A Resurrection by Willa Cather

Willa Cather Short Story Project • Response Post

“O MARGIE, I WAS ASHAMED, BITTER ASHAMED!” Original illustration from “A Resurrection,” by Willa Cather in The Home Monthly (source)

Did you have a chance to read “A Resurrection” by Willa Cather? It was not what I was expecting. Reminder, you can read the story here if you haven’t already: https://cather.unl.edu/writings/shortfiction/ss033

What was I expecting? “A Resurrection” was written for the April 1897 edition of The Home Monthly. Cather was the managing editor. She was twenty four. Easter was April 18th that year. After reading the opening scene, I assumed this was going to be a sentimental story about love lost and reclaimed, or resurrected.

Instead, “A Resurrection” is a story of judgement, shame, and remorse that ends with the throbbing awakening of the protagonist’s mind, body, and soul. Her everything. At the beginning of the story, Margie is in church arranging flowers with one of the town busybodies. Martin, the man who jilted Margie years ago, enters the church after returning from another trip out of town.

“A vase of lilies in Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation symbolizes the Virgin Mary’s purity” (source)

The busybody leaves and Margie is stunned by Martin’s news that he’s going to move away. He plans to take his son, Bobbie, that he had with the woman he dumped Margie for. Margie has been raising Bobbie as her own child.

Margie stands in church with lilies in her hand and Martin thinks, “despite her anger, [she looks like] the pictures of the Holy woman who is always painted with lilies.” Margie is directly equated with the Virgin Mary even though she is royally pissed.

This scene made me think of a scene I just read in Alma Katsu’s new historical horror novel, The Fervor:

“Did men have any idea how it felt to be a woman? They seemed to have no read whatsoever on whether you were in the mood for some fun or ready to cut their dick off.”

The Fervor, page 78

Interestingly, Margie equates herself with Jesus. Before Martin makes the comparison to Mary, Margie rages that, “she’s given him everything, all that I’d starved and beat down and crucified in me.”

We’re told that Margie has crossed the threshold of thirty, that timestamp that triggered people back then to consider an unmarried woman an old maid. But Margie is still too beautiful and full of “youthful vigor” for people in town to call her an old maid, a title that once given cannot be rescinded. Based on Margie’s rather explosive response to Martin’s news, she’s no shrinking violet, although she sees herself in the role of crucified martyr.

The Resurrection of the Virgin Mary’s Libido

I assumed the old maid information dump was a set up for the resurrection of Margie’s and Martin’s love. Considering that he’s 40 and she’s in her 30s and it is 1897, I was thinking it would be one of those companionable, almost platonic unions.

Martin visits Margie at home later that evening. Margie’s cranky old mother and Bobbie are asleep. At one point Maggie says to Martin that she is, “too old for everything.” She thinks that the rekindling of their love is not right and she’s, “afraid of all this! It hurts me.”

Margie is overwhelmed by the changes Martin proposes and is flooded by feelings. All of the feelings.

“‘O Martin, you may be slow spoken, but you’re quick enough at some things,” laughed Margie as she retreated to the window, struggling hard against the throb of reckless elation that arose in her. She felt as though some great force had been unlocked within her, great and terrible enough to rend her asunder, as when a brake snaps or a band slips and some ponderous machine grinds itself in pieces. It is not an easy thing, after a woman has shut the great natural hope out of her life, to open the flood gates and let the riotous, aching current come throbbing again through the shrunken channels, waking a thousand undreamed-of possibilities of pleasure and pain.

Martin followed her to the window and they stood together leaning against the deep casing while the spring wind blew in their faces, bearing with it the yearning groans of the river.”

That is some steamy stuff.

In response to Margie saying that, “it hurts,” Martin says,

“Of course it does, darling. Don’t you suppose it hurts the old river down there to-night when the spring floods are stirring up the old bottom and tearing a new channel through the sand? Don’t you suppose it hurts the trees to-night when the sap is climbing up and up till it breaks through the bark and runs down their sides like blood? Of course it hurts.”

This is the most sexual writing from Cather that I’ve read. And it is a story for Easter! I wonder what readers of this story thought back then. This is a pre-Freudian world, so perhaps not everything was as sexualized back then, but come on. This is so on the nose. I was surprised to see a character who had been equated with the Virgin Mary throbbing and aching with pleasure and pain.

I am seriously enjoying this phase of Cather’s writing. This story and last month’s, “The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog,” are both surprising and wild.

What do you think?

Have you read “A Resurrection” by Willa Cather? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s chat in the comments below.

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!

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