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A lot of time is spent contemplating about the hero, how he is defined and how he succeeds in every story. However, nowadays there is a growing focus on the modern heroine. As a writer of considerable talent, Willa Cather achieved her goal in being noticed by the world and has largely become one of the most formidable women writers of her time. The focus of this paper is to make an analysis of each of the female protagonist in five of Cather’s short stories which included “On the Divide”, “A Death in the Desert”, “A Wagner Matinee”, The Marriage of Phaedra” and Old Mrs. Harris”, describing their nature as well as the transitions in their characters as the story unfolds. In so doing, a clear definition of the modern heroine was arrived at. She must be a character who is able to identify with the readers as well as a character that depicts substantial inner strength. She must be able to know her own person and not let anyone or anything stifle her personality along with her inner desires and dreams.
With its first printing in the California-based monthly magazine, the Overland Monthly, in January 1896, “On the Divide” was Cather’s first short story to be printed on a national publication. The story revolves around the male protagonist, Canute Canuteson, a man of Norwegian descent who lived a solitary life in the Nebraskan prairie. He maintained his complacent lifestyle until one fateful spring when another family settled in a land near his.
He had taken to drinking with his new neighbor, Ole Yensen, who is a drunkard like himself and, though atypical for a man of Canute’s nature, finds himself quite taken with Ole’s daughter Lena. Lena is an undeniably pretty girl who doesn’t cringe in fear in Canute’s presence despite the man’s imposing aura unlike most of the people in the area. However, Lena has a penchant for torturing and teasing Canute in ways that are often vindictive and spiteful, wherein she takes sadistic pleasure in Canute’s silent suffering. Canute’s enchantment with her did a lot to feed her vanity which further prompted her to continue with her antics. Presented with an opportunity to live a more sophisticated lifestyle, she leans towards the glamour of metropolitan life.
Earning her own fortune has changed Lena’s personality up a notch where the spoiled little miss has largely become a socialite and an incorrigible snob. Lena’s attitude towards Canute was deeply affected by her changed outlook. Where she was marginally playful and vain at the beginning of the story, she now openly displays her scorn and contempt for Canute and his very existence. She admits to her mother her desire to “have fun” and to give herself over to Canute’s care when she reaches her mother’s present age where she describes her mother to be old and ugly. Her way of thinking clearly demonstrates Lena’s shrewd and calculating persona. Unfortunately, her views were overheard by Canute, causing him to loosen his restraint upon himself and acting in a rash and unpredictable manner. Having been abducted and married to Canute against her will, Lena consoles herself with the fact that she had intended to marry him anyway. She is resigned to her fate, which either showcases her courage in making the most out of a dismal situation or her lack of it by not fighting back enough to gain freedom from a fate she half-heartedly wants. When Canute accompanied the priest who married them back to his own home, Lena was left to wander around Canute’s house where she discovered the suits that he bought and intended to wear. Her vanity is once more soothed by this little discovery that Canute was willing to do anything to win her love and attention. She actually felt pity for the
man she had married, exposing Lena’s humane side. Having been left alone for a considerable amount of time, she begins to get anxious and terrified that she calls out for her husband. Whether she does this because all the other options for company weren’t particularly appealing to her, or that it is Canute that she sincerely wants to be with is up to the readers to decide. "I don't want him either, Canute,--I'd rather have you.” Lena says. This was something that Canute had been waiting for from the moment he fell for Lena. Even though her sincerity is doubtful, she gave Canute a grain of happiness, causing him to sob at her feet.
“A Death in the Desert” was first printed in The Scribner’s on January 1903. This story is about a man’s fateful journey through Cheyenne, Wyoming where he chances upon his one of his brother’s former students. Everett Hilgarde’s brother Adrience was an internationally acclaimed composer and it has been one too many times that Everette was often mistaken to be his brother due to an uncanny resemblance. The female protagonist in this story fell prey to the same fate when Everett alighted from the station. In the course of the story, it was revealed that Everett had been secretly enamored with his brother’s former pupil, Katherine Gaylord. Having once been a companion of Everett’s brother during his trips abroad, Katherine Gaylord was once a person radiating with vibrancy and an enjoyment of life. What was once a lively and youthful girl had now become a cynical woman who was slowly deteriorating from her disease.
