In the character of Lucy Gayheart, in the novel of the same name, Willa Cather embodies a vision of idealized romantic Love. This is such a vast Love that it requires a capital L. For Lucy, Love is intense, yearning, painful and tragic. It offers escape, freedom, elevation, fire, passion and pain. Love and Art (or music as art) and fiery passion are intimately intertwined in Lucy's vision. In fact they become identified as one, and for Lucy Gayheart these three are the essence of Life. Without this expanded Love, Lucy cannot have Life. In the absence of this Love, Lucy dies. In the character of Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather unites Love and Life and Art and Passion into one all encompassing concept of romantic liberation from the mundane.
From the earliest meetings with Lucy, Cather makes sure that the reader sees what is essential about her. There is no doubt that this heroine is full of life, and has a striving spirit.
There was something in her nature that was like her movements, something direct and unhesitating and joyous, and in her golden-brown eyes. . . (4)
flash "gold sparks" (4) revealing the first hint of the fire imagery that Cather builds throughout the novel. Cather underscores Lucy's passionate nature, emphasizing the warmth of her inner fire: "Her mouth was so warm and impulsive that every shadow of feeling made a change in it" (5). These beginnings will grow into the contrasting fire and ice imagery which demonstrates that this is an all or nothing life energy for Lucy.
This heroine exudes beauty, joy, and passion:
"Life seemed to lie very near the surface in her. She had that singular brightness of young beauty: flower gardens have it for the first few hours after sunrise." (5)
The intensity of this brightness indicates that Lucy will not be satisfied with a meager life. Very early in the book, riding home in Harry's sled after a skating party, warm, cozy and sleepy, Lucy wakes to see the first star, and has a "flash of understanding" of "another kind of life and feeling which did not belong here" (11). She experiences "the joy of saluting what is far above one," and knows that it is "an eternal thing" (12). This is a foretaste of the love she will feel for Sebastian, who she idolizes and sees as a master who elevates her life.
Cather acknowledges within the artistic structure of her novel that her romantic portrayal of Love is ideal in the extreme. It exists on a plane that is far from practical reality, and far from easy to attain. Yet, for Lucy, this expanded Love is not only worth the striving, it is Life itself. One of the ways Cather shows that she realizes how extreme this view of Love is, is in her use of Harry Gordon as the contrasting, down to earth, realistic option that Lucy rejects in pursuit of her romantic dream. As a foil for Clement Sebastian, Cather does not make Harry a despicable, totally unromantic materialist. Rather, he is solid, appealing, predictable, reliable, and only a little boring. Yet he is much too conventional to fit Lucy's quest for unconventional love.
Lucy is a human who needs more than basic human life offers. Her hometown in Nebraska, on the banks of the Platte, is lovely and idyllic, yet it is obvious that Lucy feels incarcerated there and seeks a broader scope for her life. The excitement of her studies in Chicago provide sharp contrast. Getting on the train is a metaphor for traveling toward this greater life. She moves from her "homely neighbours, to the city where the air trembled like a tuning-fork with unimaginable possibilities" (24). The tuning fork provides the perfect image for the young Lucy vibrating with unimaginable possibilities. Chicago with Sebastian in it is a "city of feeling," rising out of "the city of fact. " It is "beautiful because the rest" is "blotted out" (24). For Lucy, Sebastian blots out the realities prosaic life. He is Art and Life and Love all wrapped in one package. The metropolitan environment is a symbol for the vastness for which Lucy yearns. Her Love provides further escape and further liberation. Toward the end of the novel, as Lucy envisions prospects of travelling to even farther reaches, like New York and Europe, the reader feels how Lucy's heart aspires to leap from the common to the magnificent.
Lucy's attitude is constantly romantic, especially as she heads out to Sebastian's recital:
Tonight there was a bitter wind blowing off the Lake. . .She liked the excitement of winding a soft, light cloak about her bare arms and shoulders and running out into a glacial cold . . .The thing to do was to make an overcoat of the cold; to feel one's self warm and awake at the heart of it, one's blood coursing unchilled in an air where roses froze instantly" (37).
Can there be any doubt that she will Love this man and that the consequences will be tragic?
The Chicago cold only enlivens Lucy's passion. "The sharp air that blew off the water brought up all the fire of life in her: it was like drinking fire" (47). Here Cather is emphasizing the fire and ice contrast, underscoring the identification of Love as Fire and Lucy's passionate longing for Love and Fire and Art as unity.
When Lucy first hears Sebastian sing, it is more than love at first sight and even more than love at first sound. It is more than mere love. The aura of the experience is elevated far above the earthly. Among the first words she hears him sing are: "In your light I stand without fear, O august stars! I salute your eternity." Lucy's response is significant: "That was the feeling. Lucy had never heard anything sung with such elevation of style. In its calmness and serenity there was a kind of large enlightenment, like daybreak." (29-30) She hasn't even met the man in person, yet her experience of Clement's art fits perfectly with her definition of love. Yearning, longing, reaching out for something she doesn't have is an active part of Lucy's concept of Love. Music is her Art, yet she is not a great musician. She yearns to be more. Clement's artistry represents something far above the mundane. She becomes his accompanist. Her Love for him provides enlargement, enlightenment, elevation.
Lucy's attitude toward Sebastian is totally romantic and includes a foreboding element of tragedy. Sebastian's melancholy Schubert songs make Lucy feel that there is "something profoundly tragic about this man" ( 30 ). As she listens Lucy envisions "moonlight pouring down on the narrow street of an old German town" (30). She imagines "a lonely black cloud" (30), and has "a revelation of love as a tragic force, not a melting mood, of passion that drowns like black water" (31). It is as though she is creating her own future with her thoughts. As she listens the "outside world" seems "dark and terrifying, full of fears and dangers that had never come close to her until now" (31). When she gets home that night she has a "feeling that some protecting barrier was gone -- a window had been broken that let in the cold and darkness of the night" (32). Yet, safety is not what she seeks. Lucy will always be searching for that something more to enhance her being.
Lucy's idea of love is quite unconventional. She believes that Love is "to have one's secret, to choose one's own master and serve him in one's own way" (86). For Lucy Love doesn't require sex, or even physical contact. When they first touch, Sebastian says "Don't be frightened, Lucy. I am not going to make love to you. Though it's true enough I love you" (88). All Lucy wants is to be near enough to worship him. She's afraid "of things being different." "Maybe you won't let me come and play for you any more," she says, promising, "I won't be a bother" (88). Far from a lover making demands, she only wants to be in the master's presence, to worship, to serve. She feels exhilaration when she learns that she has "given him something!" She had been "ashamed" to hope for so much" (89). This is the elevation that Cather's expanded Love brings to Life. Everything is augmented in the presence of this expanded Love.
The air one breathed in that room was different from any other in the world. Lucy thought there was even a special kind of light there (93).
Lucy "began a new life on the night when she first heard Clement Sebastian" (94).
Being with Harry again after a long period with Sebastian makes Lucy realize:
she couldn't breathe in this other kind of life. It stifled her, woke in her a frantic fear . . . Of falling back into it forever. If only one could lose…