Skip to main content
Source File: cat.cs001.xml

From Cather Studies Volume 1

Cather's Archbishop and the "Backward Path"

My speculations about the structure of Death Comes for the Archbishop, its organization and temporal movement, are generally guided by Cather's own identification of its genre in a famous letter of 1927: "Many of the reviews of this book begin with the statement: 'This book is hard to classify.' Then why bother? Many more assert vehemently that it is not a novel. Myself, I prefer to call it a narrative" (On Writing 12).

Cather's preference anticipated an important reformulation of the criticism of fiction: the body of literary theory, called "narratology," articulated in the 1960s by French structuralist writers. Narratology's purpose, according to Gerard Genette, is to provide critical categories "a little trimmer than the traditional entities, such as 'the novel' or 'poetry'" (264). Using the methods of structural linguistics, it treats fictions not as instances of a historically ratified convention but rather as stories, narratives of events, which can be analyzed structurally as elaborate sentences: "I walk, Pierre has come, are . . . minimal forms of narrative, and inversely the Odyssey or the Recherche is only, in a certain way, an amplification (in the rhetorical sense) of statements such as Ulysses comes home to Ithaca or Marcel becomes a writer" (Genette 30). "A narrative is a long sentence," writes Roland Barthes (84). Narratology's project is the diagramming of that sentence, the discovery of its grammar and syntax.

These critical assumptions have been influential in redirecting modern formal criticism of fiction, partly because-particularly in the work of Genette-they have generated a prolific and precise taxonomical vocabulary, an elaborate apparatus for the dissection of the literary text. More important, from my point of view, is that narratological approaches broaden and simplify the fundamental paradigms according to which we view fiction: they ask of narrative only that it be narrative, that it tell a story. They tend not to produce normative evaluations based on the characteristics of narrative's dominant modern Western form, the "realistic novel": credible "psychological" characterization, realistic treatment of time, causal plotting, logical closure.

A nonprescriptive criticism taking as its object "narrative" rather than "the novel" seems to me exactly appropriate to Cather's work. She was clearly fascinated with storytelling in all its aspects, and as her career developed, so did the frequency of embedded, intertwined narratives within her novels. Moreover, she recognized in herself a tension between the demands of literary orthodoxy and her own sense of artistic necessity; I think of her regrets over "conventional pattern" in both Alexander's Bridge (On Writing 91) and The Song of the Lark (see the 1932 preface). In fact, her critics have often questioned precisely her capabilities as a novelist. One early reviewer, for example, while admiring its descriptive "fidelity," criticized O Pioneers! for passing over Alexandra's struggle with the land "in leaps and bounds" (Cooper 112); in the 1940s Morton Zabel argued that "the subtlety and scope of [Cather's] themes . . . could readily fail to find the structure and substance that might have given them life or redeemed them from the tenuity of a sketch" (225); Leon Edel, in his well-known psychoanalytic account of The Professor's House, has called that work "two inconclusive fragments" (223), "an unsymmetrical and unrealized novel" (229), These critics and others like them treat as failures some of the central features of Cather's technique: unusual treatment of narrative time, unexpected focus, ambiguous conclusions, a preference for the bold, simple, and stylized in character as well as in landscape. We can avoid such judgments, though, by taking her at her word, by considering her stories as stories, in a tradition of narrative expansive enough to include her own teachers-from Homer and Virgil to the Russians, Jewett, and James.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, seems to me in some ways the purest, most paradigmatic of Cather's writing. More clearly than most of her work, it presents the "long sentence" of narrative-the elaboration of its own title (or, more exactly, the title's inversion, "the Archbishop journeys toward death")-in a strikingly "nonnovelistic" structure. And that structure, the necessary expression of life's paradoxical predication in death, more or less openly articulates some of the essential and conflicting forces of desire at work throughout Cather's fiction.


