Understanding the Protagonists of Willa Cather

To have read Willa Cather is to inevitably find some astute recognitions of your self in the life of her characters. Cather is greatly admired for by the reading public of her time, for having been able to give life to characters that are most particularly evident in the nature of real people in the course of their life. That is because:

In this comment, Willa Cather argued for the purity of art, the need for the                       artist to remain uncorrupted by demands and purposes that interfere with the                aesthetic intent. Guided by such principles, she combined precise descriptive               skill and insight into the subtleties of human character with a disciplined and                    beautiful prose style to fashion a group of novels and short stories that have                     earned her a permanent place among the great writers of America.                                                (http://wps.ablongman.com)

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Taking into study five short stories namely On the Divide, Paul’s Case, A Death in the Desert, The Marriage of Phaedra, and A Wagner Matinee, Cather showcases her ineffable skill in fiction writing with her surprisingly poetic and very descriptive narrations of ordinary life turning them into remarkable stories of personal struggles, yet some ending in tragedy.

But, notable above all, is her excellent craft in characterization and how she clearly molds one character into becoming a totally disparate character, particularly the character of her protagonists, which any reader would have not thought of while immersed in the readings.

For one, Cather has an immense ability to give her protagonist definite descriptions of their physical attributes that amount to the nature of their character as is swiftly seen on the whole process of reading the story. With this, her protagonists are initially presented as mad men engaged in their own crazy world that other people cannot decipher.

Take for example the story of On the Divide, the protagonist Canute is described as a big-framed guy with worn-out hair and a habit of drinking alcohol who lives alone in the wild plains. The story says:

But he was not a social man by nature and had not the power of drawing out                    the social side of other people. His new neighbors rather feared him because of                     his great strength and size, his silence and his lowering brows. Perhaps, too,                    they knew that he was mad, mad from the eternal treachery of the plains.                                  (Faulkner 493-504)

With his physical descriptions and lifestyle, talks about his madness circle the neighborhood and frighten people. Thus, he is perceived by his neighbors to have the ability to hurt other neighbors. Another specific example is the story Paul’s Case wherein the protagonist Paul is depicted as a very tall and thin delinquent student who constantly makes his teachers agreeably feel a certain kind of dislike for him:

His clothes were a trifle outgrown and the tan velvet on the collar of his open                  overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the                                    dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly knotted black four-in-                 hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole. This latter adornment the faculty                 somehow felt was not properly significant of the contrite spirit befitting a boy             under the ban of suspension. (Faulkner 243-261)

The nature of the protagonists in these stories is haunted by an air of madness which at first would make any reader think if they are the protagonists at all. But to say that a protagonist is perceived as one from the beginning of the story till the end is not true to all literary writing. There are times when a character transformation is technically imbued in the process of becoming an authentic protagonist.

As I have said, Canute has initially been seen as the enemy of the neighbors. But along the way of his meeting Lena, the daughter of a new family neighbor who is not afraid of him, he is tamed by his feelings for her. Despite all the bullying and mockery from Lena, her family, and the neighbors for his unrequited love, he pursues his love for her by forcing marriage and showing her that he is a man of worth with a good heart, too.

This Lena finds out at the end of the story when she finally surrenders and reveals to Canute that she would rather have him than any of her family during that very first cold night together. Canute reveals his soft personality by crying over what Lena has said, and finally winning Lena to believe his sincere love for her.

As a reader, Canute’s character at the end has changed my perception of him, from a mad and solitary man into a man of good heart also in need of a companion in life. And Cather has proven her ability in creating a wonderful character development of her protagonist with Canute as a specific example.

Another obvious nature of Cather’s protagonists is how these men readily seek comfort and share with the sufferings of women in their lives like the protagonists Everett and Clark in the stories A Death in the Desert and Wagner Matinee, respectively. Everett is a man caught up in the shadows of his famous elder brother musician who is often mistaken for him all his life. Even in love, Everett takes up the role of what his brother failed to do for her long time musician friend Katharine who is struck by a sickness that is about to take her to death.

