As scholarship on Willa Cather has grown, critics have paid increasing attention to the allusive density of Cather's novels, particularly to the ways which Cather's subtle references to everything from painting to music to fiction carry meaning in her writing. One of Cather's deepest sources for such allusions is the culture of classical antiquity. Critics have noted her debt to classical genres like epic and pastoral, to authors such as Virgil and Ovid, to individual works such as Hippolytus and the Aeneid. In A Lost Lady Cather points us to the classical world by twice referring to an engraved picture entitled, alternately, "The House of the Poet on the Last Day of Pompeii" (36) and "The House of the Tragic Poet" (136). These references provide direction for interpreting the novel's themes and help readers better understand Mrs. Forrester. Using this picture to point to particular versions of women from classical mythology, Cather presents her readers with opposed stereotypes: the self-sacrificing woman versus the selfish woman, the powerful and predatory woman versus the helpless and victimized woman. Cather then resolves the tension she has created with these paired opposites through the character Helen of Troy as she appears in Euripides's play Helen. Euripides's Helen is literally two characters in one, and the predicament caused by her dual self reveals the shortcomings of human perception and judgment, shortcomings that also affect readings of Mrs. Forrester's contradictory character.
The very titles of the picture in the Forrester home—"The House of the Poet on the Last Day of Pompeii" and "The House of the Tragic Poet"—direct attention to major themes and symbols. The first theme emphasized by the picture is that of tragedy, which, in the context of the engravings, means the tragic theater. This reference, combined with the frequent talk of Mrs. Forrester's "play-acting" (163, 159), the epigraph from Hamlet, and the coupling of Pompeii with Shakespeare the first time the picture is mentioned—"The floor was covered by a red carpet, and walls were hung with large, old-fashioned engravings; 'The House of the Poet on the Last Day of Pompeii,' and 'Shakespeare Reading before Queen Elizabeth'"—indicate the importance of the tragic theater (36). A second theme—the end of an era—is evoked by the setting of the picture, the last day of Pompeii before the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius. The theme of endings would likely have been apparent to Cather's audience, as it was a commonplace in writing about Pompeii. Generations of American artists, including prominent nineteenth-century writers like Mark Twain and Henry James, made visits to Pompeii. Dominant in all their impressions is an overwhelming sense of loss. This sense of loss was famously depicted in a book present in the Cather family library, Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, which uses the destruction of the city as a metaphor for the death of pagan antiquity and the rise of Christianity. The novel views the rise of one culture and the death of its antecedent as inevitable but acknowledges that, with the end of pagan antiquity, something great is disappearing from the earth. This idea of a heroic age now vanished resonates throughout A Lost Lady with its eulogy for the sunset days of the pioneer. Cather emphasizes this theme in the opening sentence: "Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington railroad, which are so much greyer to-day than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere" (7). The closing sentences of the first chapter sound the same note: "But later, after the Captain's terrible fall with his horse in the mountains, which broke him so that he could no longer build railroads, he and his wife retired to the house on the hill. He grew old there,—and even she, alas! grew older" (11). Both passages not only evoke the idea of decline but also do so in the explicit context of the Forrester house. Cather further strengthens the connection between Pompeii, the Forresters, and decline by constantly associating Captain Forrester with stone; indeed, in the final days of his life, as he becomes increasingly heavy and immobile, he seems almost metamorphosed into stone, recalling that Pompeii was smothered in ash and lava, freezing it in time. While this engraving draws our attention to several major themes in the novel, even without it we'd still likely recognize the importance of the tragic fall of the Forresters and the vanishing age of the pioneer. Cather, however, is asking much more of her readers by directing them to look through the title of the engraving to a series of quite specific allusions. These allusions are to the murals and mosaics discovered in the House of the Tragic Poet, a Pompeian house that took its name from a mosaic depicting actors preparing to perform a tragedy and from a remarkable series of murals on mythic scenes that provide much of the material for Greek tragedy. Since Cather writes of this house twice, she presumably knew it well enough for the mention to be deliberate and significant. But what might she have known, and how would she have known it?
