Friday, September 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 143: Willa Cather, The Sentimentality of William Tavener (#6)

Willa Cather, "The Sentimentality of William Tavener" (1900) from Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings:

If you were to make one of those refrigerator magnetic poetry sets for Willa Cather, chances are you'd include the words "strong woman," "frontier life," and "aesthetic yearning." That was kind of the story of "A Wagner MatinĂ©e." And that's kind of the story here: Hester is a strong frontier woman, who is introduced to us through description of her serious business sense. Which is sort of funny since her primary attribute throughout the piece is her love for her children, which comes out in her buying "foolish, unnecessary little things" for them; and in taking their position. She's only hard and spirited when it comes to arguing points with her husband, William Tavener.

William Tavener, we're told, is the real hard customer here when it comes to his sons. And with six pages to tell her story, Cather makes no bones about it: William "was a hard man... even towards his sons." But by the end of the story, William has agreed to give money so that his sons can see the circus (which takes the place of the Wagner for this story's "aesthetic yearning"). How come?

Here's where this Cather story shines for me, because we hear how this triangle relationship gets reordered: William is hard to boys, but not his wife, who he treats somewhat distantly--their relationship has focused so much on their economic state that they've become more like "landlord and tenant"; Hester is hard to William, but not to his boys. But because William and Hester reconnect with their childhood--they were both at the same circus when they were young--the final line of the story gives a powerfully mixed effect. The boys do get to go to the circus, but they "felt that they had lost a powerful ally."

Perhaps, then, what I really like about this story is that the focus isn't on frontier life and aesthetic yearning, but the difficulties of growing old together. It's a very delicate and subtle look at a marriage, without the modern-day message of "you really should make a date night to keep your marriage healthy."

No comments:

Post a Comment