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“The Song of The Lark” by Willa Sibert Cather

In The Song of The Lark, as in The House of Mirth, this split self does however not only result from a mere discrepancy between the different faces a person shows to the public versus the one they may have when in private. Rather, it is the private self that is in itself split. This means that there is some sort of conflicted relationship that is partly conscious, partly unconscious, within the person herself.

What is interesting about Thea Kronborg is her exceptional awareness of this second and subconscious self. She always knew “that there was something about her that was different” (Cather SL 87). This self seems to be part of herself but at the same time alien to her physical body. Although Thea is aware of its presence, she does not have a concrete name for it – referring to it as “it,” “something,” “sturdy little companion” or “the thing”. She describes it as “a warm sureness” that usually seems to be under her cheek or over her breast. In the beginning of the novel, Thea makes clear that, although she acknowledges its presence, this “friendly spirit” did not feel like it was a part of herself. Reuniting with this second self of hers in order to finally “emerge as ” (232), is thus a central part in Thea’s journey of becoming an artist.

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The first time that this second self is concretely mentioned is after a crucial conversation between Thea and Wunsch in Part I of the novel. As he tells her, “for a singer there must be something in the inside from the beginning” (85). When he hears her practice the lines of the song Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen, Wunsch contemplates how the character of Thea’s voice changes altogether when she reads anything in verse. “It was a nature voice, breathed from the creature and apart from language” (86) and it is during this moment, when there is a connection between the change in her voice and the song she is practicing, that one gets a hint towards Thea’s dual nature.

Wunsch recognizes that there is something special about Thea Kronborg, that she has real talent and potential. During this conversation, Wunsch tells her: “There is only one big thing – desire” (84). Thea internalizes this idea and begins to align her life according to her desires; the biggest of which is to get to know her second self and establish a relationship with it. This desire is voiced in the following way: “She took it for granted that some day, when she was older, she would know a great deal more about it. It was as if she had an appointment to meet the rest of herself sometime, somewhere. It was moving to meet her and she was moving to meet it” (240). Thea thus seems to experience this search for her other self as some sort of lack that needs to be filled. Indeed, the very presence of desire can be seen as a symptom of lack.

In Salome of the Tenements, Sonya’s firm belief that “the only thing that counts is the living breath of desire” strongly parallels Wunsch’s perception (Yezierska 9). Similarly to Thea, Sonya is driven by an unceasing desire. She is driven by the things she feels she lacks such as money and beautiful clothes but also more abstract things such as love and beauty. Simultaneously, this lack also points to a lacking sense of knowing her own self which sparks the desire to know who she really is inside not only in herself, but also in the reader.

In Part I of the The Song of the Lark, Thea does not quite understand this second self yet. She knows that it is part of herself but she does not yet understand its nature and purpose. What she does feel however, is that she must protect this side of her at all cost. Except for this one lesson with Wunsch, she is careful not to show it to anyone, to protect it from others and even herself. As she later reflects, she has “kept that part of herself from being caught up in the meshes of common things” (Cather SL 239). However, she also suffers from this discrepancy within her: “She felt as if she were being pulled in two, between the desire to go away forever and the desire to stay forever” (155). When she goes to Chicago to study, she also does so in order to establish a closer relationship with her second self.

What Thea finds however, is disappointment. The piano lessons tire and frustrate her and she feels like “the thing” within her has deserted her, “leaving in its place a painful longing, an unresigned despair” (197). It is her teacher Harsanyi who ultimately helps her to find her true vocation and understand the origins of her split sense of self. From the beginning he feels like there was a “hidden creature” within her of which he only got a glimpse “when she was at the piano, or when she sang” (212).

It is also he who realizes that Thea is meant to be a singer and not a pianist. This is also part of the reason why Thea was suffering so much in Chicago; her “gift” as Harsanyi calls it, was fighting her. He tells her that she needs to find a way to that gift in order to emerge as herself and be at peace. In other words, she needs to reunite those two selves within her. Although Thea agrees that what she always wanted more than anything else is to be an artist, this is not an easy process. As James Woodress has pointed out, “for women in the nineteenth century cultural pressures made it hard to cultivate this other self. Society wanted women to be wives and mothers, not writers and opera singers” (269). Through Harsanyi, Cather explains the process of reuniting with one’s second self through a female metaphor: “Every artist makes himself born. It is very much harder than the other time, and longer. Your mother did not bring anything into the world to play piano. That you must bring into the world yourself” (Cather SL196).

