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Wagner Matinee Essay

During the 1800’s there was an increase in immigration to the Great Plains due to an abundance of free land offered by the Homestead Act. Many individuals and families went west to seek their fortune and a home on what was once called the great American desert. Moving westward was a difficult process, and many were forced to leave their old lives behind completely. In “A Wagner Matinee,” written by Willa Cather, the characterization of Aunt Georgiana, a woman who leaves Boston to elope with a young man going west, is used to illustrate the theme; that sometimes decisions need to be made, and although one might regret it, one love must be sacrificed for another. One way that Cather uses characterization to illustrate this theme is through direct statements about Georgiana and physical descriptions. Right away Cather tells us that Georgiana is, or was, a pianist of some accomplishment. She once worked as an instructor at the Boston Conservatory of Music. For a woman to achieve this status in the time “A Wagner Matinee” is set was an extraordinary thing. The music she chose to give up was surely something she loved very dearly and was very proud of. The physical description of Aunt Georgiana shows the hardships she had to endure because of her sacrifice. The narrator of the story, Georgiana’s nephew Clark, describes her as having yellow and leathery skin, and wearing ill-fitting false teeth.

These physical defects were the result of a pitiless wind and the alkaline water, along with other hardships of the Nebraska frontier. The most biting description of Aunt Georgiana is the repeated image of her hands. She was once a great pianist, but from work on the farm in Nebraska, her hands have been reduced to twisted knots of flesh, with oddly bent, tentacle-like fingers. This description best illustrates her sacrifice, as her hands were the most vital thing to her musical essence, and Cather does well to convey this through the repeated imagery. Georgiana’s statements throughout the novel also support the theme of regret and sacrifice. Clark recalls a time when Georgiana opens her soul to him, and says “Don’t love it so well Clark, or it may be taken from you. Oh! Dear boy, pray that whatever your sacrifice be it is not that.” By saying this she is referring to, of course music. Her advice to not “love it so well” is intensely pessimistic, influenced by the great pain she suffered when she gave up her life ambition. Later in the only conversation that Clark and Georgiana share at the concert, she remorsefully makes reference to the music they are enjoying.

“And you’ve been hearing this ever since you left me, Clark?” she asks. Clark calls the question “the gentlest and saddest of reproaches”. When she says this she is almost jealous of her nephew. Her wistful remembrance and longing is made clear through her words. Finally, at the end of the concert, she bursts into tears and cries out “I don’t want to go Clark, I don’t want to go!” This is a very direct and clear example that her longing for the music she sacrificed is terrible and immense. However, Aunt Georgiana’s actions often speak volumes, and impart a greater insight into the theme than even her words can convey. She had lived on a farm away from civilization for thirty years, and so the transition back into the city was not an easy one. She is described as being almost in a trance when she arrives. Her state of being does not change throughout the story until she arrives at the matinee and she “awakens”. The only thing that connects her back to the city she left so long ago is the music. When the concert starts, it opens the flood gates to her memories. The very moment the first note is played her hand darts out and clutches at Clark’s coat sleeve.

She does not release it until that song is has come to an end. After this first ordeal she is able to calm herself somewhat, but the music still controls her, seeming to sweep her away to another world. As the concert continues, she fondly remembers her days at the conservatory as she pantomimes the action of playing a piano on her dress. Through these actions and others she demonstrates how dear to her the music that she left behind is. Thus, Cather uses the characterization to illustrate the theme of sacrifice. The vivid physical description presented makes the weight of Georgiana’s decision clear. Georgiana’s words also provide great insight into how she feels. Indirect expressions, which can be interpreted through her conscious and subconscious actions, are the most solid representation of how the theme is demonstrated through characterization. Aunt Georgiana is not a unique case, and although she is a fictional character, sacrifices like hers are inevitably made every day. Sometimes there is no middle ground, and no matter how great a love is, it must be abandoned for what is believed to be a greater good. The regret and pain which accompany these sacrifices must be dealt with by each individual.

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