A Wagner Matinée by Willa Cather, 1904
The magic trick:
Contrasting two settings and two phases of life to demonstrate the harsh realities of only having one life to live
Boston is the setting today, but it’s not really about the neighborhoods or the surroundings or anything like that. The setting is used more as a contrast against the prairie life of Nebraska.
In the story, the narrator’s aunt returns to Boston for the first time in 25 years after leaving the city as a young woman to build a new life in Nebraska. And we can’t really get a read on her. The narrator can’t get a read on her either. She seems a little bit distant, a little bit out of sorts. Maybe it’s displacement. Maybe it’s simply fatigue from the long train journey. But whatever it is, the Wagner matinée pulls her out of her daze. She becomes very emotional, the music drawing her into the world of her former life.
As such, the story is very touching, but it’s also really a direct shot at Nebraska in the stark contrast between settings. The story seems to lament the choices we make and the way regrets can hang over our lives.
And that’s quite a trick on Cather’s part.
When the musicians came out and took their places, she gave a little stir of anticipation, and looked with quickening interest down over the rail at that invariable grouping; perhaps the first wholly familiar thing that had greeted her eye since she had left old Maggie and her weakling calf. I could feel how all those details sank into her soul, for I had not forgotten how they had sunk into mine when I came fresh from ploughing forever and forever between green aisles of corn, where, as in a treadmill, one might walk from daybreak to dusk without perceiving a shadow of change in one’s environment. I reminded myself of the impression made on me by the clean profiles of the musicians, the gloss of their linen, the dull black of their coats, the beloved shapes of the instruments, the patches of yellow light thrown by the green-shaded stand-lamps on the smooth, varnished bellies of the ‘cellos and the bass viols in the rear, the restless, wind-tossed forest of fiddle necks and bows; I recalled how, in the first orchestra I had ever heard, those long bow strokes seemed to draw the soul out of me, as a conjurer’s stick reels out paper ribbon from a hat.
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