Response to “Old Mrs. Harris.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

What an amazing short story! For those of you who haven’t yet read “Old Mrs. Harris,” it’s primarily about three generations of women in the Templeton family — the grandmother, Mrs. Harris; her daughter, Victoria; and her granddaughter, Vickie — who are experiencing their various life stages which are also deeply impacted by the family’s recent move from its ancestral home in the hills of Tennessee to a newly established town in Colorado.

Old Mrs. Harris opening

Cather wrote the story in the early 1930s and it is set in the 1880s. The story shows the changing socioeconomic conditions of the family, American society, and the expansion of life options for women. That sentence might sound boring, but the story is anything but!

As I mentioned in the reminder post for this story, scholars consider it a “highly autobiographical” story. It is one of Cather’s stories that is made even more enjoyable after having visited her childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. You can imagine the characters moving through the various rooms of Cather’s home.

The Templeton family is observed by their neighbor, Mrs. Rosen, who is a cultured German-Jewish immigrant. Mrs. Rosen is the woman next door who keeps a tidy house, waters her lawn, and lowers the blinds so the sun doesn’t fade the furniture and carpets. Mrs. Rosen is fascinated by the transplanted Southern family next door, particularly Mrs. Harris. She comes across as a bit judgmental at times but it is less a personal issue than a revelation for the reader of her own cultural background and the expectations it engenders.

One of the major themes of this story is the contrast between the old world and the new, with Vickie acting as a bridge between the two. It seems that her character will soak up the good that the old world has to offer — art and literature and some food — while also taking the best of her family’s old Southern traditions and combining them with what the new world of the American West has to offer. I was touched by this scene —

She [Mrs. Rosen] told Vickie firmly that she was welcome to come if she would read in the parlour with the blind up only a little way, and would be as still as a mouse. Vickie came, meekly enough, but she seldom read. She would take a sofa pillow and lie down on the soft carpet and look up at the picture in the dusky room, and feel a happy, pleasant excitement from the heat and glare outside and the deep shadow and quiet within. Curiously enough, Mrs. Rosen’s house never made her dissatisfied with her own; she thought that very nice, too.

This is such a refreshing change from the all or nothing dichotomy often found in stories of life in small Midwestern towns. It shows Vickie as a bridge between the two traditions and ways of life. Vickie will also be the first of her family to go to college at a time when higher education was becoming accessible to women.

Mrs. Harris is a woman who had been taken out of the culture she loved — one where the hills were filled with solitary old women who’d gladly help out in a busy household where the young women and mothers could enjoy socializing in the front of the house while the old women kept house in the back.

Mrs. Harris was no longer living in a feudal society, where there were plenty of landless people, glad to render service to the more fortunate, but in a snappy little Western democracy, where every man was as good as his neighbor and out to prove it.

Her daughter and Vickie’s mother, Victoria, is struggling with being a married women of child-bearing years in a time before readily accessible and culturally acceptable birth control was available. She, like her mother, had been taken out of the culture that she had been molded by and for. She wasn’t raised to be an “ordinary” woman in a scrappy Western town.

One result of being removed from a culture with social networking traditions that helped women, is that Mrs. Harris and Victoria are both lonely. They lack not only help, but peers with which to share their joys and burdens.

Victoria is depicted at times as a spoiled, arrogant woman. Mrs. Rosen is childless and much of the judgement of Victoria’s way of mothering comes from her. (I use the word childless, which implies lack, intentionally because it seems she wants children.) Both Victoria’s mother and her husband have “spoiled” her. But is it spoiling someone to treat them according to the needs of their nature? Would she be considered spoiled if they were back in Tennessee?

Mrs. Rosen also thinks Vickie should be “broken” and made to do kitchen chores. To this criticism Mrs. Harris replies that, “We are only young once, and trouble comes soon enough.” Victoria’s way of mothering is the keep her children fed and clean after playing, but otherwise she and her husband let them do their own thing. Hence, their disheveled yard which annoys Mrs. Rosen who sees the kids as lazy when in fact they are busy playing and using their imaginations. The boys also make money for the family by maintaining a neighbor’s yard.