Death Comes for the Archbishop lacks conventional plot: rather than causally linked events, it presents a sometimes nonchronological sequence of episodes and images loosely gathered about the life of its protagonist, the missionary Father Latour. In the letter published as "On Death Comes for the Archbishop" Cather explained the work's form as her attempt to produce in prose something like the hagiographic frescoes of the nineteenth-century French artist Puvis de Chavannes: "something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment . . . something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. In the Golden Legend the martyrdoms of the saints are no more dwelt upon than are the trivial incidents of their lives; it is as though all human experiences, measured against one supreme experience, were of about the same importance" (On Writing 9). Thus, Cather's interpreters have usually seen this novel as a modern "saint's life," emblematic in descriptive style and discontinuous in narrative structure. David Stouck, for example, treats it as a gallery of spiritually exemplary "scenes placed side by side, having equal value, but with no propulsive force moving the narrative forward," where "time is only incidental . . . because the vision suffusing this narrative is atemporal" (131-32). Such an approach, invoking Cather's own sense of the novel's double orientation-pictorial and typological-provides a useful frame for any formal reading of Death Comes for the Archbishop, foregrounding various evidently self-conscious iconographic symmetries: the pairing of Manuel Lujon and Buck Scales in "Missionary Journeys" as types of the good and bad host, for instance, or the similar but showier diptych of Padres Martínez and Lucero, figures of Lust and Avarice.

But I see also another organizational principle, less overtly acknowledged than that of the pictorial saint's life but broader in its implications and essentially dynamic. I begin with two observations concerning the narrative's treatment of time. First, despite its tendency to leapfrog with story time, and despite its undeniable effect of portrait gallery or series of discrete vignettes, Death Comes for the Archbishop is more clearly and inexorably impelled toward closure than most novels. Its "propulsive force moving the narrative forward" announces itself in the title, and in a sense the "plot" is the most elemental possible: the story of how life leads to death. Second, and perhaps less obviously, in the individual vignettes themselves a distinct kind of "narrative" time operates fairly consistently: a regressive temporal movement that draws reader or protagonist or both backward toward the origins or archetypal appearances of things.

This second movement, regression, is demanded by religious art generally, resulting from the opposition of an impure but symbolic present to a sacred, unfallen past. Such an opposition dominated Cather's life in various forms: Nebraska set against Virginia; the second generation of pioneers against their epic precursors; the New World against the Old; modern society against southwestern Indian culture. In The Song of the Lark and My Ántonia she formalized this tension in a technique of embedding, allowing fragments of a legendary history-Cliff Dwellers, conquistadores-to surface momentarily and disappear. In The Professor's House, embedding became a central, self-conscious structure, with "Tom Outland's Story" opening what Cather called a "window" to a stronger, cleaner past (On Writing 31).

A simple interpretive regression involves the reader of Death Comes for the Archbishop whenever a symbol is deciphered or an allegory understood, whenever the surface of present events is drawn aside to reveal a sacred myth. In an early typical narrative crisis the material present gives up all significance for Latour: "The Passion of Jesus became for him the only reality" (20). Signposts to that paradigmatic Christian story abound throughout the novel: the "cruciform tree" against which the thirsting Latour understands the dimensions of his own suffering; the fallen but redeemed Magdalena; the good guide "Christóbal" Carson. And beyond Christ's passion is its own typological predecessor, the Genesis narrative, indicated by a succession of gardens-lost, hidden, neglected, or ultimately restored-and serpents.

In fact, interpretive regression often serves a rigorous Christian typology, invoking New and Old Testaments sequentially. Approaching the stronghold mesa pueblo at Ácoma, for example, Latour muses: "The rock, when one came to think of it, was the utmost expression of human need . . . the highest comparison of loyalty in love and friendship. Christ Himself had used that comparison for the disciple to whom He gave the keys of His Church. And the Hebrews of the Old Testament, always being carried captive into foreign lands,-their rock was an idea of God, the only thing their conquerors could not take from them" (97-98). Latour's transformation of this scene brings him shortly to its first possible type: "He thought that the first Creation morning might have looked like this, when the dry land was first drawn up out of the deep" (99).


