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!