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 vitality, she seems to feel limited by marriage. For much of the novel, Cather implies that she is having an affair with Frank Ellinger, a notorious bachelor from Denver. Mrs. Forrester garners attention from men and boys alike because of her friendly, always respectful, and sometimes flirtatious attitude. At times, this attitude manifests itself in friendships with younger men like Niel and the Blum brothers. As Captain Forrester’s health deteriorates and he loses a significant portion of his wealth, Mrs. Forrester feels desperate and trapped. This leads to her affair with Ivy Peters and her decision to trust her business interests to this unscrupulous lawyer, who is involved in shady business deals.
When Mrs. Forrester is desperate, she does not care whom she hurts by her actions. In contrast, Captain Forrester cared for the welfare of others to the degree that he used nearly everything he owned to ensure that the depositors of his failed bank in Denver received their money back. Among Sweet Water’s younger generation, only Niel is depicted as being this kind of upstanding citizen. (To a limited extent it is implied that the minor character of Ed Elliott shares Niel’s values, but his role is small in the novel.)
Thus, for Cather, while the Captain is important, he, like the area where he chose to settle, becomes less relevant as he becomes more debilitated. Sweet Water started out with promise when the railroad was built there, but crop failures and other setbacks limited the town’s growth. With Captain Forrester’s death—a symbolic end to any chance Sweet Water has of being more than a small town—the values he represents in the town die a little with him. Because his widow does not like the advice Judge Pommeroy gives her on selling her home and other matters, Mrs. Forrester hires Ivy to represent her concerns. She does not care how she makes money or how her decisions will affect others; she simply fires the man who supported her and her husband through thick and thin. Ivy seems to win in one sense because he has an affair with Mrs. Forrester and eventually buys her home. However, Cather depicts Niel and Ed going out into the world and becoming good, respectable men. They are professionals who seem to live out the values of their elders and old Sweet Water in a way Ivy and Mrs. Forrester could not have understood.
Coming of Age
In some ways, A Lost Lady can be seen as a coming-of-age novel. Although written in the omniscient third person, much of the action and attitude is filtered through the perspective of Niel Herbert. The novel begins when Niel is a boy, playing with a group of boys on the Forrester property. At its heart are the experiences of Niel as he reaches adulthood. By the time he is nineteen years old, living in his uncle’s law offices, he is still harboring his long-standing fascination with Mrs. Forrester. Cather wrote that this interest began when he was quite young, seeing Mrs. Forrester enter the Episcopal church one Sunday morning. Cather writes, ‘‘He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognized her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known.’’
Cather uses Niel’s infatuation with Mrs. Forrester as a vehicle for describing his maturation from boy to man. Guided by his uncle’s values and support, Niel makes personal sacrifices to help the Forresters through the aftermath of the Captain’s fall as well as his two strokes. Niel brings their mail during a blizzard, and takes walks and sleigh rides with Mrs. Forrester so she feels less trapped by her home and circumstances. When Niel leaves school for a year to help the Forresters following the Captain’s second stroke, he takes charge when local women use the excuse of ‘‘helping’’ to rummage through the property contained in the Forrester home. Niel remains in Sweet Water after the Captain’s death to run his uncle’s law offices while the judge gets over his own bout with rheumatic fever.
During this time period, Niel has an epiphany that demonstrates he has reached maturity and an understanding of human complexities. While Niel is disappointed to learn that Mrs. Forrester has been having an affair with Frank Ellinger and thinks less of her for a time, he comes to be fascinated again by her and continues to help her. Later, Niel understands that it was Captain Forrester who grounded his wife, and not she who needed to be free from him to be herself. Cather writes, ‘‘For years, Niel and his uncle . . . had thought of the Captain as a drag upon his wife; a care that drained her and dimmed her and kept her from being all that she might be. But without him, she was like a ship without ballast, driven hither and thither by every wind.’’
After this revelation, Niel feels more sympathy for Mrs. Forrester and no longer particularly infatuated with her. He does not want to go to the dinner party she gives for many of the local young men, including Ivy, but accepts the invitation and shows up nonetheless. Even then Niel understands she needs the right kind of man to restore her to a happy life, but he does not invest his time in helping her save herself from Ivy. Years later, a chance meeting with Ed Elliott brings news that Mrs. Forrester married again and seemed to have found what she was looking for before her death.
Strength and Weakness
Another key theme that underscores much of the action in A Lost Lady is the concept of strength and weakness. Cather distinguishes between the strong and the weak in a number of ways. Characters like Judge Pommeroy, Niel, and Captain Forrester are drawn as strong men with solid, upright, honest, respectable beliefs. Even when he becomes ill, the Captain remains dignified, bearing a type of inner strength. In contrast, characters like Mrs. Forrester and Ivy are depicted as weak. Cather implies that Mrs. Forrester needs affirmation, especially from men, to have self-esteem and direction. However, Cather allows Mrs. Forrester some leeway, suggesting that it might be forgivable for a woman to possess such weakness. The author does no such thing with Ivy Peters. From the first, Ivy is depicted as a weak young man who kills dogs and maims birds just because they annoy him. As he grows older, Ivy becomes a lawyer and has no qualms about engaging in shady business practices. He also begins some sort of affair with Mrs. Forrester while her husband is still alive. Cather emphasizes that Ivy uses the power he has over her—because he rents part of the Forresters’ property and secretly invests some of her money in a land deal—to play a larger role in her life than he should. In the end, both the strong and the weak who are alive survive in their own way, but these aspects of their character do not seem to change.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010