Much of the plot of Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady turns on incidents of tragedy, loss, and brokenness. From cracked limbs to strokes to personal and financial breakdowns, the author uses these difficult events to reveal the depth and breadth of her characters. Through it all, Niel, arguably the novel’s primary character, must deal with the repercussions of his initial, idealized belief that Mrs. Forrester is a perfect example of womanhood. Cather draws everyone as very human, including Mrs. Forrester, something Niel comes to understand as he fully becomes an adult. An examination of how Cather depicts these dark incidents illuminates the reasons why Niel’s idealization is so key to the novel and what affect it has on both him and Mrs. Forrester.
Cather often uses calamity and misfortune to define characters in A Lost Lady. She first employs the concept of loss in Part One, Chapter I when describing Captain Forrester’s history and merits, then mentioning at the end that he had an accident that affected both him and Mrs. Forrester, his second wife. Referring to the couple’s house in Sweet Water, Cather writes, ‘‘He grew old there—and even she, alas! grew older.’’ Then, in Part One, Chapter II, Cather sets up another dynamic based on this idea. To prepare readers for how depraved and mean-spirited Ivy Peters is, Cather has the boys gathered for an outing on the Forrester property talk about how Ivy poisoned several local dogs he did not like. Ivy then uses a knife to slit the eyes of an innocent female woodpecker so that she cannot see or fly properly.
While Ivy’s actions define his character, the incident paves the way for Cather to introduce more brokenness. Demonstrating Niel’s sensitivity, he tries to get the woodpecker from her nest to put her out of her misery. In the process, he falls off the tree and breaks his arm. Niel becomes broken trying to do the honorable thing. Mrs. Forrester ensures he is taken care of by putting him in her bed and calling the doctor, adding to his idealization of her, but the break also provides a physical link between them. Near the end of A Lost Lady, at Mrs. Forrester’s awkward dinner party, Niel asks Mrs. Forrester to share with her young guests how she met Captain Forrester. She tells them how, while climbing down the face of Eagle Cliff in the Sierra Madres with mountain climber Fred Harney, their rope broke. Harney was killed while Mrs. Forrester suffered two broken legs and spent more than a day alone in pain before being rescued. The Captain helped find her, but she suffered even more pain as the fractures had started to heal and doctors had to break them again to re-set them.
These parallel breaks create an implicit bond between Niel and Mrs. Forrester: The Captain helped her walk again, and Mrs. Forrester nurtured Niel through recovery when he was still a boy. Cather links the characters through other tragedies in A Lost Lady as well. The Captain—who is twenty-five years older than his wife and the only family of her’s that is ever mentioned—can be viewed as not just a husband who gives her high social standing, but also a father figure. While the couple lives well during the early part of their marriage, the Captain suffers a riding accident in Colorado that essentially forces him to retire to Sweet Water. There, he can still care for and provide stability for his wife, but cannot work building railroads. This situation grows more grave after he loses nearly all of his fortune when he covers the deposits in a failed Denver-based bank in which he is a major investor. The Captain does not really lose his social position, at least in Sweet Water, until his last days when he is forced to lease the marsh to arrogant Ivy. However, by then Captain Forrester is a broken man who relies on his much-younger wife for everything.
Thus, over the course of A Lost Lady, Mrs. Forrester goes from a subservient daughter/wife to a mother/wife of a gravely ill man. Niel’s life is also implied to be littered with such tragedy. Cather talks about young Niel’s home life as sad. Describing his boyhood home in Sweet Water, Cather writes, ‘‘Home was not a pleasant place to go to; a frail egg-shell house, set off on the edge of the prairie where people of no consequence live.’’ Niel’s parents moved to Nebraska to better their lives. Unfortunately, his mother died there when he was five years old and his father, like Captain Forrester, lost his property except for his house. Niel’s father eventually took a job in which ‘‘he kept the county abstract books and made farm loans.’’ An impoverished family cousin, the spinster Sadie, maintains their household haphazardly. By the time Niel is an older teenager, his father has sent Sadie home, shut up his house, and moved to Denver to take a new office job. Niel is left in the care of his beloved, loving maternal uncle, Judge Pommeroy, who gives him a home, guidance, and social position in the community. The relationship between Niel and his uncle has a great deal in common with the Captain and Mrs. Forrester, especially before the Captain becomes seriously ill.