“A Wagner Matinée” explores the complex role of the pioneer in the American imagination, particularly through the character of Georgiana Carpenter. A former teacher at the Boston Conservatory, upon marrying Georgiana leaves behind her highly-cultured world for the Nebraska prairie, where she fights with grace and determination to maintain her connection to music. While her nephew Clark’s memories of his aunt suggest that she has succeeded in this, her visit to Boston, after decades of isolation, unravels whatever fragile balance she has found. Through Georgiana Cather argues that, while elements of frontier and “civilized” culture can maintain an uneasy coexistence for a time, they are ultimately at odds with each another.
Cather portrays the Nebraska frontier as almost unimaginably remote and foreign compared to Boston society. Clark describes Georgiana’s homestead with her husband Howard as a reversion to a primitive state, their dug-out a “cave dwelling” whose inhabitants share water with the buffalo and brace for Indian attacks. The weary, plodding daily struggle of such an existence infiltrates every aspect of life; even Uncle Howard’s letter to Clark, announcing Georgiana’s visit to Boston to settle a legal matter, appears the day before her scheduled arrival looking “worn and rubbed.”
Georgiana’s jarring arrival in the city further highlights her stark difference from the environment in which she suddenly finds herself. Clark describes his reaction to her as “that feeling of awe and respect with which we behold explorers who have left their ears and fingers north of Franz-Joseph-Land, or their health somewhere along the Upper Congo.” There is a whiff of exoticism, and even of heroism, about Georgiana, as a survivor of an implicitly dangerous place devoid of culture.
Indeed, for Clark, Georgiana represents a haven of civilization and beauty amid the unremitting drudgery of the frontier. Clark remembers his aunt as his instructor, encourager, and comforter against the backdrop of culturally deprived, toilsome Nebraska life. When he was young, she sat beside him at the parlor organ as Clark “[fumbled] the scales with … stiff, red fingers,” or ironed until midnight as Clark read Shakespeare. They milked cows together as Georgiana recounted musical performances she had seen in her youth, and she sang Verdi to Clark when he fell ill. She was responsible for “most of the good that ever came my way in my boyhood,” Clark recalls. Yet even as she encouraged him in “finer” things, Georgiana was constantly busy with the mundane manual tasks of the homestead, a pressing reality that haunted their every interaction. While Clark practiced music or studied, his aunt made mittens, ironed, or darned late into the night.
The frontier remains an overshadowing presence on Georgiana’s trip to Boston, as she frets distractedly over a sickly calf and an opened kit of mackerel she left behind. Even as she and Clark discuss the changes that have taken place in the city, Georgiana is haunted by farm duties and seems fearful of venturing out. Though Boston is her hometown, “the place longed for hungrily half a lifetime,” Georgiana seems not to recognize it. That Georgiana seems hopelessly out of place upon visiting Boston, reentering “civilization” for the first time in years, underscores how deeply frontier life has changed her from the cultured woman of Clark’s memories.
In light of his aunt’s “semi-somnambulent state,” Clark begins to doubt that taking her to a Wagner matinée—intended as a display of gratitude—is a good idea after all. Georgiana stands out painfully in the concert hall, with her “queer, country clothes” and her gnarled hands “mere tentacles to hold and lift and knead with.” She has been “dead” to civilization for a quarter of a century, and instead of serving art and beauty, her body has been given over to the utilitarian concerns of survival.
As the matinée goes on, however, Clark recognizes that his aunt is still the cultured woman he remembers, even as Georgiana mourns for the civilized world in which she no longer belongs. Despite her nephew’s misgivings about the matinée, Georgiana shows stirrings of life when they enter the concert hall, and Clark begins to realize “how superficially [he] had judged her.” Though she appears aloof and impassive at first, Georgiana is increasingly stirred by the music, silently playing the score of The Flying Dutchman from muscle memory. As later pieces evoke Georgiana’s tears, Clark is moved as well, recognizing that “the soul which can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably … withers to the outward eye only.” His aunt’s weathered, anachronistic appearance had deceived him; underneath, the same “civilized” soul has somehow survived the barren atmosphere of the frontier.
After the concert, however, Georgiana is overcome, weeping, “I don’t want to go, Clark!” The empty stage has brought Nebraska near—“empty as a winter’s cornfield”—and reminded her what lies on the other side of this respite: “the tall, unpainted house … naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings … the gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse.” Georgiana realizes that she does not truly belong there, though it seems improbable that she can regain a place in modern Boston, either.
Cather uses Clark’s distance from Nebraska and from his aunt to create a sense of foreignness about Georgiana. By showing glimpses of Georgiana through the haze of a young boy’s adoration, as well as the passage of many years, she creates a heroic portrait of the pioneer woman, even as she complicates the picture by introducing the older, timid, displaced aunt at the same time. Cather’s story ultimately suggests that a person cannot withstand both the draw of civilization and the pressures of the frontier. They will either return to the former, like Clark, or be pulled apart by the tension between such disparate lives, as Georgiana seems to be at the story’s conclusion.
