“Before Breakfast” by Willa Cather is the last story in the posthumously published collection, The Old Beauty and Others (1948). It’s a tight nugget of a story about a successful middle-aged businessman who escapes his work and family for a solo summer vacation at his island cottage.
I mentioned in the reminder post for this story that Cather and Edith Lewis owned a cottage on Grand Manan that they weren’t able to visit during World War II. Cather wrote this story while summering at the Asticou Inn at Northeast Harbor, Maine. [Side bar: I ate dinner at the Asticou Inn a couple years ago, before I knew Cather and Lewis had stayed here!]
Below is a photo of their cottage on Grand Manan.
The story begins with this sentence:
“Henry Grenfell, of Grenfell & Saunders, got resentfully out of bed after a bad night.”
Henry’s immersion into “glorious loneliness” is not off to a good start. This is due to science in the form of a professor of geology whose comments the night before about the age of the island set off a middle-aged tantrum / existential crisis.
The”unessential information” the professor shares is that the island is one hundred and thirty-six million years old. This was not welcome news to Henry’s mind, which was planning to focus on the humanity found in classic literature. Henry is actually a bit of a drama queen and prone to hyperbole. He thinks that the professor had, “temporarily at least, wrecked [his] life with civilities and information.”
I loved this story — it’s a tribute to the healing benefits of solitude and an example of how youth can be an inspiration to the middle-aged. We’ve seen the later before in “The Old Beauty” with the character of Mrs. Allison. She’s the one who is enlivened and kept a bit younger due to her engagement with her nieces and nephews. Henry experiences an emotional shift after watching the professor’s daughter take her morning swim in the cold North Atlantic.
Henry’s attitude shift is what makes me enjoy this story so much. Who hasn’t had the experience of going from being a complete doomsday grump to smiling and hopeful again in the space of an hour? Cather’s mastery is on full display in this story, giving us so much of Henry’s life and a believable emotional turnaround within a dozen pages. There are also wonderful representations of Venus.
It is sad that Henry doesn’t seem to be living an authentic life most of the time. He doesn’t involve himself with his family and he’s a machine at work. He bolsters his fragile male ego by hunting and killing majestic animals throughout North America. (Could this have been a dig at Hemingway? One can only hope.)
Read through the lens of gender theory, Henry is an example of how the role of the straight white male breadwinner who is living out the storyline of the successful self-made man is made detached from human connection, punishes his body, and kills other animals in an attempt to make himself feel better. He does, however, find respite in reading popular canonical authors like Scott, Dickens, Fielding, and Shakespeare.
Are the few weeks Henry spends alone recharging his batteries every summer enough to keep him going? Which is his real life? Is the epiphany he has at the end of the story strong enough that he’ll make changes to his life?
Toward the end, he thinks that “People are really themselves only when they believe they are absolutely alone and unobserved.” He has a reconnection with himself after watching the daughter swim. He was going to rescue her and realized in time that she didn’t need (nor probably want) rescuing. It was himself that needed the rescuing. He can now re-vision what he sees and how he understands. He even applies a bit of evolutionary science to himself metaphorically.
Do you think Henry will hop out of his current life situation and find a new water-hole? Or will he go back to the status quo? Let me know what you think in the comments.