“The Sentimentality of William Tavener” by Willa Cather

The Sentimentality of William Tavener by Willa Cather

Willa Cather Short Story Project • Response Post

Here we are on our last story of 2022, “The Sentimentality of William Tavener” (1901). Did you have a chance to read it?

Cather published this story in The Library using her own name. For her previous story in this outlet, she’d used the pseudonym Henry Nicklemann. That story, “The Dance at Chevalier’s,” was about two men fighting over one woman.

“The Sentimentality of William Tavener” is a quick dip into the dynamics of the Tavener family, particularly the marriage of William and Hester. The opening paragraph is quite the set up:

It takes a strong woman to make any sort of success of living in the West, and Hester undoubtedly was that. When people spoke of William Tavener as the most prosperous farmer in McPherson County, they usually added that his wife was a “good manager.” She was an executive woman, quick of tongue and something of an imperatrix. The only reason her husband did not consult her about his business was that she did not wait to be consulted.

After this introduction, I expected a story about Hester lording it over her man. Instead, it was a pleasant surprise to find a more tender story about a couple reconnecting after growing apart due to the pressures of farming and raising children.

When Hester asks William about allowing their boys to go to the circus that’s come to town, he surprises her by sharing memories of his boyhood adventure at the circus. As he talks, she draws closer to him. It feels like the first non-work or child-rearing talk they’ve had in a long time. After William falls asleep, Hester reflects on her tender memories as a young woman and bride and lovingly puts a mosquito net over her sleeping husband’s face.

The boys come home after their bath in the pond and Hester tells them they’re allowed to go to the circus. As she gives the eldest son the money William had laid out for the boys, Hester feels “a sudden throb of allegiance to her husband” and speaks sharply, warning the boys not to waste the money. “Your father works hard for his money.”

The boys “looked at each other in astonishment and felt they had lost a powerfully ally.” That’s the last line of the story. I was surprised, too. The gentleness inspired by the brief rekindling of the parent’s romance does not trickle down to their children. Instead, Cather uses the language of war, shifting alliances. Hester’s sharpness toward the boys drives a different wedge between family members.

What was a surprisingly sweet story takes a dark turn. My initial reaction was to be annoyed with Hester. Her imperatrix nature was showing again. But then I wondered if William’s sentimental sharing was actually strategic on his part. We’re told at one point that Hester is “too vigorous a woman to be much of a strategist.” But as the quiet, seemingly observant one, perhaps William manipulated Hester. Or maybe the shift is as it should be, husband and wife united. But at the children’s expense? In the end, the story seems like a sad commentary on power dynamics within families.

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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