Willa Cather must have had some fun writing “A Gold Slipper.” She takes the fairy tale tradition of a magical slipper and plays with gender and the stereotypes that divide between business and art.
One of the gender roles Cather flips is the male gaze. Kitty looks at Marshall and he doesn’t like what she sees: “He had never seen himself so distinctly in his shaving-glass as he did in that instant when Kitty Ayrshire’s liquid eye held him, when her bright, inquiring glance roamed over his person.”
In the fairy tales it’s usually girls and young women who are given or find magical slippers that will change their lives (usually) for the better. In this story, Kitty Ayrshire already has gold slippers on her feet. Slippers that she bought with money she earned from her own labors. She’s created wealth pursuing her talent and passion. She has her own employees and can even afford to split the pair of gold slippers and leave one behind to tease and torment Marshall McKann, a judgemental man she finds not very smart.
Marshall McKann is a businessman who lacks imagination and passion. Everything he does is out of duty. He thinks of himself as an upright, responsible man, but he is shown to lack good will and spirit in the execution of his duties, such as shirking his duty as a host to his wife’s friend, Mrs. Post, and out of town guest. Mrs. Post is a bit like the evil stepmother character who forces the hero to take action. Or, in this case, the anti-hero. Marshall behaves more like a spoiled, petulant child than a hero as he runs away to New York. Could it be he is running away from a part of himself? Is he a repressed artist?
I was hoping Marshall would open up and have a revelation. Kitty says to him, “I believe there is a real creature down under these custom-made prejudices that save you the trouble of think.” And, boy, is he prejudiced. Throughout their conversation he lists all the major negative stereotypes about artists, most of which are still alive and well today. But there is no fairy tale ending for Marshall. He seems too far gone, too stuck in his ways to change.
He keeps that gold slipper locked away in his vault not out of a sense of sentimentality or as a beacon of potential but, “as a reminder that absurd things could happen to people of the most clocklike deportment.” The slipper seems to act as an agent in his illness — a thorn that festers — highlighting the possibility that perhaps living a life that is based on rigid, unquestioned rules and roles won’t lead one to health, happiness, and love.
Kitty, on the other hand, has lived her life pursuing her passion while taking care of others. She keeps her playful spirit and in the end doesn’t even remember Marshall or the gold slipper she left him.
Cather was probably very intentional in her use of the article “a” and not “the.” Titleling the story “The Gold Slipper” would have given the piece a different vibe. For Kitty it is just another gold slipper. A gold slipper she left behind as a joke. But for Marshall, it does become “the” gold slipper. Special enough to keep in his lock-box.
I look forward to hearing what your thoughts about this story. Could Marshall be a repressed artist? The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.