Analysis of Willa Cather’s Old Mrs. Harris

Published in Ladies’ Home Journal (September– November 1932) as “Three Women” and included in the collection Obscure Destinies (1932), this story concerns three generations of women transplanted from Tennessee to the town of Skyline, Colorado. The differences in the women’s roles as widowed grandmother, mother of five children, and eldest granddaughter prevent them from fully appreciating one another. In addition to age differences, the story dramatizes cultural differences among the Southern Templetons; their next-door neighbors, the Rosens, a cultured Jewish couple from the Northeast; and the Colorado locals. Avoiding stereotypes, Willa Cather creates characters capable of both insensitivity and compassion as she moves them through the incidents that compose daily life and, cumulatively, a lifetime: afternoon coffee and cake; a Methodist lawn party; the burial of an old, beloved cat; the children’s backyard circus; Vicki Templeton’s scholarship award; and Victoria Templeton’s discovery that she is pregnant for the sixth time. Grandma Harris carries out her quiet death in the same unobtrusive way that she performed her endless acts of service for the family. Her death is both sad and necessary, a natural inevitability in the larger context of life.

Willa Cather/Edward Steichen

Cather captures the nature of family life with extraordinary precision as each main character, in pursuit of her daily desires, brushes against the other with a kind of affectionate distance, altered occasionally by intimacy or acute frustration. The story’s point of view shifts from omniscient narration to the minds of Old Mrs. Harris, her daughter Victoria, and Mrs. Rosen, who watches the three women from next door and provides an additional perspective. Men move in the background as husbands who provide financial support. Their distracted kindness can be appealed to when needed, but women are the central players in the emotional lives of these families. Cather’s perception that family unity depends on women’s compromises between self-fulfillment and service to others accounts for the shifting tones of respect, sadness, and affection that animate her complex vision of women in family life.

Analysis of Willa Cather’s Novels

Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather’s Short Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.
Slote, Bernice, ed. Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915–1929. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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