Cather could have drawn on many sources of information about Pompeii and the House of the Tragic Poet. The discoveries at Pompeii permeated both the intellectual and the popular culture of the nineteenth century. I've already mentioned travel narratives written by authors like Henry James, Mark Twain, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Percy Shelley, Charles Dickens, and James Fennimore Cooper. These, however, only scratch the surface of the books describing Pompeii. Cather almost certainly knew the Bulwer-Lytton novel about Pompeii, which features the House of the Tragic Poet as the residence of one of its main characters. William Westermann, who studied Greek with Cather at the University of Nebraska (Woodress 69), went on to write The Story of the Ancient Nations (1912), which features both a reproduction of a mural from Herculaneum (Pompeii's neighboring city, also buried in the eruption of Vesuvius) depicting Medea and a discussion of "[t]he houses of the wealthy citizens of Pompeii," including a sketch of a wall painting designed to give the impression that "one is Looking Through a Window" (414). The art and architecture of Pompeii and Herculaneum were frequently examined in books like Fausto and Felice Niccolini's Drawings and descriptions of the house and monuments of Pompeii, published in 1854, and William Gell's Pompeiana, which provided Bulwer-Lytton with much of the inspiration for his novel. There is currently a copy of the 1852 Bohn edition of Pompeiana in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln library (unfortunately, I have been unable to learn when the library acquired this book), a fact that becomes downright intriguing when one remembers that Judge Pommeroy owns "an almost complete set of Bohn classics," which prove to be a great influence on Niel, ultimately inspiring him to become an architect (76-78).
Knowledge of Pompeii, however, could be found elsewhere than in books. The city and its destruction were a popular culture phenomenon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1835 Louisa Medina wrote a dramatic adaptation of The Last Days of Pompeii, and John Pain staged a "pyrodrama" of The Last Days of Pompeii at Coney Island starting in 1879. George Henry Boker produced the play Nydia, about the heroine of Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii, in 1885, and Cather herself mentions Last Days of Pompeii billboards in a July 1896 letter to Mariel Gere (Selected Letters 34). By 1904 "The Destruction of Pompeii, a two-hundred-thousand dollar exhibition of electrical effects," was installed at the Coney Island Dreamland amusement park (Yablon 192, 196). In short, Cather could have learned of Pompeii as well as the House of the Tragic Poet and its murals from many sources and would have expected her audience to be at least somewhat familiar with the city, especially as filtered through Lytton's novel.
Although all these sources of information were available to Cather, her most important exposure to Pompeii came during a forty-day visit to the excavated city, neighboring Naples, and the Amalfi coast in 1908 (Madigan 18). In a 2 May letter to Alice Goudy, Cather writes that she spent two lengthy days at Pompeii, which was indescribably wonderful. She also wrote of viewing the Pompeian artifacts in the Naples museum, where much of the artwork from the House of the Tragic Poet was moved shortly after its discovery in 1824 (Bergmann 226). A recently discovered poem of Cather's entitled "Paestum" further testifies to the strong impression that this region made on her (Madigan). Not only did the antiquarian interest of the ruins and artifacts intrigue her, but so did the natural setting. She described the Bay of Naples as incomparably beautiful and wrote of watching Vesuvius every evening. In typical fashion she connected present to past and Europe to Red Cloud, commenting that the local farmers seemed right out of Virgil's Georgics and that viewing the portrait sculpture in the Naples museum recalled her time reading Caesar's Gallic War in Red Cloud. Cather concluded her letter by predicting that leaving Naples would bring her to tears. The entire missive is strongly felt. Pompeii and Naples powerfully affected her, and she was already connecting the place to literature and to her Nebraska childhood.
In A Lost Lady Cather reminds us with characteristic economy that Pompeii, Naples, the House of the Tragic Poet, and tragedy are all connected. Sitting in the Forrester house, Niel thinks, "These were still the most comfortable chairs in the world, and he would never like any pictures so well as 'William Tell's Chapel' and 'The House of the Tragic Poet.' No card-table was so good for solitaire as this one with a stone top, mosaic in the pattern of a chess board, which one of the Captain's friends had brought him from Naples" (135-36). This passage connects the House of the Tragic Poet to Naples and, with the mention of the stone mosaic chessboard, also draws our attention to the source of the house's name—a stone mosaic of actors preparing to perform a tragedy. This evocation of the eponymous mosaic demonstrates that Cather is interested not just in the house as a generality but also in its interior art, to which she directs her readers through the mosaic.
Aside from the eponymous mosaic the house is famous for its murals, which Cather presumably saw during her visit to Naples and Pompeii and which were also reproduced in many nineteenthand early twentieth-century books. Most of these murals depict famous women and goddesses who have been placed in agonizing situations through their relationship to a man, be he lover, husband, or father. Of these murals I'd like to focus on four that were removed to Naples a few years after the discovery of the house (Bergmann 226). These depict Alcestis and Admetus, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Achilles and Briseis, and Helen leaving Sparta with Paris. The final two murals treat the relationship between female sexuality and power, and all of them depict relationships in which women are extremely vulnerable to men and comment on the nature of womanly virtue. The story told by each deepens our understanding of Mrs. Forrester's character.
