Georgiana’s history is one of deepening estrangement. Despite having grown up in the city, she reappears in Boston like an anachronism and struggles to get a solid grip on her surroundings until she enters the familiar world of the concert hall. Yet during the concert Georgiana experiences a deeper estrangement still, realizing she can neither return to Nebraska the same as before. Having left one home to establish another, Georgiana has sacrificed a sense of belonging—and in trying, in a way, to go home again, is painfully reminded of her distance from once-familiar surroundings. Cather’s story argues for the notion of “home” as an incredible source of grounding and comfort, and the loss of home—even when actively left behind—as a source of poignant displacement.
As a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory in the 1860s, Georgiana occupied an unusually public and elite role for a woman of her era. Her elopement with Howard Carpenter, a man who seems to have been her opposite in ambition and temperament, was already a surprising departure from expectation. Her accompanying him to the prairie to establish a homestead set her apart even more drastically from her ancestral home, her upbringing, and the path she had already set for her life.
Georgiana’s ensuing years on the prairie represent a losing battle to hang on to aspects of home. She endures fifteen years without an instrument, and only upon Clark’s arrival can she once again exercise her teaching skill and share her love of music. The extent of this practice is limited to late-night tutelage and occasional conversations in the cowshed.
By the time she visits Boston, Georgiana’s battered appearance is a “shock,” making Clark think of an explorer who has sacrificed her health. She is no longer the woman she was when Clark lived with her as a boy, and the contrast with her own life in Boston many years earlier could hardly be more extreme. In agreeing to move to the frontier with Howard, she has become a stranger to the society that was once her home.
Far from being a homecoming, Georgiana’s return to Boston only further estranges her from her past. The journey has itself been somewhat traumatic—she “had become black with soot” and suffered train sickness. Upon awakening the day after her arrival, she is “still in a semi-somnambulent state.” She is so disoriented that Clark says it seems as if only “a few hours of nightmare” separated her from Red Willow County and his Newbury Street lodgings. Georgiana seems not to recognize that she is in “the place longed for hungrily half a lifetime.” Indeed, she is so timid that she seems disinclined to venture out and is preoccupied by tasks forgotten back home. She seems to Clark to be caught between worlds, and all of this leads Clark to wonder whether her visit, to say nothing of bringing her to the concert, has been a mistake.
Attending the concert seems to reawaken Georgiana, however, by bringing her back to an environment in which she feels at home. As the musicians come onstage, she “looked with quickening interest over the rail at … perhaps the first wholly familiar thing that had greeted her eye since” her arrival. With the opening notes, she clutches Clark’s sleeve, and he realizes that “for her this broke a silence of thirty years.” For all intents and purposes, Boston is no longer home to her, but the concert hall remains a haven.
Superficially, Georgiana doesn’t “belong,” but she somehow transcends the scene. While her dowdy dress marks her as a relic of another era, she stands aloof from such outward trappings, admiring the crowd of concertgoers like “so many daubs of tube-paint on a palette” and unbothered by the “froth and fret that ebbs and flows” around her. Her musical knowledge stops short of Wagner’s era as well, leading Clark to wonder, “Had this music any message for her? Had she enough left to at all comprehend this power which had kindled the world since she had left it?”
Even so, the music elicits a visceral reaction, suggesting the depth of Georgiana’s longing for this world left behind. Seeing his aunt’s tears, Clark reflects that the soul “which can suffer so excruciatingly … withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which … if placed in water, grows green again.” Though it had not been clear to him that Georgiana could enjoy such sophisticated music, he now realizes that her soul is resilient and responds to such beauty, even after many years without it.
Although the music seems to touch something timeless in Georgiana’s soul, her fitness for both this world—and for Nebraska—is left in question. Georgiana’s tears are ambiguous, suggesting that she grieves her estrangement from this world even as she enjoys it for the first time in many years. When Clark attempts to make light of the moment, she responds, “And you have been hearing this ever since you left me?” He realizes the music has taken his aunt somewhere he cannot follow (“I never knew how far it bore her, or past what happy islands”); that she is, in fact, a stranger to him again. Georgiana’s sobs in the emptying concert hall suggest that she will be forever a stranger to both worlds. She knows there is nothing waiting for her but the “black,” “unpainted” homestead, and that returning “home” is perhaps all the harder now that she has been awakened to what is beyond it.
One of the most poignant scenes in the story is Clark’s memory of his aunt singing Verdi’s “‘Home to our mountains, O, let us return’ in a way fit to break the heart of a Vermont boy near dead of home-sickness already.” But Georgiana’s homesickness proves to be the more intractable case, as she discovers that there is no longer a fit “home” for her anywhere. Through the figure of this formidable woman, Cather makes a case that the pioneer generation forever finds itself caught between worlds, too—sacrificing much for the sake of “progress,” yet never again able to keep pace with the world left behind.
Home and Estrangement ThemeTracker
Home and Estrangement 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.
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.
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.