Language as the cloth of thought and cloth as a language of civilization establish ties, knots, networks between people: speaker/listener, writer/reader, manufacturer/customer, wearer/gazer. Language and cloth perform similar functions in constructing a fabric, a tissue that involves, actually or metaphorically, forms of communication and connection (as well as of concealment and camouflage). Not by chance, Athena was the goddess of both weavers and the literary arts, and Spider Woman taught the Navajo people both to weave and to tell stories. As Cather maintained, “Art must spring out of the very stuff that life is made of” (Bennett 168, emphasis added).
Storytelling is a complex web, a weaving of discourses that, giving pleasure, sheds light on and, as in the case of Scheherazade, saves life. Dating from the ancient civilizations, weaving is a craft combining fiber, design, and color into the grammar of its language. Symbolic of the passage of time (Penelope and her shroud), of nonverbal but powerfully pictorial expression (Philomela), and of the independent artist’s nonconformism (Arachne), weaving creates “organic fabrics, textiles” (Phil- lips 15, emphasis added). The latter term derives from the Latin verb texere, to weave, and also designates the weaving of written words into form, into composition, into text. Not by chance Roland Barthes wrote that “the text is a cloth” (76), and in the Aeneid Virgil claimed that both language and vestis (dress and tapestry) identified a nation (8.722–23). The ancient production of texts involved textiles, which, mainly woven by women, preserved and perpetuated the traditions of mythmaking and storytelling in fabric designs. As a record of society’s symbols, such textiles were texts inscribed with personal and/or political messages that brought together a community. Weaving was no less than a tool for signifying, and weavers, like writers, were no less than creators of culture. Applying Julia Kristeva’s narrative theories, Kathryn Kruger explains how, through weaving, women passed from the realm of the semiotic to that of the symbolic (34–52). As a consequence, both the world of yarns and the world of words (which also spin “yarns”) produce a texture, a web of interrelations, interactions, and elements that acquire complexity by being woven together into a design. Indeed, both worlds entail dynamic processes that are laden with intentions, that take up time, demand patience, require inventiveness, necessitate skill, and originate meaning.
Among such cloth crafts, perhaps chief among them, are tapestries, mosaics made of tiny dots of yarn utilized in antiquity and into the eighteenth century in Europe for the presentation of liturgical rituals, the decoration of walls, the division of interior spaces, and the protection of beds. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, artisans from northern France and Flanders became masters of this craft. Commissioned by people of high status and considerable means, tapestries were woven of expensive materials—dyed wool, silk, cotton, linen, even gold and silver threads. In the late nineteenth century, elegantly designed tapestries by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones captured the attention of the art-minded, and in the twentieth century, artists who designed cartoons or drew sketches for tapestries include Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Miró, Dufy, Le Corbusier, Henry Moore, Frank Stella, and Hockney. Like other modernists who strove to unify the arts, give them a cosmopolitan dimension, and take as their starting point metaphor rather than mimesis, Willa Cather carefully studied the visual arts, including such illustrated fabrics incorporating an apparently redundant assemblage of items with little attempt to suggest proportion or spatial depth. Since the structural design for Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) was inspired by the technical strategies in Puvis de Chavannes’s series of Pantheon murals on the life of St. Geneviève, it is not surprising that in structural principle and detail her next novel, Shadows on the Rock (1931), was significantly informed by a series of tapestries, the six panels of La dame à la licorne displayed at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Biographical and textual evidence indicate that this series did not escape Cather’s attention while writing Shadows, a narrative woven of historical fragments and fictional stories that collapses perspective and proportion in the manner of a cubist collage (and with analogous juxtapositions of languages, typefaces, and typography).
