Willa Cather Short Story Project: Response to Flavia and Her Artists


Regarding the last line, who is Marius in this story? Arthur? Flavia? Miss Broadwood? “Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage,” painting by John Vanderlyn, 1775-1852 (source)


Last week I attended an event with Min Jin Lee in conversation with Mark Oppenheimer. They were talking about writing and one of the comments Min made was about tone. She asked if anyone knew the definition of tone. The audience lacked a Hermione. No hand was raised.

Min said tone is simply, “the attitude the writer has toward her subject.” What a simple and concise definition. Not surprisingly, tone has been on my mind as I’ve been reading this week.

For those who have read only Cather’s prairie novels, the tone of “Flavia and Her Artists” must be quite a shock. There’s little romantic nostalgia here. This scathing story of a deluded woman and a house full of parasitic artists is repulsive and cold.

I loved the snarky observations of Miss Broadwood, such as when she refers to the guest’s rooms as cages. It struck me that Broadwood understands her cousin Flavia because she’s a bit like her. Whereas Flavia has no self-awareness and is deluded about why she “collects” the best artists and interesting people, Broadwood, a working performing artist, tells Imogen that people in her profession are envious of scholarship and impressed by, “Anything in type…that’s why so many of us marry authors or newspaper men and lead miserable lives.”

This is the Shadow Artist concept that Julia Cameron writes about in The Artist’s Way:

Too intimidated to become artists themselves, very often too low in self-worth to even recognize that they have an artistic dream, these people become shadow artists instead. Artists themselves but ignorant of their true identity, shadow artists are to be found shadowing declared artists. Unable to recognize that they themselves may possess the creativity they so admire, they often date or marry people who actively pursue the art career they themselves secretly long for (27).

Is this Flavia’s deal? Do you think she lacks the self-worth to see her own creative side and therefore desperately surrounds herself with creative types? Or is there some other explanation?

I first read this story when I was in my 20s and I think I probably detested Flavia back then. Now I feel for her. And as noble as her husband seems, I want to shake him and tell him to help his wife! Be a partner. But no. Instead, he falls on his sword and becomes the martyr so his wife can live on with her delusion and cast all her aspersions on her husband who is really her protector. Or is he? So twisted. Or is it just not that good of a story? What do you think?

Let me know what you think of “Flavia and Her Artists” in the comments below. Let’s have a conversation!



  1. Thank you for posting the painting “Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage,” and a link to its source. For me, the last line refers to Flavia, and how she viewed herself and her position after Arthur’s commentary on Roux led to the prompt departure of her artists. She still considered herself queen of her domain, but certainly felt her position was left in ruins.

    When I read this story, I struggled with how much of my 21st century sensibility was determining my reaction. I thought Arthur was kind of creepy. The reference to Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland in relation to Imogen and Arthur made me pause. Why did Arthur want Imogen to never to grow up? Did he feel the same way about Flavia, and and that’s why he kept her in the dark about how she was being perceived by the artists? Was it all about control and dominance?

    Also, I had to laugh a bit at myself while reading this story. Imogen reminded me of myself growing up. I was always drawn to dark stories with sad endings.

    • Yes, Arthur gets creepier the more I think about him! I didn’t see the connection between his not wanting Imogen to grow up and his “protection” of Flavia, but it’s so clear now that you point it out. Flavia is such a spectacle, but it’s Arthur that’s making much of it possible behind the scenes. He’s like a dark puppet master.

      Imogen reminded me of myself, too, but more out of her sense of being a bit clueless and too serious at the same time.

      I have to admit, I’ve never read Alice in Wonderland or The Little Mermaid.

      • While I do understand what you mean about Arthur, I’m not sure that’s how he was intended. It could all be seen as a lament to innocence, lost youth and what not, couldn’t it? Plus, we mostly see him through Imogen’s eyes, so perhaps she is also commenting on her sense that she might have “landed” him *laughs* herself, had she only been a slightly different girl/young woman?

        Alice in Wonderland makes an awesome choice for close reading in a bookclub. The annotated editions, the related biographical stuff, Stephanie Bolster’s Alice poems: lots to enjoy there! (Surely The Little Mermaid is not an accidental choice. A young woman who is expected to give up parts of herself to secure deep and lasting love?)