I claim, then, the existence of two opposed temporal movements in Death Comes for the Archbishop: one forward in time and space for Latour, bearing him erratically but inexorably toward his death, and for the reader, moving with the Bishop to the novel's close; the other backward in history, memory, and signification, drawing Latour and the reader toward origin, not ending. Far from being static or atemporal in its structure, the work organizes itself as a dynamic struggle between these two forces, a struggle that achieves resolution only with Latour's death. We may suspect, in fact, that the regressive impulse I've described is among other things an impulse to undo or repudiate time and its primary effect, death, and that the novel's "plot," read through its temporal conflicts, may be the attempt to delay death by circling back to birth. Other thematic details support such a reading: Father Vaillant's nickname Trompe-la-Mort, (because he "had outwitted death so often, there was always the chance he would do it again" (120); and the grimly comic interlude of Doña Isabella, tearfully subtracting years from her biological age.

The novel's essential temporal doubleness may be still further illuminated by Peter Brooks's provocative psychoanalytic speculation concerning narrative structure, offered first in "Freud's Masterplot" (1977) and more recently in Reading for the Plot (1985). Brooks found his model for narrative in a close reading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the 1920 work in which Freud proposed the existence of "death instincts." Freud's argument is difficult, repetitive, often poetic, and ultimately irreducible to any satisfying paraphrase. One of its several centers, though, is a conception of biological existence as a battleground between two kinds of primary drives, "death instincts" and "sexual instincts": those directing the organism toward its own ceasing to be, and those impelling it toward combination with other living matter. Life therefore moves "with a vacillating rhythm": "One group of instincts rushes forward so as to reach the final aim of life [death] as swiftly as possible; but when a particular stage in the advance has been reached, the other group jerks back to a certain point to make a fresh start and so prolong the journey" (Freud 35).

Brooks treats narrative as behaving temporally like Freud's living but death-driven organism, something "stimulated from quiescence into a state of narratability, into a tension, a kind of irritation, which demands narration" (Reading 103); or, in Freud's words, as a process driven by a vital "tension [endeavouring] to cancel itself out," preserving itself and prolonging its existence only in order "to die . . . in its own fashion" (32-33). In essence, Brooks understands narrative form as necessary détour, the complex course of an energetic current with two aims: the avoidance of premature or meaningless discharge (closure), and an eventual full relapse into quiescence. "The desire of the text (the desire of reading) is hence desire for the end, but desire for the end reached only through the at least minimally complicated detour, the intentional deviance, in tension, which is the plot of narrative" (Reading 104). And for both Freud and Brooks, the form of the detour is repetition or return, both as an attempted mastery of death and as a way of binding or taming instinctual energy toward its eventual full discharge in death.


Though incomplete, the foregoing sketch of Freud's and Brooks's hypotheses will serve temporarily as an investigative instrument. I shall return to and elaborate upon questions of progressive and regressive desire, and of the nature of the insistent "tension" or "irritation" that simultaneously demands and resists its own cancellation. For the moment, though, I want simply to draw the most obvious relations between the Brooks/Freud model for narrative dynamics and the structure of Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Clearly, the novel discovers parallels between endings in life and endings in narrative, both in its "plot"—where closure is successfully achieved through a satisfying death for Latour—and in Cather's explicit understanding of death as life's "dramatic climax" (170). Clearly also, it approaches its end with a "vacillating rhythm," narrative progression and regression operating at cross-purposes. But—more suggestively—it seems to arrange itself as a preparation or rehearsal for fulfilling biological death or significant narrative closure. This preparation involves a sequence of confrontations with premature death and closure—in Brooks's terms, with "premature discharge" or "short-circuit" of "textual energy" (Reading 109). The plainest of these are Latour's initial near-death in the desert, the escape from Buck Scales on the road to Mora, and the snowstorm and Stone Lips cave episode, but there are frequent references to other potential early ends for the protagonist. Furthermore, many of the embedded narratives-particularly those of Fray Baltazar or the Padres Martínez and Lucero-function as cautionary alternate routes for the narrative, paths to death not taken by Father Latour.

