The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

 

The Song of the Lark is my second Cather this year and has all the elements that I love about Cather novels. The Western landscape is of major importance in the novel and nature as a healer and balm for the human soul is here also. There is also a focus on immigrants and how they meld their own customs into American life. Another major theme of The Song of the Lark is the question of what it means to be an artist and the things you have to give up to fulfill your creative talents. These are all fundamental pieces of Cather’s novels that I usually appreciate reading about.

The novel’s main character is Thea Kronborg, a talented singer from a Scandinavian immigrant family. She grows up in Moonstone, Colorado during the late 19th/early 20th centuries and, like many of Cather’s characters, has a special connection with the land. She loves the sand dunes outside of town and enjoys socializing with the outsiders in her community, like the railroad men and the citizens of Mexican town. Thea is ‘different’ and is a favored child of many adults in town who continue to revere her into her adulthood.  In her late teens she gets the opportunity to go to Chicago to study music and at this point Cather lost me. Thea is such an unpleasant young woman and I didn’t like being in her company. I had to force myself to continue reading. In Moonstone, the landscape and quirky characters made up for Thea’s selfish behavior. While in Chicago, Thea becomes the focus of the novel and her negativity started to annoy me.

The rest of the novel shows Thea’s struggle to become a great singer and to define herself as an artist. A brief chapter set in Arizona among Native American cliff dwellings returned me to the aspects of Cather’s writing I most love while also furthering Thea’s idea of what creativity really is.

While I enjoyed many things about The Song of the Lark, an unlikable main character kept me from thoroughly admiring it as I have the other two Cather novels I’ve read. I feel that Cather, through Thea, battles to understand creativity and in the process makes artists seem like selfish, narcissistic cold-hearted people. Do I really think that you must cast off all family relations in order to be an artist? Or to treat everyone around you with contempt and unkindness? Or to be a manipulative, nasty user? No, I personally don’t, but Thea does these things and I think Cather wants to convey that you do have to sacrifice (even your humanity?) to achieve artistic perfection.

This will not be one of my favorite Cather books, but her landscape descriptions and portrayal of small-town Western life in the late 1800’s are reasons worth reading it. Have you read The Song of the Lark? Do you like Thea?

 

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6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I was going to download this one from girlebooks but I think I’ll leave it a while, I’m not in the mood for an objectionable character at the moment. I do like Cather though, especially her lovely landscape descriptions. I think artistic people can be very self-centred but lots of people are, even if they aren’t artistic at all. Thea sounds ghastly.

    1. I thought she was ghastly, but others seem not to have such a strong reaction to her. Maybe it’s just me? I think it is very much still worth reading if only for the chapter set in Arizona 🙂

  2. The Song of the Lark was my second Cather, after the very short My Mortal Enemy. I loved it for the sense of place and the story, and for being so unlike anything else I’d read at that point in my life. I couldn’t say I liked Thea but I was fascinated by her.

    1. Yes, there is something about Thea that is fascinating, but I just couldn’t get over how much I disliked her. It was almost overwhelming for me. The sense of place is wonderful and one of the absolute best things about Cather’s writing.

  3. This is one of the books I chose off my shelves for my TBR challenge — now I’m afraid because so many people seem to dislike the main character. I’ve read four books by Cather so far and two I loved and the other two were somewhat meh. I have a whole stack of Cather that I bought at the Borders liquidation so I hope they weren’t bad purchases. I got them for next to nothing so I guess there’s hope.

    1. I don’t think it is Cather’s best, but it is beautifully written with wonderful landscape descriptions. Very much worth reading though the main character is not so nice!

Thank you for reading and commenting.

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