Vivid Emotional Insight from Willa Cather

Vik RubenfeldArt Talk, NovelLeave a Comment

Here is another great example of how a work of art communicates something that can’t be communicated intellectually. There’s no communication of information only, that can convey what this so vividly conveys.

It’s from a novel by Willa Cather that is often found on lists of the greatest novels of all time—”Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

Set in New Mexico in the 1800’s, this passage shows Father Vaillant speaking to the wealthy man, Lujon:

The next morning, after coffee, while the children were being got ready for baptism, the host took Father Vaillant through his corrals and stables to show him his stock. He exhibited with peculiar pride two cream-coloured mules, stalled side by side. With his own hand he led them out of the stable, in order to display to advantage their handsome coats, – not bluish white, as with white horses, but a rich, deep ivory, that in shadow changed to fawn-colour. Their tails were clipped at the end into the shape of bells.

“Their names,” said Lujon, “are Contento and Angelica, and they are as good as their names. It seems that God has given them intelligence. When I talk to them, they look up at me like Christians; they are very companionable. They are always ridden together and have a great affection for each other.”

Father Joseph took one by the halter and led it about. “Ah, but they are rare creatures! I have never seen a mule or horse coloured like a young fawn before.” To his host’s astonishment, the wiry little priest sprang upon Contento’s back with the agility of a grasshopper. The mule, too, was astonished. He shook himself violently, bolted toward the gate of the barnyard, and at the gate stopped suddenly. Since this did not throw his rider, he seemed satisfied, trotted back, and stood placidly beside Angelica.

“But you are a caballero, Father Vaillant!” Lujon exclaimed. “I doubt if Father Gallegos would have kept his seat – though he is something of a hunter.”

“The saddle is to be my home in your country, Lujon. What an easy gait this mule has, and what a narrow back! I notice that especially. For a man with short legs, like me, it is a punishment to ride eight hours a day on a wide horse. And this I must do day after day. From here I go to Santa Fé, and, after a day in conference with the Bishop, I start for Mora.”

“For Mora?” exclaimed Lujon. “Yes, that is far, and the roads are very bad. On your mare you will never do it. She will drop dead under you.” While he talked, the Father remained upon the mule’s back, stroking him with his hand.

“Well, I have no other. God grant that she does not drop somewhere far from food and water. I can carry very little with me except my vestments and the sacred vessels.”

The Mexican had been growing more and more thoughtful, as if he were considering something profound and not altogether cheerful. Suddenly his brow cleared, and he turned to the priest with a radiant smile, quite boyish in its simplicity. “Father Vaillant,” he burst out in a slightly oratorical manner, “you have made my house right with Heaven, and you charge me very little. I will do something very nice for you; I will give you Contento for a present, and I hope to be particularly remembered in your prayers.”

Springing to the ground, Father Vaillant threw his arms about his host. “Manuelito!” he cried, “for this darling mule I think I could almost pray you into Heaven!”

The Mexican laughed, too, and warmly returned the embrace. Arm-in-arm they went in to begin the baptisms.


The next morning, when Lujon went to call Father Vaillant for breakfast, he found him in the barnyard, leading the two mules about and smoothing their fawn-coloured flanks, but his face was not the cheerful countenance of yesterday.

“Manuel,” he said at once, “I cannot accept your present. I have thought upon it over night, and I see that I cannot. The Bishop works as hard as I do, and his horse is little better than mine. You know he lost everything on his way out here, in a shipwreck at Galveston – among the rest a fine wagon he had had built for travel on these plains. I could not go about on a mule like this when my Bishop rides a common hack. It would be inappropriate. I must ride away on my old mare.”

“Yes, Padre?” Manuel looked troubled and somewhat aggrieved. Why should the Padre spoil everything? It had all been very pleasant yesterday, and he had felt like a prince of generosity. “I doubt if she will make La Bajada Hill,” he said slowly, shaking his head. “Look my horses over and take the one that suits you. They are all better than yours.”

“No, no,” said Father Vaillant decidedly. “Having seen these mules, I want nothing else. They are the colour of pearls, really! I will raise the price of marriages until I can buy this pair from you. A missionary must depend upon his mount for companionship in his lonely life. I want a mule that can look at me like a Christian, as you said of these.”

Señor Lujon sighed and looked about his barnyard as if he were trying to find some escape from this situation.

Father Joseph turned to him with vehemence. “If I were a rich ranchero, like you, Manuel, I would do a splendid thing; I would furnish the two mounts that are to carry the word of God about this heathen country, and then I would say to myself: There go my Bishop and my Vicario, on my beautiful cream-coloured mules.”

“So be it, Padre,” said Lujon with a mournful smile. “But I ought to get a good many prayers. On my whole estate there is nothing I prize like those two. True, they might pine if they were parted for long. They have never been separated, and they have a great affection for each other. Mules, as you know, have strong affections. It is hard for me to give them up.”

“You will be all the happier for that, Manuelito,” Father Joseph cried heartily. “Every time you think of these mules, you will feel pride in your good deed.”

Soon after breakfast Father Vaillant departed, riding Contento, with Angelica trotting submissively behind, and from his gate Señor Lujon watched them disconsolately until they disappeared. He felt he had been worried out of his mules, and yet he bore no resentment. He did not doubt Father Joseph’s devotedness, nor his singleness of purpose. After all, a Bishop was a Bishop, and a Vicar was a Vicar, and it was not to their discredit that they worked like a pair of common parish priests. He believed he would be proud of the fact that they rode Contento and Angelica. Father Vaillant had forced his hand, but he was rather glad of it.

Notice how it is vividly clear what kind of man Lujon is, and why he agrees to give up two prize mules to Father Vaillant. Now imagine trying to communicate that to someone who hasn’t read this passage from the novel. There’s no way. You can’t do it. They’ll take your word for it that it happened in the novel that way. But without reading the novel for themselves, they can’t vividly understand the emotions and character of the man and why he would do this. It’s a great example of what a work of art communicates!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *