Cather: History, the Ideal and Disillusionment

Willa Cather is a writer whose literature echoes the romantics of Europe of the 18th and 19th century. She honored natural human feelings and impulses writing about emotions and sentiments that mirrored the people of her time. She reveals a great deal about the collective despairs, dreams and identities of the characters while providing a commentary on the American experience. Immigration, aspiration, economic swings and the ever-changing landscape provides fertile ground for the growth and development to Cather protagonists. This paper will explore the meaning of the frontier, the “heyday” and lean times or peaks and valleys and disillusionment within several works.

Additionally, it will discuss how the schism between the modern and a romanticized past effect the setting along with the importance of the interpretation of history.

The Frontier

According to historian Frederick Jackson Turner the frontier is “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” and argued that this point was the foundation for American identity and politics (Rudolph 78). In keeping with the spirit of the frontier, Cather uses it to shape and develop the identity of the characters while providing a layered setting.

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The frontier captures the wistful imagination in O Pioneers! Alexandra thinks of Carl’s life being softer on the frontier, “There are always dreamers on the frontier” (120). The frontier is the place where dreams are to be forged and realized. In later work, My Antoniá, the frontier is the fodder for trouble, in describing Wick Cutter Jim states, “In every frontier settlement there are men who have come there to escape restraint” (561).

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This presents the frontier as a place for exploration of geographical and personal boundaries where men meet themselves, discovering their own light and darkness. The frontier or prairie represents a threshold or liminal space for either development or decay. Cultural critic and historian, Richard Slotkin's defines the mythos of the frontier in three stages beginning with the general understanding of America as a land of opportunity for the strong to master, then incorporating exploitation of the land and finally being employed as a vehicle for cultural ideology in the twentieth century era in popular culture (23). Cather’s work takes place in the middle of this stage when there were still identities, fortunes or fiascoes to be made.

Of the frontier character, the identities of many of the individuals are shaped by their frontier families and communities. Daniel Forrester’s identity is partly forged by his wife who is a magnificent object to be adorned, prized and cherished, being known as “the one with the beautiful wife” (102). Upon coveting the life Daniel Forrester portrays Niel thinks to himself, “I planned to build a house that my friends could come to, with a wife like Mrs. Forrester to make it attractive to them (43). Like the frontier, the Forresters represent the ideal of a golden age of easy prosperity and a future that holds fantastic promise, however, ends with a critical view of modernity. In Death Comes for The Archbishop the frontier is viewed more realistically as a working exile, “…the future troubled nobody; the house was full of light and music, the air warm with that simple hospitality of the frontier, where people dwell in exile, far from their kindred, where they lead rough lives and seldom meet together for pleasure (84).

Of Peaks and Valleys

The lean times after a heyday or a valley after a particularly lovely peak is a common element of Cather’s work. The valley is commonly a symbol of fertility and life; it evokes images of cultivation. They are, respectively, the low and the high. Droughts, crop failures, deaths and illness are common in the Cather novel as are other tragedies. There is often a person held in high regard who has a fall from grace. My Antoniá and A Lost Lady serve as laments with women as the picturesque ideal. In My Antoniá Antoniá is at first idealized as is Marian in A Lost Lady. Other disappointments include Godfrey St. Peter’s daughters, these paragons embodied an aesthetic ideal that is important to the main character but eventually fall short of expectations. Cather’s heroines turn out to be heartbreakers following baser emotions and strivings to a present that is less glorious than what the characters around them would forge.

This chasm between the ideal and the one forged by the ideal itself is where the characters find introspection. The chasm is created by either vice or providence. For example, in The Professor’s House the valley is envy and greed, disdain for Daniel Forrester’s ideal with Ivy Peters in A Lost Lady, Antoniá with her pregnancy makes herself an “object of pity” in My Antoniá. Characters find themselves reckoning with life and often losing. In My Antonia the tramp, Mr. Shimerda, and Wick Cutter commit suicide unable to find a way out of their lows.

