‘The Wagner Matinee’ by Willa Cather: Short Story Analysis
‘The Wagner Matinee’ is a realistic Victorian or Romantic Period short story penned in 1904 by American writer Willa Cather. Willa Cather is a greatly respected American writer. She usually wrote short stories describing the Prairies or the Great Plains’ frontier life during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In this charming short story titled ‘The Wagner Matinee’, Willa describes a music teacher turned farmer’s housewife’s intense love for music, especially classical music by Wagner. Aunt Georgiana is taken by Clark, one of her previous wards, to a Matinee show since she had come back from the Prairies after many years. Aunt Georgiana had lived as a town or city urban woman who earned her living as a music teacher at the reputed Boston Conservatory in the 1860s. However, she eloped with a farmer boy Howard Carpenter who brought her to the Nebraska frontier to work at a homestead in the Red Willow County. A homestead is an isolated dwelling, especially a farmhouse, and adjacent outbuildings, typically on a large agricultural holding such as a ranch or station. In North America, the word “homestead” historically referred to land claimed by a settler or squatter. Poor Aunt Georgiana spent a significant part of her married life in this Prairie region. Clark wakes her up from her thirty-year somnambulant life by taking her to the Opera.
The power and remedial effects of music are central to this tender story. When he booked a matinee show for his Aunt Georgiana, Clark did not foresee that the Opera would so enliven her that she would become blissfully happy again, relish the music thoroughly, and after the show was over would desperately beg that she did not want to go back to her old life in the Prairies. Clark thought that this outing would entertain his aunt, who had always shown a great love for music. Also, he wanted to repay her for all the good she had done to bring him up and look after him when he lived with her family on the homestead in the Red Willow County in Nebraska. Her life there in Nebraska was dreadfully dull, full of hardships of the farming life, not intellectually stimulating, and filled with the tedious day-to-day boring activities that never changed. Life on a farm in the Red Willow County for Clark’s aunt, once a spirited, independent woman, was life-sapping. She mourned while she was there in the presence of Clark when he was a little boy that one should not love something too much, for then the Almighty takes that lovely thing away from us. In her case, destiny or fate had taken away her life as a music teacher and her independent life where she could indulge herself and had the recreational time to develop her aesthetic senses and listen to good opera music.
Aunt Georgiana is dull headed and quite dazed when she first arrives in Boston after a quarter of a century spent on the homestead. She is disheveled, dusty, and seems to be in her own world. That is what the monotony of her life on the homestead had done to her; it had sapped her vitality and had deadened her artistic soul. Uncle Howard knew that Aunt Georgiana was in this state; therefore, he did not immediately send the letter regarding her arrival at Boston to Clark. He posts it just about when there was a chance that Clark would have missed seeing his Aunt Georgiana altogether. Uncle Howard does this because he is guilty of what he has done to his once lively wife. He is ashamed of showing Clark the woman who had molded his own life in art and music.
After a quarter of a century, Aunt Georgiana had come to Boston to claim some money bequeathed in an inheritance. The fact that Uncle Howard only sent her, his somnambulant and half-dazed wife all alone to Boston only for this purpose proves that he was an uncaring man and that the couple needed money. That is why he was desperate enough to send his wife to Boston. Clark looks at his Aunt Georgiana with awe, nostalgic for the days gone by. This is a reflective story, filled with detailed descriptions of feelings and an in-depth analysis of the human mind and heart regarding the things that make the heart beat. Aunt Georgiana had never come back to Boston in a quarter of a century. As mentioned in the text, she has not played her music for over thirty years. However, as a moss thought dead on a shelf can be brought to life once placed back in the water, so did Aunt Georgiana’s dulled love for music return to her during the Wagner Opera. Through a myriad of beautiful descriptions, Willa Cather brings forth the many feelings of delight, ecstasy, and bliss felt by Aunt Georgiana during the Wagner Matinee. All this is recorded by Clark, whom Aunt Georgiana once looked after, though the reasons for noting these details are not given to us.
