Willa Cather’s “The Sentimentality of William Tavener”
by Ann Hillesland
Most people are familiar with the basic plots of Hollywood romantic comedies: A couple of young, attractive, single people are perfect for each other, but they are kept apart by some grave misunderstanding (often involving either deception, outright stupidity, or both) that keeps them from realizing, for the space of a two-hour movie, that they belong together. But Willa Cather in her short story “The Sentimentality of William Tavener” accomplishes a much greater feat. She takes a couple, William and Hester, who have been married many years and shows how their basic personalities have worked together to drive them apart. And, unlike in a formulaic Hollywood movie, we aren’t sure if the two of them will ever be able to bridge the gap and fall in love again.
The setting, as in many Cather works, is Nebraska, still on the American frontier (as it was when Cather was growing up there). Hester is described, charitably, as “a good manager” by her neighbors. Less charitably, Cather says, “The only reason her husband did not consult her about his business was that she did not wait to be consulted.” In other words, Hester is smart and opinionated, and she doesn’t wait meekly for her husband to ask for her advice. She’s not always kind when she knows she’s right. It would be easy to dislike her, and perhaps that would have been even easier for readers in 1900, when the story was published. However, the first line of the story shows that Cather appreciates Hester: “It takes a strong woman to make any sort of success of living in the West, and Hester undoubtedly was that.” Surprisingly, perhaps, her husband William appreciates her too.
William’s character is the opposite of Hester’s. Hester gives her opinions freely, while William talks little. Cather says, “Silence, indeed, was William’s refuge and his strength.” And what he often needs refuge from is Hester. However, despite their differences, he does value her advice; and though it’s not fashionable for a woman to be so outspoken, he admires her abilities:
His sisters in Virginia had often said that only a quiet man like William could ever have lived with Hester Perkins. Secretly, William was rather proud of his wife’s “gift of speech,” and of the fact that she could talk in prayer meeting as fluently as a man.
Perhaps these two are perfect for each other after all.
But over the years, her managing disposition and his silence work upon each other to drive them apart. The more she talks, the quieter he gets. Furthermore, Hester thinks William is too hard on their sons. Cather doesn’t spare William’s faults either, describing him as “…a hard man towards his neighbors, and even towards his sons; grasping, determined, and ambitious.” To counter this harshness toward their children, Hester starts secretly buying the boys “foolish, unnecessary little things” and disguising the purchases among her bills for dresses and bonnets. Over the years, the two of them have more of a business relationship than a romantic relationship. Hester’s managing instincts are met by William’s silence; William’s harsh attitude toward his sons is met by Hester’s opposition and secret indulgence.
These problems are much greater and longer-lived than the barriers that separate lovers in your standard romantic comedy. These two people have been entrenched in their positions for years. Can they find their way back to romance? You’ll have to read the story to find out!
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