Although we may have the murals, the stories depicted therein exist in multiple and often contradictory versions, making the task of interpreting them difficult. Fortunately, Cather helps us not only by directing us to the relevant murals but also by suggesting how we are to read the relationships these murals depict. She does this in several ways. The first is by mentioning Ovid as one of Niel's two favorite authors, including his particular love for the Heroides, which Niel read "over and over" (77) and which includes letters from Briseis to Achilles, from Helen to Paris, and from Paris to Helen. These letters indicate murals in the House of the Tragic Poet that Cather wishes to highlight. That the Heroides make "Niel wish to become an architect" (78) reinforces the importance of houses, whether of tragic poets or of the
Cather's second suggestion can be found in the eponymous mosaic, which depicts the tragic theater. The importance of this reference to Cather is reinforced if we recall that in My Ántonia Jim Burden hangs a photograph of "the Tragic Theater at Pompeii" on his wall (251). This reference directs us to the three great Greek tragic poets: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Cather had a strong background in Greek tragedy. For example, she reviewed Greek-language productions of selections from Antigone and Electra that were produced at the University of Nebraska in 1894 and posed as Electra in tableau (Curtin 71). While it would now seem odd to view an ancient Greek tragedy presented in its original language, in the late nineteenth century it was not. In fact there was a "vogue for productions of Greek plays on college campuses" started by Harvard's 1881 production of Oedipus Tyrranos (Winterer 148). Cather's experience at the University of Nebraska was typical rather than exceptional for the 1890s. However, it is not Greek tragedy in general that Cather employs here, but the work of Euripides in particular. Cather's familiarity with Euripides went back at least to her college years. In 1891 one of her teachers at the University of Nebraska, James T. Lees, published a book on Euripides entitled On the Dikanikos Logos in Euripides, and her classmate William Westermann wrote his master's thesis on Euripidean rhetoric. More telling is that in the novel following A Lost Lady, The Professor's House, Godfrey St. Peter twice refers to Euripides (124, 156). John Murphy has also convincingly argued that the relationship between Mrs. Forrester and Niel is a variation on the relationship between Phaedra and Hippolytus in Euripides's Hippolytus. Cather's knowledge of Euripides becomes relevant when we realize that three of his plays take their titles from the names of heroines depicted in the House of the Tragic Poet's murals: Alcestis, Iphigenia at Aulis, and Helen. So not only does Cather direct us to the relevant murals via Ovid and Euripides, but by so doing she gives us very particular and, in the case of Euripides, idiosyncratic versions of the tales depicted in the paintings, all of which depict a range of power relationships between men and women and make different moral judgments of these women. Each of these mythological stories points out a different aspect of Mrs. Forrester and further establishes the complexity and ambiguity of her character.
Of these stories that of Alcestis is probably the least known to modern readers. The title character of Euripides's tragedy was famed in antiquity as a faithful, loving wife because she agrees to die in order that her husband, Admetus, may live. The play's plot briefly runs like this: Apollo has granted Admetus a reprieve from death provided he can find someone to die in his place. When his time to die comes, Admetus asks family and friends to take his place. When they all reject him, Admetus's loyal wife, Alcestis, agrees to die in his stead. Death himself soon shows up to claim Alcestis, but a visiting Hercules defeats Death in a wrestling match and returns the still-living bride to her husband.
What does this plot mean for Cather's novel? In the context of A Lost Lady the reference to Alcestis stresses the sacrifices Mrs. Forrester makes as the Captain's wife, sacrifices that otherwise might be eclipsed by her sexual infidelity. The play also reminds us of the enduring bond between the Captain and Mrs. Forrester. Alcestis's value to Admetus is shown by his grief at her death and his expectation that her devotion to him will continue in the afterlife. For instance, Admetus says, "do not fear, since you / were mine in life, you shall be my bride in death / and you alone, no other girl in Thessaly / shall ever be called wife of Admetus in your place" (328-31). He commands Alcestis, "Wait for me, then, in that place, till I die, / and make ready the room where you will live with me, / for I shall have them bury me in the same chest / as you, and lay me at your side, so that my heart / shall be against your heart, and never, even in death / shall I go from you" (363-68). These passages recall and emphasize the powerful image from the Captain's funeral in which Mrs. Forrester says, "I think I will have Mr. Forrester's sun-dial taken over and put above his grave. I can have an inscription cut on the base. It seems more appropriate for him than any stone we could buy. And I will plant some of my own rose-bushes beside it" (13839). In this passage the roses, representing Mrs. Forrester, and the stone, representing the Captain, are joined over his grave. This image is recalled on the final page of the book, where we are told that roses will be put on the Captain's grave every decoration day. The Captain and Mrs. Forrester are joined, "my heart . . . against your heart," at least symbolically, in the grave. Admetus's grief at the loss of Alcestis also reinforces Niel's belief that the Captain both knew and "valued" his wife (136). As Alcestis's maid says, "What shall be the wife who surpasses her? And how / could any woman show that she loves her husband more / than herself better than by consent to die for him?" (1314). Alcestis herself comments on the nature of her sacrifice, saying, "So / I die, who did not have to die, because of you. / I could have taken any man in Thessaly / I wished and lived in queenly state here in this house. / But since I did not wish to live bereft of you . . . I did not spare my youth, although I had so much to live for" (18). While Mrs. Forrester does not literally die, she certainly does sacrifice much of her youth and undergoes a sort of symbolic death after the Captain's stroke. She tells Niel that "two years, three years, more of this, and I could still go back to California—and live again," implying that her life in Sweet Water is a kind of living death (118). Finally, Alcestis's "I could have taken any man in Thessaly" reminds us that Mrs. Forrester chose the Captain when she had her pick of men. The story of their meeting and courtship indicates that Mrs. Forrester does indeed love the Captain. By encoding the Euripidean version of Alcestis's sacrifice in her reference to the engraving depicting the House of the Tragic Poet, Cather demands that we acknowledge the reality and depth of Mrs. Forrester's love and sacrifice for the Captain.
