Amidst all this misfortune and heartbreak, Niel—who has so much in common with Mrs. Forrester—idealizes her, making her seem like a rose blossoming in the snow of a winter’s day. Describing Niel’s feelings about her, Cather writes, ‘‘How strange that she should be here at all, a woman like her among common people! Not even in Denver had he ever seen another woman so elegant. . . . Compared with her, other women were heavy and dull.’’ Later, Cather has Niel reflecting on Mrs. Forrester’s egalitarian nature, a quality he seems to share in his dealings with others. Cather writes, ‘‘One could talk to her about the most trivial things, and go away with a high sense of elation. The secret of it, he supposed, was that she couldn’t help being interested in people, even very commonplace people.’’ By imagining that she is ideal, it gives Niel credence to his way of life. Mrs. Forrester provides a motherless boy, who had only a poor housekeeping spinster cousin for a female role model, an ideal of what women should be.
Yet, like Niel himself, Mrs. Forrester is not really an ideal, but a troubled, messy, human woman, which leads to tragedy for both of them. Niel has his illusions about her shattered life. First, he struggles when he learns that Mrs. Forrester has been having an affair with Frank Ellinger during the first years she is trapped in Sweet Water after the Captain’s accident and during his bank financial crisis. The affair ends badly when Mrs. Forrester, by then taking care of her husband after his first stroke, learns that Frank married Constance Ogden. Mrs. Forrester also over-consumes alcohol, leading to awkward situations with Niel and the Captain, among others. As the Captain gets sicker following his second stroke and dies, her behavior becomes even more erratic. She develops some kind of intimate relationship with Ivy Peters, alienating all who try to help her, including Judge Pommeroy and Niel himself. Niel does not fully grasp how she can be so self-destructive initially, but he comes to realize it was the Captain who grounded her—the Captain was not, as Niel initially believed, ‘‘a drag upon his wife’’— while she, to some degree, brought needed youth to the Captain.
In the end, the tragedies of Niel and Mrs. Forrester force them out of Sweet Water in one way or another. Niel does not want to be a lawyer like his uncle or, more accurately, the kind of lawyer men of his generation like Ivy Peters have turned out to be. The changes in Mrs. Forrester also give him no reason to stay. To be his own man and escape his tragic past, the one who witnessed ‘‘the sunset of the pioneer,’’ Niel goes away to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and become an architect. Although he gives up one year of school to help the Forresters and his uncle through their illnesses, there is nothing in the story to indicate that he does not complete his degree, move away permanently from Sweet Water, and have a successful career elsewhere. Niel has moved forward, and no further life tragedies are mentioned by Cather.
After Captain Forrester’s death, Niel witnesses Mrs. Forrester’s continued downward spiral and less than ideal behavior. Her emotional and social decline is evidenced by her inappropriate dinner parties, disloyalty to his uncle, and relationship with Ivy. Niel suggests she leave during this period, saying, ‘‘Mrs. Forrester, why don’t you go away? to California, to people of your own kind. You know this town is no place for you.’’ Mrs. Forrester admits to wanting to leave Sweet Water, but her inability to sell the house (with the alleged help of Ivy) keeps her in town for an extended period of time. Niel believes she needs the right man to ground her and provide a haven away from the tragedies of her life so she can be an ideal woman again. By the end of A Lost Lady, Niel learns that Mrs. Forrester did move away after selling the house to Ivy for his new wife, and she married well again. Upon learning of her marriage to an odd but wealthy Englishman until her death, Niel tells Ed Elliott, ‘‘So we may feel sure that she was well cared for, to the very end. Thank God for that!’’ It is clear at novel’s end that tragedies did not define the whole of their lives.
A. Petruso, Critical Essay on A Lost Lady, in Novels for Students 33, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010