From the Coffin

Character Development by a Master

Below is a guest blog written by Sadie Hiam, who I’m very proud to say is one of my children! Their close reading of a Willa Cather story leads to insights for all of us writers. How do you get to know someone who can’t speak for themselves any longer? Difficult, but leave it to Cather to bring the dead to life.


Thanks, Sadie, for bringing this great story to my attention and sharing your thoughts about it.


Fellow writers and readers, if you haven’t read Cather’s story yet, do look it up. -Alex


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Guest Blog by Sadie Hiam


In Willa Cather’s short story, “The Sculptor’s Funeral”, the dead speak loudly through the living. At the beginning of the story, a body arrives on a train, in a coffin. At first, the body is given no name. At the train station, he is met by a group of men from the town who bring his body to his childhood home. By the end, we come to know the life of Harvey Merrick through the eyes of the people who surround him.


In “The Sculptor’s Funeral”, Cather allows the dead protagonist to keep on living through the words and actions of other characters. Whether kind or critical, each story carries a bit of the truth to help the reader understand who the protagonist was.


As a corpse, Harvey is unable to physically respond to the words of other characters, however, his actions are brought to life through the other characters– specifically in relation to his mother. His biggest action was leaving home to follow his dreams and returning for his funeral. At the sight of her son’s coffin, his mother cries out, “My boy, my boy! And this is how you’ve come home to me!” These words sound more accusatory than mournful, and seem to foreshadow the tension in their relationship between mother and son. While his father and his student describe him as gentle and sweet, we get the sense that his childhood was brutal because of his mother. Jim, the lawyer, states, “The old woman is a fury; there never was anyone like her. She made Harvey’s life a hell for him when he lived at home.” We know he carried the pain of this relationship as Henry Stevens, his student, recalls, his distrust of women, the reference to his drinking, and the sculptor’s emotional reaction when Henry asks about a delicate sculpture. Henry had asked Harvey “If it were his mother. He remembered the dull flush that had burned up in the sculptor’s face.” With these few words Cather shows the reader the shame and embarrassment Harvey felt about his relationship with his mother.


At the wake, many of the townsmen say unkind things about the sculptor. In his description of Harvey, the Grand Army man says, “His mother used to whale him with a rawhide in the barn for lettin’ the cows git foundered in the cornfield when he was drivin’ ‘em home from pasture. He killed a cow of mine that-a-way onct.” The cattleman states, “Harve’ never could have handled stock none [...] He hadn’t it in him to be sharp.” He goes on to describe how Harvey got cheated when he purchased mules that were older than he was told. These quotes reveal how the townsmen were critical of Harvey for not becoming a businessman, farmer, or even a banker. Harvey did not stay in his town to become successful according to their ideals. Instead he left his small town to become an artist, which the townspeople couldn’t understand. Using indirect characterization, Cather is able to show Harvey as an individual who would not compromise who he was, unlike Jim.


Cather’s description of Harvey’s physical appearance is also important to bringing him to life for the reader to feel for him. As he lay in the open coffin for viewing, Cather writes, “It was as though the strain of life had been so sharp and bitter, that death could not at once relax the tension and smooth the countenance into perfect peace…” Cather uses his facial expression not only as foreshadowing for what the townsmen say, but also shows how a part of him always stayed in that town, how he always carried the impact of his early life with him, all the way to his grave.


Cather is able to bring the sculptor to life through the words of other characters, making the reader feel closer to Harvey than any of the other characters. In the reading, Harvey’s character develops from an unnamed corpse to a full fleshed out character. He is described in many ways, both good and bad, depending on who is describing him. His father sums up his character: “He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy. He was ez gentle ez a child and the kindest of ‘em all — only we didn’t none of us ever understand him.” Each description is true to an extent, and the realism of this makes Harvey human.


Alex Hiam teaches creative writing and is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on Amazon.com






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