Music indeed can have the power to revitalize a dead soul. I have penned a novel about the transforming power of music, even in those whose hearts are thought to be dead. You can read about it in my book Amina: The Silent One, which is available on my blog’s products page. The healing effects of music are seen dramatically in Aunt Georgiana’s case. Although she had arrived in Boston the day before the Wagner Matinee show, she only seems to recognize the place of her childhood and youth when the Opera is about to begin. She then clutches Clark’s sleeve, moves her fingers groping for a piano at the sound of the music, closes her eyes, and lets the music wash over her. All this is brought out beautifully through the various similes, personifications, and metaphors used in an almost poetic or artistic manner by the author Willa Cather. Willa Cather’s story is brimming with genuine emotion, the emotions of so many urban women who have subsumed themselves and sacrificed their lives and needs for the sake of their husbands. Aunt Georgiana was one such woman. I read about this aspect of a woman’s married life in Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. You can check out my review of the book on my blog.
Aunt Georgiana is a fascinating woman. These are a few of many characteristics that can be observed in the reading and analysis of the text:
- She was a broadminded woman and highly educated in music and other subjects. She is quite a pioneering woman for her time and age. Clark, the narrator of the story, mentions that Aunt Georgiana had a broader education in music than other music teachers of her time. She was fond of reading and owned books in Latin, books on Shakespeare, and mythology.
- Aunt Georgiana was someone who helped others and loved to be of service to others. She helped Clark and a German lad who used to sing the ‘Prize Song’ on the homestead. However, she never boasted about her actions and was quite reserved as a person.
- She loved music, and it was her life force. When she was without it for around thirty years, she had become a sort of farm robot, only bothering about trivialities like feeding the cattle and taking care of mackerels in a jar.
- She was not precisely enjoying her life on the homestead but was a dutiful wife. She had chosen to elope with Uncle Howard to the Prairies against her parents’ wishes. She was sticking by the vows of her marriage.
- Aunt Georgiana lived a life full of hardship, looking after six children, a farm, Native American or Indian attacks, the threat of war, and the thoughts of farming hazards like famine and drought.
- Her days were monotonous, and so in her old age, she had become a sort of a half-dazed woman lost in her own world.
- She was not a jealous woman. When she realized how far Clark had progressed in the world and his taste of music, she was not envious but filled with love and gratitude that he had brought her to the Wagner Opera.
- She was a good teacher, and we can see the results in Clark, who had gotten ahead in life in Boston.
- She was a suffering soul without her music and access to music. However, as Willa Cather beautifully describes in a poetic tone, the soul suffers, but it never dies. It understands our sufferings, and when it is free to enjoy the heart’s desires, it comes alive again.
The short story titled ‘The Wagner Opera’ ends on a sad note with a desperate Aunt Georgiana begging Clark not to let her go home. One would think she meant back to Clark’s place, but what she meant was back to Nebraska’s homestead. Clark understood her feelings because he knew that the homestead was not the life for his artistic and lively aunt. It was a place of drab things and rural life. This is an Edwardian quality to the short story where it tries to show the bridge being drawn between rural life and urban life and the norms of an old society that are being broken. I would also call this a feminist story that brings out how a woman, for the sake of her husband, can erase from her heart and mind the things that she loves.
Just a little note on Wagner before I close. Richard Wagner was one of the world’s most influential and controversial composers. He is famous for both his epic operas, including the four-part, eighteen-hour Ring Cycle, and his anti-Semitic writings, which, posthumously, made him a favorite of Adolf Hitler. Wagner’s operas can have the power to influence many lives. In Willa Cather’s story, it impacts Aunt Georgiana’s life, bringing her back to her senses.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Willa Cather. I read this short story when I was in the eighth grade. I spent most of my time in school at the BSS library, pouring over classic writers like Willa Cather. In that library, I became the recluse that I am today, living a life dedicated to books. If you want to read more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on my blog’s products page.
I hope to read, review, and analyze more American literary fiction and non-fiction works in the coming days to celebrate the culmination of the crucial 2020 US Presidential Elections. If you are looking for American bookish content, this is the blog you should keep watching. I hope to read and analyze more works by Willa Cather soon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog’s products page or my author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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