The Prodigies by Willa Cather

Willa Cather Short Story Project • Response Post

Have you had a chance to read “The Prodigies”? If not, you can read the story over on the Willa Cather Archive here:

“The Prodigies” was published in the July 1897 edition of The Home Monthly. Cather left her editorial position there the month before when the owner sold the magazine. In a letter dated April 25, 1897, Cather wrote to a friend that, “the magazine is the worst trash in the world, but it is trash they want and trash they pay me for and they shall have it.”

I wouldn’t call “The Prodigies” trash, but it does seem to be a story that was rushed and rather heavy handed. As I wrote in this month’s reminder post, “The Prodigies” is about a talented woman, Harriet Mackenzie, who gives up her musical career for marriage and is then disappointed by her children. Her friend, Kate Massey, has two madly talented children, a girl and a boy. As the Mackenzie’s are leaving for an evening at the Massey’s where these prodigies will perform, Harriet’s husband Nelson comments, “I shouldn’t like to be exhibiting my children about like freaks.”

The Boy Mozart (source)

After the Massey children’s first performance that evening, Nelson eavesdrops on the children when they’re alone and lamenting how they can’t go outside and play. Nelson has a conversation with the children and finds out their life is all work and no play. They even secretly play at being “common” children who go ice skating and do fancy work after school.

Nelson is a doctor and is described as a man of character. He “set his teeth” and starts making promises to the children that he’ll help get them what they want. Basically, he thinks he’s a better parent and knows best. In the context of this story, the reader is supposed to agree. The children are being overworked, undernourished, and have no freedom. They are also being sexualized by performing songs from the opera Romeo and Juliette.

The daughter collapses during the performance. A month later, Nelson is back at the Massey home and assures the mother that her daughter’s career is over. He says, “Your foreign teachers have not been content with duping you out of your money, they have simply drained your child’s life out of her veins.”

In later Cather stories, foreign music teachers are often sympathetic characters, such as Thea’s piano teacher, the old German Herr Wunsch in The Song of the Lark. Such characters bring classical music and old world aesthetics to the new world. Hard work is also praised. Thea isn’t exactly a child prodigy. She has some talent and physical ability, but Thea’s success is due to her drive, hard work, and sacrifice.

This story brought to mind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, another child prodigy. His father, Leopold Mozart, has been accused of being so obsessed with making his son a success that his behavior may have been abusive. The Massey children are prisoners of their mother’s obsession which becomes so extreme that she sacrifices her children on the altar of art. I was surprised that Cather’s first story about artists is a tragedy.

What do you think?

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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