A Wagner Matinee by Willa Cather
In A Wagner Matinee by Willa Cather we have the theme of hardship, struggle, isolation, loss, gratitude and connection. Taken from her The Troll Garden collection the story is narrated in the first person by a young man called Clark and after reading the story the reader realises that Cather may be exploring the theme of hardship. Throughout the story there is a sense that Georgiana has found it difficult to live her life as a pioneer. Not only has she given up the comforts of city life but she seems to be beaten by her circumstances. How defeated Georgiana actually is by her circumstances is noticeable by the narrator’s opinion of her when he describes her as being ‘pathetic and grotesque’. It is also interesting that Georgiana, over a thirty year period, travelled no further than fifty miles from her home. This may be important as it suggests that Georgiana has isolated herself from the outside world. The reader is also aware that Georgiana eloped with Howard much to the amazement of her friends and family. Though it might be important to consider her age at the time she eloped. Howard was twenty one, still a young man, while Georgiana was thirty. Which at the time the story was written would have been considered old for a woman to get married. It is possible that Georgiana didn’t wish to spend her life alone. Though ironically has managed to do so. If anything Georgiana has given up or lost everything in the pursuit of love.
Cather also appears to be exploring the theme of gratitude. Despite his initial opinion of his aunt being ‘pathetic and grotesque’ it is clear that the narrator is grateful to her for raising him and he still recalls with fondness the time he spent living with her. Though the reader is also given some insight into the hardships and struggle that the narrator encountered. How grateful the narrator is also noticeable by the fact he calls his aunt ‘my kinswoman.’ This may be important as it suggests that the narrator still has an ability to connect with Georgiana. Though they both live very different types of lives. It may also be important that the narrator believes he ‘owed to this woman most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood’ as this would further suggest to the reader how grateful the narrator is to Georgiana. The narrator’s physical description of Georgiana is also interesting as symbolically it highlights the struggles she has endured. We learn that her shoulders are no longer stooped but rather they ‘were now almost bent together over her sunken chest’. Also her skin is described as being ‘yellow’ and we also become aware of the fact she is wearing false teeth. If anything the narrator’s physical description of Georgiana suggests she is a woman who has not only struggled but lived a hard life.
It may also be important that Cather focuses on the colour black throughout the story. First when Georgiana gets off the train we find that ‘her linen duster had become black with soot and her black bonnet gray with dust.’ Also we are aware that she wore a ‘black stuff dress.’ This may be important as Cather could be using the colour black to highlight to the reader the darkness (or blackness) that has entered Georgiana’s life since she left the city with Howard. There is no light or brightness in her life. Which is in direct comparison to the other women at the matinee who Cather describes as wearing ‘red, mauve, pink, blue, lilac, purple, ecru, rose, yellow, cream, and white, all the colors that an impressionist finds in a sunlit landscape.’ What is also interesting is that Georgiana is described as being dressed in the ‘dead shadow of a frock coat.’ Cather continues using the word black to describe Georgiana’s environment on the frontier. Her house is described as ‘black and grim’ while the pond too is described as being black. Cather’s introduction of the word ‘dead’ may also be important as she could possibly be describing Georgiana’s life. Similarly the narrator describes Georgiana’s life as being ‘dead’. Again possibly due to her being isolated from the world and living on the frontier.
The end of the story is also interesting as Cather appears to be exploring life versus art. Through the narrator we learn how talented Georgiana was when she was younger. It is only as she is listening to The Flying Dutchman that this talent re-emerges and we find Georgiana’s ‘fingers worked mechanically upon her black dress.’ If anything Georgiana’s memory of her life prior to getting married resurfaces and it is through her listening to the music that she comes alive again for the first time in thirty years. Cather possibly highlighting to the reader the influence of art on an individual’s life. How influential the music is for Georgiana is noticeable by the fact that she begins to cry (as too does the narrator). What may also be important is that even when the music stops Georgiana doesn’t want to leave. Just as the narrator is aware of what type of life exists for Georgiana she too knows that she has to go back to living a life isolated from not only others but from her first love, music.