During her visits to France long before conceiving Shadows, Cather must have pondered over these magnificent tapestries. According to Edith Lewis, during their 1920 stay in Paris, Cather expressed a desire “to live in the Middle Ages” (119), and the Cluny, where the series is hung, is the treasury of medieval art in Paris. While writing Shadows at the Grosvenor Hotel in New York, Cather hung large photographs of the La dame à la licorne panels at the foot of her bed (Lewis 158). (One of the original uses of tapestries was to surround beds to keep out the cold and preserve privacy.) In a June 1931 letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Cather declared that working on >Shadows was like working on a “tapestry tent” she could unfold while her life was in transit during her mother’s illness. While the reference applies to tapestries in general—as they would often be folded up, packed, and transported by wealthy owners in their recurrent travels—it particularly suggests the sixth (and final) tapestry in the Cluny series, in which the ornamented flaps of a tent are drawn aside by the lion and the unicorn to reveal the lady putting away her jewels. The circumstances leading to the discovery, restoration, and display of these tapestries (Cavallo 100) would have appealed to Cather, since they involved two French writers of great importance to her: George Sand, who saw them at the castle of Boussac in 1835 and brought them to the attention of a wider public (and even wrote about them in her novel Jeanne), and Prosper Mérimée, who in his capacity as inspector of historical monuments had them restored before they were finally bought by the French government in 1882. Given Cather’s love of France and its culture, and given the fact that Shadows is her eulogy to a medieval-like French way of life in America, it should come as no surprise that these panels— woven circa 1480–90, two centuries before the time of Cather’s setting—provided a source of inspiration for the novel’s details and technique.
In each of the Cluny tapestries, a lady stands on a blue oval island—reminiscent of both a fenced garden, the hortus conclusus, covered with flowers and of the storyteller’s magic carpet. She is surrounded by a pink-red background jotted with animals (foxes, parrots, lambs, ducks, swallows, monkeys, dogs, wolves, goats, rabbits, partridges, falcons), various trees and bushes (roses, oaks, orange, pine, holly), and a myriad of small flowers (daisies, primroses, buttercups, pansies, violets, daffodils, bluebells, periwinkles, harebells)—the so-called millefleurs. Serene and monumental, passive but powerful (Sutherland 8), each lady is presented as a paradigmatic ideal, as an allegory, perhaps of the Virgin (Ackerman 93). Richly and distinctly garbed, each lady is adorned with gorgeous jewelry. She is either alone or in the company of a handmaiden and is balanced on each side by a lion and a unicorn generally bearing a coat of arms presumably of the Le Viste family from Lyon. Iconographically, the lion (a solar symbol) stands for Jesus Christ, while the meaning of the unicorn (a lunar symbol) is both spiritual and sexual—besides representing Jesus Christ, in mythology it could be captured only by a virgin. These tapestries probably marked the occasion of a family event, an engagement or a wedding. By general consensus, five of the tapestries are believed to symbolize the senses, and the sixth (fig. 1) has been identified by the motto woven in its upper part, “A mon seul desir” (“At my desire only” or “At my will only”).
To summarize the meaning of the series, the sixth tapestry is usually interpreted as the renunciation of worldly pleasures for the sake of a more ascetic ideal, represented by the woman who, repudiating sensory attractions and temptations, deposits her jewels into a casket to signify her being governed by reason or by the “heart” (as caritas) rather than by the senses. Considering the lives led by two of Cather’s characters, Jeanne Le Ber—the wealthy merchant’s daughter who surrenders all worldly prospects to live as a religious recluse—and the chaste twelve-year-old female protagonist, Cécile Auclair, the meaning of the sixth tapestry, self-abnegation in either its spiritually rapturous or its worldly form, has considerable application to Shadows. Favoring Pierre Charron (the man who will one day marry Cécile) among the claimants for her hand prior to her seclusion, Jeanne Le Ber is in many ways Cécile’s saintly or masochistic foil, depending on the two different points of view (Cécile’s or Charron’s) presented in the novel.