It was not the first time that his duty had been to comfort of the broken things                  his brother’s imperious speed had cast aside and forgotten. He made no                                  attempt to analyse the situation or to state it in exact terms; but he felt                               Katharine Gaylord’s need for him, and he accepted it as a commission from his                       brother to help this woman to die. (Faulkner 199-217)

Everett, having been in love with Katharine since the old days, willingly shares his time

to be with her and finally expresses how she meant in his life all along despite the fact that Katharine remains in love with his brother Adriance.

On the other hand, Clark fulfills his naturally good protagonist character like Everett to his Aunt Georgina who has been graciously good to her. Clark says, “I owed to this woman most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood, and had a reverential affection for her” (Faulkner 219-234). Clark displays his affection for the old lady as soon as he sees the weary look on her face and the disappointing evidence age and farm life have manifested in her body structure and manner of dressing.

Grateful as ever for his Aunt’s goodness, Clark tries to repay it by bringing her to a musical show, the Wagner Matinee. Clueless of how his Aunt Georgina would react after long sad years of having been away from this kind of life, Clark watches her intently and finds out that her soul has been rekindled again by the wonderful music. Aunt Georgina cries to him and wishes not to go back home to the lonely farm.

Everett and Clark are clear validations of the natural protagonists from the very beginning till the closing of the story as opposed to the characters of Canute and Paul. By their efforts to uplift the downtrodden states of these long-suffering women, that gives me as a reader a sense of admiration for Everett and Clark’s characters, which should be the case for observing natures of a protagonist.

Perhaps, the very similar characteristic of Cather’s protagonists in the five stories mentioned earlier is their attachment to the arts. From Paul’s case to Everett to Clark, all involved in the magic of music, to MacMaster in The Marriage of Phaedra, associated in the art of painting. Theirs is a case of redemption found in the arms of music and painting.

If there’s one story that comes short of my expectations, it is MacMaster’s character. His character is not extensively explored, except for his association with paintings and his similar appreciation of beauty in women like Everett and Canute, or at least in other minute details such as having shy nature like the other character-protagonists. Probably the revealing protagonist nature of MacMaster is only witnessed when, from being hesitant to get involved in personal matters of his late painter-friend Treffinger, he finally submits to James’ wish to help save the last unfinished painting of their friend Treffinger from being sold by the late painter’s wife, the Lady Ellen.

But at one point, the reader might also share my sentiments that, maybe, James also divides with MacMaster the limelight of being a protagonist. Because despite his uncanny manner and speech, he has always been the one who continues to bring into life Treffinger’s last wish and forces MacMaster to talk to Lady Ellen about it from the start of the story.

However, the question now lies not in who is the protagonist? But how do we characterize a protagonist during Cather’s time and in this contemporary time? Well, in my perspective, there may be a difference in the fiction’s time lines but the nature of an authentic protagonist stays the same.

A modern-day protagonist, hero, or heroine for that matter is someone who is able to confront his weaknesses as a human being and be able to overcome it in time. Despite being beset with so many shortfalls in his or her nature, the so-called protagonist transforms this negative behavior and finds his way into transforming other people as well. Aside from this, the modern-day hero should be one who is eager enough to uplift the lowly conditions of other people without awaiting anything in return. Eventually, he or she finds redemption for himself or herself and for other men as well.

Anybody can be a modern-day hero. You do not have to be a politician to serve the needs of the citizens. You do not have to be a preacher to transform the lives of your fellow men. Sad to say, but sometimes these same people who are placed in the highest levels of position are the ones who fail to show what it truly means to be a hero. Yet, this should not let us stop from seeking the hero that has been missing in our lives. Continue looking within or around you, who knows a modern-day hero could possibly only be hiding in the worn-out clothes of scavengers.

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