More on Mimesis in Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark”

Lately I’ve been writing posts about narrative world building, the mimetic aspect of narrative, with particular attention to descriptions of moveable objects, including clothing. I’ve been concentrating on novels by three writers: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, and Doris Lessing’s The Good Neighbour. There’s lots more to say about descriptions of objects in these (and other) books, but I’d like to make just one general comment and then move on to other kinds of mimesis.

These three novels all are “realistic”, in that there are no fantastic events or characters—no magicians or dragons and such—but one point of these posts has been to show that there’s quite a variety in versions of reality. Austen isn’t much interested in objects, and she mentions them only insofar as they contribute directly to the psychological analysis of her characters. Cather describes lots of things, and there’s a sense that the things have a certain independence of existence, beyond the interest that any character takes in them. Lessing—that is, her first-person narrator—also describes lots of things, and the narrator reacts to these things with great emotion. I’m generalizing, of course, and describing tendencies, not rules; but these tendencies do show something about these writers and their very different versions of reality. To sum it up, there is no single thing which counts as literary realism—there are many ways to be a realist. I will come back to the topic of realism and non-realism in later posts, but in this post I will consider mimesis beyond the description of objects and rooms; my primary reference text will be Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, but I will mention other texts as appropriate.

In a previous post I mentioned that The Song of a Lark begins with a description of Dr. Archie’s office in the town of Moonstone, Colorado. I won’t repeat the whole description, but here’s a taste of it: “The waiting room was carpeted and stiffly furnished, something like a country parlor. The study had worn, unpainted floors, but there was a look of winter comfort about it.” And so on. Then we get a description of Dr. Archie himself. I’ve already discussed Cather’s habit of dropping fairly extensive character sketches into the story; again I will just quote a bit here: “Dr. Archie was barely thirty. He was tall, with massive shoulders which he held stiffly, and a large, well-shaped head.” This description continues for a paragraph.

Then, as Dr. Archie begins to mix himself a drink, he has a visitor, Mr. Kronborg: “His visitor was a tall, loosely built man, with a thin brown beard, streaked with gray. He wore a frock coat, a broad-brimmed black hat, a white lawn necktie, and steel-rimmed spectacles. Altogether there was a pretentious and important air about him, as he lifted the skirts of his coat and sat down” (8). Mr. Kronborg is the father of the main character of the novel, Thea, whom we will meet in a few pages. Cather has a longer description of Mr. Kronborg in the next chapter (pp. 17–18). Mr. Kronborg has come to summon Dr. Archie for a house call: Mrs. Kronborg is about to have a child, her seventh.

The men walk to the Kronborg’s house: “They turned into another street and saw before them lighted windows; a low story-and-a-half house, with a wing built on at the right and a kitchen addition in the back, everything a little on the slant—roofs, windows, and doors” (9). They go inside: “The front hall was dark and cold; the hatrack was hung with an astonishing number of children’s hats and caps and cloaks. They were even piled on the table beneath the hatrack. Under the table was a heap of rubbers and overshoes” (9–10). This description of the front hall and the hatrack and the boots tells us about the family, which is overflowing with things and the people who use these things.

After Dr. Archie delivers the new baby, he discovers that the eleven-year-old daughter, Thea, is very ill with pneumonia. He makes up a bed for her in the Kronborg’s parlor and goes back to his office for supplies. “She had moments of stupor when she did not see anything, and moments of excitement when she felt that something unusual and pleasant was about to happen. . . He came in and warmed his hands at the stove. . . . He gave her some medicine and went to the kitchen for something he needed.  She drowsed and lost the sense of his being there. When she opened her eyes again, he was kneeling before the stove, spreading something dark and sticky on a white cloth, with a big spoon; butter, perhaps. Presently she felt him taking off her nightgown. He wrapped the hot plaster about her chest. There seemed to be straps which he pinned over her shoulders. Then he took out a thread and needle and began to sew her up in it. . . . Thea had been moaning with every breath since the doctor came back, but she did not know it. She did not realize that she was suffering pain. When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body, to be perched on top of the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up. . . .” (12). There’s lots to talk about here, for instance the different ways different writers deal with illness, but for now I want to stick with the physical side of mimesis, and I will just note how much physical detail Cather gives about Dr. Archie’s treatment. Almost every page of this novel includes some comment about an object; Cather’s characters live in a world of things in a way that Austen’s characters do not. These things tell us about the characters, but they also give the novel a kind of materiality.

Landscapes are another aspect of mimesis in The Song of the Lark. Chapter IV of Part I jumps ahead a few months; Thea is long recovered from her pneumonia, and this chapter finds her on her way to take a piano lesson from the local teacher, Professor Wunsch, who boards with an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Kohler. “Thea had to walk more than a mile to reach the Kohler’s house, a very pleasant mile out of town toward the glimmering sand hills—yellow this morning, with lines of deep violet where the clefts and valleys were. She followed the sidewalk to the depot at the south end of the town, then took the road east to the little group of adobe houses where the Mexicans lived, then dropped into a deep ravine; a dry sand creek, across which the railroad track ran on a trestle. Beyond that gulch, on a little rise of ground that faced the open sandy plain, was the Kohler’s house, where Professor Wunsch lived” (23).

We can compare this passage to one near the beginning of Pride and Prejudice (Part I Chapter VII), when Elizabeth walks over to Netherfield (leased by Mr. Bingley) to look after her sister Jane, who has fallen ill while visiting there. Her sisters accompany her part of the way: “In Meryton they parted; the two youngest repaired to the lodgings of one of the officers’ wives, and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (23). Cather walks the reader along the journey with Thea, while Austen is content with a general account without particulars.

Once Elizabeth gets to Netherfield, Austen takes her right inside, with no description of the house or grounds at all: “She was shewn into the breakfast-parlor, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a good deal of surprise” (23). Cather, by contrast, gives us a portrait of Mrs. Kohler and puts her in her garden: “She had never learned much English, and her plants and shrubs were her companions. She lived for her men and her garden. Beside that sand gulch, she had tried to reproduce a bit of her own valley in the Rhine valley. She hid herself behind the growth she had fostered, lived in the shade of what she had planted and watered and pruned. . . . Behind the high tamarisk hedge, her garden was a jungle of verdure in the summer. Above the cherry trees and peach trees and golden plumes stood the windmill, with its tank on stilts, which kept all this verdure alive. Outside, the sage-brush grew up to the very edge of the garden, and the sand was always drifting up to the tamarisks” (24). Cather gives a portrait of Professor Wunsch and then returns to the description of the garden, which takes another page (26).

I hope it’s clear that I’m not making a judgment here. Both Austen and Cather are wonderful writers. I admire both, and I am not in the business of ranking. My point is how differently Austen and Cather see the world. In my next post I will continue the exploration of landscapes in The Song of the Lark.

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