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Shaw, P.W. (1989). Women and the Father: Psychosexual Ambiguity in Death Comes for the Archbishop. Am. Imago, 46(1):61-76.

(1989). American Imago, 46(1):61-76

Women and the Father: Psychosexual Ambiguity in Death Comes for the Archbishop

Patrick W. Shaw, Ph.D.

How do we explain three quietly iconoclastic women in a narrative which James Woodress calls “a modern saint's life” (406) depicting an archbishop whom John J. Murphy extols as one who “combines rather than divides the world and the home and is, at once, father, uncle, husbandman, cook, builder, scholar and teacher, artist and historian” (54)? More apropos, perhaps, why must we explain the women at all? We need to explain them first because Willa Gather placed them in her narrative landscape of Death Comes for the Archbishop and because they are as intriguing as mesas on the horizon. Further, we need to explain them becuase they serve as a major corrective to the prevailing image of Archibishop Latour and because their provenance is Cather's psychosexual ambiguity. That ambiguity, in turn, elucidates Cather's overall narrative concept and effectively balances the recent argument that Cather resolved her sexual dilemmas and that by 1913, with the publication of O Pioneers!, “she had discovered her authentic, essential identity” as a female (O'Brien, 7). On the contrary, the crisis of gender identity which Cather suffered as a child and which revealed itself in her patronymic “William Cather” years of cross-dressing resulted in a sexual dichotomy that in the words of Susan Gubar “was profound enough to inform not only the themes but even the structures of her mature fiction” (465).

Indeed, we see just how profound Cather's sexual dichotomy was when we view Magdalena Scales, Isabella Olivares, and old Sada against the background of a narrative dominated by historically based and consciously selected males. Juxtaposing these women in this fashion, Cather realizes a métonymie conveyance which Kenneth Burke defines when he distinguishes between poetic realism and scientific realism.

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