The typical structure of these episodes of averted closure is established early, in the "cruciform tree" scene to which I have referred. Here, as in "The Lonely Road to Mora" and "Stone Lips," an early physical and narrative "death" presents itself as an experience of sameness for Latour and the reader, a condition of obliterated differences and meaningless repetitions:

He had lost his way, and was trying to get back to the trail, with only his compass and his sense of direction for guides. The difficulty was that the country in which he found himself was so featureless-or rather, that it was crowded with features, all exactly alike. As far as he could see, on every side, the landscape was heaped up into monotonous red sandhills. . . . The blunted pyramid, repeated so many hundreds of times upon his retina and crowding down upon him in the heat, had confused the traveller, who was sensitive to the shape of things. (17-18)

In resignation the priest closes his eyes, "to rest them from the intrusive omnipresence of the triangle" (18), and in this moment—which echoes a similar moment of potential narrative stillbirth in the opening lines of Dante's Commedia—the novel offers to close as quickly as it has begun. But immediately he reopens them on the "one juniper which differed in shape," presenting "faithfully the form of the Cross" (18-19); and this tangible sign evokes, as I have said, the "only reality" of Christ's passion, and initiates Latour's escape to the hidden gardens and Edenic waters of Agua Secreta that "rose miraculously out of the parched and thirsty sea of sand. . . . The result was grass and trees and flowers and human life" (31).

Here in exemplary form is the process of religious regression—with consequent salvation for Latour—that I've identified as typical to this novel. But by deploying the full Freudian dynamic of death and desire, we can also read the episode as a temporary victory for the impulses toward sexual combination and the prolongation of life. As we have seen, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle death is said to arrive when an internal tension (the unnatural condition of living) is canceled out by the continued assertion of the death instinct; but according to one of Freud's most lyrical hypotheses, that tension can be renewed, empowered, in a specific way: "The life process of the individual leads for internal reasons to the abolition of chemical tensions, that is to say, to death, whereas union with the living substance of a different individual increases those tensions, introducing what may be described as fresh 'vital differences' which must then be lived off" (49).

The course of life's détour, then, is determined by perceptions of otherness, of difference, and a resulting drive toward combination that "jerks back . . . to make a fresh start and so prolong the journey" (35). The intrusion of difference into the featureless landscape and Latour's saving reorientation of himself in confrontation with the sign of divine immanence function in Death Comes for the Archbishop as the narrative and religious equivalent of "union with the living substance of a different individual," reenergizing a journey that had been lapsing toward quiescence. In fact, Freud's hypothesis suggests an analogue not simply to this episode or to this novel but to the function of all rejuvenating origin myths, all "eternal returns" that seek reunion with an absolute Other.

Near the end of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud speculates on the origin and nature of the "large unknown factor" (25) of desire for the other, the recurrent energy that maintains the vital tension of life. He finds an evocative allegory in mythology, in Aristophanes' tale in the Symposium of love's origin, which speaks of a primal unity of life, later splintered by the gods into difference, incompleteness, and desire: "Man's original body having been thus cut in two, each half yearned for the half from which it had been severed" (Plato 61). "Shall we follow the hint given us by the poet-philosopher," Freud asks, "and venture upon the hypothesis that living substance at the time of its coming to life was torn apart into small particles, which have ever since endeavoured to reunite through the sexual instincts?" (52). Shall we, in short, hypothesize the life-prolonging sexual drives as attempts to undo the effects of a primal wound or severing, the creation of a first vital dissatisfaction? If so, the living organism, in order to die, must "live off" its "vital differences" fully—must, in effect, achieve an absence of desire, a paradoxical lack of wanting.

Despite its apparent "vacillating rhythm," then, instinctual life on its way to death is doubly regressive, following "the backward path that leads to complete satisfaction" (Freud 36): backward not only in that the death instincts' goal reproduces the inanimate state of quiescence that precedes life's disturbance but also in that the apparently progressive sexual instincts themselves seek the recovery of a primary, lost, vital state of unity. In fact, in the economy of instinctual drives, whose conservative nature is for Freud always "to restore an earlier state of things" (51), the temporal concepts of "forward" and "back" are interchangeable, and the path to death must lead also to or through the scene of origin. As Brooks points out, "the end is a time before the beginning" (Reading 103), and this formula has a kind of literal truth for the problem of ending a narrative.