Civilization vs. The Frontier ThemeTracker
Civilization vs. The Frontier Quotes in A Wagner Matinée
The name of my Aunt Georgiana opened before me a gulf of recollection so wide and deep that … I felt suddenly a stranger to all the present conditions of my existence, wholly ill at ease and out of place amid the familiar surroundings of my study. I became, in short, the gangling farmer-boy my aunt had known, scourged with chilblains and bashfulness, my hands cracked and sore from the corn husking.
Whatever shock Mrs. Springer experienced at my aunt’s appearance, she considerately concealed. As for myself, I saw my aunt’s battered figure with that feeling of awe and respect with which we behold explorers who have left their ears and fingers north of Franz-Joseph-Land, or their health somewhere along the Upper Congo.
Aunt Georgiana had been a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory, somewhere back in the latter sixties. One summer, while visiting in the little village among the Green Mountains where her ancestors had dwelt for generations, she had kindled the callow fancy of my uncle, Howard Carpenter, then an idle, shiftless boy of twenty-one. When she returned to her duties in Boston, Howard followed her, and the upshot of this infatuation was that she eloped with him, eluding the reproaches of her family and the criticism of her friends by going with him to the Nebraska frontier.
During the years when I was riding herd for my uncle, my aunt, after cooking the three meals—the first of which was ready at six o’clock in the morning—and putting the six children to bed, would often stand until midnight at her ironing-board, with me at the kitchen table beside her, hearing me recite Latin declensions and conjugations, gently shaking me when my drowsy head sank down over a page of irregular verbs. It was to her, at her ironing or mending, that I read my first Shakspere, and her old text-book on mythology was the first that ever came into my empty hands. She taught me my scales and exercises on the little parlour organ which her husband had bought her after fifteen years during which she had not so much as seen a musical instrument.
She would sit beside me by the hour, darning and counting, while I struggled with the “Joyous Farmer.” She seldom talked to me about music, and I understood why. Once when I had been doggedly beating out some easy passages from an old score of Euryanthe I had found among her music books, she came up to me and, putting her hands over my eyes, gently drew my head back upon her shoulder, saying tremulously, “Don’t love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken from you.”
I had felt some trepidation lest she might become aware of her queer, country clothes, or might experience some painful embarrassment at stepping suddenly into the world to which she had been dead for a quarter of a century. But, again, I found how superficially I had judged her. She sat looking about her with eyes as impersonal, almost as stony, as those with which the granite Rameses in a museum watches the froth and fret that ebbs and flows about his pedestal. I have seen this same aloofness in old miners who drift into the Brown hotel at Denver … standing in the thronged corridors as solitary as though they were still in a frozen camp on the Yukon.
The matinée audience was made up chiefly of women. One lost the contour of faces and figures, indeed any effect of line whatever, and there was only the colour of bodices past counting … red, mauve, pink, blue, lilac, purple, écru, rose, yellow, cream, and white, all the colours that an impressionist finds in a sunlit landscape, with here and there the dead shadow of a frock coat. My Aunt Georgiana regarded them as though they had been so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette.
When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim’s chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized that for her this broke a silence of thirty years. With the battle between the two motives, with the frenzy of the Venusberg theme and its ripping of strings, there came to me an overwhelming sense of the waste and wear we are so powerless to combat; and I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie … The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer-bought than those of war.
She preserved this utter immobility throughout the number from The Flying Dutchman, though her fingers worked mechanically upon her black dress, as if, of themselves, they were recalling the piano score they had once played. Poor hands! They had been stretched and twisted into mere tentacles to hold and lift and knead with;—on one of them a thin, worn band that had once been a wedding ring. As I pressed and gently quieted one of those groping hands, I remembered with quivering eyelids their services for me in other days.
Some years before there had drifted to the farm in Red Willow County a young German, a tramp cow-puncher, who had sung in the chorus at Bayreuth when he was a boy, along with the other peasant boys and girls. Of a Sunday morning he used to sit on his gingham-sheeted bed in the hands’ bedroom … cleaning the leather of his boots and saddle, singing the “Prize Song,” while my aunt went about her work in the kitchen. She had hovered over him until she had prevailed upon him to join the country church, though his sole fitness for this step, in so far as I could gather, lay in his boyish face and his possession of this divine melody.
The deluge of sound poured on and on; I never knew what she found in the shining current of it; I never knew how far it bore her, or past what happy islands. From the trembling of her face I could well believe that before the last number she had been carried out where the myriad graves are, into the grey, nameless burying grounds of the sea; or into some world of death vaster yet, where, from the beginning of the world, hope has lain down with hope and dream with dream and, renouncing, slept.
I spoke to my aunt. She burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly. “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go!”
I understood. For her, just outside the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dish-cloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.