From egocentrism to complete resignation. The effects of ageing in Willa Cather's short story "Old Mrs. Harris"

Term Paper, 2017

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Contents


Vickie’s egocentrism

Victoria’s old age

Mrs. Harris’ resignation

Will the Templeton women all become like Mrs. Harris one day?




Willa Cather is one of the most important novelists of the first half of the twentieth century (cf. Engler 127). “She was an accomplished storyteller who managed to capture the voice of a country and its people” (Champion 72). Today, her novels and short stories number among those of the most celebrated American writers of the first half of the 20th century, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner (cf. Engler 127).

The short story “Old Mrs. Harris”, published in 1932, was originally titled “Three Women.” Willa Cather “collected the short story as the second of three stories of the West which comprise Obscure Destinies” (Giannone 1). The story deals with the “interaction of three generations of women in a Southern family” (Hirsch 42). They “experience their adjacent crisis of aging, each alone” (Romine 409). Each of the female characters is absorbed in a crisis of her own life course. Vickie, adolescent and eager tries to launch a university education in order to start an independent life. Victoria discovers that she is pregnant again and only wants to be finished with childbearing and be independent again. Mrs. Harris experiences many problems of twentieth-century aging, for example physical decline, lack of money, and the partial disregard of her family (cf. Romines 409).

In this essay, I will comment on how the female characters develop from egocentric youths to resigned adults with regard to their world views in Willa Cather’s short story. I will also discuss the possibility that all three women might turn out to be like Mrs. Harris one day. I will analyse each of the young female characters in turn, examining the ways in which their attitudes and actions are influenced by the ageing process and whether it is possible that Victoria and Vickie might turn out to be like Mrs. Harris one day. I will demonstrate that all of the women in Cather’s story are dealing with aging on their own. Their aging forces them to give up certain opportunities in their lives. While Mrs. Harris has almost given up her chances of life during the story because of her southern way of living, Victoria still tries to fight against what life demands from her. Vickie, on the other hand, tries to go another way than her mother and grandmother and tries not to become like them.

Vickie’s egocentrism Vickie is the youngest female member of the Templeton family. She is introduced as a 15-year old girl. The characters of the short story are mainly seen through Mrs. Rosen’s view who is the Templeton’s Jewish neighbour. She describes her as someone who is “not pretty, but attractive” (Cather 608). She likes natural and healthy outward appearance (cf. Cather 608). Furthermore Mrs. Rosen describes her as never listless or dreamy or apathetic (cf. Cather 608). Vickie is thus presented as healthy, strong and full of the joys of life.

Vickie is different than the other girls her age. For example, when her mother entertains some visitors in the parlour she goes straight to her room instead of joining them. She is not interested in men, but rather focuses mainly on studying (cf. Cather 601). Through the narrative perspective, the reader is persuaded to see Vickie’s egocentric personality. Mostly, Vickie is seen through to Mrs. Rosen’s perspective. Mrs. Rosen’s impressions, which are influenced by her Jewish background[1], alert the reader to Vickie’s otherness. Mrs. Rosen describes Vickie as “a nice child with good instincts” (Cather 605), but at the same time criticises her for never suggesting “wiping the dishes or helping with such household work as happen[s] to be on when she drop[s] in” (Cather 606). Her attitude towards Vickie is shown when Mrs. Rosen says that she hates Vickie’s behaviour so much that sometimes she almost hates the girl (cf. Cather 606). Vickie’s lack of interest in household activities also becomes clear when her visits at the Rosen’s are described. She “strolls carelessly through the dining room into the parlour and open[s] the doors of one of the big bookcases” (Cather 606). The adverb “carelessly” symbolizes her lack of interest in anything except books. Instead of helping Mrs. Rosen, her mother, and her grandmother, Vickie focuses solely on studying and doing what she likes. For Mrs. Rosen, it is important that children support their mother with the household, child care and otherwise respecting and supporting the older generations. This is highlighted by Mrs. Rosen’s reaction when Mrs. Harris tells her that Vickie is looking after her younger brother. She is glad that “Vickie [is] good for something” (Cather 601). Vickie admits the Rosens’ knowledge and education and wants to be able to read books in different languages, even though she is already able to read Latin (cf. Cather 608f.). Although she is interested in books, masterpieces do not mean anything to her. She feels addressed because of the book covers and therefore wants to read it (cf. Cather 608). Mrs. Rosen’s impression of Vickie indicates to the reader that she is only interested in herself and what she likes, not in respecting books at all (cf. Cather 608). With her studies, Vickie is very ambitious. After spending so much time at a camp of the Professor and the students of Michigan, who dig for fossils out in the sand hills, she wants to go to university. She therefore tries very hard to win a scholarship to study at Ann Arbor (cf. Cather 602). She spends all of her time on her studies, and even goes to Denver to take her examinations (cf. Cather 624). After her examinations, she goes to the post-office twice a day to wait for the letter. After two weeks without receiving a letter she grows down-hearted (cf. Cather 625). But she never asks herself what she would do if she doesn’t get the scholarship. There is no alternative for her. If she doesn’t get it, then everything is over (cf. Cather 625).

