles W. Mignon with Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska– Lincoln. 3 Mar. 2010.
Cather, Willa. “The Novel Démeublé.” Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. Ed. Stephen Tennant. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1976. 35–43.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey. Ed. George N. Kates. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1976.
Cather, Willa. “The Profile.” McClure’s Magazine June 1907. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln. 2 Apr. 2008.
Clark, T. J. “Olympia’s Choice.” The Painting of Modern Life Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Rev. ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984. 79–146.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
Duryea, Polly. “Paintings and Drawings in Willa Cather’s Prose: A Catalogue Raisonné.” Diss. U of Nebraska–Lincoln, 1993. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln. 17 May 2008.
Lakoff, Robin Tolmach, and Raquel L. Scherr. Face Value: The Politics of Beauty. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Madigan, Mark. “Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher: Rift, Reconciliation, and One of Ours.” Cather Studies 1. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln. 20 May 2008.
Manet, Édouard. Olympia. 1865. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Réunion des musées nationaux, Agence Photographique (27 May 2010).
Middleton, Jo Ann. Willa Cather’s Modernism: A Study of Style and Technique. Teaneck nj: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1990.
Mitchell, W. J. T. “What Is an Image?” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 15.3 (1984): 503–37.
Morley, Catherine. “Voice of the Prairies? Willa Cather and the International Modernist Scene.” Willa Cather Newsletter and Review 51.1 (2007): 7–10.
Stout, Janis P. Introduction. Willa Cather and Material Culture. Ed. Janis P. Stout. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2005. 1–14.
Stout, Janis P. “The Observant Eye, the Art of Illustration, and Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.” Cather Studies 5: Willa Cather’s Ecological Imagination. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln. 2 Mar. 2007.
Taylor, F. Walter. Illustrations for “The Profile.” McClure’s Magazine June 1907. Willa Cather Archive. Ed. Andrew Jewell. U of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Williams, Mary Elizabeth. “Manet’s Olympia.” 13 May 2002.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “The Artist’s Palette: Early Cather.” Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 40.1 (1996): 1–14.