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

From Cather Studies Volume 1

Willa Cather's Subverted Endings and Gendered Time

Perhaps because critics have long viewed Willa Cather as a poetic writer who excelled in creating scenes rather than in developing plots, they have given little attention to her endings. Yet Cather's endings are among the most revealing aspects of her fiction. When she quoted Michelet, "The end is nothing, the road is all,"[1] she announced a principle central to her narrative poetics: a keen sense of an ending (the phrase is Kermode's), and a correspondingly keen determination to subvert that sense.[2] The result is a series of endings in which Cather made dramatic the contrast between two principles with which she worked. One was that of linearity, a story organized by a beginning, a middle, and an ending and emblematic of a traditional and often patriarchal social order; the other was that of simultaneity, with its assumption of symbolism and its positing of alternatives to tradition by creating a new and often female order.

It is a commonplace that Willa Cather wrote grim early stories, accounts of failed homesteaders, dying youth, and lost artists; what has not been noted is how consistently she wrote stories of the End. Working with materials unredeemed by art (until she wrote about it, Nebraska had not been the subject of serious literature) and within a male-dominated literary tradition (when she looked for great women writers, she found only the Georges, "and they were anything but women," she declared when she was young [Lincoln Courier]), she sought ways to make her own sense out of her world.

Willa Cather began with Apocalypse. "Lou, the Prophet" appeared in 1892, following "Peter" (another version of the End, a story about a suicide), her first published fiction. In "Lou, the Prophet" Cather gave to her Nebraska homesteader a biblical vision of history that explains human events by a divine plan. The catalyst was personal disaster, for Lou interpreted the loss of his corn crop as his greatest calamity; his response was a vision of the end of the world. While he slept, he dreamt that the Devil and his angels were holding back the rain, loosing the damned in Hell. But then "a strange light shone . . . and the clouds parted, and Christ and all his angels were descending" (Collected Short Fiction 536). When he awoke in pain over his dream, he took from the shelf his mother's Bible. It opened of itself at Revelation. . . . Page by page, he read those burning, blinding, blasting words, and they seemed to shrivel up his poor brain altogether. At last . . . he sank down upon his knees in prayer. . . . Nature did not comfort him any, he knew nothing about nature, he had never seen her; he had only stared into a black plow furrow all his life. Before, he had only seen in the wide, green lands and the open blue the possibilities of earning his bread; now, he only saw in them a great world ready for the judgment, a funeral pyre ready for the torch. (537)

"Lou, the Prophet" is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, by so directly incorporating the biblical vision of an End, Cather laid the groundwork for more subtle biblical echoes throughout her early stories and in her first novel, Alexander's Bridge. Second, by including gender in her character's response to that vision, Cather introduced the single most important factor that would shape her sense of an ending. Cather described Lou as if he were a child who, awakening from a nightmare, seeks the maternal presence that might comfort him, turning first to his mother's Bible, then to a female nature. Thus Cather's early character announces a long line of men who seek comfort in women's ways of knowing: Peter, who loves his violin as if it is a woman; Canute Canuteson, who melodramatically kidnaps Lena Yensen; Eric Hermannson, who sees the eastern visitor Margaret as a vision of ethereal beauty; most famously, Jim Burden, who by returning to Ántonia comes home to himself.

"Lou, the Prophet" introduces also an impulse that runs through Cather's early stories, her need to project beyond the ending of the conventional script of pioneer possibilities and from there to evaluate the way the script has been ordered. Narrative technique expresses that need. Point of view, for example, is characteristically past the End-after the crops have failed, the settlers have abandoned the boom town, or the artist has died. From such a perspective, bright beginnings of frontier settlement and romantic love are revealed as illusory and apparent salvations as damnations. Characters awaken to the dark unintelligibility of their lives: an old man in "Peter" realizes that without his violin he exists as a barbarian; Canute Canuteson in "On the Divide," that his homesteading is unrelievedly lonely; Aunt Georgiana in "A Wagner Matinee," that she has passed her life in a wasteland; Jim Laird in "The Sculptor's Funeral," that a brilliant sculptor returns to the same "bitter, dead little Western town" that he left. These stories about awakenings to the senselessness of experience characteristically close in despair: Peter commits suicide; Aunt Georgiana cries that she doesn't want to return home; Jim Laird admits that his own life has been a sham (Collected Short Fiction).

