Willa Cather (1873-1947)

    Contributing Editor:
    Margaret Anne O'Connor

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    It's hard to do justice to a novelist by looking at a single short story, but "Old Mrs. Harris" promises to be a better representative story to introduce Cather and her major concerns as a writer than any story previously anthologized. More than any other, "Old Mrs. Harris" treats the midwestern locale of her best known Nebraska novels. It is also extremely autobiographical, an emphasis that offers an instructor the advantage of introducing the life history of this important novelist as more than mere background information.

    The headnote to this Cather story stresses biographical information, which should prompt questions that will stimulate classroom discussion. Philip Gerber's bare-bones chronology in his Twayne volume on Cather is an accurate outline and an excellent choice for a chronology to supply to students. Sharon O'Brien's more detailed and topic-oriented chronology (in her edition of five of Cather's book-length prose publications for the Library of America in 1986, pp. 1296-1318) would be an excellent biographical summary for instructors to have at their disposal.

    Since this story is about a family and one important plot element features a young girl's impatient hunger to go to college, instructors have a natural way to involve student readers in the story through questioning students' own reasons for being in college, the depth of their own commitment to knowledge compared to that of the young woman, and a then/now discussion of options open to young women.

    Cather is often considered a regional writer, but one who wrote knowledgeably of many regions in her best known works--Nebraska, New Mexico, Canada, and even Virginia in her last novel. This story presents an excellent opportunity to discuss class members' perceptions of midwesterners vs. southerners, the class structure of small town America in the 1890s, the religious, class, gender, age, and ethnic differences that all come into play in the story. Discussing any of these questions would enhance students' awareness of the complexity that underlies the calm prose style of this story.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Published as a story in Ladies' Home Journal in the fall of 1932, the original title of "Old Mrs. Harris" was "Three Women." The story could be said to concern the life of WOMAN and the options she has, the ages of a woman as represented by "old Mrs. Harris" and the two generations that follow her, as well as the temper of the time and place--Skyline, Colorado, in the early 1890s--in relation to the generations of women described there.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Point of view is very important in the story; there is no single first-person narrator or Jamesian "central consciousness" directing the story. Instead, a third-person omniscient narrator goes into the minds of key figures in the narrative to present their reactions. Students often agree with contemporary reviewers of the story that the last two paragraphs are a great departure from the established technique of the rest of the story--very "old-fashioned" and intrusive. What is the effect of this "shift"? Compare it to the ending of Sarah Orne Jewett's "The White Heron." What does each author hope to achieve in her closing commentary?

    Original Audience

    The themes of this story are timeless. Still, it is set in the past and said much about the need for forbearance to depression-era readers who were its first audience. One excellent point for discussion might be just how much Americans of the 1990s value the patience that Mrs. Harris and Mandy exhibit in the story. In the story, patience is more often seen in the older characters, and the impatience of youth is specifically lamented in the last paragraph.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Compare Cather to Sarah Orne Jewett. Cather knew Jewett and admired her work. She even wrote an appreciative preface to a two-volume edition of Jewett's stories in 1925. An expanded version of the preface appears in the essay "Miss Jewett" in Not Under Forty (1936), an essay that makes it clear that Cather saw herself as aspiring to achieve many of the strengths as a writer that she found in Jewett's work.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) In your reading of the story, who is the most important character? In your reading, who is the most reliable narrator? Who is the "hero"? Who is the most sympathetically presented character?

    (b) Cather used "Three Women" as the title of this story when she published it in a magazine, but "Old Mrs. Harris" when it appeared in a collection. What is the difference in emphasis? Which title do you prefer and why?

    (c) Describe the Templeton marriage. Whose fault is it that this family's life is less than perfect? Does the story attempt to place blame on husband or wife?

    (d) How does this story treat the issue of "motherhood"?

    (e) How is the southern background of the Templeton family important to the story?

    (f) Discuss the economic and social structure of Skyline, Colorado. Who's on top? On the bottom? Why? Who is inside the structure and who is outside? Where do the Templetons fit? The Rosens?

    2. One writing assignment I would suggest is in the form of a reading "quiz." Before discussing the work in class on the day it is the assigned reading, ask students to write a one-sentence summary of the story. Ask everyone to exchange papers and have students read aloud sentences that described a different central issue than the one each of them selected as at the heart of the story. These responses should lead easily into the study questions given above.


    For the most part, the recent biographies by O'Brien, Woodress, and Lee, and book-length critical studies such as those by David Stouck and Susan Rosowski present the most sensitive readings of Cather's life and work.

    One particularly fine "older" source is Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), with photographs by Lucia Wood and text by Bernice Slote. It's an excellent brief introduction to the world of Willa Cather.

    Marilyn Arnold has an extremely useful discussion of "Old Mrs. Harris" in Willa Cather's Short Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984, pp. 141-52.