Willa Cather, Ivan Turgenev, and the Novel of Character




As David Stouck points out in his essay "Willa Cather and the Russians" (in this volume), Cather read the fiction of Ivan Turgenev early in her literary career and reflected upon it often throughout her life. She called Turgenev an exception among the Russian novelists, whose books, she said, possessed "amazing fecundity" but were often marred by an "unfortunate disregard of perfect finish" (Kingdom 72). Her comment on the "perfect finish" of Turgenev's fiction, which her literary mentor Henry James had also praised, clearly indicates Cather's early interest in fictional style and technique. More important, an examination of Turgenev's fiction and critical comments, of James's discussions of his work, and of Cather's own fiction and criticism reveals interesting parallels between the fictional theories and techniques of Cather and Turgenev.[1] Such a study suggests, in particular, that Willa Cather's approach to characterization may well have been significantly influenced by that of Turgenev.

Cather must certainly have been interested in Turgenev's heroines. As D. S. Mirsky observes in his discussion of Turgenev: "The, strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced into literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the work of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev's" (192-93). Cather's own heroines, especially those of the earlier novels, obviously share the dominant qualities of Turgenev's women. However, Turgenev's most significant influence on Cather may well have involved not the kinds of characters she created but rather her sense of the role of character and its relationship to fictional structure and theme.

The novels of Willa Cather constitute some of the most obvious examples in American literature of narratives of character.[2] The depiction of characters was clearly the primary aim of her mature work, the business of devising the action secondary. If we look at the "germs" for her twelve novels, we find that for almost all of them the story began with an actual person or persons. The genesis and development of Cather's characters was strikingly similar to that described by Turgenev in his famous article "Apropos of Fathers and Sons": "For my part, I must confess that I never attempted to 'create a character' unless I had for my departing point not an idea but a living person to whom the appropriate elements were later gradually attached and added" (195).



Henry James's comments on this process echo and expand upon Turgenev's own and likewise indicate a way of examining Cather's fiction:

The first form in which a tale appeared to him [Turgenev] was as the figure of one individual, or a combination of individuals, whom he wished to see in action, being sure that such people must do something very special and interesting. They stood before him definite, vivid, and he wished to know, and to show, as much as possible of their nature. . . . the story all lay in the question, What shall I make them do? . . . If one reads Turgénieff's stories with the knowledge that they were composed-or rather that they came into being-in this way, one can trace the process in every line. ("Ivan Turgénieff" 51-52)[3]


The extent to which character, or a character, came to dominate Cather's creative and artistic conceptions is perhaps best exemplified in an incident recalled by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant. In 1916, dissatisfied with the most "furnished" of her novels, The Song of the Lark, Cather attempted to explain her artistic aims in the new novel on which she was then working.

She then suddenly leaned over-and this is something I remembered clearly when My Ántonia came into my hands, at last, in 1918-and set an old Sicilian apothecary jar of mine, filled with orange-brown flowers of scented stock, in the middle of a bare, round, antique table.

"I want my new heroine to be like this-like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides."

She moved the lamp so that light streamed brightly down on my Taormina jar, with its glazed orange and blue design.

"I want her to stand out—like this—like this—because she is the story."

(Sergeant 139)

And stand out Ántonia does. Her energy, joy, and courage pervade the novel, in direct contrast to Jim Burden's sense of loss and disappointment in life. In the climactic scene when Jim visits her, he finds that unlike so many of the pioneers before her, Ántonia has not lost "the fire of life"; in her the "inner glow" has never faded (379). She is finally to Jim, and to the reader, a heroic figure in American history. She is the apotheosis of the pioneer woman, one who "lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true" (398). Henry James's description of Turgenev's Elena, of On the Eve, is thus a very apt description of Cather's Ántonia: both are "figures about whom admiring legend clusters"; both are "elevated conception" ("lwan Turgéniew" 336).

By the time she came to write My Ántonia, Cather had for some time conceived of her fiction in terms of character, and in writing the book she learned how to make a character the artistic and thematic center of a work of fiction. Acutely aware of the artistic pitfalls of overwriting, Cather declared in her 1920 essay "On the Art of Fiction" that "nearly the whole of the higher artistic process [is] finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole" (102). The true writer's gift, Turgenev had argued in various places, lay in the ability to eliminate all unnecessary or extraneous matter so as to allow what was most significant-the presentation of character-the reader's full attention.

Cather's desire to let the characters tell their own stories is clearly analogous to Turgenev's own, as he described it: "Life happened to be like that, my experience told me more than once, perhaps mistakenly, but I repeat, not dishonestly. There was no need for me to be too clever about it; I just had to depict his [Bazarov's] character like that" (196). A statement of Cather's about her intentions in writing A Lost Lady reflects again an attitude strikingly similar to that of Turgenev: "Now the problem was to get her [Marian Forrester] not like the standardized heroine in fiction, but as she really was, and not to care about anything else in the story except that one character. And there is nothing but the portrait. Everything else is subordinate" (Bennett 69).

For Willa Cather as for Ivan Turgenev, characterization-more specifically, a character-was at the heart of the creative process. While it may be argued that Cather's tendency to see a novel initially in terms of a major character may simply have been the result of her own particular temperament and artistic imagination, it is clear that her conception of characterization was consciously and carefully developed. Cather's statements on Turgenev and other writers during the period of her literary apprenticeship show her to have been a very perceptive young critic. In addition, her own early fiction reveals a very conscious and conscientious if not yet highly accomplished writer.[4] Cather's reading of Turgenev and her almost certain familiarity with Henry James's comments on Turgenev may well have provided her with a model for her approach to the writing of fiction, an approach that she continued to develop throughout her career.

A second distinctive characteristic of Turgenev's ficton that Cather seems to have noted is juxtaposition. James, who greatly admired Turgenev's use of this device, declared that Turgenev's fiction most simply involved "the motions of a group of selected creatures" around a central character ("Ivan Turgenieff" 51-52). Cather's interest in and use of this technique is clearly indicated in the 1921 interview: 

In this new novel One of Ours I'm trying to cut out all analysis, observation, description, even the picture-making quality, in order to make things and people tell their own story simply by juxtaposition, without any persuasion or explanation on my part. Just as if I were to put here on this table a green vase, and beside it a yellow orange. Now, these two things affect each other. Side by side, they produce a reaction which neither of them will produce alone. Why should I try to say anything clever, or by any colorful rhetoric detract attention from these two objects, the relation they have to each other and the effect they have upon each other? I want the reader to see the orange and the vase—beyond that, I am out of it. Mere cleverness must go. (Carroll 216)

Juxtaposition of characters was clearly, in fact, the fundamental organizing principle of Willa Cather's novelistic fiction. While this element is perhaps most obvious in the contrasting personalities of the two priests, Father Latour and Father Vaillant, of Death Comes for the Archbishop, it is a key structural device in all Cather's novels. A study of her juxtaposition of characters supports Bernice Slote's hypothesis that the "'telling element of contrast' might be equally important in all of her work, both as a deliberate technique and as a natural, perhaps unconscious embodiment of other dualities" (Kingdom 80). The importance of both Turgenev's and Cather's characters generally depends not on their development as psychologically complex personalities but rather on the representation of qualities they possess relative to other characters, both major and minor. It is by means of the juxtaposition of characters that much of the thematic material in the fiction of both authors is presented. Moreover, an understanding of the central role of character and character juxtaposition in Cather's novels allows us to understand the artistic and thematic functions of various other fictional elements: for example, the apparent overemphasis on Lena Lingard in Book III of My Ántonia, which might otherwise seem extraneous or artistically inappropriate.

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