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Willa Cather: Lucy Gayheart

This is really a novella and, as a result, only contains a relatively simple story. Lucy Gayheart is a musician. Her father, a watchmaker by trade, likes music and plays in the local band. He pays for Lucy to go to Chicago and study music. It is generally assumed by most people that Lucy will marry the well-to-do Harry Gordon. However, while in Chicago, the famous opera singer, Clément Sebastian, requires an accompanist, his regular accompanist having been hurt. Lucy passes the audition. Their relationship grows closer (despite the fact that Sebastian is married, though estranged from his wife). When Gordon visits Chicago to see Lucy she brushes him off and he returns home and marries someone else on the rebound. Lucy and Sebastian, meanwhile, grow closer and it seems she is going to become his permanent accompanist. Then he is drowned while in Switzerland (ironically, trying to save the about-to-be former accompanist) and Lucy is left alone. She returns home to her father and her much older sister (who has always resented Lucy’s charms). She tries to renew her relationship with the now married Harry Gordon but fails to do so and is killed in a skating accident, which looks a lot like suicide.

This should have been the end (mawkish though it would have been) but Cather drags it out, past the death of the sister and father and leaves old Harry reminiscing. It is a pretty good story on the common theme of a someone paying the price for trying to get above herself. Was Lucy wrong falling in love with the married Sebastian, even if the love was, at least in part, based on admiration for his musical talent? Cather answers the question in her way and in accordance with the customs of her time. As this is a common theme of literature, we know that other authors have found different answers.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Alfred A. Knopf