Declaration of Dependence: Cather’s Critique in A Lost Lady
In the words of Arthur Erickson, a Canadian author in the early 20th century, “Illusion is needed to disguise the emptiness within”. This quote is referring to the figurative mask that people will put on to conceal their weaknesses, insecurities, and lack of fulfillment that they have. In A Lost Lady, Marian Forrester is a prime character that obscures her weaknesses. Continually in the novel, Mrs. Forrester’s disguise of being emotionally, physically, psychologically, and financially strong is stripped on the account of the absence of the man in her life to keep her stable; without this constant to depend on, she habitually and instinctively becomes helpless until she finds a way to regain a man to take care of her.
To begin, Ms. Ormsby, before she was introduced to Sweet Water’s slow, undeveloped environment, was dependent on her fiancé, Ned Montgomery, “a gaudy young millionaire of the Gold Coast” (Cather 93). In this relationship, Marian was undoubtedly spoiled to death by her future husband while at the same time, depending on him for everything financially, outside of her wants for materials. Soon to be Mrs. Montgomery had, from the start, attempted to attain someone to hold her by the hand to walk her through life. However, when “Montgomery was shot and killed in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel by the husband of another woman”, it interrupted Marian’s paradisiacal future (Cather 93). With this screwball thrown into nearly widowed, 19 year old Marian’s life, she sought refuge and relief from a younger crowd in the mountains while waiting for “the affair to blow over” (Cather 93). Following the event of her fiancé’s death, Marian discovered a younger group of acquaintances in the mountains where she immediately “persuaded young Fred Harney…to take her down the face of Eagle Cliff” (Cather 93). This again conveys the lost lady’s need for a man to guide and entertain her. But another one-eighty was taken in Marian’s life when “the rope broke, and [the two mountain scalers] dropped to the bottom” where Harney’s life and Ormsby’s legs were taken (Cather 93).
After search parties were launched and people scoured the mountain for the deceased and injured, it seemed that fate would yet again allow Marian to have a man to rely on. In time, a search party located the two and among this group was Captain Daniel Forrester, who carried her through “all the most dangerous places on the trail” (Cather 93-94). Marian immediately fell in love with her savior. With Marian and her hero married, Mrs. Forrester had found a way to fulfill her needs for complete dependence on another man. Even with the addition of a new husband, the bride of the captain found it necessary to obtain a secret lover. One could argue that “Marian Forrester’s tragedy was her deficient sense of honor: she chose sexual and material gratification above sacrifice” but simultaneously her constant need for reliance on another (Smith 221). Later, when Captain Forrester had “come home a poor man”, as the captain’s health and wealth declined, as did the attainment of Marian’s dream life. Mrs. Forrester “flourishes as a result of her husband’s prosperity and suffers by his loss of fortune” (Rosowski 240).
Following the death of Captain Forrester, Marian’s countenance shifted from a mysterious, jubilant, and vivacious woman to a gloomy, melancholy widow. As a result of the misfortune of the Forresters and the passing of Captain Forrester, Marian switched lawyers, rented out her land, and put great amounts of trust into one of the most least likely, Ivy Peters. Since “the Forresters [had] come down in the world”, and Ivy was paying for the rent which they couldn’t “get along without”, Marian was now relying on another man (Cather 57-58). With the great amount of money that Peters was putting into the Forrester household, Niel and Marian had “to get along with Ivy Peters” despite how uncivil and ill-mannered he was (Cather 68-69). In this instance, Mrs. Forrester was extremely dependent on Ivy Peters financially making her follow the pattern of the demand for a man to relieve her of her immediate issues. Through the limited perspective of Neil Herbert, the reader is introduced to the story of the lost lady. Neil’s “earliest apprehensions of Marian Forrester are of her ‘original self'” which in reality, don’t exist because Neil did not understand at the time that the only change in the lost lady was the lack of a male guide in her life.