Of Disillusionment

Cather’s works have a great deal of romantic infatuation in them but along with fascination comes disillusionment. Cather when discussing the ideal of romantic love, there is an abundance of illusion shaping the fixation. Sociologist Willard W. Waller stressed that “falling in love” was accompanied by a process of idealization of the love object stating in his book The Family, A Dynamic Interpretation, “In romantic love one builds up an almost completely unreal picture of a person which he calls by the same name as a real person, and vainly imagines to be like that person, but in fact the only authentic thing in the picture is the emotion which one feels toward it” (2).

Much like the aforementioned pattern of romantic love being the sole product of one’s imagination so Cather’s male characters find their ideal, a mirage. The deceitful product of a thirsty mind lending itself to disappointment. Cather’s male characters discover a hard reality about worshipping idols. These idols, motifs and objects in nearly all the Cather novels remain someone else’s and in the past. In A Lost Lady it is Marian’s cheating and selling Daniel’s property to the likes of Ivy Peters and this ideal is also in The Professor’s House. Godfrey enjoys every image of success, but the introduction of an unattractive truth, materialism and contention, causes a retreat from the present into an idealized past represented in the sanctuaries provided by Tom’s diary, the attic and garden. The future is approaching but is undesirable as the results do not equal what was ideal and glorious.

In A Wagner Matinee, Clark’s Aunt embodies the ideal of disillusionment not wanting to leave after the matinee. Clark explains, “I understood. For her, just outside the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door” (495). Niel describes his disillusionment, “It was what he most held against Mrs. Forrester; that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms” (145). The ideals being worshipped by these characters are not being venerated by the world around them and the illumination of reality proves painful for characters like Godfrey, Aunt Georgiana, and Niel.


In her work, Cather offers characters representative of the story of Western development. American history provides a sort of continuity between the noble pioneer values of the past and a fallen or diminished present. For example, the pioneer railroad man, Daniel Forrester shows reverence for the land, maintaining the marsh, not allowing hunting on his grounds and cultivating gardens. Conversely, men like Ivy Peters symbolize the generations who came after the pioneers only seeing the land for its cash value. Ivy drains the marsh and plants a wheat crop and hunts the animals. Niel witnesses the loss of the Captain’s integrity and chivalry, as men like Ivy replace his kind and overexploit the land.

The Cather novel examines humanity’s relationship with the land, how interconnections between people are affected by scarcity and the chasm that comes from the antagonistic relationships between human beings. In discussing the effect, the conflict between the modern and a romanticized past has on the setting, the earth, more specifically, the garden in the Cather novel provides a firm foundation. The garden is innocence, happiness; it is a place for growth of the inner Self, symbolic of consciousness because of its order and enclosed characteristics. The garden also represents fertility, salvation and purity, it is the place of mystic delight. Like the Forrester land becoming altered by Ivy Peter, the settings are affected by the moods and relationships of the characters.

The garden figures into O Pioneers! as a place so sacred that one the characters wants to be buried in it. Most of the happy memories are associated with gardens in My Antonia. One of Godfrey St. Peter’s sanctuaries is his garden. The influence of the priests is marked by gardens in Death Comes for The Archbishop. The priests leave many things in their wake, but lovely gardens, churches and non-native trees are the most symbolic indication of a blessed legacy. In arid monotonous land, faith leaves beauty as both are made tangible and splendorous. Along with the interpretation of frontier history, Cather sculpts the sentiment of the past as a buffer against an all too real and bleak-looking future full of materialism, infighting and the deterioration of more gracious times.

Works Cited

  • Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady (Vintage Classics). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  • Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  • Cather, Willa. Willa Cather: The Best Works: A Wagner Matinee. Pandora's Box. Kindle Edition.
  • Cather, Willa. The Prairie Trilogy: O Pioneers; The Song of the Lark; My Antoniá. Heritage Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  • Rudolph, Earle Leighton. “The Frontier in American Literature.” Jahrbuch Für Amerikastudien, vol. 7, 1962, pp. 77–91. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  • Slotkin, Richard. The Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Antheneum. 1992.
  • Waller, Willard W. The Family, A Dynamic Interpretation. New York: The Cordon Company, 1938.
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
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Cather: History, the Ideal and Disillusionment. (2022, Jan 13). Retrieved from

Cather: History, the Ideal and Disillusionment essay
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