In this post I continue my discussion of mimesis—representation, world-building—in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. As I have said previously, in my system the synthetic, the mimetic, and the thematic are simultaneous, but they may be artificially separated for analytical purposes. In this post I will include a few comments on the synthetic and thematic, but I will concentrate on the mimetic.
The novel begins, as I noted in an earlier post, with a detailed description of Dr. Archie’s office. It continues with a brief description of Dr. Archie himself (“He was tall, with massive shoulders which he held stiffly, and a large, well-shaped head. He was a distinguished-looking man . . .”) as he mixes a drink for himself before going home. He is interrupted, however, by the arrival of the Reverend Peter 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 . . .”). The Reverend Kronborg’s wife is about to have her seventh child. They leave the office and walk to the Kronborg’s house.
“The drug store below was dark, and the saloon next door was just closing. Every other light on Main Street was out.
“On either side of the road and at the outer edge of the board sidewalk, the snow had been shoveled into breastworks. The town looked small and black, flattened down in the snow, muffled and all but extinguished. Overhead the stars shone gloriously. It was impossible not to notice them. The air was so clear that the white sand hills to the east of Moonstone gleamed softly. Following the Reverend Mr. Kronborg along the narrow walk, past the little dark, sleeping houses, the doctor looked up at the flashing night and whistled softly. It did seem that people were stupider that they need be, as if on a night like this there ought to be something better to do than to sleep nine hours, or to assist Mrs. Kronborg in functions which she could have performed so admirably unaided. [. . .] Then he remembered that he had a personal interest in this family after all.”
Here Cather plays a little synthetic trick on the reader: she notes that Dr. Archie has a personal interest in the family but then neglects to specify this interest. The reader will quickly solve this little puzzle. Cather often leaves little gaps to be filled in later. In the initial description of Dr. Archie’s office, for instance, Cather singles out for the reader’s attention the row of thirty or forty books on the top shelf of the bookcase, but she waits twenty pages to tell us that this is a matching set of Balzac’s novels. A more important instance of the same technique of delayed information comes from the middle of the book. In Part III, Chapter IV, are told of some unspecified scandal in Fred Ottenburg’s past, but we are not told what it was until Part III, Chapter VIII, forty pages later.
Dr. Archie and Peter Kronborg continue to 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 the right and a kitchen addition at the back, everything a little on the slant—roofs, windows, and doors. [. . . ]
“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. While the doctor hung up his coat and hat, Peter Kronborg opened the door into the living room. A glare of light greeted them, and a rush of hot, stale air smelling of warming flannels.” (9–10)
In these three pages Cather has already abundantly furnished her world with a variety of things—the objects in Dr. Archie’s office, the road to Reverend Kronborg’s house, the wooden sidewalk, the piled snow, the houses along the way, the night sky and the stars, Reverend Kronborg’s house seen from outside, the front hall, the coatrack, the hats and rubbers and overshoes.
The delivery of the baby takes place between the end of one paragraph and the beginning of the next: between Dr. Archie’s arrival at the Reverend Kronborg’s house (“A glare of light greeted them and a rush of hot, stale air, smelling of warming flannels”) and his departure for home (“At three o’clock in the morning Dr. Archie was in the parlor putting on his cuffs and coat”). Evidently the baby deserves no attention. But as Dr. Archie prepares to go home, he hears one of the other children breathing heavily; here Cather directs the reader’s attention away from the new baby, who is delivered between paragraphs, with no description at all, to Thea, the Reverend Kronborg’s eleven-year-old daughter, who will be the heroine of the story.
The Reverend tells Dr. Archie that Thea has a cold, but when the doctor checks on her he discovers that she has a bad case of pneumonia. “You’ve got a very sick child in there. Why didn’t you call me before? It’s pneumonia, and she must have been sick for several days. Put the baby down somewhere, please, and help me make up the bed-lounge here in the parlor.” He goes back to his office to get some medicine. The next several pages present a detailed account of Thea’s treatment, largely through her feverish semi-consciousness. She falls asleep; “When she opened her eyes again, [Dr. Archie] was kneeling before the stove, spreading something dark and sticky on a white cloth, with a big spoon, batter, 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. That, she felt, was too strange; she must be dreaming anyhow, so she succumbed to her drowsiness. [. . . ] When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body; to be perched on top of the piano, or on the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up.”
The focalization switches to Dr. Archie. “The doctor thanked God that he had persuaded Peter Kronborg to keep out of the way. He could do better by the child if he had her to himself. He had no children of his own. His marriage was a very unhappy one. As he lifted and undressed Thea, he thought to himself what a beautiful thing a little girl’s body was,—like a flower. It was so neatly and delicately fashioned, so soft, and so milky white. Thea must have got her hair and her silky skin from her mother. She was a little Swede, through and through. Dr. Archie could not help thinking how he would cherish a little creature like this if she were his” (12–13). And so on for another paragraph. I must admit that I find this description creepy. It is hard to know Cather’s intention in 1915, but Cather is not Nabokov, and Dr. Archie’s interest in Thea is never (overtly) sexual. He remains her closest friend and supporter to the very end of the story.
Mimesis, as I conceive of it, is by no means limited to physical objects, such as the furniture of Dr. Archie’s office or the hats and coats and boots in the hallway of the Kronborg’s house. It includes physical descriptions of characters, such as the descriptions of Dr. Archie and Peter Kronborg and his daughter Thea—this last focalized through Dr. Archie. Nor is mimesis restricted to things. This passage includes the mimesis of actions, as Dr. Archie sews Thea up in the plaster.
Cather’s world is not unusual in the abundance of its furnishings; the beginning of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, is full of stuff. But in a novel by Jane Austen, one can read a long way before coming across so many things. Some modern guides on writing fiction suggest that the more specificity the better, but my experience of reading the great books tells me that there’s no rule. Some writers like a lot of stuff, but others do with very little. Austen favors a rather spare world; she certainly can represent things whenever she needs to, but she tends to concentrate on interactions, conversations, internal speech, and actions. She introduces objects mostly when they concern what her characters are thinking or doing. One way of distinguishing Austen’s practice from Cather’s is to imagine that you’ve been hired as set designer for movies based on their novels. The designer for The Song of the Lark could draw up a long list of props directly from Cather’s descriptions; the designer for Pride and Prejudice would have to make up the list without much help from Austen.
Cather’s mimesis includes things made and used by human beings, such as the objects in Dr. Archie’s office, but also the world of nature, from the snow underfoot to the stars in the sky. The stars exist for the reader through Dr. Archie’ observation and evaluation: “It did seem that people were stupider that they need be, as if on a night like this there ought to be something better to do than to sleep nine hours”. Dr. Archie’s judgment is a challenge to the reader. Dr. Archie’s sublime aesthetic response to nature makes him a match for the heroine. Here the mimetic has thematic implications.
Both Cather and Austen are realists, but their versions of reality are not the same. Cather’s world is full of things to be described, even when they don’t have much significance for the plot; Austen mentions objects if she can make something of them. The snow in The Song of the Lark, for instance, doesn’t really do much, except be there; the snow in Emma (Vol. I, Chapter XV), however, is the occasion for extensive discussion among the guests at the Weston’s party; it draws a typically extreme reaction from Emma’s father; and it allows Mr. Elton to be alone in a carriage Emma, where he proposes to her. Neither Austen’s way nor Cather’s is the right way; they are just different ways of perceiving the world, different aesthetic experiences.
In my next post I will extend my discussion of mimesis to the physical and social geography of Moonstone, the town where Thea lives.
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So cool to see you’re back