“The Garden Lodge” is the second story we’re reading in the Willa Cather Short Story Project.
Last month’s story, “Flavia and Her Artists,” was about a woman of means who collects artists but has no artistic talent of her own and even resorts to parroting other’s opinions about art.
“The Garden Lodge” is in a similar vein. Caroline Noble is a woman of means who has hosted a world-renowned opera singer for a month as he prepares for the new season. But unlike Flavia, Caroline does have artistic talent. She accompanies the opera singer on piano and has created a beautiful garden, but these are both somewhat practical in her mind. And whereas Flavia seems to be rather clueless about what people think of her, Caroline is well aware that people think of her as a practical person who gets things done. I think that’s where the similarities end.
A noticeable difference is that Flavia’s husband doesn’t want to see his wife change, whereas Caroline’s husband had hoped that she would surprise him and make an uncharacteristically sentimental decision about the garden lodge. But it was not to be. After Caroline’s night of unbridled passion with herself in the garden lodge, she decides it has to go.
What is Cather saying about artists and art in these two stories?
In both stories, artists are non-desirables. They don’t take care of themselves or their responsibilities. The artists in “Flavia” are parasites. The “best” artist in that story eventually speaks his mind, but he does so in a cowardly fashion by submitting his opinion in a newspaper piece and leaving before his target has a chance to read and respond.
In “The Garden Lodge” Caroline’s artist father and brother have a certain level of talent but are unable to harness it, either from delusions of grandeur or slothfulness. Caroline’s mother is an art lover and dies as a result of her heartbreak over her son’s suicide coming as it does after years of financial hardship. Art is a dangerous thing. It leads to poverty, addiction, and death. It’s understandable why Caroline would react against such an existence and steel her will to get out of poverty. But then she seems to go to the opposite extreme with her practicality and reason.
Was anyone else hoping Caroline’s “awakening” in the garden lodge would help her embrace artistic expression and passion for herself? That maybe she’d see it doesn’t have to be one extreme or the other?
Or is Cather commenting more on a certain type of woman, the Flavias and Carolines of the world? Those who are wealthy enough to have the luxury of making fools of themselves or those who are too frightened to let themselves be swept along by art and so create controlled gardens or only play supporting roles? Class, as well as gender issues, are also interestingly entwined in these stories.
I’m so curious to hear what you think of “The Garden Lodge,” especially after just reading “Flavia and Her Artists.” Let’s talk in the comments below.
Although I can see how the ending of the story as-is might be satisfying to some readers, I think I would have preferred a more open-ended resolution. Perhaps allowing readers to see that her husband was willing to accept an unpredictable response from his wife, without our seeing how that knowledge might have affected her decision. The experience in the garden lodge seemed so overwhelming that it’s a little disappointing to see her so quickly determine that she’s fine with the idea of tearing it all down, dismissing the whole shebang. Of course, maybe that IS the point. That she does not really feel she is free to explore that side of things. That too many people have a different set of expectations of her? But I still would have liked to believe that it might go either way. (Not a fair request, obviously: short stories of that time did require – for the most part – an overt conclusion.)
I didn’t really see it as being about other people’s expectations of her, but more about Caroline’s own self-protection against what she sees as the uncontrollable forces of art. It seemed that she was afraid that if she let a little bit of that artistic feeling and freedom into her daytime life that it could have the effect of that powerful storm and blow everything apart. She does have the example of the tenor as an artist who is able to channel his creativity into a stable career and a husband who perhaps wants her to step out of her predictable ways a bit, but maybe the point was that her brief night of passion was so out of control that she thought her safest option was to slam that door shut forever. I wonder how unusual that scene of passion was for the time period.
I thought she had steeled herself to always be practical and yes, somewhat cold, so that her night alone in the garden lodge scared her back to her “public” face. She had worked so hard to pull herself out of poverty and the emotional despair of her youth, she was still did not feel safe enough to follow her emotions. The garden lodge represented art and emotion and she wanted it gone. Starving artists are a charming idea until you are living with one and she was resentful of her father for being unable to be a strong, provider, leading to the deaths of her brother and mother. While her father passed on his musical talent to her which finally enabled her to create a life she felt she deserved after her hard work. I liked this story better than Flavia, I felt Caroline was a more realistic character, as she was more self aware than Flavia.
Thanks for your comment, Kate! I thought Caroline was more realistic, too. I could certainly empathize with her and understand her choices and decisions. This story as a whole seemed more realistic than “Flavia.” As a reader, it was definitely manageable.
I’m really enjoying the discussion! Both stories certainly highlight the allure of the artist. While Flavia surrounds herself by artists as a way to present herself in society, Caroline distances herself from the artistic due to her negative experiences within her immediate family. What’s ironic is that Caroline is probably the true artist in her family but is unable to embrace art as a means of expression–the failures of her father and brother are just too close. I really wanted her to break free at the end, to at least allow herself to express herself via the music she loved.
With the arrival of D’Esquerre Caroline is almost overwhelmed. Her virtual worship of him reminded me of how Flavia felt about the presence M. Roux. The Artist with a capital A. I feel like the difference is that Caroline was able to truly connect with D’Esquerre. He admired and respected her discipline while working in the garden lodge. Once again, why couldn’t she keep the lodge, if only for herself?
At the end I questioned whether Noble really wanted Caroline to save the garden lodge and surprise him. His “…half humorous, half vexed” glance made me a bit suspicious.
Interesting reading of the husband. I wonder if it’s a case of him being able to see what she truly wants and needs, what would make her a happier or more authentic person if she’d only loosen her grip a bit. I re-read the last page in this light and was struck by the last line, “…they both rose from the table, laughing.” Now it seems like that icey kind of laughter between a couple, the kind that has years of disappointments and frustrations underneath. I’m also really enjoying the discussion!