Freud's speculation is so deeply metaphoric—and is itself as narrative so thoroughly entangled in the problems of beginnings and ends that it describes—that it does in fact seem to throw more light on the structures of literature than on those of biological process. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, the pattern I've outlined is fairly clear: a journey toward death interrupted regularly by the threat of premature ending, a regressive discovery of difference, a reopening of the journey. Father Latour's journey cannot reach satisfactory conclusion until it has confronted and "lived off " its own initiating scene, the source of its energy: each avoided "premature" death represents an unsuccessful attempt to reach a state that precedes "vital difference" and desire. At the last he envisions that primal scene of separation in a recovered memory of his own and Vaillant's departure from home, and in a language strangely suggestive of both Plato and Freud: "In reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest; and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge" (299). One further paragraph ends the novel with a description of the cathedral bell tolling the Archbishop's death.

This scene of narrative origin resists any simple or single reading. Its power in the fiction—its ability (to paraphrase Brooks) finally to permit the full discharge of the novel's energies—lies in its evocation of a number of fragmentations, of tearings-apart: exile from home and family, the powerful love of Latour and Vaillant that throughout the work repeatedly "forges a new Will" in both, rekindling "the desire to go" in its conflict with the antinarrative "necessity to stay." In a sense, acknowledgment of this moment establishes—for Latour and the reader—the "meaning" or desiring pattern of life not quite clarified by earlier versions of the primary: Christ's passion, Genesis, the adumbrated Indian myths of origin. The puzzle of origin solved—or at least recovered in its most open form—the novel and Latour are free to die "of having lived" (269).


As often happens when the texts of psychoanalysis are invoked, I find myself disturbed in some ways over my preceding argument's intermixture and carefree analogizing of concepts from a number of apparently categorically different disciplines. In using some of the paradigms of psychoanalysis, have I been "psychoanalyzing" Latour, or Cather, or myself? Like Brooks, I claim that my object is no human psyche but simply the structure of narrative. But do I then mean to say that narratives themselves have death instincts or sexual desires? For that matter, what reality can we assign to these Freudian "instincts"—derived, as we have seen, from speculation and poetry as much as from "scientific observation"? How useful are they in considering any sort of phenomena?

To begin an answer I double back to the initiating question—the tension of difference—that began and propelled this essay: why is the arrangement of Death Comes for the Archbishop unusual or "nonnovelistic"? My hypothesis now is that the novel's formal unorthodoxies result simply from Cather's particularly overt display of some of narrative's most fundamental dynamics: its impulses toward closure, its impulses toward complication and prolongation. My reading has been clearly psychoanalytic in that it has defined those dynamics in the terms of Freud's conflictual model for life and Brooks's adoption of that model for fiction.

I do not assume, though, that the desiring narrative energy that pushes toward its own cancellation necessarily represents Cather's desire, or that the meaning of her narrative style lies somewhere in her personal experience. Nor am I convinced that the Freudian model of Beyond the Pleasure Principle has much to tell us about the biological realities of life. But it does seem to me quite appropriate to talk about fictions as having desires of their own or, more precisely, to find in narrative's most necessary temporal characteristics—initiation, complication, deferral, closure—the paradigms for the psychoanalytic vocabulary of desire. In other words, as Freud implicitly recognized, biological existence becomes meaningful, becomes in fact human existence, only as narrative; and it acquires significance in this way precisely because only narrative has the capability for meaningful closure. The strange, forceful beauty of Death Comes for the Archbishop (and Cather's other work) lies of course in its closeness to elemental issues of love and death, but those issues are themselves elemental and compelling because they constitute the driving energies of all narratives by which we pattern life and make it meaningful.


Barthes, Roland. "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives." 1966. Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill, 1977. 79-124.
Brooks, Peter. "Freud's Masterplot." Literature and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 280-300.
——. Reading for the Plot. New York: Random, 1985.
Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927. New York: Random, 1971.
——. On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York: Knopf, 1949.
——. The Song of the Lark. 1915. New York: Houghton, 1983.
Cooper, Frederick Taber. Rev. of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Ed. John J. Murphy. Boston: Hall, 1984. 112-13.
Edel, Leon. Stuff of Sleep and Dreams: Experiments in Literary Psychology. New York: Harper, 1982.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1920. New York: Norton, 1961.
Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse. 1972. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
Plato. Symposium. Trans. W. Hamilton. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951.
Stouck, David. Willa Cather's Imagination. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1975.
Zabel, Morton. "Willa Cather: The Tone of Time." Willa Cather and Her Critics. Ed. James Schroeter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1967.