  2. Sorry this took me a while. I finished the story a while back and then work and illness got in the way. I liked the story a lot and it did remind me of Henry James. (I was just out running errands and heard you discussing the story w/ Emily. It reminded me very much of one of his novels where there is a young girl attending a house party and the hostess invites a number of people in the Arts. I felt bad for Flavia as she really was mocked behind her back and her husband did not stand up for her. Keeping it hidden from her was not the right thing to do, as she appears incapable of managing her self. Imogen still views Arthur as a guardian and I agree, he is very manipulative, keeping the women in his life dependent on him. On to the next story!

    • I can see this reading of the story, but I never felt as though Flavia wasn’t managing her own affairs. Whether she could have been more of an artist herself, had she made different choices in life, married someone else, maybe. But now that she is married, with considerable resources at hand, she seems to have complete and total freedom to invite whomever she chooses under whatever circumstances she dictates to take up residence with her. (Although I suspect M. Roux will be on the naughty list from now on.) My frustration in this story rests with the other artists, who willingly parroted her praise of M. Roux at the table, even though they must have agreed with him about her being ridiculous. Or, if they don’t, then aren’t they just being exactly like Flavia, simply repeating another’s opinions (only, this time, Flavia’s)?

  3. Perhaps I am misremembering something, as I’ve only read this story once, and in the public library, so perhaps I simply missed something, but after M. Roux’s cutting article has been published, and the subject of his “genius” is introduced at the table, and everyone else in attendance knows about Roux’s article except for Flavia, who is ooo’ing and ahhh’ing over his talent, doesn’t Flavia’s husband criticize Roux openly? If I’ve misunderstood/misread something, then I guess he is a bit of a schmuck for simply leaving Flavia in the dark. But if he did speak up, isn’t that a quiet way of supporting his wife by devaluing her public critic? This isn’t a story that I read when I was in school, but I can appreciate the idea of one’s having been likely to be more critical of Flavia at a younger age and more sympathetic when older.

    • Yes, the husband critizes Roux, who is no longer there. Everyone except Flavia knows why he spoke against the man and “his ilk” and they are put in their places, so to say. I think it’s a double-edged kind of support. He’s cleared away the rats but keeps Flavia in the dark, which makes me think he thinks Flavia IS ridiculous. It seems cruel to think he’ll just keep humoring her.

      • Do you think it’s possible that how one views the amount/nature of his support of Flavis is directly related to how ridiculous one actually does think Flavia is?

        She is a mooch: adopting others’ opinions as her own (without crediting them, obviously – imagine how she would have FLOURISHED in this internet age!) and claiming to have independent thoughts when she is actually simply parroting others’. But she is not malicious, is she? She frustrates me but I didn’t find her really all that different from an ordinary person who stands on the margins of the artistic world and wonders/marvels/shakes her head at it all.

        So if one doesn’t really believe that she is ridiculous, then perhaps it’s easier to view her husband’s discretion as a way of simply allowing her to be who she wants to be without interruption? Because if one assumes that Roux is the ridiculous one, would it not be only hurtful to share that spiteful article with her? I find that I am more impatient with the other guests, who really do seem to believe she is ridiculous, and yet they are still there for their free meal.

  4. At first, I was thinking that a single reading of this story was enough. It seemed relatively straight forward (and a little long to immediately invite rereading). But now I’m thinking about rereading!

  5. I just discovered Willa Cather recently and have been bowled over by the beauty of her writing. I loved “Death Comes for the Archbishop” and “My Antonia.” Several years ago I read “Double Birthday,” included in an anthology, and considered it one of the greatest short stories I’ve ever read. I recently acquired a collection of her stories that were published in book form, and loved “Neighbor Rosicky.” I also liked (but didn’t love) “A Wagner Matinee.”

    With this background, I was surprised by “Flavia and Her Artists.” I didn’t like it all, finding it cold and obscure, entirely unlike the very warm works mentioned above. I would never have guessed that Cather was its author.

    • Hi Howard, thank you for your comment. I’m so glad you’ve discovered and are enjoying Cather. How did you stumble across her?

      I was going to reply by saying that some of her earlier stories are cold and hard, but then I thought of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, her last novel, which is very hard but is also imbued with the warmth of her mature style. I think it is that warmth of style that often causes readers to gloss over some of the hard things in her more mature stories. But there is no denying Flavia is an unflattering, rather cruel story.

      I hope you continue to enjoy Cather. Happy reading!

What do you think? Leave a comment and let's talk!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.