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The Staining of The Golden Gates

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The preciousness of life is something that can often be forgotten. Things come and go, seasons change, and in a modernistic culture the day can shift beneath our feet in a moment’s notice. In this modernizing world, the real question that comes about is what can endure the chaos and remain precious? The lone thought that rises above all is innocence. It has withstood the test of time and while seemingly always remaining unattainable, is an immortalized virtue. Willa Cather explores this concept in A Lost Lady, as she delves into how something so perfect, can vanish as quickly as darkness falls. Cather demonstrates how like any other purity in life, once innocence is lost, never can it return to illuminate the world in the way it once did.

Niel’s entire perception of the good in people vanishes in a single instant, confirming the fragility of all things pure. As he joyfully walks to the Forrester house, he experiences a high resulting from his future encounter with Mrs. Forrester. The early morning is full of hope as the roses he had picked out are just right to surprise the one who has been so dear to him. The connotation that connects to the early morning reflects brightness and the absence of all things wrong that happen later in the day. The mention of roses pop out as a symbol from that point. Roses represent this romantic notion and engrave the thought of love and compassion into the recipient of the lovely flower. From that point Cather meticulously incorporates a clear image of the roller coaster of emotions Niel is about to endure. In a single “instant,” Niel’s world comes crashing down. The word instant carries a connotation of just how quickly things can change. Life can seemingly be set and within the blink of an eye be left in pieces. As he stoops to the window-sill he is filled with nothing but happiness as he is about make someone’s day. However, when he physically rises his faith drops just as quickly. Cather shows him “stooping” and “rising” to directly point out how fast things are changing for Niel. It originates from the ups, downs, and turmoil that can unfold at any moment. This contradiction shows the power of what is occurring. Mrs. Forrester makes the transition from an immortalized figure with all apparent intangibles in Niel’s mind, to nothing but a common woman, having an affair with an unworthy man. That singular image will forever be engraved into his thoughts and there is nothing in the world powerful to erase it. Once Niel allows the initial set of gloom to enter his mind, there is simply no turning back. Cather is able to clarify this as she uses personification to describe the day’s actions. It is stated that the “day saw the end” of the admiration and loyalty. While it is evident that the day itself cannot physically see the admiration and loyalty fade away, it is more so about what the day represents. Cather is giving this particular day human like characteristics to stress its importance. Many days in life can pass without anything noteworthy occurring. However, on this day she exclaims that it witnesses two vital traits leaving the mind of Niel. It gives the impression that it is not even Niel in control of his emotions, but rather the “Day” itself, that has been deemed the higher power and is therefore capable of causing said gloom. After the day sees the apparent end, Cather goes on to use a simile saying that the admiration and loyalty had been “like a bloom on his existence.” This comparison of Niel to a budding flower is to show that he must be cared for and any error could result in its death. Mrs. Forrester was the hypothetical flower keeper in this scenario and by no means did she tend to Niel the way he needed her to in this case. Niel’s blooming was squashed just as the roses he threw away.

Neil’s realization of the sinful nature of others creates a sense of despair within him. It shows the finality of his preconceived notions about what is permanent in this world. To make this point clear, Cather uses very specific diction to depict this. In the passage, words and phrases like the “end”, “gone”, and “never recapture it” come together to form the idea that Niel’s thoughts will never be the same. He witnesses one horrific sight, and that is all that it takes. Cather uses these specific words in hope that the reader understands there is no reconciliation. Forgiveness is out of the picture from the moment he witnesses the actions of Mrs. Forrester. Along with the use of diction, Cather uses a dark tone throughout the passage to also convey the misery residing in Niel. This tone builds with each sentence as it starts out bad and proceeds to even provoke fear in the reader. Hopeless is a word that comes to mind as everything is “wrecked” for Niel, from this particular day to all the residing days that will follow. Any words that insinuate light or faith are followed by a dark undertone that continues to further the point of despair festering within Niel.

Niel’s spirit was one of great potential, while if the circumstances remained ideal, could flourish into something of a delicacy. Cather honed in on this thought by using imagery to depict Niel as a flower. From the second the seed sprouts, a wave of life is created. This must be preserved at all costs as it is “beautiful.” Within the passage, there is repeated instances speaking to the greatness off the flowers as they are anything from a “bloom on his existence” to a way to brighten up the morning. Niel represents each of these qualities as he possesses the power to brighten up not only his own life, but those who surround him. A gift of a flower can make another’s day, just as Niel’s glowing spirit could erase the sorrows of Mrs. Forrester. However, all flowers eventually see their last day. That can be the result of many things from unfortunate circumstances to lack of care or awareness. Unfortunately, Niel is all too similar. That bright spirit was crushed just like the flowers that very morning as all had been wrecked.

Once something is lost, even upon its return its only use will be cancerous in creating pain. Cather displays how something good tarnished, is even worse than something eternally bad. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” This is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94. The underlying meaning is that even the greatest flower, once it has wilted, is no good. Shakespeare claims that even a “based weed” is more appealing that a wilted lily. The aftermath of the lily is just a reminder of how great it once was, only to snap into reality with the notion it will never be like that again. This is how Cather chose to represent Mrs. Forrester as she was once the great lily, and now any weed, or common person, is preferable. Another way this is transcribed is through the direct characterization of Mrs. Forrester. She is a well rounded character that possesses unpredictable traits. The reader starts out rooting for her to remain in her perfect state. However, this dissipates and Cather causes her to transform from a hopeful protagonist to an antagonistic figure through her actions. She makes the leap from someone who Niel willingly will take time to pick out special flowers for, to someone who has the power to ruin “all subsequent mornings” for him. This drastic change is almost unfathomable but furthers the point that once something goes bad, it is forever bad. Willa Cather explores how the intangible quality of innocence is often lost in this modern world. Something so finite, so delicate, takes great care to maintain and that is so often bypassed. A Lost Lady incorporates how anything from the sinful nature of others, to potential fading away leads to innocence being bashed to the point of no return. A technique used by Cather to capture the ambiguity of innocence is how she interprets why it is so hard to preserve. Neil speaks to losing one of the “most beautiful things in his life.” At a moment’s glance, this means exactly what is stated. However, Cather used the word “things” in correspondence with innocence because there are countless meanings. If one can’t decipher what things or qualities they are to keep, then it is impossible to protect that innocence. This, right here, is why innocence is lost in a matter of seconds.

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The Staining of the Golden Gates. (2018, April 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 19, 2021, from
“The Staining of the Golden Gates.” GradesFixer, 15 Apr. 2018,
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