Cather's early explorations of the End culminated in her first novel. Alexander's Bridge is a story about the breakdown of Bartley Alexander, a renowned engineer torn between two selves, symbolized by two women. More important, it is an allegory of creative genius doomed by an American myth of progress. Using the strained and finally collapsed bridge as a metaphor for the disintegration of the psyche and the collapse of society, Cather projected modern notions of progress beyond the End, whence she could view them whole. Here too she drew upon traditional elements of the Apocalypse: her prophet, Lucius Wilson, introduces Alexander with unmistakable biblical imagery—"There he is. Away with perspective! No past, no future for Bartley; just the fiery moment. The only moment that ever was or will be in the world!"—and predicts that he will end in "a crash and clouds of dust" (8, 12). Warfare between good and evil ensues (internalized as a struggle between Alexander's two selves), and the collapse of Alexander's bridge is a scene of apocalyptic chaos—a river filled with drowning men and among them Alexander, trying to beat off the injured and crazed workmen who are gripping him an dragging him under.

For Alexander's story, Cather internalized Apocalypse, making it a psychological crisis of creativity by linking her sense of an ending to qualities inherent in Alexander's character rather than to an external fate. Prophecy is of psychic disintegration, and warfare between good and evil is an internal struggle between Alexander's two selves: the civilized, public, and adult sensibility represented by his wife Winifred; the passionate, private, and younger one represented by his lover, Hilda Burgoyne. The vision of the new heaven and earth with the new Jerusalem is one man's memory of innocent youth (when Alexander, glimpsing boys seated about a campfire, recalls his own boyhood) and of the comfort of a maternal embrace (when Alexander, fighting off the men who would pull him under, recalls his wife).

The engineer was also, as Elizabeth Ammons has argued, a cultural hero, and through him Cather passed judgment on an American culture that would divert creative energy into competition and mastery. She passed judgment too on the gender conventions associated with those notions. Alexander is masculine power writ large, described in a rhetoric inflated until it verges on the comic and, as a result, contains its own destruction. Descriptions become a parody of the heroic, a creator so subordinated to his product that he has become indistinguishable from it (Cather compares Alexander's head to a catapult, his shoulders to the support for the span of a bridge, and his energy to a pounding engine). As his bridge is "incurably disabled . . . already as good as condemned, because something was out of line in the lower chord" (124), so Alexander also has been incurably disabled by mindless service to public notions of success. Bartley Alexander has become "a mechanism useful to society," dominated by a driving competition to get on in the world (39).

The tragedy is that an alternative existed, carelessly left behind with Alexander's youth and by implication as carelessly forgotten by a modern society. Within him resides a vestigial memory of a personal self and a simpler time; the moment most authentically his occurs when he glimpses boys around a campfire, then recalls his own childhood and a more primitive way of relating to the world. As contrast to Alexander's increasingly frenetic movement between two continents, two women, and two selves, the scene symbolizes the harmony of cooperation and the repetition of ritualistic story-telling; it evokes the timelessness of myth and legend.

Cather ends, however, not with a New Jerusalem, but with the end of history. A final scene presents a coda in which time has stopped and, as if into a frieze, scenes are frozen. Alexander's wife, Winifred, lives on in their Boston home, dedicated to her sorrow; Wilson and Hilda sit together in London, agreeing that "nothing can happen to one after Bartley" (138). It was, indeed, for Cather the end of one strain of writing. Following Alexander's Bridge she ceased writing stories about the End, instead using apocalyptic allusions to dramatize alternatives to an End. In A Lost Lady, for example, Marian Forrester refuses to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of a pioneer past; and in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Rachel Blake rescues Nancy Till by driving her from desolation and through chaos.

So apparently different, Cather's first novels ("there were two," she said ["My First Novels"]) belong together: Alexander's Bridge tells of her apocalypse of a historical imagination; O Pioneers! of her genesis of a mythic one. From Alexander to Alexandra-the gender difference is significant, for Cather turned from ideas progress and mastery that she identified with male paradigms to those of stability and love, identified with female ones.[3] In doing so, she discarded the premise upon which fiction was conventionally based, that of making sense of contingent reality. In O Pioneers! Cather gave only an obligatory nod to the circumstantial reality common to fiction (she does tell of two generations of immigrant settlement in Nebraska), for her real allegiance was to myth and tale. The country insisted on being the hero of her story, Cather said in a letter to Elizabeth Sergeant, and she did not interfere.

In writing of Alexandra's relation to the land, Cather wrote her own creation myth, placing its beginning not as an event in time but as a feeling: "The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman" (65). She created for that country a human spouse, then wrote of its awakening in response to love, using for her subtext an Americanized version of Beauty and the Beast. O Pioneers! tells of the beautiful daughter who is pledged to the country, which is like a beast under a spell (118); of her awakened love for it and of her subsequent giving of her heart to it; of the magical transformation that follows, with which she reigns over a fruitful kingdom. By transferring the romantic action to the relationship between Alexandra and the land and by transforming the fairytale heroine, Beauty, into her heroine, Alexandra, Cather empowered qualities traditionally restricted to women-feeling and, particularly, the capacity for love. Moreover, she used secondary characters to question social and literary conventions for women. Alexandra's brothers provide an ideological backdrop of the sex-gender system characteristic of the second stage of settling the frontier: Oscar and Lou parody economic and legal restraints upon women, declaring that the property of a family belongs to its men, regardless of its title; and Emil parodies love conventions, considering Alexandra at forty too old to marry. Finally, the subplot further challenges romantic conventions, for Emil and Marie's love is from its outset doomed to tragedy.