As soon as she meets Everette, she is immediately reminded of his brother and almost as immediately bombards Everett with questions about a lot of things that she used to be a part of. No longer withdrawn, she comes alive at Everett’s narrative of the changes that have been brought about in her absence as she drinks greedily on every word. From the beginning of the story, it was evident that Katherine cared for Adrience in a much deeper level, a fact that Everett was to discover later on. Throughout the narrative, Katherine was seen to have taken advantage of Everett’s kind nature and generosity to be
able to relive lost moments she had with his brother. She has done so not in an unkind way, but in a manner through which her remaining life’s happiness depended on. Throughout Everett’s entire stay with her, she has been seeing him not as himself but as his brother. There was one moment, one moment alone when Katherine told him of the letter that Adrience sent that she saw Everett, not as the very image of Adrience but as himself. It is rather unfair and unkind for her to do so knowing that Everett still harbors feelings for her. She doesn’t mean any intentional harm by it; she just can help it, knowing how strong her feelings for Adrience still are. At her very last breath, lying on Everett’s arms, it is Adrience’s name that she spoke of, a testament of the strength of her love and devotion for him.
It was in Everybody’s Magazine that Cather’s story, “A Wagner Matinee “was first published in 1904. In this story, Clark receives a note informing him of his Aunt Georgiana’s arrival. As the lead female character, Georgiana is depicted as a shabby old woman who was once a music teacher before being forced to give up her hopes and dreams upon her marriage to a farmer. In the course of the story Clark recalls an episode that left a distinct impression on him where his Aunt had told him not to love anything in excess "or it may be taken from you. Oh, dear boy, pray that whatever your sacrifice may be, it be not that" (Charters 510). From this alone, the reader could infer that Georgiana had once loved her musical dreams too much but was taken from her by the responsibility that came with a married life. She is portrayed to have shown a weakness in her inability to fight for her dreams instead of allowing them to be stifled. As part of Clark’s plan to amuse his aunt to show his appreciation for all that she has done for him in his boyhood, Clark took her to see a performance of the music by Richard Wagner. At first, it would seem that Georgiana is indifferent to the people and the performance. Later on, Georgiana shows recognition of some of the songs played and is seen by the reader to be thrust forcibly back into the days where her dreams were as alive as she was. Readers clearly see the immensity of the consequence of killing a person’s dreams; in this case, Georgiana’s. In killing her dreams, she has inevitably killed the real Georgiana. Her experience at the opera has forced her to face the reality that hers was a sad and empty existence without dreams to sustain the very core of her life.
“The Marriage of Phaedra” was first published in 1905 in the Troll Garden as a part of Cather’s collection of her earlier works. The female protagonist in this story doesn’t have much exposure as far as the narration of the story goes. Lady Ellen Treffinger was the widow of the renowned painter Hugh Treffinger. Although both are obviously of a different temperament than the other, the two still manage to get married, which would later prove to have disastrous results. Prior to her marriage, Lady Ellen was often discontented about a great many things. In the course of the story, she was depicted to be hostile towards her husband, his works, as well as his friends as a result of Hugh’s being an inconsiderate husband himself. Her hostility is proof of the fighting spirit within her as she refuses to be dragged into a life of misery with her husband. Upon his death, she shows this great display of her willingness to live despite of living through oppressive years with her husband by defying his wishes not to sell “the Marriage of Phaedra”, a painting that her husband was obsessed about.
“Old Mrs. Harris” was one of Cather’s collected stories and was first published in 1932. A semi-biographical story originally entitled the “Three Women”, it links three different generations in a family, which represents Willa herself, her mother and her grandmother. The female protagonists in this story all have distinctive characteristics. The grandmother was a gentle creature and was the one who looked after and taught the children. The daughter, who is Willa’s mother in real life, is a both a spoiled child and a loving mother to her children. The granddaughter, who would be Willa, is a fiercely independent character, set on her own ways but remain as dutiful to her family. All three generations are seen to have differing individual needs where the gradual weakening of the grandmother’s health goes practically unnoticed and eventually led to her untimely death.
In all of these stories, the female characters display a general sense of weakness, a faltering in their original persona once associated with a strong male lead. A common characteristic of most of Willa Cather’s females is having a definite artistic skill, where it is depicted to have a certain diminishing under the battery of the strains of responsibility to family. The strength of the Cather’s female leads was set in accordance with her time, where there was a general suppression of women, their views, their skills. Nowadays, the heroine is no longer depicted in the demeaning stigma that women are of a weaker sex. The modern heroine is portrayed as women of immense strength, who flourish in their chosen fields and can even surpass the modern hero in terms of wit and skills. Independence has long been inculcated within the modern heroine, wherein she knows her own mind and isn’t afraid of going after what she wants without allowing the allowing the responsibilities of family and married life to prove to be an obstruction. She conforms to what the modern woman of today is; a fighter, a believer, an achiever.
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