While Cather celebrates the courageous immigrants who left France at a time of widespread poverty, cruelty, and injustice to settle in the Canadian wilderness, she particularly praises the accomplishments of a gentle “little woman” brought up according to the best French values. To the point of being labeled by critics like James Woodress (430) and Sally Peltier Harvey (102) as a priggish Shirley Temple–type heroine, Cécile is home-loving, law-abiding, kind, generous, tender, and (except when mildly protesting her father’s decision to return with her to France) obedient—the perfect lady commemorated in the tapestries. Everything about Cécile Auclair, as her surname indicates, is clear and straightforward; her desires and behavior are integrated. Collectively, the six tapestries epitomize a world in which the gentlewoman’s virtues and qualities (beauty, elegance, charm)—tantamount to the “graces, traditions, riches of the mind and spirit” (116) Cather prizes as precious contributions to the colony—are exalted. Yet the novel depicts a far simpler style of life than the stylistically refined one of the tapestries. The main narrative centers on the dignified and warm but humble domestic space of the Auclair household, where, in spite of a rigorous environment, the rituals of French civilization are carefully preserved.
Like Death Comes for the Archbishop, the Quebec novel demanded considerable research. Through study and travel (she made several extended visits to Quebec), Cather not only convincingly re-created historical characters and events of 1697–98 (the temporal frame of the narrative) but paid close attention to topography, soil, and vegetation to ground her fiction in reality and reproduce the setting as it appeared to seventeenth-century immigrants. Cécile’s feelings of belonging to her adopted country are often mediated through responses to the Quebec landscape. Thus, while the foreground is woven of historical and fictional characters as well as of oral and written stories from past and present, the background (as in the tapestries) is profuse with both native and imported flowers, fruits, trees, and animals.
Many of the novel’s flowers and foliage recall the Cluny tapestries’ Old World millefleurs, for, as the epigraph makes clear, seeds were often imported from France. One reads of both live flowers—such as daisies, buttercups, irises growing on the Isle of Orleans (218), and lilac bushes in Bishop Laval’s garden (201)—and dried flowers—saffron to season fish soups (195), and chamomile, hyssop, and gentians in the apothecary’s shop (241–42, 260). There are also represented flowers: the gold flowers adorning the mantle of Saint Anne’s statue (79) and the paper flowers made by Mother Juschereau (44). As in the tapestries, fruits (many of them exotic) decorate the narrative: the wild grapes and strawberries on the Isle of Orleans (215, 218, 223), the dates and oranges from Algeria that Cécile evokes (18, 191), the preserved plums, wild strawberries, and gooseberries on the Auclair table (18), the figs, apricots, cherries, and lemon rinds in Euclide’s boxes (242), and the raisins presented to Madame Harnois (213). Metaphorical and, as with the flowers, represented fruits are also included: the blueberries that resemble Cécile’s eye color (32), and the colored glass fruits in the Count’s crystal bowl: figs, grapes, apricots, nectarines, citron (71). As for trees, there are spruces, pines, and elms on the Isle of Orleans (217, 222), an apple tree in the Le Ber garden (206), poplars and a quince tree in Bishop Laval’s (201), wild cherry, sumac, ash as well as willows, poplars, birches, beeches, and elms in and around the city. Metaphorically, Jeanne Le Ber’s miraculous story is compared to a blooming rose tree or fruit tree in fruit (159). Furthermore, references to animals, birds, even insects recall through similarity or metaphor those in the tapestries. Cather includes chickens, eels, and wood doves at the market (56–57), Jacques’s wooden beaver (81), the donkey, lambs, ox of the crib (126–27), pigs, geese, rabbits, and grasshoppers on the Isle of Orleans (219, 222), the swallow that announces spring (190), Captain Pondaven’s parrot and the peacocks that fascinate Cécile (246–47), squirrels in Quebec’s streets (263), the hares and partridges Cécile cooks (216), the she-ape of the SaintMalo story (256), the frog and the snail in the nicknames of the two women about town (61), the falcon in the name of one of the ships that reaches Quebec in the summer of 1698 (238); “little monkey” is Cécile’s nickname (199), and even the unicorn is introduced when Euclide tells Cécile that her grandfather used its powdered horn to cure epilepsy (244).
