Discussion Post: The Song of the Lark
Challengers! It’s that time of the week again — time to discuss the current classic. This week, it’s The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, a deceptively simple rags-to-riches story and hymn to American determination. Participate here or on your own blog, and you’ll be entered in our drawing for the Penguin Clothbound Classic. The questions and my answers are below, but please share your thoughts as well!
- The structure of Sister Carrie and The Song of the Lark is quite similar, especially in the way that Thea goes to Chicago before moving onward and upward to New York City. What significance do these two cities have in The Song of the Lark, and how do the cities differ from one another?
It’s pretty obvious that I wrote this question before I finished the book, as New York City doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the main plot. Cather seems more interested in the open spaces in the West than the cities, and Thea is continually seen as drawing strength from the land of Colorado and Arizona — land where there is not a tall building in sight.
But the fact remains that the question has been asked, and must be answered. In both Sister Carrie and The Song of the Lark, the female protagonists must start from almost nothing and make their ways in society based on skill and sheer determination. Chicago is a western town, less entrenched in societal expectations than New York (think The Age of Innocence). An unknown girl can rise more easily in Chicago than in New York.
Both Thea and Carrie eventually move to New York once they are more established in the social hierarchy — Thea through Fred and Carrie through Hurstwood. But that’s only once they have made connections in Chicago that enable them to break onto New York’s social scene.
- How easily were you able to identify with Thea? At what points in the book were you most able to connect with her character?
Thea is much easier to identify with earlier in the book. For me, she becomes a little cold and hard once she begins her career, but I suppose that’s true of everyone. Adult Thea does have some sympathetic moments, however, and one of my favorite Thea moments is quoted below. Her old friend Dr. Archie asks her about her personal life, and she says:
My dear doctor, I don’t have any. Your work becomes your life. You are not much good until it does….It takes you up, and uses you, and spins you out; and that is your life. Not much else can happen to you.
That kind of dedication and passion is very hard to come by, and it made me understand, respect, and even admire Thea and Cather by extension.
- Cather often uses musical lyrics to indicate a character’s present situation or state of mind. Choose one such instance as an example and discuss whether this technique is effective. (You may also do this with descriptions of clothing in the book, though musical lyrics seems more appropriate.)
The best, but maybe most clichéd, example of this in the novel is when Thea first meets Fred and is translating a few lyrics from Norwegian for him. The song is called “Thanks for the Advice,” and it’s all about fighting one’s way through life in hopes of finding fulfillment.
It’s absolutely beautiful, but it also gives insight into Thea’s character. Thea was born to steer herself into “the din of roaring breakers,” to take radical risks and fight to become arguably the best opera singer of her generation. She falls in love with a married man, misses visiting her dying mother, and travels to completely foreign countries in order to work on her craft. None of it’s easy, but she manages to succeed beyond her wildest dreams, which is what the song is all about.
See you next week for Candide by Voltaire!