Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Book Review Template

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 36


4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

“If her image flashed into his mind, it came with a brightness of dark eyes, her pale triangular cheeks with long earrings, and her many-coloured laugh.  When he was dull, dull and tired of everything, he used to think that if he could hear that long-lost lady laugh again, he would be gay.”  Thus sums up the sense of loss, nostalgia, longing and romance which characterizes Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady.  The narrator, Niel, is relating the story after thirty years.  He is looking back on his boyhood and young manhood, remembering a certain woman who helped to define and destroy his ideals of chivalry, morality, and responsibility.  When Niel is young, he and the other neighborhood boys adore Mrs. Marian Forrester, the wife of Captain Forrester – they are the Queen and King of little Sweet Water.  With the rise of big industry – Federal banks and stock brokers- comes the fall of small town power and wealth.  Suddenly, the Captain, a once mountainous figure, hero to young Niel, finds himself broken and displaced.  His decline leads to the necessary rise (or adaptation) of his wife, and the subsequent disillusionment of Niel.  Before Niel’s very eyes, the neighborhood bully, Ivy Peters, an ugly, crass, ignorant man, becomes the town’s champion and, suddenly, all Niel holds dear begins to disappear – the “Great West” becomes lost to progress.

3 – Characters well-developed.

Cather’s characters, like her prose, are sparsely and quietly drawn.  They are best examined in relation to one another, rather than on their own individual descriptions or by their particular monologues.  Their growth (or lack thereof) oftentimes must be inferred by decisions they make and by the things they leave unsaid. Still, there are clearly differences in each of the characters and purposes which each of them serve.  Marian, for instance, is the opportunist.  She is perhaps the most capable but vacuous person in Sweet Water.  She takes on the characteristics of the men she is with and it can be reasonably understood that, without a strong man in her life, she would be nothing at all.  Niel is the romantic – he is in awe of Captain Forrester, the great American pioneer, whose strength and composure reminds Niel of a great mountain, immovable and majestic.  As Captain Forrester’s health declines and as Niel learns more about the Captain’s relationship with Marian (including sad notions of honor), Niel becomes jaded and confused, losing grip with his romantic notions.  Ivy Peters is animalistic and amoral.  His purpose is to make money at all costs.  He is the enemy of the aesthete (Captain Forrester) and the champion of capitalism and unchecked wealth and power.  In addition to the main characters are a few minor characters who also serve their purposes – the Forrester’s servants, including “Black Tom,” and the bread boys, German immigrants, who serve to demonstrate the disconnect in classes and the whispered racism of this region.  Also present are the town gossips, the lower-middle class ladies whose primary responsibilities are to nose their way into others’ business and to demonstrate with clarity the fall which the Forresters suffer.      

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Cather wrote this novel in two parts, so that the structure of the novel would be equal to its primary dichotomy (the eradication of regionalism and the rise of nationalism).  In part one, we see the almost idyllic home life of the Forresters.  They are popular, beautiful, wealthy, and well-respected by the entire town (with the exception of Ivy Peters, whose arrogance and jealousy will not allow him to respect anyone who has more than he does).  They represent the top-tier, the upper-echelon of the rural class – a railroad giant and his wife, landowners, who displaced the native population to create their own Eden.  In part two, the Forresters suddenly find that they are the ones who are being displaced.  The railroad fails, the local banks and business fail, and the Captain’s own sense of honor, pride, and moral responsibility to his town and people leave him bankrupt.  Soon, it is the Ivy Peters’ of the world who become dominant – the men who answer only to themselves.  These men feel no sense of responsibility to anyone else and they, like locusts, will consume anything in their paths, without regard for those who might be ruined in the process.  The simple but pointed prose allows for moments of irony and clarity, wherein we witness characters exposed in ways they would not normally allow themselves to be (Marian, alone in the field, a real smile on her face; Captain Forrester, retelling the story of his settlement and being caught by moments of remorse for what he may have done to the native population, etc.).  The language, prose, and structure, though simple and somewhat sad, match the construction of the major themes perfectly.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

