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A Lost Lady: They Could Conquer, But They Could Not Hold

1014 words - 4 pages

In Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, two types of men are presented to the reader – the old fashioned man who belongs to the Old West, and the new man who is a product of the Industrial Revolution. Niel Herbert and Ivy Peters exemplify these two types of men; by their outlook upon life and by their actions, they are as fundamentally opposed to one another as the Old West was to the Industrial Revolution.
Niel and Ivy’s separate outlooks upon life – that of the Old West versus that of the Industrial Revolution – are as disparate as their appearances. Niel, with his “clear-cut [features, and] his grey eyes, so dark they looked black under his long lashes,” (Cather 33) represents the Old West and all its hopes and dreams, while Ivy with his red skin, harsh dimples like “a knot in a tree-bole,” (21) and his “fixed, unblinking” (21) eyes, is the realist of the next generation. Niel, younger than Ivy by several years, “had believed that man could live according to aesthetic ideals, and this belief is a positive one. However, he had not yet harmonized such ideals with human life” (Rosowski, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady: The Paradoxes of Change, 59). It is this refreshing – though naïve – belief in the ability of men to rise above petty emotions, and particularly his reverence of Marian Forrester as an archetype of womanly goodness, which is slowly worn away in Niel as the novel progresses. When Niel returns to Sweet Water after his time away at a university, he meets Ivy, and from their brief conversation Niel realizes the difference between himself and Ivy. The men of the Old West, Niel realizes, were “dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defense, who could conquer but could not hold” (Cather 106). The men of the next generation, the men of the industrial revolution, were their polar opposites: “shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times” (107). Niel, in his unfailing gallantry and old fashioned sensibilities, exemplifies the idealistic outlook of the Old West, just as Ivy, in his crass words and deals made solely for money, exemplifies the new generation of realists.
Another point of differentiation between Niel and Ivy is the separate courses of action they pursue; by the paths they have chosen in life, they again demonstrate the fulfillment of their archetypal opposition. Niel and Ivy “had disliked each other from childhood, blindly, instinctively, recognizing each other as hostile insects do.” (Cather 106) From the very beginning to the very end, they are pitted against one another, in action and in ideal. When Ivy Peters slits the eyes of the woodpecker, Niel is the one who takes action against him, climbing the tree to put the bird out of its misery. When Ivy Peters tramps about the Forrester’s land as though he owns it, draining the marsh and tearing down the barn, Niel is the one who stops to...

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