Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women

Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women

Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women

Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women

Synopsis

Although generations of readers have derived enormous satisfaction from the victories of Willa Cather's great woman characters, and recent lesbian critics and others have triumphantly claimed her as a lesbian writer, few readers or critics have noticed the strain of mistrust for most women that runs through virtually all of Cather's work. This study traces the troubling undercurrent of misogyny signalled by isolation and masquerade in Cather's fiction. It also discusses the ways it affects her portrayals of all her female characters, and how we as readers may respond.

Excerpt

Old Mrs. Harris is by all accounts Willa Cather's most purely autobiographical short story. Written just after her mother's death, it defines the relationship between herself, her mother, and her grandmother as she prepared to leave Red Cloud, Nebraska, for Lincoln and the university. More properly, it is the story of a summer that sees great changes in the lives of young Vickie Templeton, who wins a scholarship to university, of her mother, Victoria Templeton, who discovers she is pregnant with a sixth child and rebels helplessly against her fate, and of Victoria's mother, Old Mrs. Harris, who dies. Old Mrs. Harris is the focus of the story, a woman who is both "impressive" and indeterminate. As her neighbor, Mrs. Rosen, notes, "There was the kind of nobility about her head that there is about an old lion's," and yet at the same time, in the presence of her family, especially her grandchildren, "she ceased to be an individual [and] became part of a group, became a relationship." Unlike her triumphantly named daughter and granddaughter, she is given no first name but is named only by relationship, Mrs. Harris, grandma. She accepts, even defines, her own self-abnegation, her role as cook and nursemaid, so that her proud and beautiful Victoria can be admired in the parlor.

Victoria, meanwhile, treats her husband like her beau, enjoys the friendship of the cultivated, old-worldly Jewish couple next door, loves her children in an easy and good-natured way, and is hurt and perplexed by the hostility of the townswomen, who resent her beautiful and imperious ways and revenge themselves by making snide remarks about her exploitation of her mother. Granddaughter Vickie, lost in her studies and her dream of the college scholarship she does indeed win, is equally oblivious to her mother's suggestions that she should have a beau and to the domestic chores that Mrs.

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