The second character in the murals, Iphigenia, is also defined by her self-sacrifice and her ultimate obedience to the wishes of her father, Agamemnon. She, like Alcestis, embodies the Greek concept of philia, or family affection. Iphigenia is brought to Aulis, where the Greek expedition to Troy is becalmed, because Agamemnon has been commanded by Artemis to make a human sacrifice of his daughter. In the standard version of the tale he does so, thereby appeasing the goddess and enabling the Greek armada to sail on to Troy. Euripides's version, which serves as the basis for the mural in the House of the Tragic Poet, markedly differs. In Iphigenia at Aulis, once Iphigenia and her mother discover Agamemnon's intentions, they ask for the protection of Achilles. Achilles grants it, but in the Euripidean version of the tale Achilles's guardianship becomes unnecessary when Iphigenia has a change of heart and agrees to obey her father and sacrifice herself for the good of the Greek host. In the version of the play we now have, which is paralleled in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Artemis whisks Iphigenia off the sacrificial altar at the last moment and substitutes a deer in her place. It is the moment immediately before Artemis's substitution that the mural in the House of the Tragic Poet depicts. Two elements here reinforce important aspects of Mrs. Forrester's character. The first aspect we have already seen in Alcestis's story, namely, self-sacrifice. As Charles Walker notes, Euripides has changed Iphigenia's character "from an unwilling victim to a true saint" (Iphigenia in Aulis 210). Iphigenia's loyalty to her father is especially marked given its contrast with her two most famous female relatives, Klytemnestra and Helen, who exemplify a selfish and rebellious erotic love. These relatives, embodiments of erotic love gone wrong, foreground Iphigenia's self-sacrificing family love, and it is this kind of love, philia rather than eros, that defines the relationship between the Captain and Mrs. Forrester.
As with Alcestis the sacrifice of Iphigenia points out Mrs. Forrester's devotion to the paternal Captain, a devotion that drives her to the brink of despair. In spite of her sexual infidelity Mrs. Forrester does stand by the Captain in sickness and in health. She serves as his nurse as well as his wife through the loss of their fortune and through the Captain's strokes. In her role as caretaker to the ailing Captain, we are told that "Mrs. Forrester quite went to pieces" (131) and that "[a]ll the bars were down. She had ceased to care about anything" (133). Her care of the Captain is almost the end of Mrs. Forrester; she nearly does "immolate herself" (161) in Iphigenian self-sacrifice as Niel wishes. The parallel to Iphigenia, due to be the victim at a sacrifice before Artemis's intervention, and the entire context of Pompeii, a city destroyed by volcanic eruption, makes Niel's "immolate" seem particularly grim. Given the recurring presence of caretakers in the novel—the Captain caring for his first wife; the Captain caring for Marian after her climbing accident; Frank Ellinger's caring for his elderly mother; Niel's caring for his uncle, Judge Pommeroy—Mrs. Forrester's self-sacrifice for the Captain seems particularly important. The references to Iphigenia and Alcestis, each of whom is prepared to sacrifice her life for a male relative, further emphasize this.
