5 May 2004
Quiet Moments of Kindness:
Love in "Neighbour Rosicky"
Willa Cather once
wrote about human relationships that they "are the tragic necessity of human
life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the
time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them"' (Willa
Cather on Writing 110). Anton Rosicky, in Cather's short story "Neighbour
Rosicky," has found the way to cope with this "tragic necessity" and indicates
that Cather saw that the secret all along lay in performing ordinary, day‑to‑day
kindnesses that arise out of a contentment with oneself and one's life.
Cather describes Rosicky's ability to love in a variety of ways. Using an omniscient point of view, Cather moves in and out of various charactersí minds as she develops Rosicky's story and his ability to have satisfactory relationships through his quietly creating love in those around him. By shifting point of view from Rosicky to those who contemplate him, Cather emphasizes the power of contentment. Mary watches him drink coffee and thinks "about the gentleness of their life together" and Doctor Ed and Polly both contemplate Rosicky's goodness (Rosowski 192).
The doctor, whose perception of Rosicky frames the story, provides the most objective point of view since he is the furthest removed from the family. In the opening, he must announce that Rosicky has a bad heart and could die if he is not more careful. The ensuing conversation, seen from the doctor's point of view, reveals how the Rosicky family has merged into a natural unit through shared experience and acceptance of each other:
Rosicky considered with puckered puckered brows.
"I can't make my heart go no longer'n it wants to can I, Dr. Ed?"
"I think it's good for five or six years yet, maybe more, if you'll take the strain off it. Sit around the house and help Mary. If I had a good wife like yours, I'd want to stay around the house."
His patient chuckled. "It ain't no place fur a man. I don't like no old man hanging round the kitchen too much. An' my wife, she's a awful hard worker her own self."
"That's it; you can help her a little. My Lord, Rosicky, you are one of the few men I know who has a family he can get some comfort out of; happy disposition,‑never quarrel among themselves, and they treat you right. I want to see you live a few years and enjoy them."
"Oh, they're good kids, all right," Rosicky assented. . .
"And how's Polly? I was afraid Mary mightn't like an American daughter‑in‑law, but it seems to be working out all right."
"Yes, she's a fine girl. Dat widder woman bring her daughters up very nice. Polly got lots of spunk, an' she got some style, too. Da's nice, for young folks to have some style." ("Neighbour Rosicky" 1368)
This conversation reveals a great deal about Rosicky's family: they care for each other, they work together but independently as well, and they can adjust their own lives to accommodate others. Human relationships based on such cooperation are not destined to be "tragic," but fulfilling because the individual does not have to lose himself inside the relationship. Such a relationship arises out of the common, ordinary moments of life. Willa Cather remarked in an interview, "'After all, it is the little things, the things that never quite come to birth. Sometimes a man's wedding day is the happiest day in his life; but usually he likes most of all to look back upon some quite simple, quite uneventful day when nothing in particular happened but all the world seemed touched with gold"' (Gather, Interview 45).
Such ordinary movements of life are what characterize Rosicky's consideration of others, as seen through Polly's eyes when Rosicky comes to give her and Rudolph a night out. When Rosicky is gently steering her out of the kitchen, Polly reflects on that simple act, "That kind, reassuring grip on her elbows, the old man's funny bright eyes, made Polly want to drop her head on his shoulder for a second" ("Neighbour Rosicky" 1376). Cather illustrates here that it is not the great sacrifices that make relationships possible, but the everyday considerations of fellow human beings. Great sacrifices create a sense of dependence based on guilt or responsibility to reciprocate in kind; small considerations create affection because they demand no more than acceptance.
We see through those outside of Rosicky his means of creating love for him in their hearts, but it is through Rosicky's own mind that we see how this ability to love others is based on his own sense of satisfaction in his life, a satisfaction which for Cather can come particularly easily in the rural life. Cather said in an interview what can be applied to Rosicky as well as farmers' wives:
The farmer's wife who raises a large family and cooks for them and makes their clothes and keeps house and on the side runs a truck garden and a chicken farm and a canning establishment, and thoroughly enjoys doing it all, and doing it well, contributes more to art than all the culture clubs. often your find such a woman with all the appreciation of the beautiful bodies of her children, of the order and harmony of her kitchen, of the real creative joy of all her activities, which marks the great artist. (Cather, Interview 47)
Rosicky, like the farmer's wife, loves his family, but he also loves his own life and what he has created of himself. Cather places Rosicky's source of contentment in his having been able to escape poverty and the city to live in the country where he does not have to hurt others and where he can express his happiness in the generous act of giving his horses an extra measure of oats.
For Cather, such moments are the true substance of art, particularly the art of creating a satisfying whole life. The person, the artist, who can draw together these moments, as Rosicky does, is a person with true power for creating goodness in herself or himself and in others. One small act of kindness builds upon another and creates happiness for the giver as well as the recipient. In her analysis of "Neighbour Rosicky," Susan Rosowski says of such material:
These are unconventional materials for fiction, for here important moments are quiet ones when action is suspended, and the most powerful character is one who does little, in the ordinary sense of things. The story's most dramatic scenes occur when action is stopped and Rosicky does nothing. Polly awakens to life while she sits quietly beside her sleeping father‑in‑law, and Doctor Ed awakens to the beauty about him while he sits silently beside the graveyard where Rosicky lies buried. (192)
Although the story opens with a reference to Rosicky's "bad heart," we are shown instead the power of a good‑heart, one that sees that human happiness and fulfilling human relationships come through the quiet kindnesses that should fill a person's day.
Cather, Willa. Interview with Eleanor Hinman. 6 Nov 1921. Lincoln Sunday Star. Willa
Cather in Person: Interviews. Speeches, and Letters. Ed. Brent L. Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Cather, Willa. "Neighbour Rosicky." The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George
and Barbara Perkins. 10th ed. Shorter ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999. 1367-86.
Cather, Willa. Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York:
Rosowski, Susan. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of
Nebraska P, 1986.