How difficult this process is becomes obvious after Thea’s first return to Moonstone. The time in Chicago has changed her a lot and her artistic awakening has made her aware of her real ambition, but it has also made her harder, more determined and necessarily more selfish: she has sworn to herself to “live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height” (224). One can also say that she has grown up during this time; she is no longer a naïve little girl. When Dr. Archie sees her for the first time, he does not recognize the girl standing before him. Later he recalls that she had seemed to him flashed up “as a more potent self,” but also “in a darker mood” (410). He observes how deeply tormented she looks. Indeed, what Thea fears most is failure. “if I fail, you’d better forget about me, for I’ll be one of the worst women that ever lived. I’ll be an awful woman!” (271).

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This is also the reason for Thea’s misery in Part III: Stupid Faces. Towards the end of this part she looks sick and dispirited. This discouragement result from a feeling of failure, of not having achieved anything she wanted. It is her “enslaving desire to get on in the world” that made her grow tired and weary (326). This is another passage where one can draw a connection to the House of Mirth. Lily Bart experiences similar feelings of discouragement and failure: she has failed in her quest for a wealthy husband, she is at the bottom of society and she had to realize that she is not fit for earning her own bread. As she confides in Selden: “I have tried hard—but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person” (Wharton 359).

However, there is a crucial difference between the two female protagonists. As discussed, Lily does not succeed in reuniting her split self, and the discrepancy within her makes her unfit to survive in her society. It is quite likely that Thea would have awaited a similar fate if she had failed in reuniting with her second self. As she admits to herself, “if she failed now, she would lose her soul. There was nowhere to fall, after one took that step, except into abysses of wretchedness” (Cather SL 420). For her, it is all or nothing. However, Thea escapes this fate in Part IV: The Ancient People in which she finally achieves a reunion with her second self which makes her emerge stronger than ever before.

Part IV, which takes place in Panther canyon in Arizona, indeed represents a crucial turning point in Thea’s journey. Once there, her personality is basically erased. In the Cliff-Dweller ruins Thea is rehabilitating, sleeping and slowly regaining her strength. For the first time in a long while, Thea experiences deep contentment by merely being. The meeting with herself that she has anticipated for so long can finally take place: “it was as if she were waiting for something to catch up with her” (331).

In the canyon things seem easy and clear again and the lingering presence of the ancient people help Thea to reconnect with her own past as well as the timeless human striving for beauty and art in general. Cather employs powerful female imagery for the precise moment of Thea’s second birth. While taking a bath, the girl comes to a sudden realization: “what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, – life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?” (335). As she comes to an understanding what art really means, she becomes united with her artistic self. After this realization, she experiences a sense of internal completion. “Her ideas were simplified, became sharper and clearer. She felt united and strong” (337). Because she is able to understand the nature of her unconscious self, she now feels a great desire for action. She knows exactly what to do; in order to become the artist she is meant to be, she must go to Germany to study.

This transformation in Thea does not go unnoticed. As Fred remarks, she has now “come into personality” (392) and Dr. Archie also feels like her whole self is augmented. Her metaphorical rebirth thus does not only awaken her artistic self, but it also makes her a more authentic version of herself. Before her reconnection with her art, she was always struggling with how to deal with “the thing” within her. Only when she has understood and accepted this part, was she able to overcome this internal divide and become strong and beautiful. More importantly, this change in her personality also transforms her singing; she knows now that her voice is more interesting than ever before. Throughout the text it is repeatedly emphasized that a voice is personality, and now that Thea’s personality has become wholesome, so has her voice. It is through her art that Thea can give shape to her second self and the now strengthened relationship with it constitutes the power of her art. This is also the basis which enables her to become the outstanding and successful singer we meet in the last part of the novel (Kronborg). During her performance, her face shines “with the light of a new understanding” (452), and her biggest talent consists in her ability of bringing across the basic idea of a song.

The moment of Thea’s artistic rebirth is comparable to Salome of the Tenements. When Sonya finishes her own first dress, she is overcome by feelings of deep satisfaction and she experiences her own revelation to what art means to her. She now feels that “art was as great a god as love” and the joy of creating something original gives “her the completest emotion she had ever known” (Yezierska 170, my emphasis). It is important to focus on the meaning of the word “complete,” for it is also her self that experiences completion. During a dream, Sonya recognizes that this beautiful dress is an expression of her inmost being which was always longing for a feeling of the beautiful. This urge for beauty has now found its outlet in her own capability of creating something beautiful. When she then starts working with Hollins, she experiences deep content for the first time in her life. She is no longer driven by this mysterious all-consuming desire and everything she does now pulses with reality, which contrasts strongly with her previous tendency for make-believe.

Interestingly, there is a passage in The Song of the Lark which points to a similar understanding. Towards the end of the Thea’s journey, Cather concludes that “Artistic growth is, more than anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness” (Cather, SL 525). In the end, Sonya’s artistic expression seems to have helped her to find authenticity and to come to a more coherent understanding of her own self. Now that “she herself,” she has also found a man with whom she can be her “own free self” (Yezierska 174, 179). Like Thea, one can say that through her art, through finding her true vocation, Sonya has finally come into her personality.