In Cather’s manner of indirect allusion, other details in the text either hint at tapestry in general or echo the Cluny tapestries. In telling the story of Sister Catherine, Bayeux is mentioned (46), the Norman city that houses and lends its name to one of the world’s most important and celebrated medieval tapestries: a long multicolored, embroidered linen strip of over seventy panels recounting the battle of Hastings and the contested accession to the English crown by William, Duke of Normandy —the region of France from which most of the original inhabitants of Quebec emigrated. In the Parisian townhouse of the Frontenacs, “wall hangings” are beaten to clean them when the Count arrives (25); in Quebec, “tapestry” adorns the palace of Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier (27, 200), “heavy hangings” surround Euclide Auclair’s bed (34), and “tapestries” bedeck the walls of Frontenac’s Quebec chateau. The latter are most significant to my argument, for they represent “garden scenes” that one could study for hours “without seeing all the flowers” (72). Also, the ship named La Licorne is mentioned three times (121, 125, 238); it is the ship that brings Cécile her crèche: metaphorically, the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption to that wild land. To mark Cécile’s growing up, her aunts send her from France “a blue silk dress, all trimmed with velvet bands,” “a gold broach and a string of coral beads” (245). While in three of the Cluny tapestries (“Hearing,” “Smell,” and “Touch”) the ladies are clad mainly in blue (a dominant color in each panel), precious jewels adorn them in all six, though more highly wrought than such items in the novel. Finally, since the carpet in the Auclair salon was made in Lyon (30), recall that the family that most likely commissioned La dame à la licorne series lived in that city. The passage that most explicitly evokes the Cluny tapestries is the one describing the figure of Cécile interlaced with the millefleurs, animals, and insects on the Isle of Orleans (218–19). Alone in the hayfield, she merges with them to the point of feeling “unreal . . . as if she were someone else” (222–23). Coveting the standard of life and the daintiness of the Cluny ladies, she is projected as one of them, although in a far different cultural and economic milieu.
Like the Cluny tapestries, Shadows on the Rock is composed of six parts (books) to which an epilogue, set in 1713, fifteen years after the close of the last book, is appended. Each of the novel’s six books has its own roman numeral and specific title and constitutes, like each of the six tapestries, a distinct medallion, a sculptured scene, a stained-glass window, a sort of holy picture—Cather herself referred to the novel as “a series of pictures” (Willa Cather on Writing 15)—exalting, especially through Cécile, not the senses but one or more of the seven theological and cardinal virtues: faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Each of the six books presents distinct moments in the daily and seasonal lives of the Auclairs and the Quebec community during the year Count Frontenac, their protector, will die and Cécile will realize that what she wants from life in Canada is what her mother taught her to strive for: order, cleanliness, and useful, well-made artifacts. Each of the six books is subdivided into chapters (thirty-one altogether), and the epilogue, unnumbered and without a specific title, is not only chronologically and typographically distinct from the books preceding it, but—in spite of its similarity to the novel’s opening scene, point of view, and West Indies reference—thematically features none of the contrasts, oppositions, and conflicts characterizing the previous books. Moreover, the female protagonist, who is actively present throughout the narrative, is here only spoken of. The epilogue serves as an apparent afterthought, yet shrewdly anticipates the cataclysmic history that will occur later in the new century—the English conquest of Quebec and the French Revolution. Let us not forget that Cather meant her novel to be “incomplete” and “not too conclusive” (Willa Cather on Writing 15). Analogously, the sixth Cluny tapestry seems thematically detached from the other five, although it serves as a resolution in surrendering the delights each of them celebrates.
