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A Lost Ideal: Perspective in Willa Cather’s a Lost Lady

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Willa Cather has artistically crafted the ending of A Lost Lady so that Marian Forrester comes out a survivor rather than a lost lady as the title suggests. This use of irony is very important because it opens up questions about the nature of the novel’s title, thus leading to the illumination of how Marian was only a lost lady from the perspective of the male gaze. When looking beyond the male gaze and through to Marian’s unfiltered character, the double standard, which Neil places on the protagonist, becomes apparent. Mrs. Forrester is only lost in the compartmentalization of her whole being on behalf of Neil’s perspective, and to understand her true character is to acknowledge that she encompasses many different traits and characteristics. In analyzing the varying perspectives offered throughout the novel it becomes especially clear that in the end Marian is not a lost lady and that this irony serves to make a thematic statement about women as whole and complex beings rather than characters of isolated ideals.

Neil grapples with the two ideas of Mrs. Forrester that he comes to know throughout the novel. From the beginning, Neil places Mrs. Forrester on a pedestal: “He had never found one so attractive and distinguished as Mrs. Forrester. Compared with her, other woman were heavy and dull; even the pretty ones seemed lifeless–they had not that something in their glance that made one’s blood tingle” (32). As a young boy, Neil romanticizes Marian and in doing so he creates an idealized version of her. Admittedly, “it was in her relation to her husband that he most admired her” (65). Neil particularly admires Mrs. Forrester’s loyalty to her husband, and in his idealized creation of her he highlights this quality as being central to her identity. This ultimately leads to the heartbreak he later experiences when he sees that she has a relationship with Frank Ellinger. Morris Dickstien points out, “there’s a childish petulance and disenchantment about Neil’s response to Mrs. Forrester’s fall, which reveals how much he has put her on a pedestal” (2). This observation clarifies how Neil’s “disenchantment” is a product of his own naivety rather than a degradation of Marian’s character. When Neil witnesses this affair and perceives the polarity in Marian’s character, his ideal of her is crushed. “In that instant…he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life” (72). Neil lost the ideal of Marian, but Marian is still there—still the same person she always had been. This is not a loss that Marian experiences; it is a loss solely experienced by Neil. This language is similarly seen in the expression, “Neil was destined to hear once again of his long-lost lady (147)”. The possessive pronoun “his” further indicates that the “lost lady” is something that only exists from Neil’s perspective. When taking this perspective into consideration, it makes sense that as the story ends with Marian a remarried woman who was able to fulfill her dream of traveling. Had the novel ended with Marian slowly fading away or dying in the Sweet Water home, one would be more likely to adopt Neil’s perspective of Marian as a lost lady. Instead, this irony opens up an investigation on the male gaze and invites readers to explore Marian’s character through other perspectives.

Perhaps one of the most honest perspectives is that of the narrator and or Cather. In the narration of Neil’s perceived dissonance of Marian’s character—in his frustration— Cather makes her thematic claim powerful. “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal. Beautiful women, whose beauty meant more than it said…was their brilliancy always fed by something coarse and concealed? Was that their secret?” (72). The narrator offers a very thought provoking question in attempt to understand how Mrs. Forrester could have acted in a way that conflicts the “aesthetic ideal” which Neil places on her. This question explores the possibility that this ideal was fed by the very thing he despised in her. Chopin is drawing attention the “secret” that women have to live with: the fact that they are human in all of their complexity and “magic of contradictions”. Chopin is calling attention to the societal expectation placed on women to unrealistically behave in a way that meets other’s idealizations. She demonstrates how the most charismatic women like Marian Forrester can be both “elegant” and “wild”; can experience both joyous laughter and deep despair. Rosowski explains, “There are two selves in each person, Cather suggests: a personal, worldly self expressed with family and friends, and an otherworldly, imaginative second self expressed in creative work.” (162). Cather makes the point that this dichotomy only seems surprising as it does to Neil if one regards women as something other than complex and entirely human. The same essence that makes Marian who she is present in all aspects of her character because she does not exist in compartmentalized components. Rosowski further explains, “The ideal human condition, described in Cather’s early novels, involves a synthesis of the two, with the outward-moving self rooted in the settled personal self” (162). For example, Neil explains, “The charm of her conversation was not so much in what she said, though she was often witty, but in the quick recognition of her eyes, in the living quality of her voice itself” (58). Here, Neil is attuned to a quality in Mrs. Forrester that exists on a depth beyond general personality traits—a rather deeper essence and quality that governs her character. Neil adores this quality and observes: “the secret of it, he supposed, was that she couldn’t help being interested in people, even very commonplace people”(58). If this were a true underlying essence of her character, it would only make sense that the same quality would also play a role in her interest of other men like Frank Elinger. Neil wonders, “what did she do will all her exquisiteness when she was with man like Elinger? Where did she put it away?” (84). Here, Cather is calling attention to the ridiculousness at the notion that one could “put away” their exquisiteness, and is begging the reader to realize that this exquisiteness is not only present in Marian’s “desirable” moments, but is what also feeds her “undesirable” self. To truly love Marian’s exquisiteness is to accept all elements of her as a product of this deeper essence.