While waiting for the letter, Vickie manages to cut her finger and get ink into the cut. That results a badly infected hand. (cf. Cather 625). The pain her finger causes make the fact clearer that not getting a letter hurts her. After the letter arrives, “she scarily [gets] out of the post-office, [goes] to hammock” (Cather 625). Instead of telling her family first, she tells the Rosen’s first that she got the scholarship. Mr. Rosen asks her why she wants to learn. This question causes her some self recognition for the first time. She does not know why she wants to learn, she just wants to do it (cf. Cather 626). Even if she tries to go her own way, she must discover that nothing comes easily. Her father does not have enough money to pay her scholarship (cf. Cather 627). At dinner, she is silent and everyone can see that she has cried because her dream to go to Michigan will come to nothing even though she studied hard (cf. Cather 628). For Vickie, this is the first time she must accept something difficult. Her tears, combined with the fact that she does not ask someone else for help, demonstrate that she feels powerless in her life for the first time.

Vickie’s egocentric behaviour is highlighted in many different ways. Without knowing that her grandmother has asked the Rosens’ for money for the scholarship, she focuses only on her problems and does not seem to be interested in the family and their situation at all. “Vickie hurried away. There was so much to do about getting ready, she didn’t know where to begin. She had no trunk and no clothes. Her winter coat, bought two years ago, was so outgrown that she couldn’t get into it. All her shoes were run over at the heel and must go to the cobbler. And she had only two weeks in which to do everything!” (Cather 631). She does not even notice that her grandmother is not well because immediately after breakfast she dashes off about her own concerns (cf. Cather 632). She is so busy with herself that she has no time to realize anything else. She only fears not having clothes for her Ann Arbour trunk (cf. Caesar 76).

Another example of her egocentrism occurs when her father is away. Her mother has a headache, Mrs. Harris has “a bad spell”, and she still only focuses on herself.

“Oh, very well,’ said Vickie bitterly, and she went upstairs. Wasn’t it just like them all to go and get sick, when she had now only two weeks to get ready for school, and no trunk and no clothes or anything? Nobody but Mr. Rosen seemed to take the least interest, ‘when my whole life hangs by a thread,’ she told herself fiercely. What were families for anyway?” (Cather 636).

She only sees the fact that her family is not concentrating on her even though she is leaving in a few days. She does not realize that she never spends a minute thinking about her family and how they are feeling. She wants them to be there for her, to support her and to concentrate on her, but she never does the same for her family. Instead, she feels left alone by her family despite the fact that her grandmother is interested in her.

Grandma Harris describes Vickie’s situation as follows: She “has her head full of things lately; that makes people kind of heartless” (Cather 621). “These young people are full of their own affairs [...]” (Cather 630). Even Mrs. Rosen describes her as someone who sometimes “seems so dense, so utterly unperceptive” (Cather 609). For example, she does not realize that her Grandmother wants to help her. Instead, Vickie behaves coldly towards her Grandmother. “Vickie shrank away. Young misery is like that, sometimes” (Cather 628). She simply tells her grandmother the conditions briefly and dryly, never spending any time thinking about the way her acts could hurt someone. Only in the end when Mrs. Harris becomes weaker does Vickie come out of her intense self absorption and looks after her grandmother (cf. Cather 637).

