There are several purposes Willa Cather has in her short story, "A Wagner Matinee." The two main purposes of this story are to entertain the reader and to reveal a theme. Before discussing theses purposes, back ground on Cather will be given so as to gain as better understanding and appreciation for her writing.
Willa Sibert Cather was born December 7th, 1873 on a small farm in Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia. Her mother and father, Mary and Charles Cather, had seven children, Willa being the oldest. The family moved to the immigrant village of Red Cloud, Nebraska in 1883. Cather grew up around many different cultures from Europe and was, therefore, exposed to the harsh realities of new life on the Great Plains at an early age (Webster's 69). Cather's grandmothers educated her because there no schools close enough for her to attend. They taught her many things including Latin and Classic English literature.
Her first literary influence was Virgil (Twentieth 257).
To pay her way through college, Cather took a job with the Pittsburgh Leader. Some have speculated that this caused her to become a realist as an author (Downs 54). From 1906-1912 Cather was the managing editor of McClure's Magazine. According to Ida Tarbell, Cather didn't like the magazine's "'muckraking' and crusading methods" and eventually quit (Twentieth 258). According to her obituary in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, one of Cather's friends once said, "She did her work, did it well, and let it go at that. She avoided the limelight" (Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph 1).
According to Twentieth Century Authors, Cather's books can be divided by subject:Her novels may be divided into three groups: those dealing with the West, and particularly with foreign-born farmersÃ¢ÂÂ¦; those short stories and novelettesÃ¢ÂÂ¦ and deal mostly with artists and sophisticated Easterners; and those, merging into almost legend, which evidence her interest in Roman CatholicismÃ¢ÂÂ¦ (Twentieth 258).
Cather believed that she reached her objective when she stopped writing and remembered (Twentieth 258). The way Cather writes is very realistic. She accurately describes the harshness of the west (Netz 11). Mostly Cather is a realist because she did not tell stories through rose-colored glasses. She told the truth about the hard life.
In Willa Cather's "A Wagner Matinee," the culture of Nebraska contrasts very sharply to that of Boston's. The result of this is Aunt Georgina's soul begins to wither away (Ostwalt 134). She had a love for the arts, especially music, and when she moved to Nebraska she lost it all. She was an accomplished pianist and music teacher in Boston and she loved music. Cather's life was similar to that of Clark's. They both lived in Nebraska early on and moved on to better things; they were both educated by older members of their family; and they both had aunts who were very cultured in early life then moved to Nebraska and came back to the culture and didn't want to go back. "A Wagner Matinee" was based on Willa Cather's aunt, Frances Cather. Cather thought her aunt was ugly, smart, and eccentric (Miller 1).
There are many themes in "A Wagner Matinee" each more meaningful and interesting than the last. The most important theme is whatever you truly love never really leaves you. Music was the most important thing to Aunt Georgina for most of her life but she had to give it up because there was no way she could hear it or play it in Nebraska. Aunt Georgia gets so much more out of the music than the rest of the people in the concert hall and her soul is reborn. She has been in conflict with it for years and finally let it lay dormant in her. I "A Wagner Matinee" Cather writes, "It never really dies, then, the soul? It withers to the outward eye only,"(Kinsella 677). Music was her soul, it was a part of her and part of her was hidden the whole time she was away form music. When Clark is trying to play a certain piece on the piano Cather writes that Aunt Georgina tells him, "Don't love it so well, Clark, or it maybe taken from you. Oh! dear boy [sic], pray that whatever your sacrifice be it is not that" (Kinsella 673). She does not want him to be hurt as much as she is and is trying to protect him from her hard life. Another theme is that of free will. Is it Aunt Georgina's free will to stay with Uncle Howard, or is she pressured into it by marriage? She would stay in Boston if it were not for Howard Carpenter. Aunt Georgina has to go home to take care of her home, husband, and children. If she had not married Howard Clark would not have been who he is today.
To emphasis her purpose she uses a variety of different strategies. To describe how Aunt Georgina looks just before the music starts she uses imagery as well as a metaphor to compare her to "old miners who drift into the Brown Hotel at DenverÃ¢ÂÂ¦ conscious that certain experiences have isolated them from their fellows by a gulf no haberdasher could conceal [by more than one could overlook]" (Kinsella 675). To describe Aunt Georgina's soul Cather uses a simile, "like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty self half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again" (Kinsella 677). To describe how she looks when she first arrives Cather uses imagery, "she looked like one of those charred smoked bodiesÃ¢ÂÂ¦" (Kinsella 672). Clark related everything to something else almost like he is writing a book in his own head. In the story there were allusions to "William Shakespeare, Carl Maria Von Weber's Euryanthe, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, Tristan und Isolde, Der Ringdes Nibelungen and Siegfried, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Giuseppe Veri's II trovatore" (Stelle 1). The other purpose Cather had for writing this short story is to entertain the reader. She achieves this by making the reader think "what if this happened to me?" Also she does this but putting a lot of emotion into the story. The climax of the story really helps with this too. The climax is during the intermission of the concert when Aunt Georgina says, "Who could?... why should one?" (Kinsella 677). She is answering Clarks questioning about if she still understands the music.
When "A Wagner Matinee was first published, many people criticized Cather because she was so harsh on Nebraska. She rewrote this story three times before the general public was happy with it. In the first two versions, Aunt Georgina was even uglier and bitterer. Cather's Family and friends in she had left behind in Nebraska were upset by this (Miller 1).
In Conclusion, Willa Cather was a realist and wrote about how hard life was for many people in the world. The two main purposes in "A Wagner Matinee" are to reveal a theme and entertain the reader. Cather is an amazing writer, she is able to tap into basic human emotions without making the story strictly emotional. "A Wagner Matinee" is an excellent example of this.
Works Cited"And Death Comes for Willa Cather, Famous Author." Pittsburgh Sun-TelegraphApril 25, 1947: 1-2.
Downs, M. Catherine. Becoming Modern: Willa Cather's Journalism. New York:Susquehanna University Press, 1999.
Kinsella, Kate, et. Al. Prentice Hall Literature: The American Experience. Boston:Penguin Edition, 2007.
The Public Media Foundation. "Historical and Literal Contexts." James A. Miller.
Scribbling Women. 2007. The Public Media Foundation at Northeastern University College of Arts and Sciences. 3/9/08. Genevieve Netz. "Pioneer Life on the Prairie: A Wagner Matinee."Genevieve Netz. Prairie Bluestem. 3/19/07. Blogspot.3/9/08. Ostwalt, Conrad Eugene. After Eden: The Secularization of Willa Cather andTheodore Dreiser. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1990.
Various Authors. " A Wagner Matinee." Christine Stelle. Wikipedia. 1/21/08.
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Wagner_Matinee>"Willa Cather." Twentieth Century Authors. 1942 ed.
"Willa Cather." Webster's Dictionary of American Authors. 1995 ed.