Concluding Marian’s journey, she acquires “a rich, cranky old Englishman” named Henry Collins (Cather 97). Even at the end of her life, now Mrs. Collins, “seemed to have everything” as long as there was a strong wealthy man to finance, comfort, console, aid and guide along the way (Cather 98). As shown above, Marian appears to have life put well together as long as there is a man present in her life when in reality, as soon as that man is taken from her company, she loses control financially, emotionally, physically, and ultimately all other forms of life.
Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. N.p.: Knopf, 1923. PrintColby Library Quarterly, Volume 14, no.4, December 1978, pg.221-225Rosowski, Susan J., “Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady: Art Versus The Closing Frontier” (1982). Great Plains Quarterly. Paper 1635.
A Lost Ideal: Perspective in Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady
Willa Cather has artistically crafted the ending of A Lost Lady so that Marian Forrester comes out a survivor rather than a lost lady as the title suggests. This use of irony is very important because it opens up questions about the nature of the novel’s title, thus leading to the illumination of how Marian was only a lost lady from the perspective of the male gaze. When looking beyond the male gaze and through to Marian’s unfiltered character, the double standard, which Neil places on the protagonist, becomes apparent. Mrs. Forrester is only lost in the compartmentalization of her whole being on behalf of Neil’s perspective, and to understand her true character is to acknowledge that she encompasses many different traits and characteristics. In analyzing the varying perspectives offered throughout the novel it becomes especially clear that in the end Marian is not a lost lady and that this irony serves to make a thematic statement about women as whole and complex beings rather than characters of isolated ideals.
Neil grapples with the two ideas of Mrs. Forrester that he comes to know throughout the novel. From the beginning, Neil places Mrs. Forrester on a pedestal: “He had never found one so attractive and distinguished as Mrs. Forrester. Compared with her, other woman were heavy and dull; even the pretty ones seemed lifeless–they had not that something in their glance that made one’s blood tingle” (32). As a young boy, Neil romanticizes Marian and in doing so he creates an idealized version of her. Admittedly, “it was in her relation to her husband that he most admired her” (65). Neil particularly admires Mrs. Forrester’s loyalty to her husband, and in his idealized creation of her he highlights this quality as being central to her identity. This ultimately leads to the heartbreak he later experiences when he sees that she has a relationship with Frank Ellinger. Morris Dickstien points out, “there’s a childish petulance and disenchantment about Neil’s response to Mrs. Forrester’s fall, which reveals how much he has put her on a pedestal” (2). This observation clarifies how Neil’s “disenchantment” is a product of his own naivety rather than a degradation of Marian’s character. When Neil witnesses this affair and perceives the polarity in Marian’s character, his ideal of her is crushed. “In that instant…he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life” (72). Neil lost the ideal of Marian, but Marian is still there—still the same person she always had been. This is not a loss that Marian experiences; it is a loss solely experienced by Neil. This language is similarly seen in the expression, “Neil was destined to hear once again of his long-lost lady (147)”. The possessive pronoun “his” further indicates that the “lost lady” is something that only exists from Neil’s perspective. When taking this perspective into consideration, it makes sense that as the story ends with Marian a remarried woman who was able to fulfill her dream of traveling. Had the novel ended with Marian slowly fading away or dying in the Sweet Water home, one would be more likely to adopt Neil’s perspective of Marian as a lost lady. Instead, this irony opens up an investigation on the male gaze and invites readers to explore Marian’s character through other perspectives.