Unlike Neil who only sees compartmentalized components of Marian, Cather offers the perspective of Captain Forrester who realizes that what Neil deems as a deficiency in Mrs. Forrester’s character is actually the same quality that makes her so likeable. Captain Forrester tells a story of his life accomplishments: “I planned to build a house that my friends could come to, with a wife like Mrs. Forrester to make it attractive to them” (43). One of the things that Captain Forrester values in his wife is her charming liveliness that attracts his friends. Arguably, he accepts Marian’s affairs for this very reason, as he is able to accept that these “contradictions” stem from the same source of life in Marian. “The Captain knew his wife better even than she knew herself; and that, knowing her, he,—to use one of his own expressions,—valued her” (122). She is not lost to Captain Forrester because Captain Forrester accepts her for all the complexity that she is, and he is able to see both qualities in Mrs. Forrester and still value her for the whole that they create. Charlotte Goodman argues “Cather apparently does not wish the reader to judge Marian’s sexual escapades during Daniel’s decline more harshly that he himself does…Cather describes him as, without apparent rancor or jealousy, he examines an envelope his wife has addressed to her lover, Frank Ellinger” (159). Captain Forrester’s character is described with great maturity: “[h]is repose was like that of a mountain” (39). The mountain simile depicts his incredibly stable emotional state that is opposite to Neil’s boyish romanticizing. These character depictions seem to implicate that Captain Forrester’s perspective has more credibility and wisdom than Neil’s perspective of Marian as a “lost” woman.

The scene with Ivy Peters and the woodpecker offers a final perspective through metaphor that not only helps illustrate Marian as a survivor, but also further illuminates Cather’s thematic statement. The female bird can be symbolic for women in society. Like the bird who was blinded by Ivy, Marian’s capabilities to participate in the world have been impeded on by society. After having her eyes mutilated, the bird naturally reacts in frantic desperation and eventually “crept its way along the branch and disappeared into its own hole” (18). Marian acts in a similar desperation most notably when she, intoxicated, makes a phone call to Frank Ellinger. Later, when Captain forester dies, she recluses into her home. The bird seems to have survived the trauma when she is able to blindly find her way back home, but this traumatic scene leaves one aching for the bird and wondering if it will ever successfully re-emerge. In Marian’s restless struggle, not only does she successfully survive but she thrives in her ability to navigate as a widow making her own choices and financial decisions working within the limited recourses society has allotted to her. Marian says, ““So that’s what I’ve been struggling for, to get out of this hole…[w]hen I’m alone here for months together, I plan and plot” (107). Marian is able to leave the “hole” and re-emerge in a new marriage, in a new place, and with money again—all things she had been planning and plotting for.

It seems that the quality at the root of Marian Forrester is her effervescent spirit, as this is not only seen through the eyes of others, but through Marian’s own unbiased speech and actions. From an outside perspective her eyes are regularly described as “lively” and she herself expresses, “’I feel such a power to live in me’”(106). This woman with a wild spirit who and loves to jump in the creek and run through the snow is able to navigate the world as a widow networking with young boys and investing money with Ivy Peters. She is a woman who loves her husband dearly, and is fascinated with relationships with others as well. This woman who is wrapped up in her own vanity is the same woman who humbly brings cookies down to the boys bareheaded. She is a woman who loves mimicry and laughter and also experiences deep grief. These complexities of character appear in many ways and are part of what makes her human. Cather thematically draws attention to the human experience of women and the societal expectations that hold them back. In this ending, Marian’s drive for life shines through and challenges the male gaze that has attempted to dim Marian’s light by portraying her as a lost ideal.

Work Cited

Cather, Willa. A lost lady. New York: Vintage , 1990. Print. Dickstein, Morris. “The Magic of Contradictions: Willa Cather’s Lost Lady.” New Criterion, vol. 17, no. 6, Feb. 1999, p. 20. EBSCOhost,

Goodman, C. M. “Constance Fenimore Woolson’s For the Major and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady.” American Literary Realism, vol. 41 no. 2, 2009, pp. 154-162. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/alr.0.0013

Rosowski, S. J. “Willa Cather’s Women.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 9 no. 2, 1981, pp. 261-275. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/saf.1981.0019

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