The rejection of convention and empowerment of female alternatives is particularly evident in the ending of O Pioneers!, where Cather subverted a conventional plot and affirmed mythic continuities. The projected marriage between Alexandra and her childhood friend, Carl Linstrum, reminds the reader of conventions that are inadequate and false: that is, of marriage as the standard happy ending in fiction about women. Cather contradicts tradition with her depiction of the Alexandra-Carl relationship: whereas strong female heroes are ordinarily linked in love actions to older, temperate, and wise men, Cather links Alexandra to the younger, sensitive, and uncertain Carl. Whereas love action traditionally centers on a female hero's relation to the male she will marry, Cather focuses on Alexandra's relation to the land, moving Carl off to St. Louis and then to Alaska for a good part of the action and depicting him as decidedly reluctant to follow the quest script imposed upon men. In the end it simply does not ring true that the Alexandra who tamed the Divide is now leaning heavily upon Carl's shoulder while he kisses her "softly, on her lips and her eyes" (309); indeed, Cather omitted these lines from the Autograph Edition.

Yet the novel's ending only incidentally predicts a conventional union: as friends, Alexandra and Carl will marry, but in doing so they pledge their faith not to each other but to a far more important bond: Carl tells his future wife not that she belongs to him, as gender convention would dictate, but that she belongs "to the land . . . now more than ever" (307). In the ritualistic rhythm of a benediction, the omniscient narrator concludes with the blessing of timeless truths: "They went into the house together, leaving the Divide behind them, under the evening sun. Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!" (309). Unlike her marriage to Carl—a middle-aged and presumably childless one—Alexandra's union with the country is one of passion and procreation, a greening of crops and a renewal of youth, for which Cather uses metaphors of the marriage bed and of generation.

Closure is circular: the prefatory poem's opening image of "sullen fires of sunset, fading" is completed at the novel's conclusion, when Alexandra stands gazing into the west as the "level rays of the sinking sun [shine] in her clear eyes." The opening's youth "flashing like a star out of the twilight" is completed by the ending's evening star, like a promise awaiting Alexandra's union with the land and extended by "the shining eyes of youth" resulting from that union (309). Here is no western hero who will demonstrate his virility by acting violently and his power by effecting change; instead, Alexandra offers the promise of continuity, love, and stability. In so ending O Pioneers! Cather demonstrates one of her most effective strategies of subversion. She includes familiar ingredients of the romance plot but frees them from culturally imposed restrictions.[4] Alexandra succeeds by the traditionally female virtue of loving, but she does so in untraditional ways by turning her feelings to the land rather than to a man; similarly, the sexual asymmetry valued by the romance plot is present but, again untraditionally, as an obstacle to overcome, for the marriage between Alexandra and Carl is possible only when they join in like human need.

This gender distinction between history and myth is one that reappears throughout Cather's fiction. Willa Cather identified men with progress and change, linear time, and an end-determined imagination; she identified women with mythic continuities. She created no female character comparable in a historian's sensibility to Professor St. Peter; conversely, she created no male character comparable in mythic dimensions to her earth mother, Ántonia. Not surprisingly, then, she characteristically wrote of male characters yearning to retrieve the basic truths identified with women. Whereas American literature conventionally begins with a young man at the outset of a journey, Cather frequently begins with middle-aged men who have completed their worldly travels and achieved public success: at the opening of Alexander's Bridge, Alexander is a world-famous engineer; at that of My Ántonia, Jim Burden is a successful lawyer; at that of The Professor's House, Godfrey St. Peter has completed his acclaimed Spanish Adventurers in North America. Not only is "the moving . . . over and done"[5] for each at the outset, but the moving has been prototypically American: the engineer of mighty bridges that spanned the continent, the lawyer for the railroads that tamed the West, the chronicler of adventurers who brought civilization. Each has followed the modern notion of progress to its promised end—which has failed to sustain. Each then seeks the timeless truths identified with female responses to experience: Alexander returns to the spontaneously loving Hilda, Jim Burden to Ántonia, Godfrey St. Peter to the "seasoned and sound" sewing woman, Augusta (Professor's House 281).

