Response to The Marriage of Phædra, The Willa Cather Short Story Project

The Marriage of Phaedra, The Willa Cather Short Story Project

We’re on story number three of the Willa Cather Short Story Project, “The Marriage of Phædra” from Cather’s first published collection of short stories, The Troll Garden.

This is another story written in the style of Henry James. As some critics have pointed out, Cather even names the dead painter’s man James. And the name MacMaster might be a play on The Master, Henry James. Like our first two stories, this story also looks at marriage, art, and artists. There are dangers lurking in all three.

First reading

I didn’t really care for this story all that much the first time through. It seemed a predictable story about a bad marriage with the long-neglected wife socking it to the dead husband in the end by selling off the unfinished painting that he didn’t want to see leave his studio.

You can’t really blame Lady Ellen for selling. It is painfully clear that Treffinger pursued her for her money. After the honeymoon, he dropped the facade of ardent lover and focused on his art. He used her for money and in the end, her final act regarding him is about money, selling off his paintings.

Second reading

But on the second reading what jumped out at me is how MacMaster betrays Treffinger and James to the art dealer, Lichtenstein. Although Lichtenstein had discerning taste and gravitated toward the painting without prompting, it is MacMaster who goes on talking “very freely” about how central The Marriage of Phædra is, not only to the book he’s writing but that it is the master’s most important work. He’s giving Lichtenstein all the information he needs about which piece to focus on for profit.

Treffinger used Lady Ellen but she gets her payback in the end. On the other hand, MacMaster uses James for information and his loose lips may have lead to the sale of Treffinger’s paints, which leaves James not only jobless but homeless. Then, MacMaster directly betrays James when he doesn’t help to save Treffinger’s masterpiece from the hands of the now repulsive and vulgar Lichtenstein who had, in turn, used MacMaster. It is a sort of love triangle, reflecting the subject matter of the painting.

Anti-Semitism

The way MacMaster slides into anti-semitism aligns with this reading. Psychologically, he needed someone to blame for his own error in judgment. Lichtenstein is introduced as “The Jew” and MacMaster warms to the stranger quickly. But by the time MacMaster realizes what he’s done, Lichtenstein is described as having a “repulsive personality and innate vulgarity.” Was Cather using anti-semitism as a cultural shorthand to portray Lichtenstein as a bad guy or do you think she’s trying to show the reader how prejudice works? Either way, it is a rather clunky setup.

In the end

I didn’t think much about James in the first reading. After the second reading, I was left feeling sad for him. He is the most vulnerable character of this story and the one who has lost everything. His master, his job, his home. His life-long loyal service to Treffinger won’t be rewarded, it seems.

James had been with Treffinger since his boyhood. In many ways, he and Treffinger had an ideal marriage-like relationship and the two lived in harmony until the artist’s death. They had a relationship based on integrity, safe in the studio behind the garden wall. They survived Treffinger’s marriage to Lady Ellen. James even survived his master’s death and lived surrounded by the essence of the man, his art.

MacMaster was like a snake who slithered into this garden of art and wreaked havoc. Maybe it’s not art that is dangerous, but men like MacMaster who seem to glide through life unaware of the damage they cause with nothing sticking to them and not even really seeing what’s before them. He thinks that James is “so out of it,” but he’s the only one who is really in it and willing to risk his reputation and life to do the right thing. 

What do you think?

What do you think of this story? How did you interpret the characters’ motivation? Let’s chat about it in the comments below.



Categories: Willa Cather

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5 replies

  1. I’ve been thinking about the three main female characters and their relationship to art. Is there an intentional progression here? Flavia is not artistic, but surrounds herself with artists, and is oblivious to how they perceive her. Caroline is artistic, but keeps her artistic expression in check after seeing the impact of art on her father and brother. And finally, Lady Ellen, ends up controlling the legacy of her husband’s art. What is Cather trying to say here? With the tall imposing figure of Lady Ellen is Cather coming out from under the influence of Henry James, The Master? Or am I reading way too much into this? Fun to think about though.

    And looking at the three marriages in these stories is also interesting. You have Flavia who is coddled and controlled by her husband. Caroline’s husband seems to want her to break free and express her artistic passion. And finally, Lady Ellen, who ultimately survives her marriage to Treffinger and ends up sending his art into obscurity. Whew, what a shift in power dynamics!

    What I’m also really enjoying about reading these early stories is seeing how Cather’s writing develops over time. I am interested in reading a Cather biography. Can you recommend one?

    • I like your thinking! It does seem like Cather is exploring multiple ways of being a woman artist or a creative women. She intentionally grouped these stories together so I don’t think you’re reading too much into them at all.

      Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress is, I believe, still considered the standard biography. There are some inaccuracies based on new information that has come to light since it came out in 1987. He also didn’t have an understanding of Cather’s 40-year relationship with Edith Lewis who, prior to the 1990s, had often been dismissed as a secretary. The full bio is availbe on the Willa Cather Archive here: https://cather.unl.edu/life.woodress.html
      The Archive is a great resource to learn about Cather.

      I’m super excited about a bio that is in the works. Melissa Homestead is currently writing a joint biography of Cather and Lewis that explores their creative partnership.

      • Thank you for sending the link to the Archive and bio! I have a monthly bookish lunch with a friend who is currently reading Death Comes for the Archbishop after I raved about it. He asked me last week if I knew what had inspired her to write the novel. I can now point him to the Archive! What a wealth of information.

        Yes, it will be great to have an updated bio on Cather, that includes her relationship with Edith Lewis. Can’t wait for that one to be published!

        • Nice job spreading the Cather love! 😊 There’s going to be a presentation about forthcoming Cather related books at the conference I’m going to this summer and I’ll be sure to report back about those.

  2. You raise a good point about her having been married for her money excusing her decision to sell the painting for the money against her husband’s explicit wishes. Still, I didn’t really feel like we were supposed to forgive her. It seemed like we were supposed to sympathize with the artist more.

    The question about whether we are supposed to see how prejudice works or whether she is exhibiting her own prejudice is interesting: I felt the character wasn’t explored with enough nuance for me to believe that she was exposing the nature of prejudice. And the story could have turned on the same point without that detail, which makes me wonder all the more.

    Was there a Hermione Lee biography as well? I seem to remember reading that when I first “discovered” Cather.

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