Dr. Deirdre Egan-Ryan
Spring 2016, Freshman Year
- 2 Critical Essays
Small Town Hell
During the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the rise of industrialization caused more of the populace to move to urban areas in the United States. Some people feared the rise of urbanization and took on a woe to society attitude. Willa Cather, a writer from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, played with how origins of urban and rural background effected people in her short story, “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” In the short story, the main character, Harvey, has died and has his body taken from urban society and returned to his small town origins of Sand City by his friend, Steavens. Through his friend’s eye, “The Sculptor’s Funeral” illustrates the need to escape small town life in order to preserve one’s soul and gain success in life.
The town of Sand City with its location creates the idea of being trapped in the gritty sand. Nature isolates the fictional town. Lines of bluffs rise on the open plains and meadows that stretch the expanse (Cather 699). Mentioning Kansas as the state of origin, Cather brings to mind the idea of emptiness that follows the life of the “Dust Bowl” as well as through the images of meadows and sparse bluffs. Cather describes the plains as being “wrapped in a tangible, white silence” (Cather 701). This silence fashions a sense of grimness and underlying uneasiness. Kansas is known for its sand and desert, lacking much visual and people appeal. In the story, there is snow covering everything, adding a blinding quality to the emptiness. The cold helps create a barrier to the warmth of life and creates an uneasy rest in the town. The stillness of the town helps emphasize no life or progression. Another item that clings to life would be the brief description of the gate that leads to the Merrick household, which hangs on by one hinge (Cather 701). The gate opening with difficulty is a symbol of the hardship of entering and leaving the town. Using the sand, dust, and emptiness, Cather paints a Hellish setting. Life is not present in critters or people. Only the sand and emptiness endures, creating a reason for anything living to want to escape.
The characters also demonstrate the need to escape from small town life. The boys that are present to take the body away from the train are described as “slimy eels” and having stooped shoulders as well as dull eyes (Cather 700). Mrs. Merrick, Harvey’s mother, is described as corpulent and having “brutal handsomeness” (Cather 701, 702). In her face, Steavens notices that it is “scarred and furrowed by violence” which reveals that grief never caused those “scars” (Cather 702). When she speaks, her voice uses “dramatic abuse” and is “excruciatingly cruel” (Cather 703). Another woman, presumably Harvey’s sister, is described as flat and angular (Cather 701). Cather describes the father as being unconscious of having any feeling related to grief as he is painted as timid, dull, and uncertain through his description as frail and unkempt (Cather 702). Cather also creates a metaphor of the town being stuck in old ideology with the description of a man wearing a worn “Grand Army” uniform from the Civil War. With his tattered uniform, he clings to old experiences from the war, embodying the want to stay in the glory days. The town is a mixture of drunks, gamblers, and ruffians who never amounted to much (Cather 707). The people appear to have no happy essence and are described as ugly and awful beings, unknowingly or uncaringly stuck in Sand City. With their unchanging ways, they are suspended in living there in the empty Hell of Sand City.
Jim, the lawyer, is the town’s embodied conscience and honest voice and the foil of Harvey. When Steavens notices Jim, he discovers “the feeling, the understanding, that must exist in some one” that originally is lacking from the small town (Cather 703). This seeming “feeling” that lacks in the others can be found in Jim in part because he has left the small town. Unlike Harvey, he was unable to stay away. Jim is a foil to Harvey in the fact that he was unable to truly escape Sand City and was devoured by its ideology. After the air is polluted with all of the other men’s bitterness toward Harvey’s prosperity, Jim points out their follies. Harvey and Jim had gone to school together in hopes to become “great men” and for the town to be proud of them” (Cather 707). However, despite Jim’s best attempts, he ends up back in town to discover they did not want “great men.” In fact, they wanted despicable and shrewd people because then they would all be on the same low level. Every boy that came out of the town came back unsuccessful and miserable but was loved by the town for it. Jim concludes with pointing out their jealousy of how they could not “dirty” Harvey’s soul to their level (Cather 708). He suggests that Sand City is only a town of “hatred and bitter waters.” Cather uses more negative words such as “whipped,” “tied,” “drivel,” and “God have mercy” to enforce the Jim’s dismal tone toward the town (Cather 707-708). “Tied” enforces the idea of being stuck in the sand of Sand City while “whipped” suggests torment and forced obedience. Jim uses the “whipped dog” reference on himself, demonstrating how the town leeched into him and took any more “great men” ideology out of him. “God have mercy” plays with the idea that town is damned from their cruelty. When Jim speaks about the town, negative words are used solely for the town and its people while he only uses positive words in relation to Harvey.
