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 homemade cookies and spends a few moments talking to them. The boys appreciate that Mrs. Forrester treats them well.
The boys are sitting on the grass talking when an older boy, the teenaged Ivy Peters, joins them. They do not like Ivy and his condescending tone, and they believe he has poisoned several local dogs just because he disliked them. During the conversation, Ivy becomes annoyed by a woodpecker. Using a slingshot, he hits the woodpecker, stunning it, then slits its eyes with a small knife. When the bird comes to, it is unable to fly straight. With the help of Rheinhold Blum, Niel tries to retrieve the bird from the tree to put it out of its misery. Instead, Niel falls and breaks his arm. Mrs. Forrester comforts him until the doctor arrives.
At first, the Forresters spend only May to Thanksgiving in Sweet Water, and live the rest of the year at their homes in Denver and Colorado Springs. However, their lives change completely when the Captain falls off his horse in Colorado. After spending the winter recuperating in Colorado Springs, he and his wife come back to Sweet Water, where he is essentially forced to retire.
As the Captain’s life changes, the town of Sweet Water also begins a downward spiral. Crop failures compel many farmers and ranchers, including Niel’s father, to leave. At nineteen, Niel begins to read law with his uncle, Judge Pommeroy, and moves into a room behind his law offices. Niel decorates the offices and keeps them clean. The judge is proud of the young man Niel has become.
One winter day while both the judge and Niel are working, Mrs. Forrester pays a visit and invites them to a dinner party at her home. Mrs. Forrester asks Niel to help entertain one guest, Constance Ogden, who has just finished school in the East. At the party, Niel comments on how this is only the second Christmas the Forresters have spent in Sweet Water. Mrs. Forrester responds that the Captain has informed her they are having money trouble and cannot afford to go away this year. She also asks that Niel and his uncle keep an eye on the Captain when he is in town because he has become weaker.
Niel and Judge Pommeroy are the only people from Sweet Water to attend the party because the rest of the guests are from Denver. Niel finds Constance somewhat attractive, but not easy to talk to. He has better luck with her mother, Mrs. Ogden, and notices that Mr. Ogden lights up when Mrs. Forrester passes by. Niel finds bachelor Frank Ellinger interesting, but senses that he has a dark side. Niel also notices that Constance is interested in Frank. While eating dinner, Niel sits across from Frank and is reminded of stories about Frank’s wild side and loose morals.
After Captain Forrester gives his traditional ‘‘happy days!’’ toast, he tells the story of how he discovered the land for this home while working as a driver for a freighting company shortly after the American Civil War. Twelve years later, after marrying Mrs. Forrester, he built his house and moved there. Captain Forrester ends his speech by espousing his philosophy on life—that you will eventually get what you want in some form if you have goals and work toward them.
When the meal is complete, the group retires to the parlor to play card games. Although Mrs. Forrester tries to pair Constance and Niel, Niel senses that Constance would rather play with Frank and arranges it. Before he leaves, Niel promises to return the next day to entertain Constance, even though he knows she has other interests. While walking home, Niel reflects on how attractive and confident Mrs. Forrester is when compared to other women. After the rest of the group goes to bed, Mrs. Forrester and Frank are alone for a few moments before she goes to her room as well. It is clear they are attracted to each other.
As Niel arrives the next afternoon, Mrs. Forrester and Frank are leaving in the cutter (a kind of sleigh) to find cedar boughs for Christmas. She asks Niel to go inside and amuse Constance. There, Constance is cross and becomes more so when she learns that Niel cannot take her anywhere. In the cutter, Mrs. Forrester and Frank flirt and talk about their correspondence. She insists that he not write her love letters. She directs him to a deep ravine of cedars, and it is implied that they are intimate. When Frank and Mrs. Forrester leave the cedar grove wrapped in buffalo robes, they are observed by Adolph Blum, who is out hunting rabbits. Because of his social class and belief that the kind Mrs. Forrester is his superior, he plans on keeping her secrets to himself.
After Christmas, Niel and his uncle spend several pleasant nights each week visiting the Forrester home. In March, a blizzard snows in the Forresters for three days. On the third day, Niel gathers their mail at the post office and takes it to them. Captain Forrester entertains him while Mrs. Forrester rests with a headache; both men believe she has been drinking. Captain Forrester instructs her to make them all tea and toast, and as they eat, he reads aloud from out-of-town newspapers.
After Captain Forrester falls asleep while reading, Mrs. Forrester insists that Niel walk the hills with her so she can escape the house. She laments the effect of staying the winter in Sweet Water has on her because she cannot dance or exercise. As they walk, Niel finds himself intrigued by Mrs. Forrester’s relationship with her husband. He also reflects on the disparity of what her life is and could be.
That winter, when not at the Forrester home, Niel spends his time reading works of classic literature found in Judge Pommeroy’s library. He finds such works as the Heroides quite enjoyable. Such books expand Niel’s worldview in a way he deeply appreciates.
