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From Cather Studies Volume 11

Women and Vessels in The Song of the Lark and Shadows on the Rock

Many Cather scholars are drawn to the powerful figure of Thea in The Song of the Lark as she comes to know herself and become an artist during her time spent in Panther Canyon. In the canyon she contemplates the vessels of pottery left by the ancient cliff dwellers, connecting them in her imagination with art in their ability to capture and contain life. As she examines the shards of broken pottery and recognizes herself as a vessel for art, she links the traditional women’s labor of carrying water to the creativity and confidence of creating art. In this setting it would be difficult to associate her with the “weaker vessels” that women were thought to be since early Christian times. Surely a young Cather, loosed in her adventures in the Southwest in 1912, would have bristled at the very idea. And yet, years later she designed an adolescent woman figure, Cécile Auclair, of Shadows on the Rock, whose dependency on vessels—ships—arriving from France in her rough New World environment seems a perfect example of the delicate female for whom the appellation “weaker vessel” might be apt. But the vessels in her story are far sturdier than the fragile ancient pottery shards of Panther Canyon. In one case we see a strong woman with brittle, ancient pottery vessels, in the other a “weak” woman with battered but resolute seagoing vessels. Cather connects the two types of vessels through their shared purpose of containment and conveyance, but she links both types explicitly with women. In both cases, the woman is the vessel, and neither one is the weaker variety. With this approach, Cather was able to address the metaphorical implications of vessels for women, while making those women essential and strong containers of culture.

First, we must examine how Cather understood the concept of “vessel,” as in container, as opposed to “vessel,” as in ship. Throughout her works Cather uses the word in both senses frequently. She had picked up the archaeological usage referring to pottery during her explorations of the Southwest, and later in her 1914 visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York with Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, who reported that Cather was fascinated with artistry of the ancient female potters (123). In 1912, the same year she was introduced to the cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon, vessels, as in ships, were on the mind of the public as they considered the monumental tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. Cather knew people who were lost in the infamous sinking (Letters 153). In 1915 she was called on to report as a journalist on “Wireless Boys Who Went Down with Their Ships,” recognizing the heroism of those who gave their lives for their vessels (10). Claude Wheeler from One of Ours travels on a filthy troopship: “The corridors of the vessels had the smell of death about them” (410). Seagoing vessels appear also in “Paul’s Case,” Alexander’s Bridge, and The Professor’s House. Pottery or ceramic vessels appear in My Ántonia, “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” and “A Wagner Matinée,” and a gourd vessel appears in Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

The metaphorical use of the term stretches as far back as the New Testament. There its use is undoubtedly highly charged, and remains somewhat mysterious. In contemporary biblical translations, the word is used to refer to both containers and boats throughout the Old Testament, but it is in the letters of Peter and the Acts of the Apostles that its metaphorical use emerges. In Acts 9:15, Christ refers to the Apostle Paul as his “chosen vessel” to bear his name to the Gentiles. Later, Peter exhorts husbands to “dwell with” their wives, “giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). Though Peter seems to use the term “weaker” to suggest it as a reason to “give honour” to women, it is unclear even today exactly what the meaning of that phrase was in its time. Antonia Fraser traces the earliest use of the term “weaker vessel” in English to “Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English in 1526” (1). By the early modern period its use to refer to women’s inferior status was commonplace. In its later English usage the emphasis was surely on “weaker,” rather than “vessel.” At the Congress of Women at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in 1893, Sarah Eddy Palmer discoursed on whether, considering all the powerful women from Eve to the frontierswomen of our own nation, it was not time to put to rest the notion of women being weaker, physically or emotionally. Even in our own World Wide Web, one has only to type in the phrase “woman weaker vessel” to be enriched with a “Google-full” of explanations, mainly by Christian clergy of various denominations, as to why that phrase is apt and, according to them, not negative. The Christian metaphor of the vessel involves believers making themselves into empty vessels into which God can pour spiritual life and belief. This vision of people as the receptacles of a greater power is not far removed from Thea’s revelation.

