Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 239-48.
When A Lost Lady appeared in 1923, readers immediately recognized Willa Cather's achiever ment. T. K. Whipple wrote, "with A Lost Lady, Miss Cather arrived at what can only be called perfection in her art'; Joseph Wood Krutch termed it "nearly perfect." Later readers continued the praise, calling it "perfectly modulated" and "a flawless classic" and generally judging it the finest of Cather's novels. While acknowledging its art, however, critics have stressed its themes in their interpretations, reading it as telling of the frontier's downfall, of the noble pioneer's passing, of materialism's onslaught, of woman's plight in a patriarchal society. These themes run through the novel, certainly; Cather begins her story with the historical decline of the West and she traces the passing of the noble pioneer and the exploitation of the land. But she posits against this decline a human need for primitive or sacred understanding, for spiritual attitudes and intuitive, symbolic art forms. Cather's art lies in perfectly incorporating the two kinds of experience and, in the end, celebrating symbolic possibility in the face of historical loss.
A Lost Lady presents the age-old tension between possibility and loss against a background of an American frontier that promised a pioneer experience of boundless opportunity at the same time it restricted that experience to a strikingly brief period.6 It does so through the story of Marian Forrester, brought as a bride to the small town of Sweet Water by her road-making husband, one of the last of the pioneer aristocrats. A generation younger than Captain Forrester, Mrs. Forrester is caught in the increasingly narrow circumstances of a closing frontier: her husband suffers a loss of fortune and health, and then dies, leaving her apparently at the mercy of grasping, materialistic elements in Sweet Water. Her story is told primarily from the point of view of Niel Herbert. A generation younger than Mrs. Forrester and two generations younger than the pioneers who settled the West, Niel realizes he lives at "the very end of the road-making West .... It was already gone, that age; nothing could ever bring it back," and he seeks ennobling symbolic value in the face of this loss.
Tension between possibility and loss is further evident in the two quite different effects the book produces. A Lost Lady contains a bustle of activity that forms an overall pattern of rising and falling motion, of expectation and disappointment. The pioneers live and die, people come and go, the economy grows and declines, light dawns and fades, flowers open and close-even Mrs. Forrester's laugh rises and descends. The plot reflects this pattern: Marian Forrester comes to Sweet Water as the young bride of Captain Forrester and she leaves after his death; at the beginning of the action, the boy Niel Herbert first enters the Forrester place, and at its ending an older Niel departs "for the last time." Scenes suggest this pattern in miniature, characteristically beginning with Niel's coming up the hill approaching the Forrester house and ending with his going down the hill after leaving it.