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My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

April 12, 2018 11 comments

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (1926) (French title: Mon mortel ennemi.)

People can be lovers and enemies at the same time, you know. We were.… A man and woman draw apart from that long embrace, and see what they have done to each other. Perhaps I can’t forgive him for the harm I did him. Perhaps that’s it. When there are children, that feeling, goes through natural changes. But when it remains so personal … something gives way in one. In age we lose everything; even the power to love.

I’d never heard of My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather before reading Guy’s review and this novella intrigued me immediately.

It’s the story of the unhappy marriage between Myra and Oswald seen through the eyes of an external observer, Nellie. Myra was friends with Nellie’s mother and Aunt Liddy. As a young woman, she fell in love with Oswald Henshaw and when her guardian and uncle heard about the romance, he threatened to disinherit her. She eloped from their small town to marry Oswald Henshaw and her rich uncle followed through. He left his fortune to charities. She chose love against fortune and in Nellie’s eyes, it’s quite romantic.

Nellie is our narrator and she had three opportunities to be in contact with Myra. The first time was at home, when she was a teenager and Myra was visiting. The second time was in New York, where she goes for a while with her Aunt Liddy. The third time is a chance reunion as the Henshaw and Nellie live in the same neighborhood in San Francisco.

The crux of the novella is: did Myra made a good decision when she chose love instead of her uncle’s money? How does she live with this decision? How does Oswald live with her sacrifice? How does their couple survive this strong beginning?

Myra is not a likeable character and Nellie’s not comfortable with her.

And I was never sure whether she was making fun of me or of the thing we were talking about. Her sarcasm was so quick, so fine at the point—it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one doesn’t know whether one is burned or chilled.

As a reader I don’t know what to think of her. She’s a complex character, nice in some ways and harsh in other ways. She feels that her marriage is not up to the sacrifice she made and she hovers over Oswald as if to sustain a fire of love that isn’t there anymore. She sounds like she’s working on persuading herself that she’s so happy, making a show of it.

she was clearly glad to see him—glad not merely that he was safe and had got round on time, but because his presence gave her lively personal pleasure. I was not accustomed to that kind of feeling in people long married.

She knows that by marrying her, Oswald also made a bet on their love. When they eloped, he was aware that she wouldn’t get any money. And yet, he did it anyways which makes me think he chose love as well, even if it meant a career he wasn’t fond of. Myra explains:

He doesn’t properly belong in business. We never speak of it, but I’m sure he hates it. He went into an office only because we were young and terribly in love, and had to be married.”

This is a story that reminded me of Edith Wharton and Henry James. Myra is a Whartonian female character and Oswald has something about Newland Archer in him. There’s a troubling episode about cufflinks that made me wonder about Oswald. Did he stay out of loyalty? Or is Myra like Catherine in Washington Square? In her young days, did she fail to see that her marriage with Oswald was doomed? Is Myra a victim of the romantic ways of her youth? Who is the mortal enemy? Each spouse for the other or themselves because they made the wrong choice?

This short novella is a real gem full of fascinating questions underlying Myra and Oswald’s story. I avoid spoilers in billets but there is much more to discuss about Myra and Oswald’s relationship. Cather’s strength is that she leaves the reader in the dark; it’s up to you to make up your mind about the two main characters.

It’s a text that raises questions about love and marriage that are still relevant today. How do we recognize true love, the one that was worth making the kind of sacrifice that Myra made? How do you live with yourself when your spouse had made a big sacrifice for you? It also shows that today’s freedom is great: in the 21st century, Myra and Oswald could have moved in together and see how things would go. In 1926, they had to get married.

If I were an English teacher, I’d put My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather on the syllabus. It’s short (around 100 pages, depending on the edition), it’s ambiguous and can lead to heated discussions between Team Myra and Team Oswald.

Highly recommended

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