Response to “Before Breakfast.” The Willa Cather Short Story Project

“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.

Exterior of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis’s cottage on Grand Manan with ocean in the background (two photographs taped together). Taken about 1927 (Source: The Willa Cather Archive)

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.




Categories: Willa Cather

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7 replies

  1. I loved the video of Cather and Lewis’s cottage and it helped me to imagine the location of this short story. I don’t know if our interpretation of literature says more about our view of life or the authors? I suspect a little bit of both. Perhaps that makes me more cynical but I don’t believe that Henry will change too much when he goes home to his family. His ruts are so deep in his daily rituals and relationships. But I hope he makes at least one change like going to the theater with his family…it could change everything.

    • I’m with you and suspect interpretation is a little of both. Although I do believe people can change since you posted your thoughts I’ve been wondering if perhaps this sort of inspiration he experiences is another one of his ruts. His annual escape is just as habitual as all his other behavior. It’s telling that he now vacations at the same cabin with the same items where he’s left them.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I want to second what a pleasure it was to watch your video of Willa’s cabin and the cliff area. Thank you for that. I immediately googled it and was shocked by its hefty weekly rental price! It would be an inspiring place to write though. Something for my third-act bucket list perhaps!

    First, the name of this story – Before Breakfast – is so understated and yet so cleverly revealing as a characterization of the story. Cather unveils the dawning time, the bringing of the light of day, when the enormity of life is revealed (and woke up) through many lenses. Who doesn’t both dread and treasure the possibilities of the coming day at that time?

    First, I see Willa showing us the lens of Grenfell’s distress, his deep mental anxiety and his physical dyspepsia. I loved the eye drops references (he was having trouble seeing clearly, eh?)! Her incredibly generous woodlands description; its smells, creatures and flickering shadows and light. I could smell the mushrooms. Even Venus is a character here, given historical and metaphorical agency as a symbol for emerging heart! (A feminist reference in spades!). The daughter is the new light itself: “There was no one watching her, she didn’t have to keep face – except to herself.” When Grenfell reasons that, and then the following, “That she had to do and no fuss about it”, he finally makes his transition. He sees that the coming day (life? work change? relationship change?) is nothing to fret, but only to go through without “fuss”. A brilliantly simple message, told through a story from the idyllic place she probably found herself both dreading and treasuring plenty of times!

    I have a few things to mention that I really liked. She called the laying Spruce, “Grandfather.” In Indigenous traditions, this is a word we use to reference respect for nature. In describing the birches on the cliff’s edge, “…beaten and tormented by east wind and north wind that they grew more down than up, and hugged the earth that was kinder than the stormy air.” This brilliant imagery and sentiment is astoundingly transcendent. It’s a very spiritual way to contextualize nature.

    Thank you for sharing and for the opportunity to share, too.
    Jacqline

    • Just to clarify:

      A brilliantly simple message, told through a story from the idyllic place she probably found herself both dreading and treasuring THE COMING DAY plenty of times! (Writing is not for the faint of heart!)

    • I also liked how he called the tree “Grandfather.” It did seem respectful to me, yet he tried to break off a twig which did not seem respectful. I got a kick out of Grandfather giving him a whack for that impertinence. “He stopped in astonishment, his hand smarted, actually. ‘Well, Grandfather! Lasting pretty well, I should say.'” The scene now reads like a bit of foreshadowing — Grenfell comes to see himself as lasting pretty well, too. Thinking about it now brings to mind the scene where Grenfell’s son upset him by grabbing his book. Maybe he’ll take a page from Grandfather Spruce’s playbook and give his son a metaphorical whack the next time it’s necessary. That is if he does (hopefully) try to improve his relationships.

      To clarify, that wasn’t my video. It was by the Inn at Whale Cove Cottages (I updated the post to clarify this). I haven’t yet visited the area and would love to stay at the Cather cottage. I believe the price is listed in Canadian dollars so it is actually a few hundred dollars cheaper in US dollars. Still nothing to sneeze at considering the expense to get there.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts — I enjoyed reading how the story touched you.

  3. I agree, this is a gem of a short story! I completely relate to the power of nature to replenish the soul. The scene with the rabbit reminds me of the jack rabbit I sometimes spot on my daily walk. I feel a surge of joy whenever I see her bounding besides the path! And of course, I think of her as the same one and only jack rabbit on the path. Ha!

    I’m not sure Henry will change when he returns home, but I hope so. I’m chuckling to myself that Henry refers to his wife and son Harrison as “the corporation”. He really does think of himself as a separate entity, rather than as part of the family. He makes it a point to stay out of their way. What a sad existence. He’s such a person of routine and what he considers proper order. He can hardly stand it when his own son picks up to examine a Shakespeare volume he’s packed for his trip. They have a tense exchange that vividly demonstrates the differences between father and son. I do believe that all of us can change, and at any point in life. I hope Henry holds on to the joy and rejuvenation he feels at the cabin. Maybe his unexpected conversation with the geologist, and the joy he subsequently witnessed of the daughter’s glorious morning swim, will be the catalyst to initiate a new type of relationship with his own family. One can hope!

    I was wondering if the scenes of Henry’s hunting has a reference to Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy also had frail health, especially as a child, but was determined to live a strenuous life. He ended up with a mythologized public image of hearty masculinity by killing lots of animals, going on expeditions all over the world, and taking on the persona of a “cowboy”. The passage about Henry’s “…humiliation of being ‘delicate’…” and subsequent quest to live rough, not soft, brought Roosevelt to mind.

    Looking forward the next short story.

    • Hi Robin! I’m so sorry I’m just now seeing your wonderful comment.

      I love your jackrabbit experience. I have the same relationship with “a” groundhog who lives in a den on my neighbor’s property — I think it’s the same one I watch every day but there’s no doubt a whole colony of them. Haha.

      Teddy Roosevelt! Yes, he’s a much better fit for the time period of this story. I don’t know much about Roosevelt other than the myths and am now wondering if he was an inspiration for Hemingway — not that trophy hunting isn’t an age-old tradition, but more the idea of such performative masculinity.

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