Cather highlights another important theme in the novel with Iphigenia's total helplessness. Euripides repeatedly emphasizes that Iphigenia is completely at the mercy of the men in her life, whether they, like Agamemnon and Menelaus, are intent on destroying her or, like Achilles, intent on saving her. Mrs. Forrester seems similarly dependent on men. The story of her life is in large measure the story of her moving from one man to another: from her first husband to the Captain, from the Captain to Ivy, from Ivy to Mr. Collins. Mrs. Forrester seems to need her men, whether, like the Captain, they cherish her or, like Ivy, they abuse her. She is repeatedly associated with images of entrapment. When Niel embraces her, she is "like a bird caught in a net" (105). She is trapped in the house during the winter, and she is trapped by Ivy Peters. Cather memorably captures Mrs. Forrester's entrapment in a scene where Ivy "came in at the kitchen door, walked up behind her [Mrs. Forrester], and unconcernedly put both arms around her, his hands meeting over her breast. She did not move, did not look up, but went on rolling out pastry" (161). While this moment is far more prosaic and deflating than anything in the climactic scene of Euripides's tragedy, Mrs. Forrester is nonetheless as trapped in the embrace of Ivy as is Iphigenia, naked and carried by two burly men, in the Pompeiian mural depicting the climax of Iphigenia at Aulis.
The third mural, taken from the opening book of the Iliad, shows Achilles handing over his slave girl, Briseis, to Agamemnon and emphasizes the helplessness of women in a society dominated by men. Briseis is mere chattel, a spoil of war over which Achilles and Agamemnon fight. Distressingly, it is her very attractiveness that makes her such a valuable object of contention. Her beauty makes her valuable to men who possess her in the most literal way imaginable, as property. This idea of male ownership is mirrored in A Lost Lady in passages that depict Mrs. Forrester as owned by the Captain. She is a beautiful possession that the Captain keeps because her beauty enables him to demonstrate his wealth and power. She is his prize. Mrs. Forrester is associated with the Captain's land as a kind of property when he explains, "When I came here a young man, I had planned it in my mind, pretty much as it is today; where I would dig my well, and where I would plant my grove and my orchard. I planned to build a house that my friends would come to, with a wife like Mrs. Forrester to make it attractive to them" (50-51). The Captain assumes, correctly, that he will get what he wants, whether a choice piece of land or a choice wife. His ownership is often symbolized by jewelry, most obviously Mrs. Forrester's rings: "Her husband had archaic ideas about jewels; a man bought them for his wife in acknowledgement of things he could not gracefully utter. They must be costly; they must show that he was able to buy them, and that she was worthy to wear them" (49). For Achilles, Agamemnon, and the Captain a beautiful woman serves to ornament her master or husband. She demonstrates his wealth, power, and authority and is an object of contention. The Captain is the town aristocrat precisely because he lives in the mansion on the hill, can afford to preserve his swamp solely for its aesthetic value, and can afford to maintain a beautiful wife according to her station. Ironically, the Captain eventually becomes known for his wife much as Menelaus and Paris are much less flatteringly known for the wife they share, Helen. An old acquaintance recalls the Captain simply as, "Forrester? Was he the one with the beautiful wife?" (114). In the memory of this old friend Mrs. Forrester is reduced to her role as a beautiful ornament to her husband, and the Captain is reduced to his role as her possessor. The Captain's memorable wife makes him a memorable man.
At this point it is useful to remember Niel's reading of the Heroides, in which, despite her status as chattel, Ovid's depiction of Briseis shows that she genuinely cares for Achilles and fears that she will be abandoned by him. She asks, "To whom will I be left when you go? Who will comfort me when I am left alone?" (22). As Harold Isbell observes in his introduction to the poem, "For Briseis the attraction identified as love is dangerously close to the fear of abandonment. She does not object so much to captivity as to the uncertainty and instability that it has brought into her life. In this, Briseis echoes a theme which permeates the Heroides: the lover and the beloved both seek to bring into their lives a degree of permanence and changelessness that in reality is nearly impossible of attainment" (Ovid 19). The similarity to Mrs. Forrester is unmistakable. She, like Briseis, needs the presence of a powerful protector. Her horror at the Captain's fascination with seeing time "visibly devoured" (106) indicates that she also yearns for permanence and changelessness, a yearning reflected in her makeup and dyed hair, her succession of husbands and lovers. Niel, more than anyone, resists change and yearns for the golden age of his youth, when all was right at the Forrester place. He wants to preserve Mrs. Forrester inviolate, wishing he could "carry her off . . . away from age, weariness, adverse fortune" (105). The Captain perhaps serves as the best reminder of why this is impossible. His constant association with stone, especially his sundial, and the slow petrification brought on by his strokes remind us that permanence and changelessness, as in Pompeii, only come with death.
The Trojan War provides the background for the stories of both Briseis and Iphigenia. And the Trojan War brings us to the most important and ambiguous figure presented in the mosaics, Helen, who is the key to reading Mrs. Forrester. Helen is western literature's supreme symbol of eros, infidelity, and beauty. While Mrs. Forrester is not as ravishing as Helen, to Niel and the denizens of Sweet Water she is the most charismatic, charming person in the world. And she charms men of all sorts—from the young Niel watching "her white throat rising and falling quickly . . . [i]nside the lace ruffle of her dress" (25) to the older president of the Colorado & Utah, Cyrus Dalzell, claiming the "old privilege" of a kiss from Marian, who is "looking as fresh as a bride" (90) and is doubtless young enough to be his daughter. From the aristocratic Captain to the uncouth Ivy Peters to the priggish Niel, everyone is seduced by Mrs. Forrester. Her charm, like Helen's, is irresistible.
