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In Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, we are confronted with many examples of love and personal growth, two themes that Cather seamlessly intertwines by utilizing her technique of elucidation of complex emotion through use of nature and landscape throughout the novel. In this essay, I argue that Cather defines love and personal growth of Marian Forrester through three distinct scenes: the drunken long distance call between Mrs.
Forrester and Ellinger after she learns of his elopement, the story of how Mr. nd Mrs. Forrester met and fell in love (told at the boys’ dinner party after the death of Captain Forrester), and the scene where Neil discovers that Mrs. Forrester found a happily ever after, after all. I chose these specific scenes because they explicate Mrs. Forrester’s romantic ideals of love and her personal growth as she struggles in vain to find the life she’s looking for, that is, a life of both wealth and true love.
Though some may view Marian Forrester’s long-standing affair with the masculine Frank Ellinger as a fatal character flaw, I contend that its existence and its abrupt demise via long distance telephone call illustrate a vital stepping stone along her journey of personal growth, and give us an important piece of the puzzle that is her evolving ideal of love. As soon as Marian Forrester storms into Neil’s house in the middle of the night, we learn that she has braved the rain, mud, and (especially), the ford crossing that was “’up to a horses belly’” with flood water (Cather 123).
In her drunken state, nothing will distract her from her present mission, which is, to give Frank Ellinger the telling off he’ll never forget for betraying her trust. Presumably, she had meant to marry Ellinger herself, after the death of Captain Forrester, but Ellinger had been forced to choose otherwise when a mysterious feminine illness – that is, pregnancy – happened to befall the very lady whom Mrs. Forrester had been the source of introduction. We learn of this only through Mrs.
Forrester’s end of the conversation, where she remarks, “Where shall you go on your honeymoon? Oh, I’m very sorry! So soon… you must take good care of her” (Cather 127). Of course, Ellinger may also be referring to an illness, as some excuse not to come see Mrs. Forrester. Either way, it becomes clear that Ellinger is forgetting the promises he made to Mrs. Forrester, and making his final attempts to be rid of her forever. It is the beginning of night at this part of the story, and ne may also conclude that this is the beginning of a sort of “night” in Marian Forrester’s life as well. It is following this point that Mrs. Forrester begins to sink into a deep depression, and allows herself to fall from the high esteem in which everyone in the community has held her. But there is also a glimpse into the personal growth that will occur from that point on, for this was not the first time that Marian Forrester’s ideal of love had gone terribly awry.
Following the death of Captain Forrester, Marian slowly gains back a bit of her determination; indeed, she is determined to no longer let love stand in the way of the life she seeks – that is, a life of wealth and consequence. Twice before, her ideals of love had not turned out the way she’d hoped. After her husband’s death, we finally catch a glimpse into how it came to be that Mrs. Forrester was married to a man so much older than she. After being taken to the mountains to avoid publicity over her fiance’s murder, she fell almost to her death during a hiking trip.
All night in the bitter cold, she laid there. But then, Captain Forrester’s party came to her rescue. It did not escape her that “she suffered less when Captain Forrester carried her, and that he took on all the most dangerous places on the trail himself” (Cather 158). In his arms, she felt secure, saying to those listening that “I knew that if we fell, we’d go together; he would never drop me . . . when he asked me to marry him, he didn’t have to ask twice” (Cather 158-159). She thought that he would never drop her, never let her down in life.
That is why she consented to marry him. At nineteen, she was not in a position to understand what she was getting herself into. But as we meet with her in the novel, we see that she is starved for something that she had likely never known she’d have to leave behind when she said yes to Captain Forrester at the sprightly age of nineteen: companionship with those on the same social level. Captain Forrester did indeed let her down, by isolating her from her natural habitat of socialization, like an exotic tropical bird locked away in a cage in distant northern mountains.
After telling her story, Marian “drew her finger-tips absently across her forehead, as if to brush away something, – the past, or the present, who could tell? ” Marian was brushing away those foolish ideals of romance and the heroic triumph of true love. She was embracing her own power and independence, to effect change in her own life, without waiting for change to present itself. Marian was preparing herself to shed her former romantic self, to do what she had to do to get what she wanted, indeed, what she had been starved of so long through her own foolish pursuit of love.
Indirectly, we discover the result of Marian’s struggle to redefine herself. “Oh yes,” we learn, “she was married again, – to a cranky old Englishman; Henry Collins was his name” (Cather 165). Marian has found once more her natural place in society, she is discovered at a banquet, in a big hotel, “all done up in furs, with a scarf over her head” (Cather 164). Her husband, we learn, cannot really truly love her, and nor can she truly love him. However, she has found at last the sort of life she was looking for, if only by shedding her true identity. She was a good deal made up, of course, like most of the women down there; plenty of powder, and a little red, too, I guess. Her hair was black, blacker than I remembered it; looked as if she dyed it” (Cather 165). Like most of the women of her age, and certainly, of her era, she had to cover up her true self in order to exert her power and independence in the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, her remarkable comeback stuns Ed Elliot, who states that “It was remarkable, how she’d come up again. She seemed pretty well gone to pieces before she left Sweet Water” (Cather 165).
Of course, any one who truly paid attention to Mrs. Forrester throughout her journey could never have been truly surprised at her outcome. Mrs. Forrester, though sometimes allowing herself to be carried away with the strong emotions she faced, always maintained willful independence and control over the opinions others may have of her. She had faced her night, with the death of her husband (who she once, I believe, truly did love dearly), and with the marriage of Ellinger, whom she never loved truly, only believed she did.
She makes peace with both, by forgetting the latter entirely, and by paying her respects to the former, “wherever she was, she always sent a cheque to the Grand Army Post every year to have flowers put on Captain Forrester’s grave for Decoration Day” (Cather 166). She understands the role they played in the development of her character, and especially, her own understanding of the extent of her resolve. While her new husband Collins seems deliberately misplaced, (an Englishman whom she met in America before moving to South America), Marian is quite at home.
She has finally found her place in life, by conquering her foolish ideals of romanticism in exchange for something she loves still more – comfort and consequence. In the end, Marian makes peace that she is not destined to have both true love and a comfortable life of wealth, and is contented with the fact that she must choose. We follow her through three distinct life stages. At first, she is an idealistic young woman, who believes that she is attaining love and comfort in her choice of Captain Forrester.
As her comforts slowly wear away to nothing, and her romance along with it, she discovers that she made the wrong choice in Captain Forrester. Her passionate mid-life encounter with Ellinger finalizes the blow that she received from Captain Forrester, and that is that love can be fickle and decietful, and cannot be trusted with something as important as the rest of one’s life, sending her into a proverbial “night,” where she is clouded by darkness and feels miserable. At the end of her life, she learns to trust in something far more substantial – herself.
She gives up her pursuit of love, and instead pursues only comfort in life. She finds what she is looking for, and with that, she is contented. Only with distant nostalgia does she look upon her life in Sweet Water, because she knows that it was a life as unsustainable as it was unsupportable. Just as Sweet Water is cleared away to make room for industrialization, Marian clears the ideals of romantic love from her existence. Though she learns to live practically, and to find happiness in her life without love, she never forgets the life she led before, and the love she knew.
Through the encounter with Ed Elliot, where she states “if you ever meet Neil Herbert, give him my love, and tell him I often think of him,” and by her respect toward her husband, through the decoration of his grave, she reveals that she looks upon her life of love without regret (Cather 165). Through her personal growth, we find that Marian’s ideals of love must evolve over her life based on the circumstances with which she is faced, and we come to understand her as an individual with both the power to change her own circumstances and the ability to love deeply, whether or not she chooses to pursue that love.