However, Thea Kronborg cannot be envisioned as a weak vessel. During the days in which she recognizes herself as a receptacle, she has been spending time emptying herself of the chaos and “stupid faces” she had to tolerate in Chicago, and she has done so alone. She sees herself “out of the stream of meaningless activity and undirected effort” (329). Already emptied out, she becomes “a mere receptacle for heat” (330). In the dry desert, in the homes of ancient people who would later be named for their lack of water (Sinaguas), she perceives the air of the canyon as water. Referring to the swallows, she notes that “their world was the blue air-river between canyon walls. In that blue gulf the arrow-shaped birds swam all day long, with only occasional movement of the wings” (331). In this location Thea develops “intuitions about the women who had worn the path,” recognizing this space as one that was dependent on the labor of women (332). Critics have spotted the female quality of the landscape in connection with the concave vessels. Noting the canyon and the caves and the vessels, Ellen Moers called it “the most thoroughly elaborated female landscape in literature” (258). The landscape corresponds to women not just in the crude notion of a series of curves and cavities. Instead, it is a series of intimate and nurturing spaces, like the “sunny cave” of Thea’s home bedroom in Moonstone, that allow for growth, cleansing, and self-birth.

In the canyon, Thea learns about the ancient people’s religion, based on water, which was collected and supervised by the women, like priestesses in the goddess-centered religion. This appeals to Thea, whose name means “goddess,” and who sees a sharp division between the “stupid women” who “carried water for most of their lives” and the “cleverer ones” who made “vessels to hold it. Their pottery was the most direct appeal to water, the envelope and sheath of the precious element itself” (334). Sharon O’Brien explains how during her sojourn in the canyon, Willa Cather, too, “felt herself recipient of a mode of creativity marked by receptivity rather than self-assertion” (415). She was, according to Sergeant, interested in the ancient women who “under conditions of incredible difficulty” had “made beautiful objects for daily use out of riverbottom clay” (O’Brien 415). Thus when Thea’s revelation about art hits her, it is closely tied to the idea of women and spirituality:

The stream and the broken pottery: what was art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself,—life hurrying past us and running away. . . . The Indian women had held it in their jars. In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals. (334–35)
Here again the water and air, the breath of the singer, are equated, and the elusive element that fills these vessels is also of a highly spiritual nature, like that of religious mystics. Yet religious mystics are in the power and possession of another being. It is not some distant male God who fills up Thea with the creative spark; she simply claims it. Perhaps her vessel is not really empty at all; the power and inspiration seems to have been with her since childhood.

Indeed, as Susan J. Rosowski argues, Cather began with a typical male version of coming-of-age with the tomboyish Thea and then inverted it: “Cather began with the promise that young Thea Kronborg contains creativity within herself, and she then set her character on a quest to claim her own creativity. Metaphors of growth are female ones of gestation, birth and mothering” (63). It is her male piano teacher who tells her that every artist “makes himself born” (196). Far from waiting for a man to impregnate her, as would be consistent with medieval notions of women’s wombs as empty vessels waiting to be filled, she creates and fills her own vessel with spiritual power. The materials for Thea’s development were already inside her, and she needed only a sufficient gestational period to bring that power to the light. Thus in The Song of the Lark, Cather creates a woman who is a vessel, but neither an empty nor a weak one.

Between The Song of the Lark and Shadows on the Rock, Cather writes many other female characters that could be described as vessels in some ways. Ántonia, from My Ántonia, could be said to carry Bohemian culture to the New World in her love of Bohemian food and their dried mushrooms (76). Mrs. Forrester in A Lost Lady becomes the vessel that serves as the repository for Neil’s notions of the pioneer aristocracy (161). Godfrey St. Peter’s wife and daughters in The Professor’s House are connected with pottery vessels through their association with Tom Outland, who bequeaths a precious southwestern pottery piece on them during their first acquaintance (118). It is when vessels become ships to her that the “weaker vessel” comes into play.