Mrs. Forrester, also like Helen, is often defined by her infidelity. It is Marian's dalliance with Frank that first leads Niel to condemn her, and it is her sexual infidelity to the Captain that readers often see as her defining characteristic. Early in the novel Frank functions as Paris to Mrs. Forrester's Helen. He is described as having a nose "like the prow of a ship" (44), evoking the mural in the House of the Tragic Poet that depicts Helen boarding Paris's ship. He is a well-dressed ladies' man, carries on an affair with the wife of his host, and is called "a coward" (127), all characteristics that define Paris. Much about Mrs. Forrester's involvement with Frank and later with Ivy is decidedly unpleasant. When we see Marian alone with Frank, she is at her most coquettish and manipulative. During their sleigh ride she imagines Niel trapped with Constance back at the house and "laughed as if the idea of his predicament delighted her" (60). Speaking of Niel, she tells Frank, "I'm going to train him to be very useful. He's devoted to Mr. Forrester. Handsome, don't you think?" (60). Here she talks about Niel as if he were a dimwitted servant in need of training and tries to elicit a jealous reaction from Frank by commenting on Niel's good looks. The connection to Helen is continued when, after Frank "takes[s] out the horses" (62), Cather gives us one of the most subtly erotic scenes in American literature. When Adolph Blum spies Mrs. Forrester with her eyelids aflutter at the sounds of Frank's hatchet strokes, he thinks that "[h]e had never seen her before when her mocking eyes and lively manner were not between her and all the world" (64), suggesting that in this private erotic moment all the masks are off, and we see her at her most genuine. This is Mrs. Forrester at her most unsympathetic; her erotic nature makes her unfaithful to her husband, manipulative, and deceptive.
Mrs. Forrester's erotic charms and her connection to Helen are pointed out in another, subtle way that takes us back to the Euripidean versions of the stories contained in the House of the Tragic Poet's murals. Midway through the novel Niel finds a letter from Marian to Frank in the Forrester's mail holder, described as "a scantily draped figure, an Arab or Egyptian slave girl, holding in her hands a large flat shell from the California coast" (110). As the editors of the Scholarly Edition of A Lost Lady have pointed out, this figure is modeled on a statuette Cather knew in Red Cloud (291-92). However, Cather's carefully worded description of the figurine and its function in the scene indicate that more is at work than childhood memories. The first hint is that the girl is "scantily draped," which suggests her erotic power. While interesting, this description can be explained as simply an accurate recollection of the original statuette. However, when the figurine is described as an "Egyptian slave girl," Cather is pointing us toward Euripides's most extended depiction of Helen in the play that bears her name. (Significantly, Cather does not note the striking blackness of the original figure; this omission makes an association with Helen easier.) In this strange variant on the traditional version of the tale Helen was stranded in Egypt while Paris abducted, not the real Helen, but a phantom over which Greeks and Trojans fought for ten years. Not only does the play place Helen in Egypt, a lost lady in the most literal sense imaginable, but she actually calls herself a slave: "I have no kin / and therefore live a slave although my birth was free" (202). Helen, because she has no male protector, lives as "an Egyptian slave girl." And the parallel between Helen and the figurine does not end here. Euripides also points out that Helen, like Mrs. Forrester, is a stranger in a foreign land: "the gods have torn me from my father's land and made / me live among barbarians" (202). Similarly, Cather reminds us that the shell the statue holds came "from the California coast," the home Marian has left and to which she wishes to return when she "get[s] out of this hole" (120) that is Sweet Water, Nebraska. Both Mrs. Forrester and Helen are outsiders, even exiles, in communities that do not understand them.
The shell and the scantily draped figure evoke another association, again linked to Helen and to Pompeii. Paris seduces Helen with the aid of Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love. In the Hesiodic version of her birth Aphrodite rises from the foam of the sea when the severed genitals of Kronos are cast into the ocean. There is a mural in Pompeii, reminiscent of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, depicting a naked Venus rising from the sea on the half shell. The scantily clad slave girl holding a shell from the California coast evokes the naked Aphrodite rising from the sea and connects Mrs. Forrester to Helen through Aphrodite. This connection is strengthened when we recall that one of Aphrodite's Homeric epithets is "laughing," as in "laughing Aphrodite," and that Mrs. Forrester's laughter is one of her defining charms. John Murphy has noted this and other parallels between Aphrodite and Mrs. Forrester, observing that "Marian is married to a lame but godlike man whose favorite seat is next to his fire, and she sleeps with her lover when her husband is out of town. The goddess was married to the lame Hephaestus, god of fire, and slept with Ares, when her husband went to Corinth" (80).