These characters represent a larger impulse that runs through Cather's writing, an impulse toward resolution in orders closely identified with women. Is there, after all, another major American writer whose novels so often end in a kitchen? Jim Burden returns to Ántonia's kitchen; Mahailey thinks of Claude as directly over the kitchen stove (One of Ours); Niel Herbert's final disillusionment occurs as he looks in at Marian Forrester, standing before her kitchen sink (A Lost Lady). In Shadows on the Rock, where the kitchen is the center throughout, the ending tells of preparations to go to dinner. With their repetitive and stable domestic rituals, such endings provide one alternative to modern notions of progress.

Among other ways in which Cather presented alternatives, sometimes a character gives up the attempt to tell a story, or to order experience by linear time. In A Lost Lady, for example, Niel Herbert—who throughout the novel tries "to get the truth out of" Marian Forrester: that is, to explain her by imposing his fictions upon her (100)—in the end abandons the attempt to tell her story, resting content that she had a hand in breaking him in to life. In yet other novels Cather subverts closure by concluding the plot line in ambiguity or riddle. In the final paragraphs of The Professor's House, Godfrey St. Peter has returned to consciousness in a symbolic rebirth but without an understanding of the past or expectation for the future. In My Mortal Enemy, Cather pushes the modern version of romantic love beyond the end to ask what happens after the young lovers renounce fortune and elope, presumably to live happily ever after. With the love plot fulfilled, she sets her characters on a quest whose plot folds back upon the conventional ending, for Myra Henshawe must learn its significance. The heroine of the love plot thus becomes the hero of the quest, testing myth against the reality of economics and her own feelings, then defiantly writing an alternative ending to her own story. After her death her last words echo as a warning and a riddle to her narrator, and by extension to the reader: "Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy!" (95, 105). The question echoes through the criticism, which has uniformly focused upon identifying the enemy, ignoring the fact that the question asks not who but why. With this question Cather challenges her reader to return to the plots by which Myra Henshawe's life was scripted, and to evaluate the love plot in the light of her subsequent quest for its meaning.

Not surprisingly, Cather used her most timebound narratives, The Song of the Lark and One of Ours, for her most developed quest plots; each details her character's search for alternatives to the End, particularly as mandated by socially imposed gender conventions. On one level The Song of the Lark is the story of young Thea's development into Kronborg, the renowned soprano; on a more important level, it tells of Thea's liberation from a modern sense of linear time and into an older, cyclic one. The story opens in Moonstone, Colorado, then moves to Chicago as Thea struggles to "advance" her career and to "make progress" first as a pianist and then as a singer. Only when she realizes that she has failed by such methods is she "released from the enslaving desire to get on in the world" (368-69). Freed for a different kind of experience, in Panther Canyon she moves into a womblike recess of the earth, where she discards linear time and affirms "the old time" (378), repetitive, ritualistic, and continuous. Whereas she had been "hurrying and sputtering, as if she had been born behind time and had been trying to catch up," in Panther Canyon she reaches an understanding of "certain feelings . . . suggestions that were simple, insistent, and monotonous," as repetitive as the beating of Indian drums, about "a continuity of life," identified particularly with "intuitions about the women" who had lived there, voices out of the past (372, 376, 378).

From this point on, the conventional plot is secondary at best. Following her epiphany in the cliff dwellings, we are interested not in what happens to Thea in a worldly sense but in the new order she will imagine or create. By continuing to focus on Thea following her Panther Canyon experiences, however, Cather (like her later narrators Jim Burden and Niel Herbert) seemed to impose history upon her character. She came to regret her decision: "I should have disregarded conventional design and stopped where my first conception stopped, telling the latter part of the story by suggestion merely."[6]

Instead, Cather provided further details, climaxing in Thea's performance as Sieglinde, in which she comes into her full powers (571). Thus ends the history of Thea, with her leaving the mortal world and entering "the kingdom of art" (Lincoln Journal), where she is as a divine creator. Following her transcending performance, Thea does not reappear as herself. Immediately afterward she is a veiled presence, bowing graciously but not lifting her eyes; in the Epilogue she is a memory held by her Aunt Tillie, the last Kronborg in Moonstone. More important, Thea's influence is felt through the stories told about her and the imagery associated with her—particularly that of the moon, which is strongly linked to Thea throughout and dominates the ending: as the moon every night causes the tides that make a lagoon habitable and wholesome, "so, into all the little settlements of quiet people, tidings of what their boys and girls are doing in the world bring refreshment; bring to the old, memories, and to the young, dreams" (581).

