A Lost Lady Summary

Willa Cather

A Lost Lady

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A Lost Lady Summary

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A Lost Lady is a novel by American author Willa Cather, first published in 1923. It centers on Marian Forrester, her husband Captain Daniel Forrester, and their lives in the small western town of Sweet Water, along the Transcontinental Railroad. However, it is mostly told from the perspective of a young man named Niel Herbert, as he observes the decline of both Marian and the West itself, as it shifts from a place of pioneering spirit to one of corporate exploitation. Exploring themes of social class, money, and the march of progress, A Lost Lady was praised for its vivid use of symbolism and setting, and is considered to be a major influence on the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It has been adapted to film twice, with a film adaptation being released in 1924, followed by a looser adaptation in 1934, starring Barbara Stanwyck.

A Lost Lady begins in the small railroad town of Sweet Water, on the undeveloped Western plains. The most prominent family in the town is the Forresters, and Marian Forrester is known for her hospitality and kindness. The railroad executives frequently stop by her house and enjoy the food and comfort she offers while there on business. A young boy, Niel Herbert, frequently plays on the Forrester estate with his friend. One day, an older boy named Ivy Peters arrives, and shoots a woodpecker out of a tree. He then blinds the bird and laughs as it flies around helplessly. Niel pities the bird and tries to climb the tree to put it out of its misery, but while climbing he slips, and breaks his arm in the fall, as well as knocking himself unconscious. Ivy takes him to the Forrester house where Marian looks after him. When Niel wakes up, he’s amazed by the nice house and how sweet Marian smells. He doesn’t’t see her much after that, but several years later he and his uncle, Judge Pommeroy, are invited to the Forrester house for dinner. There he meets Ellinger, who he will later learn is Mrs. Forrester’s lover, and Constance, a young girl his age.

Niel spends a lot of time with the Forresters after that, often playing cards with Captain Forrester. One day, the Captain finds out that a bank he owns has declared bankruptcy, and he and the Judge leave to deal with the fallout. During their absence, Ellinger arrives and Niel accidentally sees him and Mrs. Forrester in a romantic embrace. He’s horrified by the fact that the woman he admired so much is unfaithful. Captain Forrester returns, a broken man, who announces that he’s financially ruined. He suffers a stroke from which he makes a slow recovery around the time Niel leaves to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two years later, Niel returns to Sweet Water and meets Ivy again. Ivy says that he’s taken over as manager of the Forresters’ house, converting their marsh to wheat fields. When he visits the Forresters, Niel finds that the Captain is now an old, fat man who rarely moves from his chair. Marian is still beautiful, but she still thinks of Niel as a young boy. Ivy seems to walk around like he owns the place, and is rude to his employers, which bothers Niel. He asks Mrs. Forrester why she tolerates Ivy, but she says he’s a good businessman who’s taking care of their finances.

Niel reads in the paper that Ellinger has married Constance. Mrs. Forrester arrives at his house, using his phone to make a hysterical phone call to Ellinger. Niel, worried that her reputation will be ruined if the phone operator hears about her infidelity, cuts the phone wire. Soon afterwards, the Captain suffers a second, more serious stroke that leaves him disabled. Mrs. Forrester is overwhelmed with his care, and the other women in the neighborhood help her. They use the opportunity to look around her house and gossip about her. This upsets Niel, and he decides to delay returning to university for a year to help the Forresters. The Captain dies a few months later, but Niel stays to take care of his sick uncle. Mrs. Forrester continues to be taken in by Ivy, appointing him as her lawyer and cutting off her old contacts. She gets a reputation around town for dating younger men, despite Niel’s warnings that such behavior is damaging her reputation. Niel is invited to one of her dinner parties with a group of crude young men, and she tells them the story of how she met the Captain, when she was injured while mountain climbing as a girl and he rescued her. Months later, Niel goes to say goodbye to her before leaving town, and sees Ivy taking advantage of her and touching her. He’s devastated and leaves without saying goodbye. Years later, Niel runs into a childhood friend and asks what became of Mrs. Forrester. The friend tells him that she moved on, eventually marrying an Englishman in Argentina, but that she never forgot the Captain. He asks if she’s still alive, and learns that she died three years ago.

Willa Cather was an American author, best known for her novels detailing frontier life on the Great Plains. Although she is best known for O Pioneers! and My Antonia, it was her 1922 novel One of Ours that won her the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The author of twelve novels, three works of nonfiction, and nine collections of essays and short stories, she was the subject of the 2005 PBS documentary Willa Cather: The Road is All.