That all these associations are packed into Cather's description of a letter holder, a single image contained in a single sentence, is a testament to the allusive depth of her work. She is able to take an object from her childhood and, by employing few simple words—the slave girl is "Egyptian," the shell is from "California"—and placing the object in a certain context—it holds a letter, presumably a love letter, to Frank—make it a nexus of associations, to Helen, to Aphrodite, to Mrs. Forrester, and by extension to their power as symbols of eros.
The letter holder, then, points to Euripides's Helen and is in turn illuminated by that play. In most versions of her tale Helen is depicted negatively—as deceitful, manipulative, one of those dangerous women who, like Maria Shabata in O Pioneers!, "spread ruin around them" (270). Euripides challenges this notion in his Helen, which is filled with moments of ambiguity and deception. There are literally two different Helens in this story: the unfaithful phantom Helen who went to Troy with Paris and the Helen who ends up in Egypt alone, unprotected, and still faithful to Menelaus. In Euripides's play Helen is more victim than handmaiden of Aphrodite. As Cather does with Mrs. Forrester, Euripides stresses the contrast between outer appearance and inner reality, often doing so through images of sight. For instance, when the real Helen questions Teucer about the reality of her phantom counterpart, he replies, "These eyes saw her. When the eyes see, the brain sees too" (196). And later, Teucer comments, "You wear / the bodily shape of Helen, but you have a heart / that is not hers. Wide is the difference" (198). The images and themes of sight, illusion, reality, and knowledge appear again when Helen attempts to convince Menelaus that she is real and that the Helen at Troy was an illusion: Menelaus: Am I in my right senses? Are my eyes at fault? Helen: When you look at me, do you not think you see your wife? Menelaus: Your body is like hers. Certainty fails me. Helen: Look and see. What more do you want? And who knows me better than you? Menelaus: What better teacher shall you have than your own eyes? (214)
In fact, this double-Helen combines the ideas present in all the previous images from the House of the Tragic Poet: the faithful Alcestis; the loyal and helpless Iphigenia; the enslaved Briseis; and the erotic, manipulative Helen. This allusive complexity leads to a healthy skepticism about our own ability to separate image from reality. Over and over Cather calls our attention to vision, whether through her descriptions of eyes (as in Marian's dancing eyes, the blinded eyes of the woodpecker, the cast in Mr. Ogden's eye, etc.); her careful framing of scenes, almost as though they are pictures (as in Adolph's view of Marian in the sleigh or the carefully framed view of Ivy putting his arms around Mrs. Forrester as she rolls out pastry); or careful shifts in point of view, usually designed to undercut or at least complicate Niel's perception of events. Cather's own characterization of Niel as a "peephole" (Bohlke 77) into the world of the novel further foregrounds the importance of vision. This focus on sight and perspective is echoed in Cather's allusions to Pompeii. The picture on the Forrester wall is an object to be viewed; Cather depicts a picture (the etching) of a house full of pictures (the House of the Tragic Poet) in a house full of pictures (the Forrester home). The Pompeian murals themselves play with frames and perspective in order to manipulate the perception of the audience viewing them. Pompeian painting is traditionally divided into four "styles," styles two, three, and four all dealing with illusionistic perspective. The second style, called architectural (recalling Niel's profession), has been described as follows: "The decoration on the walls proposed perspective views with architectural elements illusionistically articulated on different planes with foreshortenings and complex perspective effects which culminated in breaking through the wall towards an imaginary open space. The immediate models were the illusionistic stage sets of the Hellenistic-Roman theater and the new 'baroque' fashions of 2nd-1st cent. B.C architecture" (Giuntoli 6).
The fourth style, sometimes called the "illusionist style" (Nappo 29), prevails in the House of the Tragic Poet and is characterized by "illusionistic architectural views and pictures of mythological subjects often painted in the impressionistic technique" (Giuntoli 7). The painting of Pompeii and the House of the Tragic Poet is thus defined, at least in part, by the way it self-consciously manipulates the perception of its viewers. Cather also plays with the perception of her readers, repeatedly offering us different versions of Mrs. Forrester—Niel's version, the Captain's version, Adolph's version—and even giving the novel's final comment on Mrs. Forrester to the minor character Ed Elliott. The composite picture that emerges is confusing. We are left in the position of Menelaus confronting Helen in Egypt. What is real, and what is illusion? Do we trust what we see? This frustrating complexity, which defies resolution, seems to be the point. There is no real, final version of Mrs. Forrester, any more that there is a real Helen or a final version of Iphigenia's fate.