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Whereas Thea literally is an artist, interestingly all of the discussed women are in their own way also described as artists. Part of Sonya’s art clearly lies in her dress-making. As Selden says to Lily: “You are an artist and I happen to be the bit of colour you are using today” (Wharton 76). Both Lily and Clare, but to some extent also Sonya, are presented as self-conscious and extraordinarily skillful actresses whose main instrument is their body. Their art consists amongst other in the skilled manipulation of those around them and their talent for scheming and appearing as something they are not in order to achieve their goals. Moreover, all of these women have an outstanding force of will that helps them in achieving their purpose. But it is as Woodress has said, society held no interest in the woman who deviated from the norm (also called the New Woman). Catherine Keyser confirms this view when she says that “Women writers of the 1920s dramatized the doubleness of performing a feminine role and pursuing an interior life often quite at odds with that gendered prescription” (103). Arguably, this trend already seems to have already taken on before the 1920s.

To come back to Larsen’s Passing, one can argue that Clare Kendry experiences similar feelings of a divided self. At this point I would like to point out that I shall investigate the role of passing in the process of self-fashioning and its consequences more closely in the second chapter of this thesis. Nevertheless, there are a few thoughts concerning the split self that can already be put forward at this point. For the very act of passing itself seems to entail a discrepancy within the individual. For a long time, Clare has oppressed a part of her identity, convincingly performing the role of the white woman. However, it has always been just that – a performance. By impersonating this role, Clare had to deny one part of her self. This becomes particularly obvious in her marriage. Her husband John Bellew makes it very clear that he would never tolerate any “niggers” in his family. More than just not being able to be herself in the private sphere, Clare has to endure humiliation and ridicule of her racial origins which only deepens the discrepancy between the two selves in her.

Although it was Clare’s personal decision to pass for white, at some point this other part of herself starts to re-emerge and she starts longing to be with her darker kin again. On the one hand, this longing is expressed through feelings of loneliness: “For I am lonely, so lonely…” (Larsen 11). Clare experiences this longing as “an ache, a pain that never ceases” (11). This pain results from the knowledge of an irreconcilability with her second self (and in that is similar to what Lily experiences) – the self she longs to be with. On the other hand, her longing is expressed through a terrible, “wild desire” that is comparable to Thea’s driving desire to be reunited with her second self (11). Clare possesses a similar driving force of will, a “hard and persistent” quality, “with the strength and endurance of a rock” that would make her pursue the things she wants regardless of any danger (74). This exceptional force of will and her proclivity for danger also lead to one of her main problems: she wants to experience what she does not yet know, that is, she wants to get the best out of both the white and the black world and hence begins living a double life. As Irene points out, Clare wants “to have her cake and eat it too” (52).

Through Clare, Larsen thus thematizes one of the main problematics of passing: the irreconcilability of both worlds. One must choose a side, one cannot have both. This also means that one must completely sever one’s ties with one’s past. By reconnecting with her own people, Clare refuses to do so and consequently lives in some sort of in-between state. That is, she exists both within and outside of the black and white world – worlds that prove to be mutually exclusive. As the ending of Passing demonstrates, this is a state that cannot endure and the sense of tragedy that has been felt from the beginning of the story eventually overtakes Clare attempts at living a double life and leads to her tragic ending.

The split self that can be found in Cather’s The Song of the Lark may at first seem to be of a different nature than that of the other protagonists. Upon closer investigation however, it becomes clear that they are not so different after all. Both female protagonists experience a clash between a part of their identity that is socially and culturally accepted and one part that is more personal and private. Other than Lily, Thea manages to reconcile those two parts in her which allows her to become a great artist.

However, this success comes at a price. She pours so much of herself into her roles that it leaves her used up and exhausted, barely recognizable as herself. Thea is quite aware of the things she has lost, the sacrifices she has made. As she confesses to Dr. Archie, her life is now “full of jealousies and disappointments” and “bitter contempts” (Cather SL 504). She does not have many friends, nor does she have a personal life; her work has now become her personal life. “It’s like being woven into a big web. You can’t pull away, because all your little tendrils are woven into the picture. It takes you up, and uses you, and spins you out; and that is your life. Not much else can happen to you” (501). It is Thea’s tireless strive for art and beauty as well as her old recollections of her life in Moonstones that save her from falling into permanent bitterness, that keep her going.

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"The Song of The Lark" by Willa Sibert Cather
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In The Song of The Lark, as in The House of Mirth, this split self does however not only result from a mere discrepancy between the different faces a person shows to the public versus the one they may have when in private. Rather, it is the private self that is in itself split. This means that there is some sort of conflicted relationship that is partly conscious, partly unconscious, within the person herself. What is interesting about Thea Kronborg is her exceptional awareness of this second
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