on the power and glory of my mortal enemy

Published in 1926, Willa Cather’s slim 85-page novella, My Mortal Enemy, packs some serious heat. We’re talking Rim Fire at Yosemite heat. The title alone hints at passionate depths.

My mortal enemy. Say the words, slowly—and with feeling. Repeat them.

As my boy would say, “Them are some strong words.” And they’re made even stronger and more powerful as the novel unfolds.

The phrase occurs in the story twice.

Once as an utterance by our idealistic yet thwarted heroine Myra and once as a recollection by our high-flying and far-seeing narrator Nellie Birdseye. A nice ornithological touch, that.

Here’s Myra, a sick, failing, unrealized woman, speaking in a voice hardly more than a passionate whisper:

I could bear to suffer . . . so many have suffered. But why must it be like this? I have not deserved it. I have been true in friendship; I have faithfully nursed others in sickness. . . . Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?

Her husband sits on the sofa next to her. For whom is this terrible quiver intended?

Maybe her husband. She staked everything on loving him, on romance and escape. But nothing came of her elopement except frustration and bitter regret.

Or maybe she’s her own target.

After all, she danced with the devil in the pale moonlight and gambled on pure, unbridled passion, and lost.

But as powerful as the phrase “my mortal enemy” is on the lips of a dying woman, it pales in comparison to the passion of poetry that ends the novel. Our lovely narrator recalls:

Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: “Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy!”

A bird’s-eye view might be an anodyne to a misspent life after all.

6 Responses to on the power and glory of my mortal enemy

  1. Kat says:

    What a beautifully-written post! I have read My Mortal Enemy once; I will now have to reread it. Cather tells the truth, she never minds writing about people’s flaws, and Myra is so real. I have read Cather’s A Lost Lady again and again, a novel about a cosmopolitan woman stuck in a small town in Nebraska. (And we went to Red Cloud, Cather’s hometown, which as been turned into a museum pretty much. It was very moving to see her house!)

    So off to get my Cather!

  2. Pykk says:

    Does she pop up a lot in the American school curriculum? I see second-hand copies of her books everywhere here.

    • Yes, she’s part of the American canon. I strongly encourage you to pick up: A LOST LADY, THE PROFESSOR’S HOUSE, and MY ANTONIA. I find her stuff amazing. Hope you’re doing well. Cheers. K

      • Pykk says:

        She’s more than canon — that flood of My Antonias says “school assignment.” I’ll see what I can do, but there’s a lot I want to read first.

      • A Lost Lady and The Professor’s House are slim novels. No harm in picking them up. Even if you don’t read them for a few years.

  3. […] Nielson at his brilliant blog, Interpolations, inspired me to read Cather’s novella, My Mortal Enemy.  Kevin writes, “Published in […]

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