Far away in colonial Quebec, another adolescent girl was waiting to be described by the pen of Willa Cather, to be shown to be a vessel capable of containing something powerful. In Shadows on the Rock, however, Cather seems initially to have created a much more conventional girl, Cécile Auclair, who might properly be described as a weaker vessel. The little French Canadian girl in Shadows has often failed to grasp the attention and loyalty from readers that Thea commands. The novel itself has been criticized as one focused on boring housekeeping, and James Woodress calls Cécile “insufferably pious” and “an intolerable prig” (430). So what can this prim and proper domestic girl show us in the way of women as powerful and self-confident vessels of art? For one thing, Cécile is connected with a different kind of vessel—one made for transportation of people and goods, one made to weather a storm at sea and loyally bear the culture of the Old World to the shores of the New. In her dedication to the preservation of her culture, Cécile can be said to contain the French culture, just as the vessels of the Southwest contained water, and thus prevented the cleverer women from having to carry load after load of water. Although people in seventeenth-century Quebec had no need to treasure water, the immigrant girl could find herself both a conveyance for culture and a storage tank for it in the midst of a harsh climate. Together with her mother, Cécile transports Old World food and domestic customs to the colonial outpost and maintains these customs after her mother has died.

The outpost of the French culture that people like Cécile’s father had constructed on the rock above the river depended upon French ways and French food. Auclair considered his dinner “the thing that kept him a civilized man and a Frenchman” (23). Although he kept many fellow colonists alive with his remedies brought from France, Cécile became the person responsible for preserving “our way” after the death of her mother. On her deathbed, Madame Auclair tells Cécile:

After a while, when I am too ill to help you, you will perhaps find it fatiguing to do all these things alone, over and over. But in time, you will come to love your duties, as I do. Without order our lives would be disgusting, like those of the poor savages. At home, in France, we have learned to do all these things in the best way, and we are conscientious, and that is why we are called the most civilized people in Europe and other nations envy us. (31–32)
While some Europeans might not agree with this statement, it is clear Cather does. In 1895 she wrote that all the good things came from France—“chefs and salads, gowns and bonnets, dolls and music boxes, plays and players, scientists and inventors, sculptors and painters, novelists and poets”—and stated that if France were to be destroyed someday there would not “be much creative power of any sort left in the world” (World and Parish 1: 223). Although dinner could not be equated with scientists and sculptors, the Auclairs are clearly preserving culture.

Ann Romines has pointed out the importance of Cécile as a container for French culture through her housekeeping efforts. She notes that Cécile is not one of Cather’s “extraordinary children” like Jim Burden and Thea Kronborg, but that in her embracing of housekeeping customs “she has been in many ways the perfect medium for the rules of French bourgeois order with which her dying mother imprinted her” (153). Romines also demonstrates the continuity between mother and daughter necessary to import these traditions. Cécile’s mother was part of this conveyance as she “provided for both her husband’s and child’s continuous participation in French civilization . . . through her domestic indoctrination of the girl” (155). The vessel moves from mother to daughter in the home.

Cécile does uphold her mother’s wishes, and not just as it regards food preparation. She feels energized by the stories of the Christian martyrs in the Canadian wilderness. She venerates St. Anne and St. Geneviève (76–78), getting in touch with the ancient spiritual women, much like Thea in Panther Canyon. These two saints were women of the Old World. French colonists conveyed the history of St. Anne, the mother of Mary, mother of Jesus, to Quebec and constructed a basilica for her along the St. Lawrence River east of Quebec City (Farmer 23). This shrine is the site of pilgrimages and holds a miraculous statue of the saint said to cure illness. St. Geneviève was an austere nun near Paris who protected the city from the siege of the Huns through her fasting and prayer (Farmer 200). In maintaining devotion to these saints, Cécile transports French culture and contains its miracles in the way ancient women in the Southwest contained the water of life.

Likewise, Cécile converses with the nuns in the Ville-Marie and becomes fascinated by the anchoress living in her own city, Jeanne Le Ber, a woman who was thought to have vatic power resulting from her cloistering and devotion to the Church. With her belief in the miracles of the Church, Cécile is making a sort of music, as Cather describes it, or at least something she can pass on to others. Cather describes miracles as works of art that develop over time: “From being a shapeless longing, [the vague longing of the faithful] becomes a beautiful image; a dumb rapture becomes a melody that can be remembered and repeated; and the experience of a moment, which might have been a lost ecstasy, is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another” (160). Cecile does this same developing and shaping of her culture as she contains what was best about the French domestic ways. Moreover, this description echoes the description in Song of the Lark of the vessels, holding on to something that is getting away, even to the use of the musical metaphor. In Quebec this was the responsibility of the clever, spiritual women.

