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141 OBSERVATION AND NARRATION IN WILLA CATHERS OBSCURE DESTINIES Michael Leddy* Readers have remarked upon a number of important, if somewhat broad, thematic similarities among the short stories of Willa Cather's 1932 trilogy Obscure Destinies} It is a commonplace of Cather criticism that "Neighbour Rosicky," "Old Mrs. Harris," and "Two Friends" mark Cather's elegiac return to the memories of her Nebraska childhood that served as material for her early fiction. John Randall notes that each story moves toward and ends with a literal or figurative death; Richard Giannone describes that movement as "a conjunction and a dispersion which characterize the peculiar course of human affairs. Congenial people meet and move on swiftly—and independently—toward death .... This conjunctional movement becomes axiomatic of life .... The exceptional crossings are moments of love." More recently, Marilyn Arnold finds in Obscure Destinies a suggestion of the "human potential for fineness" along with "a sense of the mutability of life, of the tenuousness of its ostensible certainties ." And David Stouck offers a reading of Obscure Destinies (and Cather's other late fiction) that emphasizes its recognition of the "priority of life over art" as Cather moves from the role of "'romantic' artist" to that of "apologist for life."2 While these propositions are unexceptionable, the organization of Obscure Destinies works along more complex lines that involve not only thematic but narrative elements as well. Cather's trilogy centers on acts of observation and narration, on the discrepancies between the perceptions of an observing character and the perceptions of a fictional narrator, and on acts of narrative compensation that make up for what observers fail to see. Such compensation is in strikingly different ways a distinctive feature of the first two stories of Obscure Destinies, "Neighbour Rosicky" and "Old Mrs. Harris," and it is Cather's forsaking of the compensating narrator that accounts for much of the atmosphere of sadness and loss in "Two Friends." Thus the narrative organization of Obscure Destinies involves not the repetition of a single narrative situation but three variations on the possibilities of observation and narration. In arranging the three stories as she does, Cather shapes Obscure Destinies so that the volume moves toward obscurity and darkness, from a life that is complete, beautiful, and intelligible to lives that are incomplete, isolated, and puzzling; from the '"Michael Leddy is an Assistant Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. He has published in Critical Inquiry, Poesis, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Works and Days, and World Literature Today. He is currently working on a study of allusion. 142Michael Leddy compensations of narrative art to painful loss; from a fictional narrator who sees all to an observing character who is left, literally and figuratively, in the dark. The narrative situation of "Neighbour Rosicky" centers on the discrepancies between the perceptions of Doctor Ed Burleigh and those of the narrator. Doctor Burleigh is the principal observer; the narrative begins with farmer Anton Rosicky visiting him in his office and closes with the doctor stopping by Rosicky's grave and concluding that Rosicky's life was "complete and beautiful" (p. 71). Cather's readers have been rather generous in their appraisals of the doctor's relation to Rosicky and his family: Stouck suggests that the doctor's "appreciative presence . . . gives accent to the richness and fullness of their lives" (p. 299); Arnold, while noting that the doctor is "something of an outsider," goes on to say that he "understands, perhaps even better than Rosicky's family, the completeness and beauty . . . of the man's life" (p. 140). But "something of an outsider" begins to sound like an understatement when one considers just how much an outsider the doctor is and how little authority his perspective has. He has known Anton Rosicky for many years and has a "deep affection" for his wife Mary (p. 8); he is quick to appreciate how "generous and warm-hearted and affectionate " the Rosickys are (p. 15), yet in relation to the family he is essentially an admiring and very occasional observer. A visit from the doctor is an event; his last seems to have been a year before the present time of the story, when he came...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 141-153
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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