Harvey is painted implicitly as a Christ figure in Cather’s writing, especially through Steavens. Cather puts in little references to Jesus to help set an unfortunate death of a runaway son. When the coffin is opened to view the body, Steavens describes the sculptor’s face “as though the strain of life had been so sharp and bitter that death could not at once relax the tension and smooth the countenance into perfect peace— as though he were still guarding something precious…” (Cather 703). Harvey’s head was also described as more noble in death (Cather 702). Death could not snuff out Harvey’s light. Though he may not rise up from the dead as Jesus did, Harvey still shows that he is conquering the oppression of death that can be reflected by his small town life. On his coffin, there is a palm leaf, alluding to the triumphant return of Jesus to Jerusalem (Cather 700). Instead of a triumphant return home, Harvey’s is dismal and sad as nothing positive or meaningful initially comes from his body’s return to his place of birth. Nothing has changed at home: People are still bitter and resentful to him even at his wake. The townsfolk mirror the angry Jews at the judgement of Jesus as they complain about his betrayal at leaving the town. Through his devotion of his master, Steavens creates an awe for Harvey as he reminisced of his talent—“Whatever he touched, he revealed its holiest secret; liberated it from enchantment and restored it to its pristine loveliness… he had left a beautiful record of the experience.” (Cather 704). With the magnificence of his ability, Harvey’s gifts are described almost as miracles, something Jesus could do too. Despite Harvey’s negative reception at being home, he has left something positive behind. His town will endure because its name will appear on the beauty that he left behind for others to cherish. This can be connected to the death of Christ being necessary for humanity’s salvation.
In order to find salvation, Harvey had to leave Sand City which was a complicated and hard action to do. Reflecting on past encounters, Steavens better understands his master’s “detachment” to people and dislike of “violent emotion” (Cather 704). Whenever questions of his origins were brought up, a “dull flush” would appear from shame and sensitivity to the abruptness of emotion he grew up around. Steavens notes how Harvey had been “determined to believe the best; but he seemed afraid to investigate.” (Cather 704). Though this note appears contradicting, it makes sense as Harvey tries to clear away from the small town judgements that haunted him. As Harvey reflects on Sand City, he says,
“It’s not a pleasant place to be lying while the world is moving and doing and bettering… but it rather seems as though we ought to go back to the place we came from, in the end. The townspeople will come in for a look at me; and after they have had their say, I shan’t have much to fear from the judgment of God (Cather 706).”
Though Harvey missed the familiarity of where he grew up, he knew that in order to save his soul and find success in life, he needed to break ties with the small, poisoned town of Sand City.
“The Sculptor’s Funeral” highlights the conflict that comes from trying to rise above small town values in a changing world. The hometown of Harvey Merrick is painted solely in a negative, Hellish light in its setting descriptions. As Steavens interacts with more of the small townsfolk, he finds them to be repulsive, awful people who hold harsh judgements on those who leave and prosper. To the townsfolk, if someone is to leave the small town, he or she should fall flat and come crawling back, not create a better world. Through this negative mind set, Cather points out the harshness of sticking to one place and the need to venture out from home to save oneself.
Cather, Willa. “The Sculptor’s Funeral” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et. al. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 699-708. Print.