“The West Bound Train” by Willa Cather

Willa Cather Short Story Project • Response Post

Did you have a chance to read “The West Bound Train” this month? I was dreading reading it but it turned out to be a decent read and much more complex than I anticipated.

“The West Bound Train: A Thirty Minute’s Sketch for Two People” was published in The Courier, a Lincoln, NE newspaper, on September 30, 1899. It is written in the form of a play, but it reads a bit more like a short story due to some lengthy internal monologues of the main character, Mrs. Sybil Johnston. The play is a farce revolving around a mistaken identity, train tickets, and a woman who grows increasingly anxious about her new husband’s fidelity. He’s wealthy and has a sordid past with the ladies.

Cheyenne, Wyoming

The Old Cheyenne Wyoming Union Pacific Depot (source)

The action of the play takes place in the waiting room of the Union Pacific train depot in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Sybil is en route from New York to San Francisco. In Cheyenne she was to pick up tickets for the next leg of her journey, but it turns out another woman, a Mrs. Johnson (no T), picked up the tickets. Sybil is outraged and demands the station agent do something. He suggests she write a note to Mrs. Johnson who is staying across the street at the Inter-Ocean Hotel. Sybil does and the reply is not what she expected.

As Sybil’s anxiety ramps into high gear, she wonders about her husband and Mrs. Johnson, “Perhaps she knows all about me, and they discuss our household affairs together, as people do in Balzac’s novels.”

Sybil decides to head back to New York. “I will not be one of a menage a trois.” But then Reginald, the husband, shows up and claims he missed her so much that he travelled to Cheyenne to ride with her to San Francisco. Hmmm.

The story develops some dark subtext at this point. From the beginning of the story, Sybil has worried about her looks. Upon arriving in Cheyenne she wishes that Reginald had gotten her a ticket through to Chicago. (If a ticket to Chicago was an option, why have her go to Cheyenne? Uh huh.) She thinks, “I’ll be a wreck by the time I reach San Francisco. I almost hope he can’t get to the station to meet me, so that I will have an opportunity to get to his hotel and recover my composure and complexion before he sees me. Railway travel always utterly destroys my temper and leaves me a fright, and I never can get my hair to curl on a Pullman.” She also has anxiety over other blondes. Lots of red flags here.

When Sybil gets the reply to her note from Mrs. Johnson, she asks herself, “Is the woman insane?” Sybil asking if the woman is insane seems contextually appropriate. But when she brings up the other Mrs. Johnson, Reginald replies, “Other Mrs. Johnston? Waiting for me with tea, across the street? What in the name of the state lunatic asylum are you talking about?”


Wait, what? State lunatic asylum? That is an odd and strangely specific euphemism. Evoking the state lunatic asylum in a time when husbands could easily have their wives committed for virtually no reason at all makes his question seem more like a threat. As they’re talking about the “mix up” he asks Sybil a series of quick questions, if she “encountered a lunatic,” has been ill, what doctor did she see, and ends by saying, presumably about the station agent, “somebody’s been drinking!” Talk about gaslighting. He’s pointing fingers fast and furiously at everyone else.

New Cheyenne Depot under construction, 22 March 1887 (source)

When he finally admits to knowing this other Mrs. Johnson (“O Sally Johnson!”) he explains that Sally’s husband was killed in a boating accident and “she has been a bit touched ever since, not quite right, shy a few marbles.” He also comments that Sally is “rather handsome but her eyes are a trifle crossed.” Sybil latches on to that. The last line of the story is her saying, “And I am so glad her eyes are just a trifle, trifle crossed.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Does Sybil know he’s cheating on her with Sally and taking comfort that the other woman is not physically “perfect”? Or does she think her husband wouldn’t cheat on her with a woman who has crossed eyes? Or is she commenting on her own choice not to look directly at the situation she is in?

Reginald is a player who came close to getting caught. He subtly threatens his wife with the state lunatic asylum and then denigrates the other woman, claiming she is not mentally stable. He also says this: “before I leave this town I intend to fresco these walls with bleeding fragments of that agent’s anatomy.” That seems a harsh over-reaction. Sociopathic.

More than a simple farce about a mixup at a train station, this is a story about a woman in the early stages of an abusive relationship. The execution is not as smooth as Cather’s more mature prose, but she does a solid job of depicting how gaslighting works.

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