Endings in O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark are typical of Cather's fiction in that they include strong rhetorical markers identifying them as endings. Final sections are set off, sometimes labeled as epilogues; sentence structure is highly rhythmic; point of view draws back and the narrator becomes reflective, commenting on preceding action, predicting the future, and generalizing about meaning. More often than not, however, Cather turned around those traditional forms to suggest alternatives to the very conventions they represent. My Ántonia, for example, includes strong formal markers of closure, yet its final effect is to produce questions about the authenticity of the preceding fiction. Cather created as her narrator a young male romantic who would make Ántonia his heroine; then Cather gave Ántonia the strength to defy his romance plot for her: she bears a child out of wedlock, marries a man without position or money, and most defiantly, grows old. When he is middle-aged, Jim Burden returns to Ántonia, in doing so rediscovering the first road upon which he and she had ridden from Black Hawk, symbolic of his reentry into his own childhood. As the novel draws to a close, Jim has "the sense of coming home to [himself], and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is" (371-72). When he must leave, he does so reassured that he will return again to Ántonia, her children, and, by implication, his memory of his own childhood.

Gender is once more a dominant factor as Cather further challenges linear ways of ordering experience and affirms another order, one residing "at the very bottom of . . . memory" (322). As a prominent lawyer for a railway that helped tame the West, Jim Burden is another of Cather's male characters who have followed to the end conventions for success, only to deem them inadequate. In returning to Ántonia, Jim affirms a more primitive way of knowing, one that works by "immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true" (353). Eschewing a story line for a series of "pictures," Jim has written of Ántonia by the knowledge gained from returning to her. "Here's my story," he says in the introduction. "I suppose it hasn't any form" (n.p.).

The effect of the ending is to throw us back to the novel's beginnings, where Cather introduces herself (any other interpretation of the "I" here would be ingenuous, for the author provides identifying details clearly intended as autobiographical) and tells the history of the manuscript: on a train passing through the Midwest she had met her fictional character Jim Burden; together they recalled their childhood, then agreed that each would write an account of it. In the first version of the introduction, the character Jim gave to his creator his manuscript, saying, "Here's my story, now where's yours?" And she, admitting that her own "was never written," identifies the account that follows as Jim's.[7] Thus, in My Ántonia Cather establishes a complete fictional world, its ending one of resolution and stability; then, by reminding us that it is fiction, questions the experience it offers.

Alexander's Bridge, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia challenge American notions of success; One of Ours challenges those governing happiness. Claude Wheeler's story is of a "search for something splendid" (178-79) in a modern world of rising materialism governed by gender convention. His narrative traces his performance of tasks culturally mandated for a man: to subdue the land, marry a pious woman, and fight for his country. The action climaxes in battle as Claude dies protecting a bit of French land in a war he only dimly understands.

In his attempt to make sense out of experience, Claude lives by a script that reflects modern American values, yet his heart's desire is to follow the old laws of romance. As in Alexander's Bridge, the real battle is an internal one, between warring aspects of Claude's nature. Again Cather writes of two selves, one private and the other public, one that seeks repose and the other that demands action. For this internal battle Cather depends upon metaphor and symbol as in poetry, particularly by identifying Claude with the sun and the moon. In the opening scene Claude appears against a rising sun, the first of many such scenes linking him to heroic imagery. But while others identify Claude with noble action, he believes himself one of the "children of the moon," whose imprisoned spirits languish in darkness (179).

Sun and moon imagery, suggesting the warring aspects of Claude (reality and ideal, male and female), come together in the final scene. For her conclusion Cather embedded scene within scene, placing each against a setting sun symbolic of the beckoning frontier, American men, and Claude Wheeler. Again, however, she subverted gender conventions, for in an ironic reversal of the usual American westering movement, she closed with a homecoming. The transport carrying troop survivors steams slowly up the narrows with the tide; and on "the banks of Lovely creek, where it began, Claude Wheeler's story still goes on," because for the "two old women who work together in the farmhouse, the thought of him is always there, beyond everything else, at the farthest edge of consciousness, like the evening sun on the horizon. . . . As they are working at the table or bending over the oven, something reminds them of him, and they think of him together, like one person: Mahailey will pat her back and say, 'Never you mind, Mudder; you'll see your boy up yonder.' Mrs. Wheeler always feels that God is near,—but Mahailey is not troubled by any knowledge of interstellar spaces, and for her He is nearer still,—directly overhead, not so very far above the kitchen stove" (389, 390-91).

This, the most sentimental of Cather's endings, depicts Claude's reentry into an intensely domestic world of warmth and feeling. It works by a delicately rendered deification, suggested by the capitalized pronoun "He" and its dual antecedent, God and Claude. Metaphor again provides resolution. Evening sun or morning star—it no longer matters, for with death a peace has come to the warring parts of Claude's nature. Claude has died for the idea of a life of action lived by an ideal, the energy of the sun guided by the pure truth of the moon.

