Willa Cather

My Mortal Enemy: Thoughts & Comments

First edition title page

Technical difficulties delayed this entry to the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge from being a morning post, but I’m happy to get it uploaded on the third Monday of the month as planned even if it is down to the wire!

My Thoughts
This short novel certainly leaves a powerful impression. Once encountered who can ever forget the bitterness of  Myra Henshawe? 

My Mortal Enemy is a such a slippery and complex story. My thoughts below seem half-baked. You’d think it would be easier to talk about such a short novel, but I find it’s harder to put down in writing what’s on my mind about this one than other Cather novels that we’ve read so far.

My initial reaction to My Mortal Enemy was that it’s a cautionary tale about youthful passions. Myra’s turning her back on her uncle’s money for love is certainly romantic and the stuff of legend, as Nellie makes clear in the opening paragraph, but unlike popular romances which end with the happy couple basking in their first blush of love, Cather shows the reality of how marriages–and individuals–can turn out.

Nellie is disappointed that Myra and Oswald haven’t reached a higher level of happiness. When her Aunt Lydia says they are, “As happy as most people,” Nellie thinks, “That answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people” (25).  Where does this “should” come from? Fairy tales, of course. Or, for more recent generations, movies of the romantic comedy variety.

This issue of happiness is what captured my imagination during this reading. Happiness, Cather seems to be saying, is not necessarily found in marriage, casual friendships, or money, but in true, deep connection. This connection can be found with other people, one’s creative passion, fulfilling work, art/poetry/music, or faith. Myra lacks this level of connection although she has some appreciation for music and literature. She is a drama queen, a narcissist; Someone who wants fame and fortune without seeming to take much action to attain it.

Right after Nellie’s thoughts on the Henshawe’s level of happiness, she launches into the fairy tale mythology of romantic love, specifically mentioning Sleeping Beauty. And then this leads into a recollection of Myra’s Uncle Driscoll’s funeral. At first this seems to be a seemingly incongruous  juxtaposition. A fairy tale and now a funeral?

Myra’s Uncle Driscoll did a lot not only for the Church, but for other people in need over his lifetime. When Nellie recollects the spectacular turnout and magnificence of Driscoll’s funeral mass, it’s easy to write it off with cynicism, saying that he bought off the Church. But the reality is that he was dead and the will was a done deal. The Church didn’t have to have such a turn out or ceremony, but it did because Driscoll had a deep, mutual relationship with the community and his Church. It seems to have been a relationship based on faith and action.

Nellie says,

In after years, when I went to other funerals, stark and grim enough, I thought of John Driscoll as having escaped the end of all flesh; it was as if he had been translated, with no dark conclusion to the pageant, no “night of the grave” about which our Protestant preachers talked. From the freshness of roses and lilies, from the glory of the high altar, he had gone straight to the greater glory, through smoking censers and candles and stars (26-27).


Driscoll’s funeral is presented as more of a fairy tale ending than is the romantic story of young love. Cather flips things upside down. The traditional fairy tale ends up being something more along the lines of a horror story.

Why did Myra’s life turn out like it did? Her life certainly did not turn out as she had assumed it would. But whose does? She wasn’t able to change or adapt to the reality of her situation because, I think, she had no deep connections to support or challenge her. She had no passion of her own. She had no faith in a higher power or in something greater than herself. And her friendships seemed to have been superficial because when anyone challenges her, she cuts them out of her life. When Nellie challenges Myra about how she treats Oswald, Myra tells her to leave and to stay away. She even locks Oswald out for days at a time. It’s easy to imagine Myra doing the same with other friends throughout her life. One example is the writer who wouldn’t lend the Henshawe’s money back in their New York days.

Is Myra incapable of deep connection because she never knew herself? She says: “Oh, if youth but knew!….It’s been the ruin of us both. We’ve destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We’ve thrown our lives away” (90-91). Oswald may not be living a completely self-actualize life, but he seems relatively content. He brushes off her dramatics with a calm acceptance and understanding of Myra simply being Myra.

Nellie thinks Oswald could have been cut out for a more adventurous life and he does later go to Alaska. However, he certainly doesn’t seem to be destroyed by Myra: he still takes great care of himself and his appearance, takes interest in others, and he still loves Myra. He understands her delusions, as he calls them. Myra, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to understand herself or him or anyone else. I think her claim that she needed money is really a desire to go back to childhood, when life was simpler for her and the consequences of her actions were not so detrimental.