In the spring, Captain Forrester receives a telegram that distresses him. A savings bank in Denver that he has greatly invested in has failed, and Judge Pommeroy tells Niel that the Captain will probably lose a great deal of money. With his lawyer and the judge, Captain Forrester travels to Denver. At home, Mrs. Forrester seems to be in a state of denial. Three days after Captain Forrester’s departure, Frank shows up in town and checks into the local hotel. Niel notices that Frank has been at the Forrester home, where Mrs. Forrester is still alone.
At dawn the next day, Niel gets up and heads to the Forrester place. As Niel walks, he cuts wild roses for Mrs. Forrester. Niel plans on placing them outside her bedroom window. As he places the flowers on the sill, he hears a woman laughing and a man’s enthusiastic voice. Niel walks away bitterly and tosses the roses aside. His perspective on life and women has been altered.
Niel meets his uncle and Captain Forrester at the train station and drives them to the Forrester home. While sitting in the parlor, the Captain tells his wife that he spent all his money—save the house and his pension—to ensure the depositors at the bank receive all their funds back. A troubled Mrs. Forrester insists that they will get by; the Captain emphasizes that that is all they will do.
After the Captain goes to his room to have a nap, Judge Pommeroy explains what happened in Denver. He emphasizes that the Captain acted honorably toward the depositors and tells Mrs. Forrester how proud he is of the Captain’s actions. While Mrs. Forrester organizes lunch plans, Judge Pommeroy commends his nephew for wanting to be an architect and not a tainted lawyer like Ivy Peters.
When Mrs. Forrester tries to wake up the Captain for lunch, she finds he has had a stroke. During his recovery, Niel spends much time at the Forrester home helping take care of the Captain. Cyrus Dalzell, the president of the Colorado & Utah Railway line, also comes to call. Niel notices that Mrs. Forrester is more alive than she has been for some time during Dalzell’s visit.
Within three weeks, the Captain can move around again, but only with difficulty. The day before Niel is to leave to take the entrance exams for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology— where he is going to study architecture—he goes to the Forrester home to say good-bye. During the visit, Mrs. Forrester seems more confident in her role as mistress of the house, but her words indicate she is well aware of what she has lost. As he walks away, Niel ponders Mrs. Forrester’s actions with Ellinger, and how they affects her persona.
Two years later, Niel is returning home to Sweet Water for summer vacation. He encounters Ivy Peters on the train and learns that in addition to practicing law, Ivy now rents some of the marshland on the Forrester property, which he has drained and hired his brother to farm wheat on. Ivy informs him that the Forresters have come down in social standing because of their financial difficulties.
As Ivy talks, Niel realizes that Ivy has drained the marsh out of spite for him and Mrs. Forrester, because he knew they had been fond of the marshes. Ivy intensely dislikes Niel, and his actions demonstrate that he has no qualms about taking advantage of the Forresters’ unfortunate situation to hurt him. Niel is troubled that the great men who settled the West are now at the mercy of ruthless men like Ivy.
The next afternoon, Niel visits the Forresters. He finds the Captain in his chair in his rose garden looking at the sundial Cyrus Dalzell had made for him. Making his way to the top of the hill, Niel finds Mrs. Forrester resting in a hammock. She is happy to see him and he still appreciates her, even though he has lost some of his respect for her. As she questions him about his life, Niel notes that she has aged, and her personality overshadows her looks. He learns that the Forresters’ financial situation has grown still more desperate, and the burden of maintaining the house weighs heavily on her. As they go into the house with Mr. Forrester, Niel is asked to take their mail, including a letter addressed to Frank, into town. Niel wonders what the Captain knows about his wife.
Niel’s summer plans to read regularly at the Forresters is ruined by Ivy Peters’s frequent, and often annoying, appearances. Niel does not like the way Ivy treats both of the Forresters. He especially resents how familiar Ivy is with Mrs. Forrester. Niel shares his frustrations with the Captain, who agrees. One night in July, a restless Niel walks to the Forrester place. He finds Mrs. Forrester on the bridge over the creek, and learns that the Captain is already asleep. While they are standing there, Ivy emerges from the shadow of the house and discusses business with Mrs. Forrester. He rudely invites himself to lunch, and after he leaves Niel asks her why she puts up with him. Mrs. Forrester feels she has no choice because they need the money from his lease. She admits she is involved in a shady land investment with him that she hopes will soon fund a better life for herself, perhaps without the Captain.
After a late July flood, the Forresters are cut off from town. Their servant, Ben Keezer, is able to ride to them daily to help with chores and bring them mail. Niel sees him one day with the mail and asks to see their copy of the Denver newspaper. On the society page, Niel notices that Frank has married Constance Ogden.