The pattern is consistent through Cather's canon. Though her conclusions generally include some afterhistory of the central characters, they seem little more than asides. Readers often discount Alexandra Bergson's marriage to Carl Linstrum and overlook Thea Kronborg's marriage to Fred Ottenburg, so unimportant does Cather make the marriages that traditionally reward successful women. Instead, endings offer symbols and, through them, meaning of another order. Though there are painful contradictions in Thea's life (she is a great artist yet no longer has a personal life), we find comfort in the concluding symbolism of the moon; similarly, while the narrative takes Claude's life to irreconcilable alternatives (he can die in futile action or return to inevitable disillusionment), we find comfort in the imagery of an evening star.

A Lost Lady is Cather's most controlled example of these two independent but related principles of form, one historical and the other symbolic. The novel has a plot in time. The young Maria marries an older and successful man, moves with him to Sweet Water, Colorado, and there suffers the effects of time: he lose his fortune and dies; then she falls prey to grasping materialism. Again Cather identifies gender with ways of knowing: Niel Herbert, attempting to explain Marian Forrester through his experience of her, is identified with the historical, timebound narrative; Marian Forrester, who eludes such definition, is identified with symbolic meaning. The novel works by a dialectic, as Niel attempts to resolve ever widening discrepancies in his subject, until he breaks off his experience with her. The conclusion of the narrative proper emphasizes that that experience is over: "in the end" Niel leaves the Forrester place "for the last time," and the narrator confirms that "it was even so" (169, 170).

In a coda Cather reinforces the narrative break. Years later Niel learns that Mrs. Forrester remarried, moved to South America, and died. It is only when he realizes that she is beyond his knowledge or comprehension (the phrase Cather uses is "out of his ken") that he can abandon attempts to get at her secret and to resolve her differences; instead, he accepts that her meaning is unresolvable and settles for identifying his feeling about her: he is grateful that "she had a hand in breaking him in to life" (171). There is none of the universality of Jim Burden's conclusions about Ántonia, yet the effect is similar in that Cather again subverts her narrator's story, invalidating his way of ordering experience.

In The Professor's House and My Mortal Enemy, Cather subverted convention by beginning beyond the ending, then setting her characters on quests for alternatives to the scripts that had been imposed upon them. At the outset Godfrey St. Peter has achieved public success with his life's work, and Myra Driscoll Henshawe has married for love; each embarks upon a quest for alternatives beyond that ending. Having completed his multivolume history of the Spanish adventurers, Godfrey St. Peter seeks an alternative way of ordering experience: he disengages from clock time to do "very little" (262), reminiscing about the past and giving himself up to reverie.

The Professor's House is Cather's most radical search beyond the end, for she takes her character through death and past his own mortality, to reflect upon his life from beyond the grave. For St. Peter's death, Cather constructs a highly symbolic scene: alone at the top of a deserted house, he is out of humanized space; and at midnight, he is out of time. Lying upon his hard box-couch, St. Peter positions himself as if in a coffin; wrapping himself with a blanket from a prehistoric people, he prepares to receive the most ancient truths. When the wind blows out the flame in his gas heater, St. Peter falls unconscious, as close to death as a man can be and still return. The novel ends with his reflection as he rests with the sewing woman who has rescued him. Again, gender interpretation is intriguing. St. Peter withdraws into his study as if into a womb; the retreat enables him to cast off the public, competitive sensibility Cather identified with male experience and to return to the instinctual truths she identified with female sensibility. When with the midwife Augusta he is "reborn," he has discarded the old certainties and affirmed his own feeling.

Riddles become enigmas in My Mortal Enemy with the repetition of Myra Driscoll Henshawe's "strange complaint . . . 'Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy!'" (95, 105). Long before Adrienne Rich wrote about the cultural "book of myths" that defines women's stories (DuPlessis 131), Cather used a riddle to challenge these myths and to separate the love and quest plots traditionally joined for women. Appropriately for a successful quest plot, the story ends with boxes, which contain the secret or answer that Myra has reached. Her ashes are "sealed up in a little steel box," then scattered by Oswald somewhere on his voyage to Alaska; her amethysts are bequeathed to Nellie, but when Nellie takes "them out of their box and wear[s] them," she feels a chill over her heart (102, 104). The sense of mystery remains. It is as if Myra's complaint, breathed "into the stillness of the night," has joined the winds of nature, so that it questions beginnings from beyond the End: "Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: 'Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy"' (104-05). By refusing to make concords, Cather thwarts her readers' yearning for comfort. Remember Myra Henshawe as a young woman, her husband charges Nellie, not as she became; yet Nellie refuses his conventional story and tells instead a defiant tale of ways in which romantic love corrupts. Thus My Mortal Enemy evokes the profoundly troubling question: what if the ending reveals that it was all a mistake?

In Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, Cather followed the manner of legend to write of worlds without beginnings or endings. Their settings move these novels out of historical time: the desert of the American Southwest and the rock of Quebec are primordial forms to which a culture has been transported. Bishop Latour travels to a mesa on which there is the sense of "incompleteness, as if with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau." Here, before the beginning, materials are "still waiting to be made into a landscape" (Archbishop 95). Such settings support Cather's radical denial of the reality of things and her embrace of the old laws of legend. Her endings were simultaneous with her beginnings: in dying, Father Latour "was living over his life," and "how often and how fondly he recalled the beginning of it" (183). In both novels, too, Cather gives the stability and repetition of ritual a female dimension: Death Comes for the Archbishop is infused with Mariology, and Shadows on the Rock with domesticity.

Critics have long considered Cather an apolitical writer, and certainly she did not write to effect specific social change. She was intensely concerned with the ways in which ideologies are codified, however: a dominant culture attempts to mold the values of its time; a subordinate culture attempts to subvert that power and assert its own. In this broad sense Cather was political throughout her writing and especially in her last two novels, Lucy Gayheart and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In both, she considered the ways in which treatments of time can corrupt.

Previously, Cather had incorporated dominant ideologies into her traditional love plots, then subverted those plots by creating female characters who wrote their own scripts in defiance of the expectations imposed upon them: Alexandra turns aside her brothers' ideas of what is appropriate for her; Ántonia Shimerda and Lena Lingard are amused but otherwise unaffected by the romantic script Jim Burden would impose upon them; Marian Forrester rejects the funeral pyre upon which Niel Herbert would have her immolate herself. Cather removed heterosexual romance from the privileged position it had occupied in nineteenth-century fiction: she made it a secondary and tragic plot in the Marie-Emil action of O Pioneers! and explored its corrupting consequences in My Mortal Enemy. Most often, she simply concentrated upon more important matters: Alexandra's relationship to the land, Ántonia's with her children, and Thea's with music. When in her final two novels Cather did return heterosexual romance to the center of her narrative action, she used a Gothic mode to expose its potential to corrupt.

Gothicism is, as Ellen Moers and others have demonstrated, the cultural trope for cultural experiences of secondary status, most often the powerlessness of women in a world controlled by men.[8] In Lucy Gayheart and Sapphira and the Slave Girl Cather came full circle, writing devastating critiques of the cultural myths central to women's economic, social, and political lives: in one book, a critique of salvation through courtship and coupling; in the other, of salvation through motherly love.

In both novels Cather wrote of continuity disrupted, of daughters without mothers, on the brink of adulthood and adrift in a world of silenced women: Lucy's mother is dead; Nancy's biological mother, Till, will not defend her against ruin, and her surrogate mother, Sapphira, is plotting her rape. Together, the novels are dark versions of romantic love conventions: Lucy Gayheart tells of a girl whose only access to an adult world as she grows up is through men: as accompanist to the artist Clement Sebastian (and even then, she may accompany him only in rehearsal, to be replaced by a man in performance), or as wife to the town banker, Harry Gordon. Sapphira and the Slave Girl tells of Sapphira's plot to "entice" her nephew with Nancy, a nightmarish perversion of motherly efforts to secure a man for her daughter.

As so often in her writing, Cather used the endings of these novels to remind her reader of culturally mandated conventions. Lucy Gayheart ends with Harry Gordon's memory of the young Lucy before she entered womanhood, the very ideal of feminine charm; Sapphira ends with Till's memory of Sapphira in her final days, a loving mistress of the household and the very model of maternal compassion. By their conventionality, these endings would erase the fictions that preceded them. That of Lucy Gayheart would obliterate the character we met, not a thirteen-year-old girl at all but a young woman vibrant with desire for adult experience; that of Sapphira would ignore the evil of which this apparently loving mother was capable. In each, the traditional elements of strong endings evoke an immediate sense of satisfaction. Yet each evokes also an aftereffect with the realization that dark questions remain unresolved.

Both novels also explore the end of time. In Lucy Gayheart Cather concludes with the funeral of Mr. Gayheart, the town watchmaker and the last of the Gayheart line; with him the old time will stop. In Sapphira, where old time has stopped, Cather pursues her plot beyond the end of a social order. Together, these books pose the most radical of questions, not about a certain time but about Time itself, and not about a social order but about Order. With the threat of oblivion hanging heavy in both, Cather asks what happens to people if order and time are revealed as fiction, a plot arbitrarily imposed upon experience?

I have long found the ending of Sapphira and the Slave Girl the most puzzling in Cather's oeuvre. It consists of three parts: first, there is the conclusion to the narrative of the slave girl, Nancy, effected when Rachel breaks the suspended world created by Sapphira and guides Nancy to the underground railroad and to freedom (and thus out of the narrative). Second, there is "Nancy's Return," which initially resembles a conventional epilogue, providing the afterhistory of major characters and tying up loose ends. Twenty-five years have passed, and Nancy returns "to a different world," a post-Civil War world (277). She and her mother, Aunt Till, are reunited, and we learn of her life in Canada—that she is an elegant middle-aged woman who carries pictures of her husband and three children. But here Cather introduces as narrator a five-year-old child, writing as "I" and telling of witnessing the reunion between the characters.