None of the characters in Shadows, including the protagonists, are particularly distinguished by psychological development, nor are its events necessarily governed by the logic of causality. The main narrative might be judged as too thin, indeed too “shadowy” (nothing of great note seems to happen in the foreground, the Auclair household). Also, like the Archbishop (its counterpart), Shadows is apparently fragmented, episodic, its plot interwoven with a host of historical or fictional stories (personal anecdotes, distant adventures, miracles, dreams, legends, visions, vignettes) loosely connected to the actual or legendary history of Quebec or to the characters’ previous lives in France. As Deborah Carlin claims, Shadows “becomes a palimpsest, a manuscript in which we can discover earlier, erased writings” (88) unfolding among shifts in genres and narrative voices. Enclosing such multiplicity in natural cycles is time itself, the rhythms of which underlie the most significant events. Given the novel’s composite structure, Cather’s claim that it “was mainly anacoluthon” (Willa Cather on Writing 15) becomes remarkably clear. And yet by juxtaposing such an abundance of genres and voices, the writer succeeds in providing the narrative not only with color but also with movement. Thanks to the choral interaction of major as well as minor characters, by the end of an apparently static and fragmented narrative readers come to realize the dynamics of the Catholic virtues in Quebec life and how French immigrants gradually became Canadians. Like tapestries—the products of an anonymous community of artisans— Shadows on the Rock is the result of choral weaving. This novel, as Evelyn Funda comments, becomes a “tapestry of community mythos” (180).
Funda’s tapestry metaphor is particularly appropriate because in tapestries narrative sweep is achieved through coloring and the juxtaposition of figures. Also, just as tapestries often served the purpose of organizing domestic spaces, the novel’s many episodes compartmentalize and give distinctively fluid shape to the overall structure. Book 3, “The Long Winter,” weaves the highest number of colorful stories (told orally before the Auclair hearth) and provides the clearest example of the structural principle informing Cather’s narrative. The textile arts of sewing, quilting, and, by extension, tapestry-making seem to have been associated by Cather with storytelling since childhood (O’Brien 268), and similarities between tapestry “narrative” and storytelling in Shadows on the Rock become more and more striking if one considers that in tapestries marginal stories or side events are often woven alongside dominant ones to illustrate the protagonists’ milieu and lives in the fullest possible way. In The Professor’s House, Cather comments on this aspect of the Bayeux tapestry (100). If, from a strictly circumstantial point of view, all of the above constitute evidence, there may be a deeper connection between the making of tapestries—of which those at Cluny constitute exemplary specimens—and the composition of Shadows. I posit that such a connection, such a “spiral spring” released by the theme to go “its length without any prodding” (Cather, “Plays” 72), would have been detected as applicable to the writing of fiction by the keen eye and curious mind of this female artist.
In modernist aesthetics, gaps, fragments, interruptions, and digressions proliferate. In Shadows, they correspond to shifts in points of view, genres, languages, and oral and written narration. Such shifts also relate to the apparent disjunction of the overlapping themes of the novel, as pointed out by John J. Murphy, who compares its overall structure to tapestry (37–38). At a deep, epistemological level, one might maintain with Deborah Carlin that since we are dealing with a “historical novel,” gaps reside in its very essence, in “the contiguity of ‘historical’ and ‘novel,’” that is, in the “slippage of the link between . . . these two kinds of verbal fictions” (61–62). Paramount examples of such cleavage are the two footnotes (in the second book and epilogue) that mingle two forms of narratives (fictive and authorial/historical) and two points of view (omniscient narrator and author). “[T]he text signals its own divisiveness” (Carlin 75) from a narratological point of view in the above-mentioned disjunction of the epilogue, and from the thematic in the two versions of Jeanne Le Ber’s story (Cécile’s and Pierre’s) and also in the lack of closure in the Frichette episode. One may argue that, as in tapestry, such shifts create chiaroscuro effects that enrich characterization and facilitate narrative movement. They also solicit readers to participate in the creative act by bridging fictional gaps and imparting a dimension of reality to the “fiction.”
