Relationship is integral to any story, and more so as the environment itself interacts with a clearly human personality. Willa Cather’s land can reflect the many paradoxes within us to show us more of ourselves, all the greater reason to see her settings as characters of value, power, and influence.
In the world of story, there is no doubt that setting plays a vital role. It lends atmosphere and stirs mood. It sparks our imagination and relays emotion. As readers, we want to see and feel and breathe the world the characters live in, and sometimes, just sometimes, the setting itself becomes a character.
One such example is the land within many of Willa Cather’s novels and short stories. This land could never be defined as mere setting. It possesses a full personality, eccentric and independent, a friend to those who work with it, and an enemy to those who refuse to meet its acquaintance in basic empathy. It reacts and responds. It steals and gives. John P. Forbes goes so far as to accuse the land of being an antagonist because it is personified and part of an “unmistakable conflict” between character and setting like it is with Alexandra and the land in O Pioneers! Mr. Forbes, however, assumes that dissonance in a relationship is equal to antagonist status. He believes the many “evolutionary changes” the land undergoes forges a distinct antagonist. But is this true? Does negativity an enemy make?
To me, the fact that antagonism is present shows real relationship, both its weaknesses and strengths. Within O Pioneers!, the land is characterized more by its strength than by its vastness. Like a human personality, that strength sometimes emerges as overbearing and at other times as supportive. Alexandra Bergson understood this. She too was intimidated at first as “the land wanted to be left alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar kind of savage beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness,” but as decades pass, the land appears an empathic friend as it “responds in kind.” More than personified, the land becomes a rounded character in full relationship with man.
Consider this. Cather’s land is more than a natural resource within the story. The land brings not just wholeness or personal revelation, but also replicates itself as a literary source of harmony and revelation within each story’s plot. In Song of the Lark, for instance, Thea’s interactions with the Arizonan landscape are the impetus for her as a burgeoning, mature artist. Without the unity and life she felt there, Thea would not have become who she was. Her character develops in the plot because of her relationship with the person of the land, for it is “a source of her well-being and deep solace.” For Antonia, the land is both the safe place she returns to and the nourishing character who is an emotional center for Antonia and Jim where they experience “the sense of coming home.” In an intentional unity, Terence Martin concludes that “between Antonia and the prairie both have yielded life in abundance; both have prevailed.” In One of Ours, the tenuous relationship Claude shares with the Nebraskan farmland impels him to journey to the fields of France. There he re-experiences the harmony and goodness of a nurtured land, a call to remember the ideal and beauty of his native home. These relationships illustrate the necessity of the land as a functioning protagonist, one that not just influences, but also cultivates development in other characters.
As a force, the land exerts its power in both the natural landscape and in relationship with the other characters. Here, it manifests its depth in its changeful and wild moods. Within O Pioneers!, the dominant land begins as a foreboding presence with its “ugly moods,” controlling the early settlers and driving many away. As time passes, it retains its wild nature, yet responds in benevolence to the understanding of Alexandra who possesses a faith in the land that others lack. The land is wholly human to her in relationship. And, if she has a faith, then the personified land must indeed retain an ability to respond to that faith.
Without these forceful dynamics, the land would simply be setting, instead of a powerful agent. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, the New Mexico land’s extreme nature and grandeur meshes with a spiritual power as it affects those who live and journey there. Bloom and Bloom describe the land as both a “spiritual sanctuary” and a “manifestation of a divine supersensible force.” Bishop Latour is the first to see this, for when he responds in prayer after acknowledging spiritual signs in creation, the land responds to him by providing rest and water at the right moment. It both acts on his behalf at times and displays its wildness and manipulation at others. Unlike the pioneer land, the land of the southwest territories is rarely tamed and rarely compassionate. This land too is a protagonist because it demands that the other characters understand its nature, knowing that they cannot change it. This land decidedly thrusts change upon them.
As a protagonist, the land also possesses a sense of time as if susceptible to time’s influence like any other character. It feels the changes forced on it as in A Lost Lady when the railroad is built or when its natural marshes are drained, all in the name of man’s progress. Through these select descriptions of landscape, we are enabled to see a passing of time. Thus, in a new modern era, characters like Niel Herbert respond to the land’s losses as if it were human. Saddened by what he observes as he grows older, Niel can see that others are taking over without truly “knowing” the land or its nuances. Further, other characters mimic the land as it weakly flounders, and so Marian Forrester becomes lost without a sense of time or appreciation. The land as protagonist may not be strong and controlling here, but it has clearly affected its inhabitants in their loss.
Relationship is integral to any story, and more so as the environment itself interacts with a clearly human personality. The land fosters strength and harmony within some, yet illuminates weakness in others. Cather’s land can reflect the many paradoxes within us to show us more of ourselves, all the greater reason to see her settings as characters of value, power, and influence.
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1 John P. Forbes, “Rediscovering a National Treasure: Willa Cather—Novelist of Nature, Gender and Geography in Virginia and Nebraska,” International Social Science Review 70, no. 3/4 (1995): 108.
2 Forbes, 106.
3 Lorraine Anderson. “Introduction to Willa Cather” in Sisters of the Earth: Women’s Prose and Poetry about Nature, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2003): 175.
4 Terence Martin. “The Drama of Memory in ‘My Antonia.’” PMLA 84, no. 2 (March 1969): 311.
5 Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom. “Willa Cather’s Novels of the Frontier: A Study in Thematic Symbolism.” American Literature 21, no. 1 (March 1949): 82.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Wasatch Mountains, Nebraska” (1877) by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.