Victoria’s old age Victoria, Vickie’s mother, is described by Mrs. Rosen as a “tall, handsome woman dressed in white broadcloth and a hat with white lilacs; she carrie[s] a sunshade and walk[s] with a free energetic step, as if she [is] going out on a pleasant errand“ (Cather 597). Victoria appears to be young, careless, energetic and full of the joys of life. Mrs. Rosen describes that in Victoria’s behaviour, there is “something warm and genuine. She [isn’t] in the least willowy or languishing, as Mrs. Rosen [has] usually found Southern ladies to be. She [is] high-spirited and direct; a trifle imperious, but with a shade of diffidence, too, as if she were trying to adjust herself to a new group of people and to do the right thing” (Cather 611).

Victoria grew up in the south and therefore has taken her southern traditions and attitudes with her to Skyline. For example Victoria has never once thought it possible that her mother could not go with her and the children (cf. Cather 604). That is one reason why Victoria is often criticised by the inhabitants of Skyline, who have a different attitude towards life (cf. Cather 616). Victoria goes through a development from a ‘belle’ in Tennessee to a woman in Colorado who is not very popular, no matter how many pretty dresses she wears, and “she couldn’t bear it” (Cather 616). She tries to keep her ‘belle-status’ active by wearing beautiful dresses, treating her husband like a ‘beau’ and going off enjoying herself (cf. Cather 603). Mrs. Rosen describes her as someone who is very popular with the gentlemen (cf. Cather 601). Due to this description, the reader may be influenced to think she is egocentric, only focusing on herself and putting upon her mother and not caring for her children. Those attitudes make Victoria feel unjustly treated by the other women in Skyline (cf. Cather 616). She therefore claims everything for herself and she does not want to give anyone the chance to talk badly behind her back. “Nothing ever made Victoria cross but criticism. She [is] jealous of small attentions paid to Mrs. Harris, because she [feels] they [are] paid behind her back or over her head, in a way that implie[s] to reproach her” (Cather 616). “Northerners say things that [make] her suspicious and unlike herself; [make] her unwilling that Mrs. Harris should receive visitors alone or accept marks of attention that seem[s] offered in compassion for her state” (Cather 618). To avoid this, she does not want her mum receive visitors alone. Even if she has a good heart, she is “terribly proud and could not bear the least criticism” (Cather 605). While on one hand, Victoria appears to be jealous and forbids much, on the other hand, she is very caring. “Victoria might eat all the cookies the neighbour sent in, but she would give away anything she had. She was always ready to lend her dresses and hats and bits of jewellery for the school theatricals, and she never worked people for favours” (Cather 610). She has a good heart. Her acts are warm, spontaneous and without any patronizing (cf. Cather 614). This is highlighted, for example, when she invites the Maudes to sit at their table and have ice cream with them (cf. Cather 614f.). Another situation that shows her good education and good heart is when Mrs. Jackson criticises her that her mother is put upon. She just ignores it because her guests have to be happy (cf. Cather 616). That is the only thing that matters. All those situations show that the circumstances make Victoria act in a jealous way while she tries to adjust herself to this new society.


[1] Mrs. Rosen’s Jewish background is important because it differs from the Templeton’s southern attitudes and therefore especially points the differences between the two families. While Mrs. Rosen thinks the older generations should be supported, the Templeton’s southern traditions expect the older women to help in the household.

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From egocentrism to complete resignation. The effects of ageing in Willa Cather's short story "Old Mrs. Harris"
University of Wuppertal
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willa, cather, harris, old, resignation, egocentrism, women
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Anonymous, 2017, From egocentrism to complete resignation. The effects of ageing in Willa Cather's short story "Old Mrs. Harris", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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