Perhaps one of the most honest perspectives is that of the narrator and or Cather. In the narration of Neil’s perceived dissonance of Marian’s character—in his frustration— Cather makes her thematic claim powerful. “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal. Beautiful women, whose beauty meant more than it said…was their brilliancy always fed by something coarse and concealed? Was that their secret?” (72). The narrator offers a very thought provoking question in attempt to understand how Mrs. Forrester could have acted in a way that conflicts the “aesthetic ideal” which Neil places on her. This question explores the possibility that this ideal was fed by the very thing he despised in her. Chopin is drawing attention the “secret” that women have to live with: the fact that they are human in all of their complexity and “magic of contradictions”. Chopin is calling attention to the societal expectation placed on women to unrealistically behave in a way that meets other’s idealizations. She demonstrates how the most charismatic women like Marian Forrester can be both “elegant” and “wild”; can experience both joyous laughter and deep despair. Rosowski explains, “There are two selves in each person, Cather suggests: a personal, worldly self expressed with family and friends, and an otherworldly, imaginative second self expressed in creative work.” (162). Cather makes the point that this dichotomy only seems surprising as it does to Neil if one regards women as something other than complex and entirely human. The same essence that makes Marian who she is present in all aspects of her character because she does not exist in compartmentalized components. Rosowski further explains, “The ideal human condition, described in Cather’s early novels, involves a synthesis of the two, with the outward-moving self rooted in the settled personal self” (162). For example, Neil explains, “The charm of her conversation was not so much in what she said, though she was often witty, but in the quick recognition of her eyes, in the living quality of her voice itself” (58). Here, Neil is attuned to a quality in Mrs. Forrester that exists on a depth beyond general personality traits—a rather deeper essence and quality that governs her character. Neil adores this quality and observes: “the secret of it, he supposed, was that she couldn’t help being interested in people, even very commonplace people”(58). If this were a true underlying essence of her character, it would only make sense that the same quality would also play a role in her interest of other men like Frank Elinger. Neil wonders, “what did she do will all her exquisiteness when she was with man like Elinger? Where did she put it away?” (84). Here, Cather is calling attention to the ridiculousness at the notion that one could “put away” their exquisiteness, and is begging the reader to realize that this exquisiteness is not only present in Marian’s “desirable” moments, but is what also feeds her “undesirable” self. To truly love Marian’s exquisiteness is to accept all elements of her as a product of this deeper essence.
Unlike Neil who only sees compartmentalized components of Marian, Cather offers the perspective of Captain Forrester who realizes that what Neil deems as a deficiency in Mrs. Forrester’s character is actually the same quality that makes her so likeable. Captain Forrester tells a story of his life accomplishments: “I planned to build a house that my friends could come to, with a wife like Mrs. Forrester to make it attractive to them” (43). One of the things that Captain Forrester values in his wife is her charming liveliness that attracts his friends. Arguably, he accepts Marian’s affairs for this very reason, as he is able to accept that these “contradictions” stem from the same source of life in Marian. “The Captain knew his wife better even than she knew herself; and that, knowing her, he,—to use one of his own expressions,—valued her” (122). She is not lost to Captain Forrester because Captain Forrester accepts her for all the complexity that she is, and he is able to see both qualities in Mrs. Forrester and still value her for the whole that they create. Charlotte Goodman argues “Cather apparently does not wish the reader to judge Marian’s sexual escapades during Daniel’s decline more harshly that he himself does…Cather describes him as, without apparent rancor or jealousy, he examines an envelope his wife has addressed to her lover, Frank Ellinger” (159). Captain Forrester’s character is described with great maturity: “[h]is repose was like that of a mountain” (39). The mountain simile depicts his incredibly stable emotional state that is opposite to Neil’s boyish romanticizing. These character depictions seem to implicate that Captain Forrester’s perspective has more credibility and wisdom than Neil’s perspective of Marian as a “lost” woman.
The scene with Ivy Peters and the woodpecker offers a final perspective through metaphor that not only helps illustrate Marian as a survivor, but also further illuminates Cather’s thematic statement. The female bird can be symbolic for women in society. Like the bird who was blinded by Ivy, Marian’s capabilities to participate in the world have been impeded on by society. After having her eyes mutilated, the bird naturally reacts in frantic desperation and eventually “crept its way along the branch and disappeared into its own hole” (18). Marian acts in a similar desperation most notably when she, intoxicated, makes a phone call to Frank Ellinger. Later, when Captain forester dies, she recluses into her home. The bird seems to have survived the trauma when she is able to blindly find her way back home, but this traumatic scene leaves one aching for the bird and wondering if it will ever successfully re-emerge. In Marian’s restless struggle, not only does she successfully survive but she thrives in her ability to navigate as a widow making her own choices and financial decisions working within the limited recourses society has allotted to her. Marian says, ““So that’s what I’ve been struggling for, to get out of this hole…[w]hen I’m alone here for months together, I plan and plot” (107). Marian is able to leave the “hole” and re-emerge in a new marriage, in a new place, and with money again—all things she had been planning and plotting for.
It seems that the quality at the root of Marian Forrester is her effervescent spirit, as this is not only seen through the eyes of others, but through Marian’s own unbiased speech and actions. From an outside perspective her eyes are regularly described as “lively” and she herself expresses, “’I feel such a power to live in me’”(106). This woman with a wild spirit who and loves to jump in the creek and run through the snow is able to navigate the world as a widow networking with young boys and investing money with Ivy Peters. She is a woman who loves her husband dearly, and is fascinated with relationships with others as well. This woman who is wrapped up in her own vanity is the same woman who humbly brings cookies down to the boys bareheaded. She is a woman who loves mimicry and laughter and also experiences deep grief. These complexities of character appear in many ways and are part of what makes her human. Cather thematically draws attention to the human experience of women and the societal expectations that hold them back. In this ending, Marian’s drive for life shines through and challenges the male gaze that has attempted to dim Marian’s light by portraying her as a lost ideal.
Cather, Willa. A lost lady. New York: Vintage , 1990. Print. Dickstein, Morris. “The Magic of Contradictions: Willa Cather’s Lost Lady.” New Criterion, vol. 17, no. 6, Feb. 1999, p. 20. EBSCOhost, proxy.lib.csus.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=1512282.
Goodman, C. M. “Constance Fenimore Woolson’s For the Major and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady.” American Literary Realism, vol. 41 no. 2, 2009, pp. 154-162. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/alr.0.0013
Rosowski, S. J. “Willa Cather’s Women.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 9 no. 2, 1981, pp. 261-275. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/saf.1981.0019
The Staining of the Golden Gates
The preciousness of life is something that can often be forgotten. Things come and go, seasons change, and in a modernistic culture the day can shift beneath our feet in a moment’s notice. In this modernizing world, the real question that comes about is what can endure the chaos and remain precious? The lone thought that rises above all is innocence. It has withstood the test of time and while seemingly always remaining unattainable, is an immortalized virtue. Willa Cather explores this concept in A Lost Lady, as she delves into how something so perfect, can vanish as quickly as darkness falls. Cather demonstrates how like any other purity in life, once innocence is lost, never can it return to illuminate the world in the way it once did.
Niel’s entire perception of the good in people vanishes in a single instant, confirming the fragility of all things pure. As he joyfully walks to the Forrester house, he experiences a high resulting from his future encounter with Mrs. Forrester. The early morning is full of hope as the roses he had picked out are just right to surprise the one who has been so dear to him. The connotation that connects to the early morning reflects brightness and the absence of all things wrong that happen later in the day. The mention of roses pop out as a symbol from that point. Roses represent this romantic notion and engrave the thought of love and compassion into the recipient of the lovely flower. From that point Cather meticulously incorporates a clear image of the roller coaster of emotions Niel is about to endure. In a single “instant,” Niel’s world comes crashing down. The word instant carries a connotation of just how quickly things can change. Life can seemingly be set and within the blink of an eye be left in pieces. As he stoops to the window-sill he is filled with nothing but happiness as he is about make someone’s day. However, when he physically rises his faith drops just as quickly. Cather shows him “stooping” and “rising” to directly point out how fast things are changing for Niel. It originates from the ups, downs, and turmoil that can unfold at any moment. This contradiction shows the power of what is occurring. Mrs. Forrester makes the transition from an immortalized figure with all apparent intangibles in Niel’s mind, to nothing but a common woman, having an affair with an unworthy man. That singular image will forever be engraved into his thoughts and there is nothing in the world powerful to erase it. Once Niel allows the initial set of gloom to enter his mind, there is simply no turning back. Cather is able to clarify this as she uses personification to describe the day’s actions. It is stated that the “day saw the end” of the admiration and loyalty. While it is evident that the day itself cannot physically see the admiration and loyalty fade away, it is more so about what the day represents. Cather is giving this particular day human like characteristics to stress its importance. Many days in life can pass without anything noteworthy occurring. However, on this day she exclaims that it witnesses two vital traits leaving the mind of Niel. It gives the impression that it is not even Niel in control of his emotions, but rather the “Day” itself, that has been deemed the higher power and is therefore capable of causing said gloom. After the day sees the apparent end, Cather goes on to use a simile saying that the admiration and loyalty had been “like a bloom on his existence.” This comparison of Niel to a budding flower is to show that he must be cared for and any error could result in its death. Mrs. Forrester was the hypothetical flower keeper in this scenario and by no means did she tend to Niel the way he needed her to in this case. Niel’s blooming was squashed just as the roses he threw away.