In this seminal work, the first of Cather’s to break away from traditional American Romanticism and into the realm of Realism, there is a clear dichotomy of virtue:  Regionalism vs Nationalism; Rural vs. City; Pioneer vs. Industrialist; Tradition vs. Opportunity.  The title would lead one to believe that the story is about Marian Forrester, the woman who Niel idolizes and whose story he narrates for us; however, the terms “Lost” and “Lady” seem to take on many meanings and one begins to realize that the story is not so much about Marian as it is about the loss of Niel’s idealism and naivety.  Marian is the one character who can adapt to any situation and, though this lets Niel down, it is her great strength and it is this inability to accept and grow with change which leaves Niel forever a boy in Marian’s eyes.  Furthermore, Cather employs a common literary theme (common, particularly to the preceding Romantic and Gothic eras) of Money/Wealth & Power/Health.  As Captain Forrester’s money worries increase, as he becomes bankrupt, so does he lose his vitality, suffering from illness and injury until, finally, he succumbs to bankruptcy and to old age. 

There is also much being said about the relationship between men and women, particularly in terms of sexual power and dominance.  Cutting is a persistent theme throughout the book – each of the men, at some point, performing an act of cutting (sexual power) in the presence of Marian Forrester who, though capable, is constantly seeking to be controlled and, in her submissiveness, she adapts to become the woman her man needs her to be.  There is also the theme of “falling,” which both opens and closes the narrative.  Individual people, like Captain Forrester, as well as larger ideas, such as the romantic ideal of the Great American West and the small town bank, will fall from prominence and be replaced by new powers, human and otherwise.  Ultimately, A Lost Lady is an elegy – it is one man’s (Niel’s) act of lamenting the loss of a particular era and predicting the impersonal, power and money-hungry era to come.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Regionalism, Nationalism, Industrial America, Realism, Sexual Dynamics, Power, Money/Wealth & Health.

Notable Quotes:

“I’m just as good as she is.”

“There was something wild and desperate about the way the darkened creature beat tis wings in the branches, whirling in the sunlight and never seeing it, always thrusting its head up and shaking it, as a bird does when its drinking.”

“His clumsy dignity covered a deep nature, and a conscience that had never been juggled with.  His repose was like that of a mountain.”

“My philosophy is that what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak – you will get.”

“As she turned quickly away, the train of her velvet dress caught the leg of his broadcloth trousers and dragged with a friction that crackled and threw sparks.”

“In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life.”

“I feel such a power to live in me.”

“When women began to talk about still feeling young, didn’t it mean that something had broken?”

“She had always the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring.”

“The longer Niel was with Captain Forrester in those peaceful closing days of his life, the more he felt that the Captain knew his wife better even than she knew herself; and that, knowing her, he, -to use one of his own expressions, -valued her.” 

6 Comments on “Review: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

  1. Adam, this is a great review of a great book. Well done! My oldest daughter just finished her Ph.D. in English at University of Nebraska-Lincoln where they have the Cather Archives, and has written extensively about Cather and her works. I have been to Red Cloud, NE and visited her little house and all of the landmarks that she wrote about in many of her novels. “A Lost Lady” is a great story. I appreciated your observations about the book. Cheers! Chris


    • Thanks, Chris! That’s fantastic for your daughter – I’m currently working on my Ph.D. in English at Northern Illinois. I would love to visit the Cather Archives, someday. I also hope to get out to Princeton to spend some time with the Salinger archives (my one big dream, at the moment). Cather was a remarkable writer – so subtle but simultaneously so complex. A lot of people just don’t know what to make of her!


  2. What a fine review! I read this book some time ago and it didn’t do as much for me as some of Cather’s other works. But you brought out aspects I missed, and now I appreciate it more. Thanks!


  3. What an amazing review! I 100% agree with your description of Cather’s style and, especially, her characters:

    “They are best examined in relation to one another, rather than on their own individual descriptions or by their particular monologues.”

    In “O Pioneers!” the characters define themselves in contrast not only with others, but with the environment and the setting. It is, after all, a story about surviving the American frontier.


  4. Excellent. I want to read more of this type of review, and I am glad I signed to follow you. Yes, Cather is wonderful. My favorite Song of the Lark.


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