Willa Cather Describes Erotics of Place in her Novel, A Lost Lady

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Willa Cather Describes Erotics of Place in her Novel, A Lost Lady

To discover an erotics of place in Willa Cather's A Lost Lady, takes little preparation. One begins by simply allowing Sweet Water marsh to seep into one's consciousness through Cather's exquisite prose. Two paragraphs from the middle of the novel beckon us to follow Neil Herbert, now 20 years old, into the marsh that lies on the Forrester property. This passage, rich in pastoral beauty, embraces the heart of the novel-appearing not only at the novel's center point but enfolding ideas central to the novel's theme:

An impulse of affection and guardianship drew Niel up the poplar-bordered road in the early light [. . .] and on to the marsh. The sky was burning with
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. . must fade, like ecstasy. (80-81)

In this extraordinary moment, before Neil carries a bouquet of these roses to Mrs. Forrester's window, before Neil hears Frank Ellinger's coarse laughter ring out from Mrs. Forrester's bedroom, before Captain Forrester returns from Denver in financial ruin, for one final moment Neil Herbert imbibes the perfections of the marsh. Close reading of this passage brings into focus two things: first, that Neil approaches the marsh in the role of lover and protector and second, that Cather's use of limited third-person narrative asks readers to depend on Neil Herbert's perceptions. In short, Cather invites readers participate in Neil's dual role.

Because Cather celebrates sublime beauty even as she chronicles an inevitable descent from sublimity, she captures the essence of two eras, creating a tension that draws her readers into modernity even as she enthralls them with the waning age. This novel forms a coming-of-age tale in two senses. The protagonist Neil Herbert is reaching maturity as the frontier is coming into maturity. In the passage above, as in the novel as a whole, Cather places Neil Herbert on the cusp of change, inviting him (and her readers) to discover layers of complexity that imbue the relationship between humans and their environment. What is especially intriguing in this process is Cather's anticipation of ecosystem issues

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