With respect to the other type of vessel, sailing ships, Cécile can be said to represent the same sort of conveyance. Cécile herself crossed the ocean from France to the New World, bearing within her the seeds of the culture she is planting in Quebec. The novel begins with the departure of the ships, when “the French colony on this rock in the North would be entirely cut off from Europe, from the World” (7). When the ships return eight months later, Cécile responds as do all her fellow colonists, with the joy and relief of those who know the ships intimately from their own crossing:

The greater part of the citizens had made that voyage at least once, and they knew what a North Atlantic crossing meant: little wooden boats matched against the immensity and brutality of the sea; the strength that came of flesh and blood and goodwill, doing its utmost against cold, unspending eternity. The colonists loved the very shape of those old ships. (239)
A weak vessel could by no means withstand the battering of the North Atlantic. Moreover, these ships from France are not empty vessels; they contain what the colonists require to survive: “And tomorrow they would give out of their insides food, wine, cloth, medicines, tools, fire-arms, prayer-books, vestments, altars for the missions, everything to comfort the body and the soul” (239–40). The ships provide for the colonists much that Cécile does for her friends and family; they provide those things necessary to a home and a culture: food, clothing, healing, and religion. Cather even ties this transference of culture from one land to another to the heroic journey of Aeneas from Virgil’s classic when she reviews the work of the nuns in bringing the faith to new lands:
Inferretque deos Latio. When an adventurer carries his gods with him into a remote and savage country, the colony he founds will, from the beginning, have graces, traditions, riches of the mind and spirit. Its history will shine with bright incidents, slight, perhaps, but precious, as in life itself, where the great matters are often as worthless as astronomical distances, and the trifles as dear as the heart’s blood. (116)
As in the Aeneid, the French nuns carry the hearth gods to the new land through the use of ships; however, in Cather’s story, wise women, not the male adventurers of Virgil’s tale, do this work. The nuns travel aboard these ships and, like Cécile, become the containers and the transporters of culture. Their sturdy adherence to the origin culture makes them powerful vessels of conveyance.

The same society that claimed women were “weaker vessels” reduced the work of women—the creativity of cooking, garment making, and educating young children—to a category of drudgery known as “housekeeping.” Yet, as Romines and others have demonstrated, Cather believes domestic actions to be important and creative. Indeed, during her visit to the Harnois family on Île d’Orléans, Cécile sees what life looks like without any care given to food, shelter, clothing, or education. The food is greasy and foul, and the bed she is to share with the Harnois girls is so filthy that she is unable to sleep. She begins to cry and “thought a great deal about her mother, too, that night; how her mother had always made everything at home beautiful, just as here everything about cooking, eating, sleeping, living, seemed repulsive” (221). When she arrives home, she is delighted to get back to her “kind things” and begin her work at home again. There she reflects on her tools and their uses: “These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinetwork, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days,—the complexion, the special flavor, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life” (227). Cécile does not become an opera star, but she uses everyday vessels and daily work to transform mere existence into something more: life. Unlike many writers of her day, Cather respects and glorifies Cécile’s creativity. Could anything be more important than the making of life?

Later on, Cather uses the language of mothering to capture what makes Cécile more than an empty or a weaker vessel. By the end of the novel, Cécile grows up and we are told that she has become a mother of four boys, “the Canadians of the future” (320). She has married Pierre Charron and lives in “the Upper Town”—the better part of the city (319). But her mother-work began long before this in the nurturing she gives to her father and childhood friend, Jacques. With her father, she steps into the role her mother left empty, cooking and cleaning and ordering the household. She befriends Jacques when no one else, including her father, will accept him because his mother is a prostitute. Instead, Cécile determines “to bring him home with her, wash his face, and give him a piece of good bread to eat” (62). Her mothering does not stop at food and washing, though. When Jacques says a vulgar word, Cécile washes his mouth out with soap, trying to compensate for the cultural education he is not receiving at home (63).

