Have you had a chance to read “Peter” by Willa Cather? As I mentioned in the reminder post for this month’s story, it was Cather’s first published story. It ran in the May 21, 1892 edition of The Mahogany Tree, a literary magazine published in Boston.
Harsh. Everything about “Peter” is just . . . harsh. It’s the story of “old” Peter (he’s only 60) and his relationships with his violin and his eldest son Antone.
“A stroke of paralysis”
Peter’s relationship with his violin was about joy and creativity, grand performances and parties back in Prague. Peter and his family moved from Bohemia to American eight years ago. Some unspecified time before that, Peter had had a “stroke of paralysis.”
In a story that is deeply disturbing, perhaps the most heart wrenching issue is that Peter has a physical disability that is used against him in a community that values endless work and crop yields above all else. He is deemed lazy, yet, “Sometimes now Peter thought he could plow better if he could only bow as he used to.” He can’t play his violin due to his stroke — he was fired from the theatre due to his disability — and cannot physically perform farm work like is strapping young son. Who, it should be noted, has a “heavy brow,” which reflects his neanderthal-like attitude. It seems Peter would work “harder” if he was physically able to do so.
Antone is considered “the master” of the homestead and everyone in it, from his three-year-old sibling to his sisters to his disabled father, is worked hard to earn their bread and help produce those crops. Antone gets all the credit and is considered a better man than is father, even though he is known to be mean and untrustworthy. If Antone had a motto, it would be profits over people.
“Thou shalt not”
Similar to last month’s story, “Lou, The Prophet,” this tale is also shaped and structured by religion and the hard farming conditions on the newly settled landscape. It’s no accident that Cather uses the Biblical “thee” and “thou.” It is more than just an attempt to capture immigrant speech patterns. Highly significant is the phrase in the first line of the story, “thou shalt not.” Even people who are not religious understand the Biblical underpinnings of that phrase.
Several of the Ten Commandments are broken: Antone does not honor his father and does not keep the Sabbath day holy. His father is infirm, yet he works him like a younger man (indeed, almost like a slave. Antone is, after all, called the “master”). He makes the family work on the Sabbath and also might not let his father attend mass. Nor, Peter knows, will he pay for a prayer to be said for his father after his death. Antone is so unfeeling and results-oriented that he goes to town to sell his father’s bow before the funeral. He has zero respect for his father and lacks a sense of humanity.
As for Peter, he commits a murder-suicide. He murders his violin, sounding a bit like an obsessed abuser, “I can play thee no more, but they shall not part us.” If I can’t have you, nobody will! That’s how I read this scene the second time. The first time I read it, the ending made me think a bit about Romeo and Juliette, a more “romantic” double-suicide. But the violin obviously can’t commit suicide. Peter destroys his life-long love so that his son won’t be able to sell the violin as he has been threatening to do.
What do you think?
A bleak story story indeed, but one that kept me riveted to the page. Cather managed to imbue this story with so much heartache and pain in just a few pages. Please share your thoughts in the comments, let’s chat!
Cather reader Robin G. left a comment on the reminder post for “Peter” that she recently checked out Alex Roth’s book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music [affiliate link] because it has a chapter on Willa Cather. She wrote, “Lo and behold there was a reference to “Peter” (p.332)! Roth indicates the character is based on Francis Sadilek, a Bohemian violinist who became a Nebraskan farmer, his personal story long remembered in Red Cloud.”
If you’d like to learn more about this real-life connection and how it also influenced Cather’s novel, My Antonia, check out The Story Behind the 1936 Annie Pavelka Letter by Andy Jewell.
New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we’re reading one Cather short story a month. Jump in anytime!
Cather’s gift is to challenge the reader to reflect on character. The son, Antone, was practical, reasonable. hardworking, disciplined, but also mean and untrustworthy. Peter was none of those things; yet, his loyalty to the thing he loved could not be ignored. He would not forsake it, nor entrust it to some crude amateur. He would sacrifice his life to preserve his commitment to his art. Cather challenges us to examine who had the greater character. It is also a tale of Wealth vs. Art, made more complex by the character flaws of both men.
Yes, from the very first lines she does make the reader reflect on character. I quickly “sided” with Peter and appreciate his character more, problems and all. However, he certainly isn’t “useful” in the settling of a new land where ceaseless hard work is what’s needed. Pioneering was certainly an “all hands on deck” situation.
I think my main takeaway from this story is this is a clash between the pragmatic and earthy (“heavy brow”) Antone and the creative, not of this world artist, Peter. Peter was made for a life of creativity and the arts, until a stroke forced him to quit his violin. Coming to the US to farm could have never been in the cards for him because of his disability and his temperament. That he couldn’t engage with his violin, the love of his life, made him drink to mask this pain. Antone, on the other hand, made the farm a success even though he was ruthless and mean. He couldn’t afford to live a life of sentimentality as the breadwinner of a large family.
“That he was mean and untrustworthy every one knew, but that made little difference. His corn was better tended than any in the county, and his wheat always yielded more than other men’s.”
Antone’s success as a farmer was more important to the community than his personality. A farming community’s success is based on results, not kindness, especially in a ruggedly rural place; he could be mean to his father in this Christian town, because his father is a drain on Antone’s ability to keep up the farm and a threat to the success of his family. They could justify their judgementalism against Peter, that is, not help him, because alcohol was such an immoral substance, in their eyes, if it was abused the way he did.
And did Antone have to be so cruel and hard-hearted? Perhaps he did not want this role and resented his father that as the oldest he had to take responsibility to care for the family whether he wanted it or not.
In a sense, both Peter and Antone have in common a life they didn’t want. Peter’s suicide—murder/suicide, Yes!—in his mind, was the last thing he could control about himself: to be the man he was when he was young, strong and healthy. The past is all he has and he will not be parted from it.
You bring up some points I hadn’t thought of before. The first that a Christian community could feel justified in judging a man for his alcoholism. This fits, in spite of Jesus’s teaching of casting the first stone. You’ve also hinted that Peter’s earlier drinking was perhaps celebratory drinking and that it turned into self-medication after his stroke and the current situation in which he finds himself. I didn’t think of Antone’s situation very closely or compassionately — that he was “forced” to become the breadwinner of a large family, a situation that he didn’t anticipate and may very well be resentful about. I was quick to judge him and focus my empathy on Peter. Thanks for making me think about this story in a broader way and for helping me see my own judgments. Sorry it took me a week to respond!
First time I read the story, I didn’t catch that Antone’s “heavy brow” was reference to a physical attribute. I took it to mean the heavy brow of responsibility for the farm and the family. Kind of works that way too. I saw this as another past versus present war—Peter can’t live in the present, Antone has no use for the past. And yes, why does Antone have to be quite so cruel? Couldn’t he just let the old man have his violin?
More thoughts over on my blog: https://katenread.wordpress.com/2021/02/26/reading-notes-supplemental-2-26-21/
That is a wonderful interpretation, Katherine! His heavy brow could refer to his heavy responsibilities. I read Antone on a completely surface level which lead me not to have much compassion for him, as Laurie @ RelevantObscurity also helped me see. Thanks for sharing your link, I’m off to check it out.
Thank you for sharing the link to The Story Behind the 1936 Annie Pavelka Letter by Andy Jewell. I loved reading Cather’s letter to Annie too.
[…] to everyone who shared their thoughts about last month’s story, “Peter.” That story and the one before, “Lou, The Prophet,” both show Cather’s […]
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