“The Clemency of the Court” Response Post • Willa Cather Short Story Project

The Clemency of the Court Featured Image
Quote from the prison guard.

Earlier today I took a walk in Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, Connecticut. Afterward, I sat on the beach at Schreeder Pond and re-read “The Clemency of the Court.”

It was a lovely summer day. Blue skies were enhanced by big fluffy white clouds. Gentle breezes caressed the tree tops and swirled the scent of the pine trees around me as I read.

Schreeder Pond at Chatfield Hollow State Park
Schreeder Pond at Chatfield Hollow State Park

The song of birds was punctuated by the sound of gun shots on a neighboring property. (Is this a plot twist?) The birds didn’t seem bothered by this, so it must be a regular occurrence. I’ve lived in several states around the USA — Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina (twice), Nebraska, and Nevada — in none of these states was the sound of guns a regular thing. It’s been one of the most surprising things about Connecticut. I can often hear the police practicing at the their range at my current house and there’s duck hunting grounds just down the block. At our old house someone who had enough land had a private target range. That is probably the same situation as near Chatfield Hollow today.

Even when I lived on Marine Corps bases, the firing of weapons was not an everyday sound, other than at the rifle range or during war games. But I digress. Or maybe not. Guns have never symbolized protection for me, I’ve always associated them with intentional violence (war, crime, trophy hunting), so perhaps it was appropriate to have the sound of violence in the background as I re-read this story, one of Cather’s most relentlessly violent tales.

These are not the droids

If you’re looking for a Cather comfort read, these are not the droids this is not the story you’re looking for.

The protagonist is Serge Povolitchky. He was born in the western part of the state (Nebraska, presumably) to a “handsome Russian girl” (emphasis mine) and an unknown father who was possibly a railroad contractor. Was he conceived out of love? Seduction? Rape? We don’t know, but the reader is told that the young mother kills herself just months after her son was born in, “a pond so small that no one ever quite saw how she managed to do it.” This could signal postpartum depression, and I think it also represents acute desperation.

Serge is taken in by Baba Skaldi, a Russian woman who beats him daily and feeds him only what her children will not eat. She calls him a rat. The one good thing about Skaldi is that she tells her children stories about Russia that Serge listens to as he sobs on the floor in the corner after his daily beating.

Knouted to death

The stories are grim and violent. One is about a women who is “knouted to death” in Siberia at the command of a prison officer. I had to look up what knouted means, which is basically being beaten to death with a bull whip. The woman’s husband then tries to commit suicide but he’s always caught in the act until one day when he chews into the veins of his arms and bleeds to death. The mother wraps up the story by telling her children not to worry, that in their new country the State takes care of people.

To say this is a grim start to Serge’s life is an understatement. Then, at 12 years of age, a farmer takes Serge to work with him on the farm. The farmer and his wife give him enough to eat, clothes to wear, and do not beat him yet they treat him like a horse, not a human. The lovely part of the story is that a dog befriends Serge and the two become inseparable. Serge names the dog Matushka, which means mama.

Reading The Clemency of the Court at Chatfield Hollow State Park, The Clemency of the Court response post, Willa Cather Short Story Project
The view from my reading spot at Chatfield Hollow

It’s a dog’s life

Throughout the story, Serge is described like a dog. I’m currently reading Bleak House in which Dickens has a character, Jo Toughey, a young orphan who grew up alone on the streets and has no protectors. This boy is compared directly to a dog. Dickens writes with compassion that this uneducated, un-parented, and un-cared-for boy has about the same level of intelligence and awareness as a dog. I couldn’t help but think of Serge when reading Bleak House. Both are heartbreaking characters.

The idea that the State is going to come through and help Serge is threaded through the story. Spoiler alert: the State does not help Serge. It imprisons and tortures him to death. Serge was on trial for killing a man. He kills the farmer for killing the dog, the only thing Serge had ever loved and the only being that had loved him in return.

This was Old Testament justice, an eye for an eye, which is a seemingly instinctual response and less cruel than the sadistic punishment of the State. In the court room, Serge does not find the State as savior, but he does find a champion in the young lawyer appointed to defend him who understands it all “about Matushka and the State, and everything.” The young lawyer weeps when the verdict is read and later calls Serge’s prison uniform, “the State’s badge of knighthood.” Apparently the young lawyer understands the larger injustice done to men like Serge.

Pre-Kafka Kafkaesqueness

“The Clemency of the Court” is the bleakest and cruelest story I’ve read to date by Cather. It is in the category of “Peter” and “Lou, The Prophet,” stories about isolated men on the plains and the hard conditions early white settlers and immigrants faced there. What’s different about this story is that the State takes the place of religion or small minded neighbors. Baba Skaldi got the idea that the State takes care of people from a 4th of July speech. And once when Serge was living with the farmer, a politician running for office told him that, “the State will be a father to you, my lad, and a mother.” It’s all hot air. Empty words.

As for the writing, Cather’s craft shows development in this story. She starts with engaging dialog and Serge’s current crisis in prison, then moves deftly into his backstory. You almost forget about his current situation while learning about his past. The transition back into Serge’s present in the prison is smooth. There’s no abrupt before or after or jumps in time.

One thing that stands out as a potential rookie mistake is the narrator making an “I” statement. It’s in the seventh paragraph from the end of the story. This is the sentence: “Men from the cities on the hills never understand this love, but the men from the plain country know what I mean.” Who is this I? She also dropped an I in “Lou, The Prophet.” Is this a rookie mistake?

What do you think?

What do you think of “The Clemency of the Court”? Respond to this post or share your thoughts about the story in the comments below. If you haven’t yet read this story, you can find it here on the Willa Cather Archive 

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