Thoughts on “A Wagner Matinee”

“A Wagner Matinee”

I swear, Willa Cather is giving me a dirty mind, and she’s doing it on purpose. On first read-through, I was heartbroken for the poor woman, abandoned in a wasteland of dirty washcloths and pecking turkeys. On second read, my suspicions were confirmed. The narrator and his Aunt Georgiana had a more than platonic relationship while he was at her house. Not necessarily when he was a boy, but probably as a young man. They are not related by blood, and had more in common than she and her husband. Namely, a love of music, so it was not out of line for me to pursue a line of questioning which led me to the following points:

First off, Cather starts the story with an impugnation of his uncle’s character; he put off writing so long that his wife might have been stranded at the train station had the narrator not found it that day. Even the letter itself is described unfavorably, on “glassy, blue-lined note-paper”, not even on stationary. Cather seems to be setting the stage not only for Georgiana’s unhappiness, but also for our disapproval of him as well. She’s allowing us to sympathize with her, and opening up the possibility of extramarital relationships.

Further, the narrator’s affection for his aunt was very deep. Maybe I am cynical to think so, but this is an immediate heads-up to something fishy. I have aunts and I have uncles, but the tenderness with which
he recalls her is more extreme than I imagine is typical. He looks at her with interest, wondering what she is thinking during Tristan and Isolde, a story of separated lovers. Also, she taught him scales on the piano (?), and must have had her hands over his, but the way Cather describes his fixation on her “groping” hands is erotic.
Learning scales from a woman wouldn’t lead to statements like, “I remembered with quivering eyelids their services for me in other day”. I have played piano scales and it is a decidedly unsexy predicament.

Beyond the narrator’s connection with his aunt, she had a connection with another farm worker who could sing. He didn’t seem jealous of this, which works against my theory, but possibly he was too young at the time and his relationship with her had not begun. The tramp’s exit from the town cements her pattern of loss and isolation, but also parallels the narrator’s exit. He took not only his companionship, but also the musical outlet. Her sad reproach “And you have heard this since you left me, Clark?” exhibits grief over both. He went with
music, and left not the town, or his family, but left her specifically.

Either way, the story’s open-endedness left me wandering. What happened after the music ended?

This entry was posted in family, literary criticism, literature, music, relationships, sex, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Thoughts on “A Wagner Matinee”

  1. dustindmorrow says:

    Interesting interpretation. Cather scholars like Merrill Maguire Skaggs usually point out the asexuality in Cather’s fiction. Typically, relationships work best when they are least like love – physical love, that is. “A Wagner Matinee” is a good example of Catherian relationships – intense devotion and unrequited desire.


  2. Occam Young says:

    I disagree about playing scales on the piano. Scales are much sexier than they’re often given credit for being. Ask any orchestra mermaid.

    • Unfair comparison! Mermaids can’t help but be sexy, it’s their nature. Their mermaid hair is just a natural extension if this. Or, in the real world– their extensions.

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