Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

How apropos is this?

Last night one of the library's regular patrons, a Chinese man who often has us explain English idioms or figures of speech that have confounded him, came by to ask if I'd participate in a one-question survey he was taking.

Sure, I said.

Do you, he said, regard your spouse as a friend or an enemy?

And I, who'd finished My Mortal Enemy less than 24 hours before, startled him by ducking underneath the desk for my purse, then brandishing my Cather before him, telling him he had to read this book.

He wrote down Cather's name, then told me 70 percent of married Chinese consider their spouse their enemy while 70 percent of Americans consider them their friend. He didn't understand why there was such a wide swing in perception between the two nationalities. I suggested it might be because Americans generally divorce a spouse they regard as an enemy.

But now, today, I'm thinking about how my own parents would have fallen into the enemy camp, and they were married for more than 61 years.

My mother remained angry at my dad throughout my life, for more than 40 years, because of something he'd done before I was born (I was a midlife accident; they'd eloped when she was 17 and he was 22 and no one --i.e., my sister-- told me what he'd done to get in her bad graces until I was 22, a month or so shy of marrying myself). Then, during  the final months of their lives (they died five weeks apart), thanks to the Alzheimers, she either forgave him, or more likely, forgot that she had ever been mad at him. Unfortunately, my dad remembered that anger and while the series of strokes he'd endured left him unable to communicate with anyone very well verbally, his demeanor made it clear he had not forgiven her.

What a mess we can make of our lives if we put our minds to it, huh?

I can't remember if I connected my parents' relationship with that of the characters in My Mortal Enemy when I read it in '83. My suspicions are that I probably speculated more on how a particular friend would grow to regard her husband as her mortal enemy if he failed to provide her with the level of material success and social standing she desired--back then another friend and I were quite intrigued with her machinations and expressed desire: I want more. We couldn't figure out how she always managed to get it. Shouldn't the universe at some point say no?

So, now that I've gotten all that out of the way, on to an the actual  Willa Cather novella.

It is, as you may have surmised, the story of a marriage gone awry. Myra Driscoll falls in love with Oswald Henshawe, the son of a man her wealthy uncle, who's raised her, holds a grudge against. Myra's uncle gives her an ultimatum: marry Oswald and get cut off without a penny. "It's better to be a stray dog in this world than a man without money," he warns her.

With the help of her friends, who are thrilled with the secret romance, Myra chooses love over money, and elopes with Oswald, never once returning to attempt reconciliation with the uncle, who leaves his fortune to the Catholic church. As our narrator Nellie Birdseye tells us (Nellie is the daughter of one of Myra's girlhood friends), "[H]er life had been as exciting and varied as ours was monotonous." But Nellie finds it disheartening when her aunt Lydia, who remains in touch with Myra over the years, reports that they are only "as happy as most people." Nellie's opinion is that "the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people."

At the age of 15, Nellie finds herself spending the Christmas holiday in New York with the Henshawes and her aunt. She observes Myra at her best--when she is with her artistic set of friends--and at her worst--quarreling with, then leaving Oswald, who is expected to come to her in Pittsburgh to win her back. Although ample evidence is presented that Oswald has a secret life and may very well be conducting an affair, Myra's conduct keeps her from gaining much sympathy from either Nellie or her aunt:

Aunt Lydia was very angry. "I'm sick of Myra's dramatics," she declared. "I've done with them. A man never is justified, but if ever a man was. . . "
Ten years later, on the West Coast, Nellie finds the Henshawes living in the same hotel as she. They have fallen on hard times financially and are, as Myra calls it, "in temporary eclipse" from their friends. Myra is in fact dying, and consumed by regrets for how her life has turned out, questioning why she in the position to die, "alone with my mortal enemy":

She smoothed his hair. "No, my poor Oswald, you'll never stagger far under the bulk of me. Oh, if youth but knew!" She closed her eyes and pressed her hands over them. "It's been the ruin of us both. We've destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We've thrown our lives away."

"Come, Myra, don't talk so before Nellie. You don't mean it. Remember the long time we were happy. That was reality, just as much as this."

"We were never really happy. I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman; I wanted success and a place in the world. Now I'm old and ill and a fright, but among my own kind I'd still have my circle; I'd have courtesy from people of gentle manners, and not have my brains beaten out by hoodlums. Go away, please, both of you, and leave me!" She turned her face to the wall and covered her head.
While Oswald remains devoted to her (although simultaneously enjoying the admiration of another young woman living in the hotel), Myra becomes focused on Catholicism, literature and nature. She misses her long-dead uncle, thinks he wisely left his money where it was needed and would do good, and claims how like him she really is:

"We were very proud of each other, and if he'd lived till now, I'd go back to him and ask his pardon; because I know what it is to be old and lonely and disappointed. Yes, and because as we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forebears put into us. I can feel his savagery strengthen in me. We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeleton."
Myra calls on the savagery within herself to face death on her own terms. Nellie is left to comfort Oswald, and come to grips with the hard lesson learned from the woman who uttered "such a terrible judgment upon all one hopes for."

I wonder if Myra had lived longer, if she would have managed to forgive her husband for his transgressions, the way she came to  forgive her uncle. Or would she have continued to believe that she couldn't forgive him because of the harm she'd done to him? Even Nellie, earlier in the story, had sensed that Oswald's life "had not suited him; that he possessed some kind of courage and force which slept, which in another sort of world might have asserted themselves brilliantly."

What a mess we can make of our lives even if we don't put our minds to it.

Feel free to join in the discussion of My Mortal Enemy over at The Slaves of Golconda.




2 comments:

Bybee said...

Dang! I have to read this!

Kathleen said...

Thank you for such an insightful and interesting review. I definitely need to read this one!