Fiction or fact? Cather blurs the distinction, blurs it further by concluding with "The End," then adds on the same page the third part: a note signed "Willa Cather" that reflects upon the story just told. She admits that she called several characters by actual Frederick County surnames, but disavows any intentional use of the name of any person she knew or saw in Virginia. Puzzling? Only if we insist upon separating fiction from reality, history from imagination. Thus things ordinarily kept apart merge: the past moves into the present; fiction blends with fact; the ending is not an ending. Thus too Willa Cather does in her own person what she had made her most famous narrators do years earlier, when in My Ántonia and A Lost Lady Jim Burden and Niel Herbert "ended" by making their stories personal, each reflecting upon the effect of that story upon him. In doing so herself, she reminds us of continuities, the writer directly addressing her reader and inviting that reader to take his or her place in the ritual of storytelling.


 1. In "Old Mrs. Harris" (158) Cather repeats and expands upon the quotation in her essay "Joseph and His Brothers": the "dreamy indefiniteness" that Thomas Mann assigns to a "people without any of the relentness mechanical gear which directs every moment of modern life toward accuracy . . . is one of the most effective elements of verity in [Joseph and His Brothers]. We are among a shepherd people; the story has almost the movement of grazing sheep. The characters live at that pace. Perhaps no one who has not lived among sheep can realize the rightness of the rhythm. A shepherd people is not driving toward anything. With them, truly, as Michelet said of quite another form of journeying, the end is nothing, the road is all. In fact, the road and the end are literally one" (99). (Go back.)
 2. I am indebted to background provided by Smith; Richter; Torgovnick; and DuPlessis. (Go back.)
 3. For a feminist psychoanalytic approach to Cather's putting female values at the heart of the American westering myth, see O'Brien 428-51 and passim. (Go back.)
 4. Here Cather is similar to other writers who use a romance plot to criticize a conventional gender system. See DuPlessis's discussion of subversions through the romance plot. (Go back.)
 5. This is the opening sentence of The Professor's House (II). (Go back.)
 6. From Cather's 1932 introduction, included in the Sentry edition cited here, which also contains revisions made by Cather in 1937. (Go back.)
 7. I am quoting here from the first edition (1918) of My Ántonia. The Sentry edition that I chiefly cite includes the revised, condensed 1926 introduction. (Go back.)
 8. In addition to Moers, see Gilbert and Gubar. For more recent criticism on the subject, see DuPlessis (12, 44-45, and passim); and for discussion of Cather's use of Gothicism, see Rosowski, "Lucy Gayheart: A Female Gothic" (Voyage Perilous 219-31). (Go back.)


Ammons, Elizabeth. "The Engineer as Cultural Hero and Willa Cather's First Novel, Alexander's Bridge." American Quarterly 38 (1986):746-60.
Cather, Willa. Alexander's Bridge. 1912. Lincoln: Bison-U of Nebraska P, 1977.
——. "Joseph and His Brothers." Not Under Forty. New York: Knopf, 1936. 96-122.
——. Letter to Elizabeth Sergeant. Undated. Morgan Library, New York.
——. Lincoln Courier essay. 23 November 1895. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.
——. Lincoln Journal essay. 1 March 1896. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.
——. A Lost Lady. 1923. New York: Vintage-Random, 1972.
——. Lucy Gayheart. 1935. New York: Vintage-Random, 1976.
——. My Ántonia. 1918. Boston: Sentry-Houghton, 1961.
——. "My First Novels [There Were Two]." On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York: Knopf, 1949. 91-97.
——. My Mortal Enemy. 1926. New York: Vintage-Random, 1961
——. "Old Mrs. Harris." Obscure Destinies. 1932. Vintage-Random, 1974.
——. One of Ours. 1922. New York: Vintage-Random, 1979.
——. O Pioneers! 1913. Boston: Sentry-Houghton, 1962.
——. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage-Random, 1973.
——. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. 1940. New York: Vintage-Random, 1975.
——. The Song of the Lark. 1915. Boston: Sentry-Houghton, 1963.
——. Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912. Ed. Virginia Faulkner. Rev. ed. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. 1966. London: Oxford UP, 1970.
Moers, Ellen. "Female Gothic." Literary Women. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. 90-110.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Richter, David. Fable's End: Completeness and Closure in Rhetorical Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.
Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968.
Torgovnick, Marianna. Closure in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985.