Relationship to place, to the land, is an important theme in Cather’s work, regardless of where the story is set—Nebraska, Virginia, New Mexico, or Colorado. She had a special love for the prairies, having grown up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, fictionalized as Sweet Water in A Lost Lady.
The Forrester house (based on the Silas Garber house in Red Cloud) is set on a hill in wild prairie, on a former Indian encampment. The Captain loves the land, had fallen in love with it as a young man and vowed to build a house there. He marked it off with willow stakes, and saw in his mind the whole: the house, the grove, the orchard, and a wife to welcome his friends. It took twelve years to realize the dream, and though the Forresters travel, this is the Captain’s home. He leaves the land wild, does not drain the marsh for planting, and does not allow hunting. He plants roses and the grove. Willa Cather actually had picnics in this grove of cottonwoods where Niel and his friends played on a summer’s day. Both Marian and Captain Forrester love the wildness of the place. Marian tells the boys that she takes off her stockings and wades in the marsh. Everything from the wild roses to the marsh symbolize the untouched beauty of nature, and the Forresters’ appreciation of it. They are the early pioneers who are not out to conquer the land, so much as to live on it and with it as partners.
On the other hand, men like Ivy Peters symbolize the generations of men who came after the pioneers, who see the land for its cash value only. Ivy drains the marsh and plants a wheat crop and shoots the animals. As a disreputable lawyer, he tells Marian he will invest her money in land, but he cheats the Indians in Wyoming to get it. His rape of the land is shown early in the story when he cruelly slits the eyes of a woodpecker and watches it smashing blindly into the tree.
The way the land is treated by people is reflected in the gifts they take from it. In the innocent days of the Forrester place, the boys are happy: “They had behaved like wild creatures all morning; shouting from the breezy bluffs, dashing down the silvery marsh . . . “ (I, Chpt. II, p. 17). During Ivy’s control of the Forrester land, the climate is harsher. Drought is succeeded by torrential rains and floods: “Ivy Peters’ wheat fields lay under water” (II, Chpt. IV, p. 134). It is as if the marsh tries to reassert itself. Eventually, the land is sold to Ivy, who tears down the barn and uses the land for his own economic purposes, and to triumph over the Captain’s old-fashioned values.
Marian is a bridge between these two ways of treating the land. On the one hand, she is a wild mountain girl from California, very physical in her pleasure of nature. On the other hand, she eventually calls the Forrester land a “hole” (II, Chpt. III, p. 132) that she wants to get out of by selling it to Ivy. It becomes a prison to her. Niel and the Captain agree in the aesthetic appreciation of the land, and Marian’s defection from responsibility for the land, mirrors her defection from the Captain, making her doubly “a lost lady.” It suggests the way Americans have become “lost” in relationship to the land as well.
Loss and Change
Niel Herbert registers the loss and change in his world, seeing it largely the way the author did at that time of her childhood when the pioneer age was ending, and the modern world was replacing it. Niel feels, growing up on the frontier, like a traveler coming upon “a hunter’s fire on the prairie, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story” (II, Chpt. IX, p. 178). He associates his ideals of this vanishing pioneer life with the period of youth, and as he grows up, the country is growing up too, and the fire of idealism has gone out, though he can see the traces.
This is a coming-of-age story for both Niel Herbert and the country. Though set in a specific time and place, it could be the coming of age story for anyone anywhere, because Cather is able to capture the feeling of loss and nostalgia. Wordsworth, and many other Romantic authors who had an influence on Cather, have created similar paradigms of the loss of childhood innocence. The Captain and Mrs. Forrester represent the values that give Niel’s life shape and meaning. Captain Forrester is the strong pioneer whose dreams settled the West. He is a leader of men, who could calm railroad workers with his presence alone. Niel documents the decline of the Captain’s strength, first in a fall from his horse, then in successive strokes, until he can only sit in a chair and watch the sun-dial. After his first accident, Marian says, “To me, it was as if one of the mountains had fallen down” (I, Chpt. III, p. 43). The Captain’s integrity and gallantry are lost, as men like Ivy Peters replace his kind and take over the land.
