More than any of the other Cather novels that I’ve read this year, Lucy Gayheart has been the biggest surprise. I first read this one twenty years ago when I was in my mid-twenties, but its one that I never re-read. I had only vague memories of it. I recall thinking that Lucy was a failed Thea Kronborg, that she’s an impulsive, selfish young woman ruined by a selfish, middle aged man, and surrounded by others who don’t see her, but rather only see the picture that they want to see of her. There were times when I confused Lucy Gayheart and The Song of the Lark. The first couple of times I read The Song of the Lark I kept waiting for “the affair” that never came about. I’ll never make that mistake again.
With this reading I was much more engaged with Lucy than the first time around. In fact, I was a little blown away by how relentlessly this story revolves around feelings and thoughts. A lot has changed in the twenty years since that first reading: I have had my heart royally broken, old friendships have changed, and I’ve experienced blind rage a time or two (but thankfully not when skating on a river). In other words, I can relate so much more to Lucy’s feelings–her desire to run away, to be alone–which is something I couldn’t have admitted to back then. It’s all so raw. Cather does an amazing job of showing Lucy’s feelings, and doing so through a lens of looking back somehow makes the feelings more painful and less self-indulgent at the same time.
In some ways I could relate to and understand parts of all of the characters much more this time around. Each and every one serves a definite purpose in revealing how Lucy’s feelings and thoughts are the primary motivating force of her life, which most of the people around her cannot understand. But Mrs. Ramsay has a clue. She says,
Nothing really matters but living. Get all you can out of it. I’m an old woman, and I know. Accomplishments are the ornaments of life, they come second. Sometimes people disappoint us, and sometimes we disappoint ourselves; but the thing is, to go right on living. You’ve hardly begun yet. Don’t let a backward spring discourage you. There’s a long summer before you, and everything rights itself in time (139).
Things I’ve Been Pondering
I remember in class we discussed whether or not Lucy’s drowning was accidental or a suicide. Twenty years ago I was on the side that thought it was a suicide (or, more accurately, I didn’t really care. I didn’t like Lucy or the novel all that much and was just happy to be done with it). Now I don’t think it was a suicide. Lucy’s blind rage is clearly shown in her last argument with her sister, her stomp out to the lake, her shock in Gordon’s unfriendly dismissal of her, her blindness to changes in the river she’s about to skate out onto. She’s in a blind rage. She’s a person of feelings and thoughts, and this time they’ve blinded her to the dangers around her. Perhaps her feelings have always blinded her and kept her from fully living in the present.
Perhaps Cather was saying that there was no longer a place for the gentle artist of feeling in a world that has become more enamored with business men like Harry Gordon, even if he is living a life sentence for the choices he’s made. And the saddest thing of all is that even through Gordon has come to have an understanding, there’s no one in his life, no children or younger people, to which he can pass on his wisdom. He’s apparently going to take it to the grave. People in Haverford may still talk about Lucy, but they do it with that “confidential glance” that smacks of gossip and judgement.
And Mrs. Ramsay’s wise words above? Was Lucy better off dying with the feeling that, “She was young, she was strong, she would show them they couldn’t crush her” (167)? Did she get all she could out of life? Was it “right” that she died young, before having to experience further disillusion and heartache?
Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of Lucy Gayheart? 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