Myra’s return to Catholicism seems to be tied to her desperation and a desire to return to her childhood as well as to her delusions of grandeur and dramatics rather than any inner or spiritual change.

When Nellie picks up Myra’s crucifix to straighten her sheets, the older woman, “put out her hand quickly and said: ‘Give it to me. It means nothing to people who haven’t suffered'” (109). Not only is Myra rude, she’s being dramatic and narcissistic: she clearly thinks she’s the only one who suffers. Later she does come to realize that others have suffered and that in the end she is and always has been her own worst enemy. But does she realize she’s been the cause of her own suffering? Even in the end she causes others great anguish by lying and running away.

Unlike her Uncle whose life was celebrated with a spectacular mass and whose influence carries on in the community, Myra dies alone and her body is cremated (which belies her return to Catholicism). There was no mass and no mention of a service of any kind. Her ashes are buried, “in some lonely and unfrequented place in the mountains, or in the sea” (119). There’s no chance for Myra to find the kind of happiness that Jim Burden thinks about in My Antonia: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Myra’s ashes were buried in a steel box.

Things I’ve been pondering
Myra says, in response to something the priest said to her off the page that, “in religion seeking is finding.” What did the priest say to her? What was she really seeking in the end? Does she have faith or was her clutching of the crucifix no different than the fortune teller who used to visit her? Does she commit suicide?

Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of My Mortal Enemy? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it’s just a sentence.

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

Categories: Willa Cather

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3 replies »

  1. You've elucidated your thoughts on this spare, powerful novella quite well. It really is a horror story, isn't it?

    I hadn't considered Myra's death a possible suicide before you suggested it. You could read it as a rather selfish, overly dramatic exit. Or a rash, romantic escape from her illness. Her runaway departure reminded me of how sick animals often go off alone to die in the wilderness. Only animals don't hire cabs with hidden mad money.

    Here is a my Goodreads review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/381918934

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  2. Here's Lydia's review on Goodreads for those of you who couldn't access it:

    “What a meaty role the tragic heroine of this novella would make for a great actress! Willa Cather has crafted a sharp portrait of another “Lost Lady.” This time the lady in question is Myra Driscoll Henshawe, a cynical, opinionated, and delusional woman who casts away a fortune for love and then claws her way through her remaining unsatisfactory life. A “country mouse” narrator named Nellie Birdseye tells Myra's sad story, focusing harshly on the aging woman's wicked smiles, fierce laughter, and growing double chin. Nellie also offers this romantic view of her first glimpse of New York City's Madison Square:

    It seemed to me so neat, after the raggedness of our Western cities; so protected by good manners and courtesy–like an open-air drawing room (34).”

    Thanks for sharing your review, Lydia! Bette Davis actually came to mind for me in a few scenes. I wonder who could pull it off today? Kathy Bates is the only one who comes to mind for me.

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  3. My Mortal Enemy was one of the few Willa Cather stories I hadn't read. It's so short, I consider it a novella, rather than a novel.

    I wonder whether Myra married Oswald out of infatuation rather than love, and then regretted it later. In my own family (not me, fortunately!) I've seen first-hand how angry this can make a person. They act as if they've been trapped in a relationship they cannot escape from and lash out at the world. It's probably even harder in Myra's case since she gave up a fortune for someone she soon learned she didn't really care about or who turned out to be a great disappointment in her eyes.

    I have sympathy for Oswald, who was a devoted husband and eventually caregiver. Even though he had hard-luck in his career, he did attempt to hold down jobs and support the family. And he was there for his wife to the bitter end, knowing all the while the anger and resentment she held for him. Although he wasn't rich like her uncle, he still was a good man and they could have had a more loving relationship if she had worked on it.

    Since my wife and I are celebrating our 32nd anniversary in October, I can vouch that marriage and relationships take constant nurturing and cultivation from both sides. There never appeared any effort on Myra's part to make it work.

    I would be horrified if my wife considered me her Mortal Enemy. Can you imagine spending a lifetime with someone who thinks that about you? Yikes.

    The Mortal Enemy isn't an indictment of relationships. It demonstrates, however, how destructive they can be to individuals and those around them when things go awry.

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