Marian is the one who most symbolizes Niel’s loss, for she starts as the lady of his romantic dreams and ends as “a lost lady.” He wants her to be the unattainable lady that inspires his knighthood, even as the Captain inspires his ambition to achieve. His disillusionment happens between his nineteenth and twentieth year. On a summer morning, he awakens in a state of innocence: “He had awakened with that intense, blissful, realization of summer which sometimes comes to children in their beds” (I, Chpt. VII, p. 89). When he tries to leave a bouquet of roses near Marian’s bedroom window and hears Frank Ellinger with her, “In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life. . . . This day saw the end of that admiration and loyalty that had been like a bloom on his existence” (I, Chpt. VII, p. 92).
Marian was to him the grace, loveliness, and loyalty of woman. She created the warmth and center of the Captain’s home. She is often associated with jewels. She adorns the wilderness of the West with all that is best and beautiful: “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal,” for she cheapens herself with vulgar lovers (I, Chpt. VII, p. 92).
The change in the Forresters is mirrored in the land, and in the town of Sweet Water. The story starts when “Mrs. Forrester was still a young woman, and Sweet Water was a town of which great things were expected” (I, Chpt. II, p. 15). As Niel grows up, however, “its future no longer looked bright” (I, Chpt. III, p. 34). Niel’s father has to leave to find work, farmers are ruined, and families move away. The Burlington officials no longer stop at the Captain’s place. By the time Niel returns from college, “The Forresters have come down in the world” (II, Chpt. I, p. 111), and they have to rent their land to Ivy Peters. The promising young men, like Niel and Ed Elliot, want to be professionals in the big cities. When Niel leaves for college, he knows “there would be nothing to come back to” (II, Chpt. IX, p. 177). He never comes back to Sweet Water or his youth that he leaves there.
In several of her novels, Cather exalts the pioneer spirit that founded the American West. She looks back to this spirit with nostalgia from a modern industrial world. The young Willa Cather herself knew many of the immigrant settlers of the prairies and Silas Garber, the historical model for Captain Forrester. The Captain, the Burlington Railroad, and the town of Sweet Water represent the best of this spirit to the young Niel Herbert who is about to leave it all behind for a career in the city.
The narrator says the story takes place “thirty or forty years ago” after the Civil War when the railroads were being built to the West (1880s and 1890s). At that time Nebraska is the frontier and the fictional Sweet Water (Red Cloud) is an important stop between Omaha and Denver. The Forresters entertain important people in their home from “the railroad aristocracy” (I, Chpt. I, p. 9). Forrester, like the real Silas Garber, was a founder of the territory, a builder, not only of the railroad, but of his community. Cather implies that the Captain’s ethics and character are what built the country and made America a land of hope to immigrants who came here for a better life.
We hear about the pioneer spirit at the Ogden dinner party when the Captain tells how he found his land and staked it out, always dreaming of the way it would be: “my philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak—you will get. . . . All our great West has been developed from such dreams . . . We dreamed the railroads across the mountains . . .” (I, Chpt. IV, pp. 58-59). The Captain’s integrity and honor are key factors to these dreams coming true: “His clumsy dignity covered a deep nature, and a conscience that had never been juggled with” (I, Chpt. IV, p. 52).
When the Captain’s bank fails, he covers the investor’s deposits with his own money, though not legally required to. The Judge tells how “There was a crowd in the street outside the bank all day, every day; Poles and Swedes and Mexicans, looking scared to death” (I, Chpt. VIII, p. 97). The Captain tries to get the directors to join him in covering the debt, explaining to them that these “deposits were above price” (p. 97). They represent the dreams of the community of settlers: their land, houses, education. The pioneer spirit, therefore, as Cather presents it is more than rugged individualism; it is communal.
Sweet Water and the Burlington Railroad, however, are caught up in the industrial economics that change the country, and the Captain is the last of his kind. Niel reflects, “He had seen the end of an era, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already its glory was nearly spent” (II, Chpt. IX, p. 177). Yet he feels that he imbibed something precious from it for his life.
A Lost Lady: Theme Analysis