Susan Rosowski has argued that in A Lost Lady "Cather uses a form of incremental repetition, repeating descriptive phrases so that the significance of the reference changes in the progress of the novel. By repetition, the things to which phrases refer become familiar: they appear, then reappear, with each reappearance bringing forward the accumulated associations of their past. . . . Incremental repetition illustrates, then, the way in which symbolic meaning works by accumulation, expansion, and infusion, its movement quite different from the sequential movement characteristic of cause-and-effect patterns in the historical account" (241, 243).
Cather's references to the House of the Tragic Poet and the destruction of Pompeii work as a form of the incremental repetition Rosowski identifies. The difference between the examples I've discussed and the images Rosowski analyzes—the roses, the bedroom shutters—is that Rosowski stays in the world of the novel. The picture of the House of the Tragic Poet is different. While it exists as an object in the world of the novel and calls our attention to other objects in the novel, like the Forrester house and the mail holder, it also directs us outward, to history in the form of the destruction of Pompeii, to art in the form of the Pompeian murals, to literature in the form of the Heroides and Euripidean tragedy, and even to nineteenth-century popular culture in the form of the theater and "pyrodramas." Each mention of the House of the Tragic Poet, or of an associated object like the letter holder or the Forrester house, or even of a character like the petrifying Captain or the contradictory Mrs. Forrester, accumulates, expands, and infuses the novel with meaning. To borrow an image familiar to both Cather and the Pompeiian mural painters, a single reference can open a series of windows, one vista leading to another and then to another. The reference to the Forresters' picture opens a window on Pompeii, which opens a window on the House of the Tragic Poet, which opens a window on the murals, which opens a window on the plays of Euripides, the entire series of perspectives deepening our understanding of Mrs. Forrester and the novel. A similar sense of nested or telescoping perspectives is gained when we realize that at the center of the novel is the Forrester house, a house that features a picture of a house full of pictures. This telescoping perspective gives Cather's incremental repetition much greater scope, and her symbols and characters consequently require remarkable depth, complexity, and subtlety.
Cather's combination of her own experiences of Pompeii and Nebraska, nineteenth-century popular culture, and some of the oldest traditions in European literature allies her with the American Transcendentalist tradition as exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay "History" Emerson asserts that "[t]he student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary" and, speaking of literature, that "I admire the love of nature in the Philoctetes. In reading those fine apostrophes to sleep, to the stars, rocks, mountains, and waves, I feel time passing away as an ebbing sea" (115, 123). Emerson's egocentric approach to history, an approach that subordinates scholarly knowledge of the past to a personal and often emotionally charged identification with it, is precisely the attitude with which Cather approaches Pompeii. Emerson and Cather are not so much interested in explaining the past, as they are concerned with how to use the past for their own ends. We see this in Cather's emotional reports of her visit to Naples and Pompeii, a visit that sent her imagination careening from present-day Naples back to Virgil's Georgics and forward again to her Nebraska childhood, each moment "linked by many a hidden chain," each stamping "its image as the other flies" (Upham). We see it again in Niel's reaction to Ovid and Montaigne (77-78) and, to turn to another novel, in the way Jim Burden's classical studies with Gaston Cleric evoke Lena Lingard and Antonia Shimerda. In "Art" Emerson writes that "the new in art is always formed out of the old" (187). The new, however, cannot be blind imitation of the old; it must be a revisioning of common truths and experiences in contemporary terms, or, as Emerson puts it, "Each age, it is found, must write its own books" ("American Scholar" 40). Cather's ability to write books for her age, to form new art out of the old, to bring Helen of Troy to Sweet Water, Nebraska, is grounded in her ability to translate the modern into the ancient and the ancient into the modern.
However, if Cather's uses of the past are indebted to the Emerson of "The American Scholar," A Lost Lady's larger perspective is more akin to that of the relatively skeptical Emerson of "Experience" and "Montaigne; or, The Skeptic." Cather's Pompeiian references complicate the attempt to assign any particular meaning to Mrs. Forrester. Mrs. Forrester's interpretive elusiveness can prove frustrating to readers until they realize that this very elusiveness is the point. Epistemologically, readers are put into the position of a skeptic and must repeat Montaigne's famous question, "What do I know?"—a query that in turn balks at attempts to make moral judgments about Mrs. Forrester. While Emerson's essays may begin with multiplicity and doubt, they typically end by asserting an answer, or at least that an answer exists. By contrast, the novel's use of sophisticated allusion to create multiple perspectives, which insist on remaining multiple, shows Cather at her most modernist. A Lost Lady leaves us, not with a Marian Forrester, but with many Marian Forresters, not with an answer, but with a lingering question: "What do I know?"