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D E M A R E E P E C K Washington and Lee University Thea Kronborg’s “Song of Myself”: The Artist’s Imaginative Inheritance in The Song of the Lark Willa Cather’s third novel, The Song of the Lark, tells the story of an American opera singer, Thea Kronborg— her childhood in a small town in Colorado, her musical training in Chicago, her exploration of the Cliff Dweller ruins in Arizona, her dazzling triumphs at the Metropolitan Opera. As wide-ranging in time as it is in space, the story charts its heroine’s development over a course of thirty years, from the time she is ten until she is in her mid-forties. Equally encompassing in its characters, the novel includes a large and colorful cast. Such panoramic breadth has led the critic David Stouck to categorize the novel as a typical kunstlerroman in which the artist escapes from the restrictions of the provincial hometown to broaden her experience in the larger world.1 Yet The Song of the Lark resembles the realistic novel of the artist’s education only in the superficial trappings of its plot. Despite its apparent scope, the novel subordinates all time, space, and characters to Thea. Although as a child dreaming at her bedroom window, Thea seems poised at the threshold of the “great big world” (139) ,2 her window exists, ironically, to frame its own uselessness; what is really “big” for Thea, Cather reminds us, is her own ardent passion, the “life [that] rushes from within, not from without” (140). Indeed, Thea goes out into the world less to encounter new and different life beyond herself than to confirm the infinite and timeless life of consciousness that she projects from within. Rather than regard The Song of the Lark as a realistic bildungsroman, I would like to consider it as a fairy tale, or wish-fulfillment.3 As Cather described her pleasure in writing the novel in a letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, she enjoyed losing herself in her “own fairy tale.”4 In his psycho­ 22 Western American Literature analytic study of the meaning of fairy tales, Bruno Bettelheim suggests that the significant difference between fairy tales and dreams is that fairy tales more openly express and satisfy the need for wish-fulfillment ; unlike the dream, the fairy tale “projects the relief of all pressures and not only offers ways to solve problems but promises that a ‘happy’ solution will be found.”5 Bettelheim rightly argues that stories can serve as the fantasies that allow the individual to escape his burdensome life ; whereas the ego, or conscious self, must meet the requirements of reality, the id, unbound to the world of common practicality, can indulge its wildest wishes in the world of the fairy tale. As the heroine in Cather’s fairy tale, Thea seems exempt from the usual restrictions of life. As Cather implies in her Preface to the novel, Thea’s vulnerability to fortune is an illusion; she merely “seemed wholly at the mercy of accident ; but to persons of her vitality and honesty, fortunate accidents will always happen.”6 As we learn in the novel, only those com­ mon mortals like Ray Kennedy, who loses his flock of sheep in a blizzard, must learn the bitter lesson of experience, which inevitably teaches ‘“ how little [man] is, and how big everything else is’” ( 123). Thea, on the other hand, miraculously makes the world conform to her overriding desire— “ ‘the one big thing,’” against which, as her piano teacher Wunsch proph­ esies, “ ‘all [else] is little’” (76). Although in reality the child Thea is dwarfed by the larger privileges and powers of adults and the world beyond, the force of her desire reverses the actual proportion of things until she, like Jack and the Beanstalk, climbs above the rest of humanity to unprecedented heights of glory, herself a giant among men. The novel most nakedly enacts the power of Thea’s desire in the first scene, which is characterized by all the selfish rewards of fairy tale endings. The scene opens realistically when young Thea is understandably neglected by her parents while they prepare for Mrs. Kronborg’s...


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pp. 21-38
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