In tapestry, a story is illustrated through the interaction of figures, that is, through the shapes and the nuances of color giving each figure distinct characterization, psychological profile, space. This is achieved through the skillful interweaving of warp and weft yarns. While the warp threads run vertically and provide the textile’s basic support, the weft yarns (of different colors, nuances, fabrics) run horizontally, generally crossing the warp yarns perpendicularly, at right angles, passing over one warp yarn, under the next, over the next, and so on. Designs are formed by changing the colors of the wefts—colors being as essential in tapestry as in painting. Where one color or patch of colors ends and another begins there is a slit, a gap, a disjunction. Weavers devised ways to avoid slits—and, therefore, provide textiles with a compact texture—by resorting to hatching (gradual shading), to dovetailing, or to interlocking. With hatching, different weft hues are inserted by degrees into the tapering edges of a color patch to tone down the dominant color and create the impression of shaded tones. In dovetailing (which occurs mainly in the vertical plane of the warp), weft yarns of different colors coming and going in opposite directions loop around the same warp yarn (fig. 2). In interlocking (which occurs mainly in the horizontal plane of the weft), weft yarns of one color loop (in between two contiguous warp lines), around corresponding yarns of another color coming from the opposite direction (fig. 3). Let us see how these tapestry techniques apply to the written narrative of Shadows, acknowledging, of course, that the elements of one medium can never have exact counterparts in another.
If we consider the subtext of the novel, the strenuous transplanting of French values (religion, culture, manners) from Europe to Canadian soil, as its warp, and the fabula dealing with Cécile and Euclide Auclair as the main narrative woven by the weft, the many episodes and characters interrupting it create slits or shifts. Hatching may apply to the novel where places (such as Notre Dame de la Victoire or the Isle of Orleans) and supporting characters are briefly if singularly introduced by reference and later developed through significant description or anecdote to merge them with the main narrative line. Apart from Euclide and Cécile, most of the important figures (Charron, Frontenac, the Bishops, Jeanne Le Ber, Blinker, Bichet, and Father Hector, e.g.) are gradually granted their own space within the narration.
Of greater significance, perhaps, is the approximation of dovetailing and interlocking in the narrative. Cather’s technique resembles dovetailing when reported stories anchored to the subtext (the cultural transplanting of French values) constitute patches shedding light on it: for instance, the sinner Marie’s miraculous appearance in Canada to Mother Catherine, who sustains in Quebec the tradition of prayers for the dead; Catherine’s attempt to convert an English sailor by feeding him ground bone from Father Brébeuf’s skull; Frichette’s ordeal in the wilderness to provide the last rites for his brother-in-law; Noël Chabanel’s sufferings for his converts; Father Hector’s vowed commitment to remain in Canada as a missionary; Charron’s faithfulness to his mother; Jeanne’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament; Bishop Laval’s recognition of a Quebec waif as a reminder of the Infant Savior; the Count’s preparations for death in exile.
The technique used by Cather that corresponds to interlocking occurs when episodes tied to the past of other characters are woven into the weft threads of the Auclair fabula to distinguish contrasting layers of time. For instance, the scenes and stories set in France—concerning the young Euclide, Frontenac, and Bichet in Paris, Saint-Vallier at Versailles, Blinker as a torturer in Rouen, the carp incident at Fontainebleau, the ape of St. Malo, the formation of the Isle of St. Louis, the hay barges on the Seine—are joined to the Auclair fabula of the New World between the axes of the warps to create a pattern of remembrances of things past.
Finally, such a reticulated and cross-like inner structure, while approximating the two intersecting sets of yarns used to weave tapestries, may recall and give crucial meaning to the cross in the graphic design in an early printing of the novel (fig. 4). This design, which resembles an embroidered holy picture, features a church plan consisting of a nave and two aisles on top of which stands a cross, the symbol of belief, suffering, hope, death, and salvation that may well epitomize the meaning of these characters’ lives. The cross seems to lie at the generative core of this novel.
Tentative as this interpretation cannot but be—given the nature of the ekphrasis from textiles to text—it goes some distance toward proving not only that Shadows on the Rock is far less fragmented and disjointed than it may first appear, but that in surrounding herself with photos of the panels of La dame à la licorne, Cather was doing more than decorating her bedroom.