The Yearning of the American West: Setting in Willa Cather’s Short Fiction

Vanessa Blakeslee
Jan 7 · 7 min read
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Photo by Casey Lee on Unsplash
  • The customs, motivations and actions of the characters throughout Willa Cather’s fiction grow almost entirely out of her various depictions of the American West. Cather utilizes the settings and atmosphere of her fictive narrative moments to show the collective historical background of families, townsfolk, and neighbors, their ties and rivalries, as well as their interactive relationships with setting to project to their futures. At various points in her fiction the setting entraps, threatens to entrap, frees or nourishes the lives of the characters, both as individuals and in their relationships to one another. In “The Bohemian Girl”, setting functions almost as a separate character of its own, and the active interplay between Nils, Clara, Eric and Olaf with the setting thrusts the story forward seemingly inevitably.

Cather clearly defines Nils’ relationship to his surroundings at the story’s immediate onset. Through her descriptive details of his character, she places the foreign-attired Nils immediately at odds at the story’s narrative moment — the plains are tied to his past and all he’s left behind for a better, more exciting life. This is even noted by the station agent in a remark about the luggage, “Depends on whether you like the country, I suppose” indicating the importance of this place for all who encounter it — those at odds with it usually leave. Yet even Nils who had fully cast off his ties to this place years before feels the tug of the surroundings right away, foreshadowing the inherent conflicts he will encounter with the inhabitants of this country: “Just now he was experiencing something very much like homesickness, and he was wondering what had brought it about. The mention of a name or two, perhaps; the rattle of a wagon along a dusty road; the rank, resinous smell of sunflowers and ironweed, which the night damp brought up from the draws and low places; perhaps, more than all, the dancing lights of the motor that had plunged by.” The first sentence describes an emotional state, and that which follows uses hard physical detail to invoke that state. Cather uses the sensory effects of Nils’ surroundings to obtain his inner emotional and psychological underpinnings, a tactic she continues to use throughout the entire story.

The characters of Mrs. Ericson, little Eric and Olaf behave in harmony according to the Western environment and provide resistance to the characters of Nils and Clara whose high-spirited individuality operates in contrast to the setting. Of all the family members, the description of Olaf perhaps resounds most strongly as a pure, unchanging product of his environment. Consider the following metaphor, rooted in landscape: “The one thing he had always felt in Olaf was a heavy stubbornness, like the unyielding stickiness of wet loam against the plow.” In contrast, while Clara and her father are also tied to the Western landscape, their Old World transplant roots brings a greater mobility to their outlook, although the landscape still threatens to permanently entrap and stifle Clara.

A more expansive depiction of the social context and the main characters’ ongoing conflict with it occurs during the barn-raising scene. Among the plethora of sensory details and actions illustrated here, perhaps the most demonstrative is the portrayal of the old women comprising the knitting circle, which Nils refers to as, “the Old Guard.” Cather writes,

“They were a fine company of old women, and a Dutch painter would have loved to find them there together, where the sun made bright patches on the floor and sent long, quivering shafts of gold through the dusky shade up among the rafters. They were fat, rosy old women who looked hot in their best black dresses; spare, alert old women with brown, dark-veined hands; and several of almost heroic frame, not less massive than old Mrs. Ericson herself.”

As the passage continues, the language used to describe the women matches the harshness rendered by the environment, and thus reveals Nils’ attitude toward them and the larger setting of his boyhood: he observes with respect, at times even awe, but is determined to keep a safe distance from or else risk his own entrapment. Nils’ focus on these women as a timeless encapsulation of setting, of their place within it, is contrasted with Clara walking by and representing the complete antithesis both in her striking physical appearance and behavior to the social context set by the environment.

The awe of the Western landscape and its power to entrap its inhabitants Cather executes most powerfully in the next scene, when it threatens to ensnare Clara forever unless she bucks against it from within and leaves with Nils. As with her characters, Cather draws us in with the dreamlike, bewitching details, the images building one after another:

“The moonlight flooded that great, silent land. The reaped fields lay yellow in it. The straw stacks and poplar windbreaks threw sharp black shadows. The roads were white rivers of dust. The sky was a deep, crystalline blue, and the stars were few and faint. Everything seemed to have succumbed, to have sunk to sleep, under the great, golden, tender, midsummer moon. The splendor of it seemed to transcend human life and human fate…”

This is a prime example of how Cather blends description of nature with expository interpretation. The first half of this quote focuses on observed detail — the second half on interpreting the detail. This balance between the use of concrete description and abstract prose, between hard specific detail and expository prose that interprets that detail for the reader, creates the kind of back and forth that was a characteristic of the naturalist writers at the time, notably in the work of Stephen Crane, among others. The technique is a less common in Joyce’s Dubliners, for example, as he searched for epiphany through the juxtaposition of imagery, or by writers who work in a more representational mode, e.g. Hemingway, Welty, Flannery O’Connor. Still, a certain blending occurs in the latter authors’ work, a certain degree of movement back and forth between the specific and the abstract interpretation of the specific.

Through the external, Cather shows us the effect of this landscape as it pulls on Nils, already reshaping his life and identity: “Near the road, Nils Ericson was lying against a straw stack in Olaf’s wheat field. His own life seemed strange and unfamiliar to him, as if it were something he had read about, or dreamed, and forgotten.” Again — this quote opens with observed detail — them moves towards abstract interpretation. The all-encompassing nature of the landscape, the apparent boundlessness of the earth and sky, ironically shuts out the rest of the world and forms a prison for those free spirits who happen to be born underneath it; the only way for those like Nils and Clara to live and thrive is to break away or become rooted to landscape, and the rough living it promises, forever. The environment most threatens Clara’s character, as she has known no other place compared to Nils, who has left and will leave again for the wider world. But she must severe her ties with the place or else risk losing all of herself to the confines of her surroundings.

Ultimately, Clara is only able to severe her ties because Nils enables her to do so, and because they share the same restless spirit within. For those lacking such spirit, like little Eric, the surroundings enact a twofold interplay: they entrap but at the same time, nourish. Different creatures in harmony with the land, Eric and Mrs. Ericson find their sustenance from the landscape and don’t need to break away to thrive. Their situation is the opposite, and the train ride places Eric instead in “despair” as he reflects on leaving his home, demonstrated by the story’s final image: “His tears splashed down on the boards; happiness filled his heart.”

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Vanessa Blakeslee (photo by Ashley Inguanta)

Vanessa Blakeslee’s latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories is the winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Short Stories (Gold), the 2019 IPPY Silver Medal for Short Story Fiction (Silver), the NIEA (Gold), and was a Chicago Tribune “Summer Reads” Pick, among other accolades. Her debut novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015), was hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “tale of self-discovery and intense first love.” The book earned high praise from the Jewish Book Council, the LA Progressive, Bustle, Washington Independent Review of Books, the Rumpus, the SIBA Award/Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, to name a few. Her story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and optioned for a feature film. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, Publishers Weekly, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. She has been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, Writers Omi, The Banff Centre, the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and many more. She teaches writing at Rollins College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project of Orlando, FL.

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