Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thou shalt not escape an abusive relationship.

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: 74-122 (end)

Oh, tiny, short novels. You're over so quickly that I don't have time to whine about being bored by the repetition of events and character traits. Oh, wait...

So, in the end of this novel, we discover that Emil's sweetheart, Maria, who long ago married another man, is trapped in an unhappy marriage that is verbally, though not physically, abusive. Alexandra interacts with her a little and is our conduit for the discovery of this abuse, but I was hoping that she'd deliver Maria out of her emotional bondage somehow, and it just didn't happen. That's realism for you. Anyway, we also learn that Alexandra is kindly taking care of another "crazy" old person in addition to Ivar; it seems her homestead has become something of a rest home.

After a year or so, Emil returns from Mexico city, where he's been successful in business, and impresses the whole town with his fancy Mexican clothes and guitar-playing. Maria is reminded of her love for him when he returns, and just after they spend some time together at the wedding of a local girl, they end up revealing their true feelings to one another. That night, Emil spirits Maria out of her house to the nearby riverbank, where they consummate their forbidden love. (Look, I'm trying to make it sound classy, but it's coming out like a romance novel. It's not like that at all in the book.) Unfortunately, Maria's husband comes home and finds Emil's mare in the stable, and he sets out with a rifle, finds the two in flagrante delicto, and shoots them both to death. (And man, Cather gets a little gruesome here, telling us that the bullets tore Maria's lung and nicked her carotid artery, causing her to bleed slowly to death. Seriously. She actually used the word "carotid.")

The narration insists that he doesn't realize it's them, and would never have shot Maria if he had known, but I find myself extremely skeptical of that claim. He's caught, pleads guilty, and is sentenced to 10 years in prison. Alexandra goes to visit him and makes it clear that she forgives him completely and will try to secure his pardon. (Cather explains Alexandra's motivation for this by saying that she doesn't want to see any more lives ruined, but I find her forgiveness, and, in fact, the blame she places on Emil and Maria for the tragedy pretty off-putting. There's consistent repetition of the idea that the two were sinners who deserved their fate. It's hard to tell if Cather is showing us how insensitive the strictures of pioneer society are or if she's showing us that adultery is bad and wrong. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and say the former, but I'm just not sure it's true.)

Several months later, ostensibly as soon as he heard about the tragedy and could get back, Carl returns and he and Alexandra renew their love, promising marriage to one another. The conclusion of the book notes that Alexandra may even leave the homestead, because it's not important who owns the land, but rather that the land is the constant, the thing that lasts forever, and humanity is only passing over it and acting as its custodian. (Which, again, is a little out of the blue. It made me think, "Well, then why have you shown us the lives of these people and made them seem important?")

I liked it, because I like the way Cather writes and how she gives us pieces of lives and events as though we're looking at a portion of a reality over which she has no control. That said, in this story, unlike that of Death Comes for the Archbishop, I could feel Cather's hand in the plot and I didn't necessarily like where she went with it. As I mentioned above in my discussion of her possible moralizing, it seemed as though the novel was out to prove a point that I'm not sure I agree with. Cather shouldn't be trying to inculcate morals with her prose; the starkness of it and the subtle realism she employs have a message all their own. To force another is to defuse her own success.

I'll be interested to see how My Antonia stacks up.

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