Cather’s Characters

I my previous post I began to discuss the little character sketches in Willa Cather’s novel, The Song of the Lark. There are, by my count, fifteen of these. Here’s a list of the sketches I’ve found:

1. Thea Kronborg’s mother, p. 14–15.
2. Thea’s father, pp. 17-18.
3. Thea’s aunt Tillie, pp. 20–21.
4. Thea’s friend, Mrs. Kohler, pp. 23–25.
5. Thea’s piano teacher, Professor Wunsch, pp. 25–26.
6. Mrs. Archie, pp. 32–34.
7. Thea’s friend Mexican Johnny, pp. 39–40.
8. Thea’s friend Ray Kennedy, pp. 47–48.
9. Thea’s sister Anna, pp. 116–18.
10. Lars Larsen, who hires Thea to sing in his choir in Chicago, pp. 144–46.
11. Irene Andersen, who lives where Thea boards in Chicago, pp. 149–51.
12. Harsanyi, Thea’s piano teacher in Chicago, pp. 159-60.
13. Bowers, Thea’s vocal teacher, pp. 215–16.
14. Fred Ottenburg, Thea’s romantic interest, pp. 241–42.
15. Thea’s friend Landry, pp. 376–377.

Most of these characters are secondary at best. Lars Larsen, for instance, plays almost no role in the story; when Thea goes to Chicago to study piano, Larson hires her to sing in his choir, but beyond that he really does nothing. Irene Andersen is the daughter of the woman who owns the boarding house where Thea stays in Chicago. Ray Kennedy is somewhat more important; he’s in love with Thea back in her hometown of Moonstone, Colorado; he dies in an accident and leaves Thea the money which allows her to go to Chicago to study, and he’s gone from the story by the end of Part I. On the other hand, Fred Ottenburg, who enters the story in Part II, stays important to the very end; in the Epilogue we learn that he and Thea are married. There is no sketch of Dr. Archie, who is perhaps the second most important character in the novel from the beginning to the end. We learn a lot about Dr. Archie, but not from a character sketch.

Cather’s imagination thus includes the lives of even quite minor characters. This attention to minor characters is unusual. In most novels minor characters are brought on stage simply to serve a function, and they have no reality beyond that function. Cather’s technique creates the impression that she could supply a life story for any character in the novel, which gives depth and richness to the world of The Song of the Lark.

Let’s look at another novel for comparison—Jane Austen’s Emma. The first character sketch in Emma comes almost at the beginning of the novel, in Volume I Chapter II. Chapter I introduces the heroine, Emma, who is sad because her beloved governess and companion, Miss Taylor, has just left to marry a local landowner, Mr. Weston. Mr. and Mrs. Weston stay in the book till the very end, though they are never central characters. Chapter II includes quite a substantial account of the life of Mr. Weston. It begins: “Mr. Weston was a native of Highbury, and born of a respectable family, which for the last two or three generations had been rising into gentility and property.” The sketch goes on to explain that he married, somewhat above himself, a Miss Churchill, whose family did not approve of the match. “Captain Weston, who had been considered, especially by the Churchills, as making such an amazing match, was proved to have much the worst of the bargain; for when his wife died after a three years’ marriage, he was rather a poorer man than at first, and with a child to maintain.” This child, Frank, was adopted by his uncle Mr. Churchill and took his last name. Mr. Weston now went into business with his brothers and made a success of himself. Eventually he “realized an easy competence”—enough to buy an estate in Highbury and enough to marry Miss Taylor. Meanwhile there had been something of a reconciliation with the Churchills, and Mr. Weston looked forward to being able to welcome his son on a visit to Highbury. “Now, upon his father’s marriage, it was very generally proposed, as a most proper attention, that the visit should take place.” All this takes up a full couple of pages.

Frank’s visit is put off until Volume II Chapter V; thereafter he remains one of the central characters until almost the very end, and his family circumstances, as explained in the sketch, are essential to the role he plays in the plot. This sketch, which is ostensibly about Mr. Weston, a minor character, is really about Frank.

In Volume II Chapter II we find a sketch of Jane Fairfax, followed by her arrival in Highbury. Jane is the orphaned granddaughter of Mrs. Bates; she spent her early years in Highbury, but at the age of nine she was taken up by a friend of her father’s, Colonel Campbell, who provides her with a good education. She is without resources, however, and resigns herself to life as a governess. First she makes a visit to her grandmother and her aunt in Highbury, and she, like Frank, remains important to the plot. Her story and Frank’s story have a kind of similarity—they are both children of Highbury who have been taken up and educated by outsiders. But Frank has good prospects and Jane does not. As it happens, Frank and Jane met each other a short time before the action of the novel begins and became secretly engaged—their secret engagement drives important parts of the plot. So this sketch of Jane, like the sketch of Frank, turns out to have an important function in the story. Austen is in general an economical writer—some of Cather’s sketches may seem almost gratuitous, but Austen’s turn out to be necessary background to the unfolding of the plot.

Austen is generally not much inclined to physical descriptions of her characters, and these sketches of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are not exceptions to the rule. Even when Frank and Jane show up in person we don’t get much in the way of description. The description of Jane is almost the negation of a description: “Her height was pretty, just such as almost everybody would think tall, and nobody could think very tall; her figure was particularly graceful; her size a most becoming medium, between fat and thin.” We do, however, find that her eyes are grey and that she has a good complexion, if somewhat pale. What really matters to Austen is Emma’s reaction to Jane’s appearance, which is built into the ironic style. And likewise when Emma first sees Frank: “he was a very good looking young man; height, air, address were all unexceptional, and his countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness of his father’s; he looked quick and sensible”.

Cather, on the other hand, often includes a lot of detail in her sketches—sometimes description of a person’s appearance, sometimes description of clothing, sometimes description of habits. Here’s the beginning of the sketch of Mrs. Kronborg: “She was a short, stalwart woman, with a short neck and a determined looking head. Her skin was very fair, her face calm and unwrinkled, and her yellow hair, braided down her back as she lay in bed, still looked like a girl’s.” Here is a passage about Mrs. Kohler: “She made her own dresses; the skirts came barely to her shoe-tops, and were gathered as full as they could possibly be to the waist-band. She preferred men’s shoes, and usually wore the cast-offs of one of her sons.” And one about Mrs. Lorch and her daughter Irene Andersen: “Old Mrs. Lorch was fat and jolly, with a red face, always shining as if she had just come from the stove, bright little eyes, and hair of several colors…. The daughter, Mrs. Andersen… was a different sort of woman altogether. She was perhaps forty years old, angular, big-boned, with large, thin features, light blue eyes and dry yellow hair, the bang tightly frizzed. She was pale, anaemic, and sentimental.” And Lars Larsen: “Lars was the fourth son, and he was born lazy…. Even in his cradle he was an example of physical inertia; anything to lie still. When he was a growing boy, his mother had to drag him out of his bed every morning, and he had to be driven to his chores.” None of these details matter much to the progress of the story, or, indeed, to our knowledge of Thea. Cather just throws them in as a treat for the reader. All of them would be foreign to Austen’s style.

Both Austen and Cather use character sketches, but they use them very differently. I’m not evaluating—both Cather and Austen are wonderful writers. If you want an example of an economical writer, a writer who makes every detail count towards the total impression of the novel, study Austen. If you want an example of a generous writer, a writer who is lavish with the gifts of her imagination, study Cather.

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