Neil’s realization of the sinful nature of others creates a sense of despair within him. It shows the finality of his preconceived notions about what is permanent in this world. To make this point clear, Cather uses very specific diction to depict this. In the passage, words and phrases like the “end”, “gone”, and “never recapture it” come together to form the idea that Niel’s thoughts will never be the same. He witnesses one horrific sight, and that is all that it takes. Cather uses these specific words in hope that the reader understands there is no reconciliation. Forgiveness is out of the picture from the moment he witnesses the actions of Mrs. Forrester. Along with the use of diction, Cather uses a dark tone throughout the passage to also convey the misery residing in Niel. This tone builds with each sentence as it starts out bad and proceeds to even provoke fear in the reader. Hopeless is a word that comes to mind as everything is “wrecked” for Niel, from this particular day to all the residing days that will follow. Any words that insinuate light or faith are followed by a dark undertone that continues to further the point of despair festering within Niel.
Niel’s spirit was one of great potential, while if the circumstances remained ideal, could flourish into something of a delicacy. Cather honed in on this thought by using imagery to depict Niel as a flower. From the second the seed sprouts, a wave of life is created. This must be preserved at all costs as it is “beautiful.” Within the passage, there is repeated instances speaking to the greatness off the flowers as they are anything from a “bloom on his existence” to a way to brighten up the morning. Niel represents each of these qualities as he possesses the power to brighten up not only his own life, but those who surround him. A gift of a flower can make another’s day, just as Niel’s glowing spirit could erase the sorrows of Mrs. Forrester. However, all flowers eventually see their last day. That can be the result of many things from unfortunate circumstances to lack of care or awareness. Unfortunately, Niel is all too similar. That bright spirit was crushed just like the flowers that very morning as all had been wrecked.
Once something is lost, even upon its return its only use will be cancerous in creating pain. Cather displays how something good tarnished, is even worse than something eternally bad. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” This is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94. The underlying meaning is that even the greatest flower, once it has wilted, is no good. Shakespeare claims that even a “based weed” is more appealing that a wilted lily. The aftermath of the lily is just a reminder of how great it once was, only to snap into reality with the notion it will never be like that again. This is how Cather chose to represent Mrs. Forrester as she was once the great lily, and now any weed, or common person, is preferable. Another way this is transcribed is through the direct characterization of Mrs. Forrester. She is a well rounded character that possesses unpredictable traits. The reader starts out rooting for her to remain in her perfect state. However, this dissipates and Cather causes her to transform from a hopeful protagonist to an antagonistic figure through her actions. She makes the leap from someone who Niel willingly will take time to pick out special flowers for, to someone who has the power to ruin “all subsequent mornings” for him. This drastic change is almost unfathomable but furthers the point that once something goes bad, it is forever bad. Willa Cather explores how the intangible quality of innocence is often lost in this modern world. Something so finite, so delicate, takes great care to maintain and that is so often bypassed. A Lost Lady incorporates how anything from the sinful nature of others, to potential fading away leads to innocence being bashed to the point of no return. A technique used by Cather to capture the ambiguity of innocence is how she interprets why it is so hard to preserve. Neil speaks to losing one of the “most beautiful things in his life.” At a moment’s glance, this means exactly what is stated. However, Cather used the word “things” in correspondence with innocence because there are countless meanings. If one can’t decipher what things or qualities they are to keep, then it is impossible to protect that innocence. This, right here, is why innocence is lost in a matter of seconds.