This use of mothering language and imagery in connection with women and vessels may signal Cather’s awareness of early modern beliefs about women’s part in the reproductive process. Although the notion of men as the “authors” of children was rooted in classical philosophy, later beliefs kept this alive. The “spermist” theory of preformationism promoted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries held that woman had little part in the creation of a new human being, that she was just the vessel of the man’s seed. Dutch scientist Nicolaas Hartsoeker observed sperm cells with a microscope and drew a picture of a tiny man, a homunculus, that was contained whole inside the sperm cell (Lawrence). Many people believed that once this seed was “planted” in the fertile ground of a woman’s womb, it grew into a baby with no contribution of the woman, apart from the vessel she held inside her abdomen (PintoCorreia 212). While this theory was not current in Cather’s era,[1] Cécile’s story takes place in the same period as Hartsoeker’s work, in a time in which the apothecary is the closest thing they have to a doctor. In that period, certainly, this idea was commonplace. All of the genetic responsibility for children, as well as the influence of mother’s nurture, was diminished in this sort of thinking. Likewise, it led people to see the woman’s womb as nothing more than an empty vessel, a space for the man’s seed to grow.

Cather, however, does not seem to subscribe to this theory. The ships from France are not empty vessels, and they can take on an additional female significance. Although the actual ships in the novel do not bear feminine names, as ships sometimes do, they serve as a lifeline, an umbilical cord, with mother France. The connection that is preserved with France comes through yet another type of vessel—a blood vessel—that connects the fetal colony with its mother country. The colonists’ description of the strength of the ships “that came out of flesh and blood and goodwill” indeed recalls bodily function (239). Moreover, the long winter months during which Cécile and Jacques await the arrival of the ships can also be seen as a sort of gestation. The nesting Cécile does with her friend recalls the kind of preparation couples do for the arrival of a baby. Together, they assemble the Nativity scene before Christmas, preparing for the birth, and Cécile recounts the story of the “Kings and Shepherds” (128). Later, Jacques brings his little carved beaver to add to the scene, signaling how, as Madame Pommier explains, “Our Lord died for Canada as well as for the world over there” (131). Though the leaders of this community are men—the count, the bishop, and the apothecary—it is the women who uphold all the traditions—the nuns, the mothers and daughters of Quebec. When Cécile marries and has children with Pierre Charron, she unites her commitment to the culture of France to another generation by holding the Old World and the New in the vessel of her body, and bringing forth new lives, her children, who have been nurtured by her culture lovingly preserved, like the water of life in a jar.

Women’s work, as it was styled in the early twentieth century, included domestic tasks that many people saw as rote, repetitive, and dull. These seemed appropriate for beings whose place was the home and who were basically receptacles, meant to receive the men into the home, to soothe their cares away, to cleanse and prepare them for their next efforts. They were meant to contain the seed of the men and to create nests for the offspring that would result. In this way, they could be said to be both empty vessels (when they were not pregnant) and weaker vessels, lacking the fortitude necessary for public life and struggles. They were seldom considered in connection to art and even less in connection with ships at sea. But in these two novels, Willa Cather shows another side to vessels and another side to women. In The Song of the Lark she shows how seemingly fragile pottery vessels can be like women engaged in the creativity of art: useful, clever, beautiful, and life-sustaining. Thea becomes a sort of earth-goddess with the power over water and air, through song. In Shadows on the Rock, Cather shows women to be like seagoing vessels, containing, transporting, and preserving a highly developed culture and giving it a new birth in a new land. What might have been laughed off as “housework” comes to be seen as the main force separating human beings from other animals, the preservation of culture. Here Cécile gives everyday objects cultural significance and dignifies the creativity of the work women did and continue to do today. Naval vessels, earthen vessels, or blood vessels, the job of the vessel is to hold onto something and transport it through time and space. To Cather, these strong women-vessels held nothing less sacred than life itself.


 1. While there is no evidence that Cather was familiar with this theory, Pinto-Correia explains that its currency lasted throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and persisted in some scientific circles until the twentieth century. (Go back.)


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———. My Ántonia. 1918. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. James Woodress, Charles W. Mignon, and Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994. Print.
———. One of Ours. 1925. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. Richard C. Harris, Frederick M. Link, and Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2006. Print.
———. The Professor’s House. 1925. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Ed. James Woodress, Frederick M. Link, Kari A. Ronning. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.
———. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
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———. “Wireless Boys Who Went Down with Their Ships.” Sunday Magazine 1 Aug. 1915: 10. Print.
———. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews, 1893–1902. Ed. William M. Curtain. 2 vols. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970. Print.
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