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 . . . Read More
Conflict of Values between Generations
One concept that underscores much of the plot in A Lost Lady is how human values change over time. In the novel, Cather distinguishes between the generations and their different sets of principles. Men like Captain Forrester and Judge Pommeroy represent the old guard, the backbone of towns like Sweet Water in this period. The Captain helped build the railroads that crisscrossed the Plains States and linked the East to California and the Pacific Ocean, thereby fulfilling America’s ‘‘Manifest Destiny.’’ While the judge’s exact role in building up Sweet Water is unclear, he is regarded as a leading citizen and upright lawyer. His respectable social standing extends to his beloved nephew, Niel Herbert, who shares many of his values despite his youth.
Mrs. Forrester’s values contrast with those of her husband, who is twenty-five years older than she is. While the Captain loves his wife and her youthful . . . Read More
George Adams is one of the local boys who enters the Forrester property with Mrs. Forrester’s permission to fish. He is the son of a gentleman rancher from Lowell, Massachusetts, and is the one who directly asks Mrs. Forrester for permission that day. Like Niel, George despises Ivy Peters and is upset that he disrupts their day of fun. A few years later, George and his family return to Massachusetts after a number of crop failures.
Mrs. Beasley is Sweet Water’s telephone operator. She overhears Mrs. Forrester’s drunken call to Frank Ellinger after his marriage.
Black Tom is the African American servant of Judge Pommeroy. The judge lets the Forresters use him as a server during their dinner parties. Black Tom also helps care for the Captain after his second stroke.
The son of the German tailor in Sweet Water . . . Read More
The novel A Lost Lady by Willa Cather opens with a description of how Captain Daniel Forrester became a prominent, rich man by building an extensive railroad network. While constructing his rail lines, he found a spot surrounded by creeks and meadows near the growing town of Sweet Water in Nebraska. There he eventually built a house, and, with his much younger second wife Marian Forrester, he provides hospitality for visiting friends, businessmen, and prominent local citizens. Although they also own properties in Colorado, the Forresters consider Sweet Water their primary home.
When Niel Herbert is twelve years old and Mrs. Forrester is still young, Niel and a group of local boys from town enter the Forrester property one summer day. They ask Mrs. Forrester’s permission to fish and eat lunch there. In part because Mrs. Forrester favors Niel, she gives her consent. At lunchtime, she brings them . . . Read More
The hero of Kidnapped, David Balfour is a sixteen-year-old boy from Essendean whose seemingly poor father, a schoolmaster, has just died. With his mother already dead, David has no choice but to leave the rented family home and find his way in the world. A letter left for him by his father sends him on a journey to Cramond, where he learns that he is actually from a wealthy family, the Shaws. An encounter with his devious uncle Ebenezer ends with David being kidnapped and taken aboard a ship bound for the American Colonies, where he will be sold into slavery. Aboard the ship, David meets Alan Breck Stewart and forms a friendship that keeps both of them alive through many perils, not the least of which include a shipwreck and being suspected of murdering a prominent agent of the king. David eventually returns to his rightful home, the estate of the Shaws, and claims his inheritance before departing for Edinburgh to help his friend Alan escape . . . Read More
Kidnapped begins in June of 1751, in a region of Scotland known as the Lowlands. David Balfour, an Essendean boy of sixteen, is left homeless when his seemingly poor schoolmaster father dies. With his mother already dead, David believes himself to be without inheritance or living relative until the local minister, Mister Campbell, gives him a letter prepared by David’s father before his death. A note instructs David to take the letter to his heretofore unknown uncle, Ebenezer Balfour, at the house of Shaws in Cramond. The discovery that he hails from a wealthy family excites David, although Mister Campbell quickly reminds the boy—who has learned only simple country manners—to be on his best behavior when he arrives there. Mister Campbell gives David a Bible, a small amount of money, and a recipe for a healing drink, and David sets off on a two-day journey by foot to Cramond.
Along the way, David sees a regiment of the king’s . . . Read More
William Faulkner was a legendary drinker in two senses: He could consume truly enormous amounts of alcohol, and some contended that he needed alcohol as a kind of potion that gave him creativity and inspiration as an artist. However, common sense states that no one could have produced novels as complex as he did while under the influence of alcohol. This becomes especially clear when considering the almost unbelievably complex family trees that Faulkner constructed for his imaginary families in Yoknapatawpha County. A number of prominent families in the county appear in novel after novel, and Faulkner would follow the history of each clan backward and forward in time, keeping the relationships, birth dates, and death dates of each member in mind as he constructed their stories (and further mixing the families together in any given story or novel; again, no one could have accomplished this feat while as inebriated as the legends say he was).
Of the prominent Yoknapatawpha . . . Read More
The Antebellum, or Pre– Civil War, South
Events in the South during Faulkner’s life cannot be understood without knowing something of the American Civil War (1861–1865). The essence of the situation is that the northern and southern sections of the United States had, over the course of the last two centuries before the Civil War, followed different paths. The North had become, by 1860, an industrial powerhouse, a full participant in the Industrial Revolution that was then sweeping across the advanced nations of the world. The South had remained agrarian, growing cotton, sugar, and rice. After the invention of the cotton gin, a device that separated cotton from its seeds with high efficiency, the South became the Cotton Kingdom, exporting vast quantities to Great Britain, where the cotton was spun into cloth. The entire system, unfortunately, rested on the backs of millions of slaves, who grew the cotton and kept the gins running.
Because they . . . Read More
Debt and Payment
The incident at the start of William Faulkner’s novel, when Beauchamp refuses the seventy-cent tip from Chick, is in fact complex. On one level, the young and thoughtless Chick regards it as an insult to his race. More is happening here, however. The incident swells in his mind in part because he feels he owes an unpaid debt to Beauchamp, and he continually tries to repay it. In the end, he succeeds. He goes against the common sense of his time and place, opens the Gowrie grave, and finds the first piece of evidence that will save Beauchamp’s life and set him free. The debt, however, operates at a symbolic level, too. Chick owes Beauchamp seventy cents, but he owes him much more, because his society had enslaved Beauchamp’s ancestors, and presently keeps them in a new bondage that takes the form of strict segregation and poverty Chick’s debt symbolizes something much bigger: all of the South owes a debt to Beauchamp and his race, and . . . Read More
Lucas Beauchamp is one of the central characters in the novel, the man accused of murdering Vinson Gowrie. Although still vigorous, he is in his seventies as the story takes place. The black owner of a small cabin and farm on the Edmonds estate, Beauchamp is in fact a direct descendent of Carothers McCaslin, who founded the estate long ago. Beauchamp is self-assured to the point that he seems contemptuous of all who meet him. This is a dangerous trait for a black man in the South of the 1940s. Faulkner describes his face as ‘‘not arrogant, not even scornful: just intractable and composed.’’ For years, the county, it seems, has been waiting to teach him a lesson and put him in his place as a subordinate within this segregated culture. This may be one reason the white residents of Beat Four are so eager to lynch him, and even seem intent on burning him alive (hence, the frequent references Faulkner makes to the lynch mobs carrying . . . Read More