Later that night, it is raining again when Niel is reading in his uncle’s law offices. Near midnight, a drunken Mrs. Forrester shows up wanting to call Frank long distance. Niel tries unsuccessfully to dissuade her. When the call goes through, Niel tries to remind her that what she says will be heard by Mrs. Beasley, the town operator and gossip. The conversation is polite at first, but by the end, Mrs. Forrester is berating Frank.
After Frank hangs up on her, Mrs. Forrester cuts the phone line and begins to sob. She passes out, and Niel puts her in his bed. He then wakes his uncle and asks him to stay with her while Niel goes out to the Forrester place to stay with the Captain. In the morning, Niel tells the Captain that she had been called to town to receive a long-distance call. On his way to the stable to get a horse to take Mrs. Forrester home, Niel sees Mrs. Beasley telling another woman about what happened the previous night.
A short time later, Captain Forrester has another stroke and is further incapacitated. The pressure of caring for him breaks Mrs. Forrester. The town’s women offer their help, but it is primarily an excuse for them to rummage through the house to satisfy their own curiosity about this formerly wealthy couple. Mrs. Forrester has ceased to care. In town, Niel overhears what these women say about Mrs. Forrester, her belongings, and her behavior. He tells his uncle he is going to drop out of school for a year and help the Forresters. With his uncle’s support, Niel kicks the gossips out, and he and his uncle’s servant, Black Tom, nurse the Forresters back to health. Within a few weeks, Mrs. Forrester is able to take charge of the household. Black Tom goes back to work for the judge, while Niel remains at the Forresters. He admits he misses school, but deeply appreciates their home and what it has meant to his life.
In early December, Captain Forrester dies. Dr. Dennison and Judge Pommeroy are the only close friends who serve as pallbearers at the funeral, which is packed with locals but lacks any out-of-town guests. Mrs. Forrester has the Captain’s beloved sundial engraved as his headstone.
By April of the following year, Niel is taking care of his uncle’s business while Judge Pommeroy is ill. One day, Orville Ogden appears at the law offices asking for the judge’s help in getting the Captain’s pension increased for Mrs. Forrester. He seeks to do this through government channels, without her knowledge. Niel informs him that his uncle is no longer her lawyer and she has hired Ivy Peters in that capacity. Niel tells Ogden that he does not trust the dishonest Ivy, and Mr. Ogden decides to leave the matter alone.
After Mr. Ogden leaves, Niel reflects on how Mrs. Forrester has changed since her husband’s death. She acts indiscriminately, without direction and without the ability to be both gracious and proper. Ivy Peters now spends a lot of time at the Forrester home, and has changed the property. When Niel confronts her on the regular presence of Ivy and other young men in her home, she dismisses the talk of gossips and refuses to consider moving to California until she sells the home. She further reveals that she switched lawyers because she believes Ivy is smarter about business. Judge Pommeroy is greatly hurt by her actions, and Niel does not speak to her again for some time.
One day in May, Mrs. Forrester invites Niel to a dinner party. Although he does not want to go, he agrees and is the last to arrive among the guests—young men from town, Ivy, and Ivy’s sister, Annie. Niel regards the young men with contempt, especially because of the way they kowtow to Ivy. The dinner is awkward; Annie and the young men have little to say to Mrs. Forrester. Niel attempts to draw them into conversation, but fails.
After dinner, the guests are more relaxed and Mrs. Forrester talks about living in California. Niel asks her to tell everyone how she met Captain Forrester. She relates that she was nineteen years old and still reeling over the tragic murder of her millionaire fiance´. To avoid publicity, she retreated to a cottage in the Sierras. One day, as she was climbing down the face of Eagle Cliff, she fell and suffered two broken legs. No one knew where to look for her, but a search party that included Captain Forrester eventually found her. He helped carry her out, and cared for her during her recovery. Niel realizes that she needs the right man to save her again.
By August, Judge Pommeroy is better and Niel makes plans to return to school. Niel is torn by leaving as he knows it will be a big break with his boyhood and his past. Niel does not say goodbye to Mrs. Forrester; he is still filled with contempt for her. He is happy that he helped the Captain in his last days, but feels betrayed by his widow, who allows Ivy Peters to touch her in a familiar way.
While Niel is back at school, Judge Pommeroy sends him news about Mrs. Forrester from time to time. She is publicly involved with Ivy but seems unhappy and broken. After his uncle’s death, Niel learns that Ivy bought the Forrester home, married a woman from Wyoming, and Mrs. Forrester went West. Niel thinks of her occasionally, and his memory of her softens and becomes more positive over time.
One night years later, in a Chicago hotel dining room, Niel runs into Ed Elliott, an old friend. He tells Niel that twelve years after she left Sweet Water, Ed saw Mrs. Forrester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She had married a wealthy but irritable Englishman named Henry Collins. Ed went to their home and Mrs. Forrester told him to give her love to Niel if he ever saw him again. Ed informs Niel that she subsequently died, three years ago. Both Niel and Ed are happy that she was taken care of until the end of her life.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010