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P A U L C O M E A U Burnaby, British Columbia The Fool Figure in Willa Cather's Fiction “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools. . . .’n King Lear’s wits have long since turned when he utters these lines, which express his new perception of the world, won tragically at the expense of his sanity. What Lear voices here, among other things, is the traditional philosophical argument that folly is a universal human condi­ tion, that even a king can be reduced to the level of a fool. Although the argument is not Shakespeare’s own invention, his diverse use of the fool figure in his plays is generally acknowledged to mark the zenith in the development of the role as a literary device. It is not surprising that Willa Cather, an artist keenly aware of the historical roots of her craft and a humanist closely attuned to the plight of the social outcast, should be fascinated with the fool figure. What is intriguing, however, is the fact that the fool, with its range of symbolic implications, appears only in her early novels about the American West. The progression of fools in these books includes the dwarf-like Crazy Ivar in O Pioneers! (1913), the flamboyant, scatterbrained Tillie Kronborg in The Song of the Lark (1915), and the simple-minded servant Mahailey in One of Ours (1922). In this paper I shall examine the nature and function of the fool figure in Willa Gather’s fiction and explore the reasons for the disappearance of this figure when Cather stopped writing about the Nebraska West. 1William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir (1952; rpt. London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1973), IV, vi, 11. 180-181. 266 Western American Literature I The fool is “a silly or idiotic or mad person, or one who is made by circumstances (or the actions of others) to appear á fool in that sense, or a person who imitates for nonfools the foolishness of being innately silly or made to look so.”2 As a dramatic entity, the fool may appear on the stage as a clown, performing in a loose relationship, or perhaps none at all, to the dramatic action. Or he may, with a sacrifice of his freedom, become a comic char­ acter, whose behavior though foolish, is consonant with the larger form of that action. The fool also appears at the edges of our religious understanding. He does so in that we discover ourselves fools in our ignorance and sin. . . . Or he may do so as someone to be emulated because he has a pure and unwavering relation to the mystery of “eternal things.”3 Whether he appears as a simple clown, a village idiot, or a religious enthusiast, the fool, as Enid Welsford points out, “knows the truth because he is a social outcast, and spectators see most of the game.”4 Willa Cather’s interest in the fool figure can be traced back to one of her earliest short stories “Lou, the Prophet” (1892), which focuses on the religious fanaticism of a farmer-turned-prophet. Lou is a “simple, thickheaded fellow,”5though a conscientious farmer. However, his mind snaps when he loses his cattle to a difficult winter and his fiancee to another man. During a dream in which Christ and his angels match forces with Satan and his following, Lou feels “something give way in his poor, weak head,” awakens “with a cry of pain,” (p. 537) and begins reading The Book of Revelation. He subsequently neglects his farm, turns instead to praying, reading, and fasting, and then preaches repentance in the streets of the town. When the townspeople seek to confine him to an institution, Lou hides in a cave, where his only com­ panions, a group of young boys, regard him with a mixture of awe and bewilderment. In his final speech to his young disciples Lou divulges the 2WilIiam Willcford, The Fool and His Scepter (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p. 10. 3Ibid., p. 48. *The Fool: His Social and Literary History (1935 : rpt. 2nd ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1968), p. 319. 5“Lou...


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