The Templetons are more about living life with feeling rather than expressing refined feelings and living in presentational mode.

Victoria loves her children and they love her, yet when she finds herself pregnant again . . . well, this paragraph:

Now and then Victoria sat upright on the edge of the bed, beat her hands together softly and looked desperately at the ceiling, then about at those frail, confining walls. If only she could meet the situation with violence, fight it, conquer it! But there was nothing for it but stupid animal patience. She would have to go through all that again, and nobody, not even Hillary [her husband], wanted another baby,–poor as they were, and in this overcrowded house. Anyhow, she told herself, she was ashamed to have another baby, when she had a daughter old enough to go to college! She was sick of it all; sick of dragging this chain of life that never let her rest and periodically knotted and overpowered her; made her ill and hideous for months, and then dropped another baby into her arms. She had had babies enough; and there ought to be an end to such apprehensions some time before you were old and ugly.

Victoria misses the “free, gay life” she led before she got married. Had she been able to control her reproduction she’d be able to live a life that was more inline with her personality.

I don’t think Victoria is selfish. I think her situation is heartbreaking. The scene where she is alone in her bedroom having a breakdown while her husband is off whistling on his way to a good dinner and comfortable night at a tenant’s farm — one he “never pushed” even though his family needs money — is an intense contrast that reveals much about gender differences and the family’s situation. It’s also a check on Mrs. Rosen’s judgement. She has no idea what it’s like to be a mother, let alone the mother of five children in small rental house with a husband who can’t afford more children.

As I think back on the characters and their situations, I’m left wondering if some of Mrs. Rosen’s judgment could arise from her own disappointment in not having children. Perhaps her judgements are a bit more personal than I initially thought.

Overall, I love the way Cather portrays the three generations of women and shows what each is concerned with at their point in life. At first I was a bit sad at the end of the story. It made me feel a bit nostalgic about my own grandmothers and wishing I had known them more before they died. But then I think that they and Mrs. Harris were once young like Vickie, full of their own desires and not paying much attention to their own grandmothers.

This makes me think of a quote from Cather’s novel O Pioneers! that is often shared, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

It seems that this story about daughters, mothers, and grandmothers might be one such story.

What did you think of “Old Mrs. Harris”? Let me know in the comments. Let’s chat!

Jacket blurb about "Old Mrs. Harris"



Categories: Willa Cather

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3 replies

  1. I loved this multi-generational story of women! It also made me nostalgic for my own grandmothers. The scene when Mrs. Harris knows she is dying and her daughter and granddaughter don’t take notice until she is already unconscious was so heartbreaking. It reminded me of how stoic one of my grandmothers was. As I’m now middle-aged I think about my grandmothers alot and feel that closeness that Cather so beautifully describes at the end of the story, “When they are old, they will come closer and closer to Grandma Harris. They will think a great deal about her, and remember things they never noticed…” Such a poignant ending!

    I also loved the scenes with Vickie and the Rosen’s. I can imagine how excited Vickie must have been with the opportunity to be the first in her family to attend college, especially as a young woman. And the contrast of life stages between the three generations was so powerful. As you mention, I think this is one of the great stories of life that keeps repeating itself.

    • It is heartbreaking, how Mrs Harris knows her time is just about over and Victoria and Vickie don’t notice. It also gives an odd sense of comfort, that perhaps that’s the way it’s supposed to go. Or at least that was Mrs Harris’s take on how life is supposed to go—the old don’t trouble the young. She probably didn’t notice her own grandmother’s later days. I wonder what sort of tailspin her death put Victoria in since she’s be the matriarch now and responsible for so much more.

      • Yes, there was an odd sense of comfort, I agree. She didn’t linger as was her hope, not wanting to disrupt their lives. She had such love for both of them.

        You’re right, there needs to be a part two. With Victoria already distraught about being pregnant again, I can only imagine what type of collapse the death of Mrs. Harris caused for her!

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