“A Wagner Matinee,” by Willa Cather is a powerful short story encompassing many themes, the most powerful of which, being one of sacrifice. Our main character Aunt Georgina, like many homesteaders in the 19 th century worked tirelessly raising a family, facing countless days of exhausting labor, and braving whatever the elements decided to throw their way. This homesteader lifestyle and the hardships which accompanied it often meant that anyone who had strong cultural or musical interests would have to subdue them and replace their favored sonatas and overtures, with hard labor and mind numbing tasks. As her years of labor wore on, even the most enduring of Georgina’s passion, her love of music, was eventually forced into a sad remission. In choosing to elope with her young lover and to pursue a homesteader life, Georgina had to sacrifice many of the pleasures she once enjoyed. Despite the many years she faced toiling away, her passions, though forced dormant, never ceased to exist.
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It is the turn of the 19 th Century a time where countless families sought to make their fortunes and dreams come true by moving west. Our story opens up with Georgina’s nephew receiving a letter that she will be arriving the next day to attend to some family business. Upon reading the worn note in his hands her nephew instantly pictures his aunt, describing her worn figure as “at once pathetic and grotesque” (689) even later comparing her disfigurements to “explorers who have left their ears and fingers north of Franz-Josef-Land, or their health somewhere along the Upper Congo.” (690) Despite her outward appearance her nephew shows much reverence and affection for her, and is quickly pulled back to his country roots where he describes himself as the “gangling farmer-boy my aunt had known, scourged with chillbains and bashfulness”(690) recollecting times at which he “..sat again before her parlor organ, fumbling the scales”(690) he also makes references to the fact “For thirty years my aunt had not been more than fifty miles from the homestead”(690) highlighting an undertone of entrapment, that his aunt likely feels.
Georgina like many of these homesteaders was forced to live a life of labor, many of her tasks not suited for anyone to endure for so long. It’s made known throughout the story that her interests lay with the arts, more specifically music, and that her exposure to it was severely limited during the latter part of her life. Most of her days were spent doing menial tasks, cooking, cleaning, caring for the family, and farm work, not appreciating operas or concerts as she so desired. It’s disheartening to see someone forced into a helpless situation like this for following one’s love for a person versus their love for a passion, but during this time period it was sure to be common place.
It’s made apparent Georgina’s nephew has a long history with and cares much for her, he knows of her passions for music but is worried that the constant years of abuse and fatigue have laid them to rest. He refers to her being in a sort of stupor for the majority of her visit stating “She seemed not to realize that she was in the city where she had spent her youth, the place longed for hungrily half a lifetime.”(692) In an effort to assuage his curiosities and provide an enjoyable stay for her, he arranged for them to go to a concert he thought she might enjoy. To his surprise he noticed “she was a trifle less passive and inert, and for the first time seemed to perceive her surroundings.”(692) This realization led him to the belief that perhaps things were better off had he not made an effort to wake her to her lost passions.
As the concert unfolded Georgina was slow to be reawakened to her dormant passions, her nephew made the observation “She sat staring at the orchestra through a dullness of thirty years”(694). For most of the performance he observed her, watching her reactions to each piece, seeing what they might mean to her. The concert progressed further, and as each piece played she became more immersed eventually breaking down into tears as the work “Prize Song”(695) was played. She was joined in her emotional release by her nephew who also started to tear up, finding that “It never really died, then – the soul can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only” with this came the realization that she in fact held to her passions all along.
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Georgina’s life definitely can be described as one of persistent adversity. She made the decision to elope with her lover which forced her hand in dedicating herself to a life of withering work, and a sacrifice of her passions. In doing so she doomed any hope of recapturing her true love of music in favor of following her heart, save for the performance her nephew brought her too. The story concludes with Georgina pleading “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”(696), this statement brings forth the icy realization that she would have to return to her unfortunate situation as soon as she left the concert hall. All of the imperfections and troubles that lay with coming home would come back in a vivid flash leaving her to the mercy of the choice she made all those years ago. It’s reassuring however that she was able to be reawakened to her passions – even after her tiresome and difficult life, and that even under the harshest of circumstances, the human spirit and the passions that remain within it can and will persist.
Cather, Willa. ââ‚¬Å“A Wagner Matinee.ââ‚¬ The Language of Literature: American Literature. Ed. Arthur N. Applebee et al, Boston: McDougal Littell, 2002, 687-698
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