Saturday, May 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 25: Willa Cather, The Garden Lodge (#136)

Willa Cather, "The Garden Lodge" (1905) from Willa Cather: Early Novels & Stories:

I want to reiterate: I use a random number generator to determine what stories I'll read next. The fact that this Cather's short story appears right after a Cather non-fiction piece is purely random. And I feel I need to reiterate that because Cather's view of Stephen Crane as a romantic artist (so disheveled!) is largely echoed here in the story: Caroline has submerged her wild, romantic, artistic side (but I'm being redundant, according to Cather) until, for a brief moment, a visiting artist awakens that side of her--as he does for all women.

First, fun with names: Caroline is a form of Carl, which is a name-form probably derived from the position "carl," e.g., housecarl, a male freeman or simply a man. She marries a man named Noble--the first time she gets a last name and also a clear social status gain for her: going from a man to a noble. And then she's entranced by a man named d'Esquerre, which is either Catalan for "from the left (bank)" or a misspelling of "Esquire," i.e., a gentleman or horseman--kind of a step down. So I think Cather is having some fun with us in putting meaning in to the story; but we don't need it since she comes out and tells us that Caroline wants the stability of an unromantic life.

Second, Cather may be clear in some ways and then frustratingly Jamesian in others. No, I'm being unfair to Henry James, whose ambiguities tend to be pointed and purposeful. We know that Cather was a big fan of his early on, so maybe she's going for Jamesian roundaboutness when she writes

What he had was that, in his mere personality, he quickened and in a measure gratified that something without which—to women—life is no better than sawdust, and to the desire for which most of their mistakes and tragedies and astonishingly poor bargains are due.
I just don't think she gets there. Mostly it seems like the sentence is afraid to name what it's talking about while also casting a wide net: she's talking about all women.

Third, let's get to women here. While this is mostly the story of Caroline's struggle--she came from a bohemian family and had to put away her artistic desires to make ends meet, though there's still something in her that wants out artistically--Cather also makes clear that d'Esquerre has something like this effect on everybody. The whole story is in omniscient third, swooping most often between Caroline's feelings and sweeping statements about the world, such as
D'Esquerre's arrival in the early winter was the signal for a feminine hegira toward New York. On the nights when he sang women flocked to the Metropolitan from mansions and hotels, from typewriter desks, schoolrooms, shops, and fitting rooms.

It goes on for 113 more words in that vein in that paragraph alone (there's a whole second paragraph about how much cripples and unfortunates like him), making sure we get the idea: all women respond to this tenor.

So when we hear that "the shadows had had their way with Caroline," there's a definite gender edge to that bite. But what is it actually chewing? That women all want some artistic or sentimental side. Seriously: at the end, the staid bourgeois husband tells Caroline that he wished she had some sentiment. Because I guess that's what makes a woman.

I have to say, I do love--in a ghoulish way--that we get the biggest description of her brother's person after he commits suicide, marked with her relief: 

Caroline had been fond of him, but she felt a certain relief when he no longer wandered about the little house, commenting ironically upon its shabbiness, a Turkish cap on his head and a cigarette hanging from between his long, tremulous fingers.
He used IRONY? The monster--I'm glad he's dead. The story seems somewhat ambivalent about the end, when Caroline defeats her romantic side; but most of the ambivalence seems borne of pretty restrictive, gendered roles.

In its vision of women's roles; its unhelpful ambiguity and circuitousness; its swooping omniscient POV, I can't really recommend this, even with that ghoulish touch of her gladness over her brother's suicide as comic relief.

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