From childhood piano lessons to center stage at the Metropolitan Opera House, The Song of the Lark is the poignant story of an artist discovering herself.
Fiercely independent and singularly talented, Thea Kronborg realizes at an early age that she is destined to leave her family and the frontier town of Moonstone, Colorado, behind. In Chicago, she studies with the city’s best voice teacher and begins the long and arduous process of mastering her craft. But ambition alone will not transform Thea into one of the world’s greatest opera singers—she must find the courage to set aside her humble origins and romantic illusions and fully dedicate herself to her art. In the ruins of an Arizona cliff dwelling haunted by ancient voices and purified by the desert air, Thea is inspired to embrace her calling once and for all.
Lyrical, authentic, and brilliantly constructed, The Song of the Lark is a masterwork of American literature. It is the second volume in Willa Cather’s acclaimed Prairie Trilogy, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:December 7, 1873
Date of Death:April 27, 1947
Place of Birth:Winchester, Virginia
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:B.A., University of Nebraska, 1895
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The Song of the Lark
By Willa Cather
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media
All rights reserved.
DR. HOWARD ARCHIE HAD just come up from a game of pool with the Jewish clothier and two traveling men who happened to be staying overnight in Moonstone. His offices were in the Duke Block, over the drug store. Larry, the doctor's man, had lit the overhead light in the waiting-room and the double student's lamp on the desk in the study. The isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow, and the air in the study was so hot that as he came in the doctor opened the door into his little operating-room, where there was no stove. The waiting room was carpeted and stiffly furnished, something like a country parlor. The study had worn, unpainted floors, but there was a look of winter comfort about it. The doctor's flat-top desk was large and well made; the papers were in orderly piles, under glass weights. Behind the stove a wide bookcase, with double glass doors, reached from the floor to the ceiling. It was filled with medical books of every thickness and color. On the top shelf stood a long row of thirty or forty volumes, bound all alike in dark mottled board covers, with imitation leather backs.
As the doctor in New England villages is proverbially old, so the doctor in small Colorado towns twenty-five years ago was generally young. Dr. Archie was barely thirty. He was tall, with massive shoulders which he held stiffly, and a large, well-shaped head. He was a distinguished-looking man, for that part of the world, at least.
There was something individual in the way in which his reddish-brown hair, parted cleanly at the side, bushed over his high forehead. His nose was straight and thick, and his eyes were intelligent. He wore a curly, reddish mustache and an imperial, cut trimly, which made him look a little like the pictures of Napoleon III. His hands were large and well kept, but ruggedly formed, and the backs were shaded with crinkly reddish hair. He wore a blue suit of woolly, wide-waled serge; the traveling men had known at a glance that it was made by a Denver tailor. The doctor was always well dressed.
Dr. Archie turned up the student's lamp and sat down in the swivel chair before his desk. He sat uneasily, beating a tattoo on his knees with his fingers, and looked about him as if he were bored. He glanced at his watch, then absently took from his pocket a bunch of small keys, selected one and looked at it. A contemptuous smile, barely perceptible, played on his lips, but his eyes remained meditative. Behind the door that led into the hall, under his buffalo-skin driving-coat, was a locked cupboard. This the doctor opened mechanically, kicking aside a pile of muddy overshoes. Inside, on the shelves, were whiskey glasses and decanters, lemons, sugar, and bitters. Hearing a step in the empty, echoing hall without, the doctor closed the cupboard again, snapping the Yale lock. The door of the waiting-room opened, a man entered and came on into the consulting-room.
"Good-evening, Mr. Kronborg," said the doctor carelessly. "Sit down."
His visitor was a tall, loosely built man, with a thin brown beard, streaked with gray. He wore a frock coat, a broad-brimmed black hat, a white lawn necktie, and steel rimmed spectacles. Altogether there was a pretentious and important air about him, as he lifted the skirts of his coat and sat down.
"Good-evening, doctor. Can you step around to the house with me? I think Mrs. Kronborg will need you this evening." This was said with profound gravity and, curiously enough, with a slight embarrassment.
"Any hurry?" the doctor asked over his shoulder as he went into his operating-room.
Mr. Kronborg coughed behind his hand, and contracted his brows. His face threatened at every moment to break into a smile of foolish excitement. He controlled it only by calling upon his habitual pulpit manner. "Well, I think it would be as well to go immediately. Mrs. Kronborg will be more comfortable if you are there. She has been suffering for some time."
The doctor came back and threw a black bag upon his desk. He wrote some instructions for his man on a prescription pad and then drew on his overcoat. "All ready," he announced, putting out his lamp. Mr. Kronborg rose and they tramped through the empty hall and down the stairway to the street. The drug store below was dark, and the saloon next door was just closing. Every other light on Main Street was out.
On either side of the road and at the outer edge of the board sidewalk, the snow had been shoveled into breastworks. The town looked small and black, flattened down in the snow, muffled and all but extinguished. Overhead the stars shone gloriously. It was impossible not to notice them. The air was so clear that the white sand hills to the east of Moonstone gleamed softly. Following the Reverend Mr. Kronborg along the narrow walk, past the little dark, sleeping houses, the doctor looked up at the flashing night and whistled softly. It did seem that people were stupider than they need be; as if on a night like this there ought to be something better to do than to sleep nine hours, or to assist Mrs. Kronborg in functions which she could have performed so admirably unaided. He wished he had gone down to Denver to hear Fay Templeton sing "See-Saw." Then he remembered that he had a personal interest in this family, after all. They turned into another street and saw before them lighted windows; a low story-and-a-half house, with a wing built on at the right and a kitchen addition at the back, everything a little on the slant — roofs, windows, and doors. As they approached the gate, Peter Kronborg's pace grew brisker. His nervous, ministerial cough annoyed the doctor. "Exactly as if he were going to give out a text," he thought. He drew off his glove and felt in his vest pocket. "Have a troche, Kronborg," he said, producing some. "Sent me for samples. Very good for a rough throat."
"Ah, thank you, thank you. I was in something of a hurry. I neglected to put on my overshoes. Here we are, doctor." Kronborg opened his front door — seemed delighted to be at home again.
The front hall was dark and cold; the hatrack was hung with an astonishing number of children's hats and caps and cloaks. They were even piled on the table beneath the hatrack. Under the table was a heap of rubbers and overshoes. While the doctor hung up his coat and hat, Peter Kronborg opened the door into the living-room. A glare of light greeted them, and a rush of hot, stale air, smelling of warming flannels.
At three o'clock in the morning Dr. Archie was in the parlor putting on his cuffs and coat — there was no spare bedroom in that house. Peter Kronborg's seventh child, a boy, was being soothed and cosseted by his aunt, Mrs. Kronborg was asleep, and the doctor was going home. But he wanted first to speak to Kronborg, who, coatless and fluttery, was pouring coal into the kitchen stove. As the doctor crossed the dining-room he paused and listened. From one of the wing rooms, off to the left, he heard rapid, distressed breathing. He went to the kitchen door.
"One of the children sick in there?" he asked, nodding toward the partition.
Kronborg hung up the stove-lifter and dusted his fingers. "It must be Thea. I meant to ask you to look at her. She has a croupy cold. But in my excitement — Mrs. Kronborg is doing finely, eh, doctor? Not many of your patients with such a constitution, I expect."
"Oh, yes. She's a fine mother." The doctor took up the lamp from the kitchen table and unceremoniously went into the wing room. Two chubby little boys were asleep in a double bed, with the coverlids over their noses and their feet drawn up. In a single bed, next to theirs, lay a little girl of eleven, wide awake, two yellow braids sticking up on the pillow behind her. Her face was scarlet and her eyes were blazing.
The doctor shut the door behind him. "Feel pretty sick, Thea?" he asked as he took out his thermometer. "Why didn't you call somebody?"
She looked at him with greedy affection. "I thought you were here," she spoke between quick breaths. "There is a new baby, isn't there? Which?"
"Which?" repeated the doctor.
"Brother or sister?"
He smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Brother," he said, taking her hand. "Open."
"Good. Brothers are better," she murmured as he put the glass tube under her tongue.
"Now, be still, I want to count." Dr. Archie reached for her hand and took out his watch. When he put her hand back under the quilt he went over to one of the windows — they were both tight shut — and lifted it a little way. He reached up and ran his hand along the cold, unpapered wall. "Keep under the covers; I'll come back to you in a moment," he said, bending over the glass lamp with his thermometer. He winked at her from the door before he shut it.
Peter Kronborg was sitting in his wife's room, holding the bundle which contained his son. His air of cheerful importance, his beard and glasses, even his shirt-sleeves, annoyed the doctor. He beckoned Kronborg into the living-room and said sternly: —
"You've got a very sick child in there. Why didn't you call me before? It's pneumonia, and she must have been sick for several days. Put the baby down somewhere, please, and help me make up the bed-lounge here in the parlor. She's got to be in a warm room, and she's got to be quiet. You must keep the other children out. Here, this thing opens up, I see," swinging back the top of the carpet lounge. "We can lift her mattress and carry her in just as she is. I don't want to disturb her more than is necessary."
Kronborg was all concern immediately. The two men took up the mattress and carried the sick child into the parlor. "I'll have to go down to my office to get some medicine, Kronborg. The drug store won't be open. Keep the covers on her. I won't be gone long. Shake down the stove and put on a little coal, but not too much; so it'll catch quickly, I mean. Find an old sheet for me, and put it there to warm."
The doctor caught his coat and hurried out into the dark street. Nobody was stirring yet, and the cold was bitter. He was tired and hungry and in no mild humor. "The idea!" he muttered; "to be such an ass at his age, about the seventh! And to feel no responsibility about the little girl. Silly old goat! The baby would have got into the world somehow; they always do. But a nice little girl like that — she's worth the whole litter. Where she ever got it from —" He turned into the Duke Block and ran up the stairs to his office.
Thea Kronborg, meanwhile, was wondering why she happened to be in the parlor, where nobody but company — usually visiting preachers — ever slept. She had moments of stupor when she did not see anything, and moments of excitement when she felt that something unusual and pleasant was about to happen, when she saw everything clearly in the red light from the isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner — the nickel trimmings on the stove itself, the pictures on the wall, which she thought very beautiful, the flowers on the Brussels carpet, Czerny's "Daily Studies" which stood open on the upright piano. She forgot, for the time being, all about the new baby.
When she heard the front door open, it occurred to her that the pleasant thing which was going to happen was Dr. Archie himself. He came in and warmed his hands at the stove. As he turned to her, she threw herself wearily toward him, half out of her bed. She would have tumbled to the floor had he not caught her. He gave her some medicine and went to the kitchen for something he needed. She drowsed and lost the sense of his being there. When she opened her eyes again, he was kneeling before the stove, spreading something dark and sticky on a white cloth, with a big spoon; batter, perhaps. Presently she felt him taking off her nightgown. He wrapped the hot plaster about her chest. There seemed to be straps which he pinned over her shoulders. Then he took out a thread and needle and began to sew her up in it. That, she felt, was too strange; she must be dreaming anyhow, so she succumbed to her drowsiness.
Thea had been moaning with every breath since the doctor came back, but she did not know it. She did not realize that she was suffering pain. When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body; to be perched on top of the piano, or on the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up. It was perplexing and unsatisfactory, like dreaming. She wished she could waken up and see what was going on.
The doctor thanked God that he had persuaded Peter Kronborg to keep out of the way. He could do better by the child if he had her to himself. He had no children of his own. His marriage was a very unhappy one. As he lifted and undressed Thea, he thought to himself what a beautiful thing a little girl's body was, — like a flower. It was so neatly and delicately fashioned, so soft, and so milky white. Thea must have got her hair and her silky skin from her mother. She was a little Swede, through and through. Dr. Archie could not help thinking how he would cherish a little creature like this if she were his. Her hands, so little and hot, so clever, too, — he glanced at the open exercise book on the piano. When he had stitched up the flaxseed jacket, he wiped it neatly about the edges, where the paste had worked out on the skin. He put on her the clean nightgown he had warmed before the fire, and tucked the blankets about her. As he pushed back the hair that had fuzzed down over her eyebrows, he felt her head thoughtfully with the tips of his fingers. No, he couldn't say that it was different from any other child's head, though he believed that there was something very different about her. He looked intently at her wide, flushed face, freckled nose, fierce little mouth, and her delicate, tender chin — the one soft touch in her hard little Scandinavian face, as if some fairy godmother had caressed her there and left a cryptic promise. Her brows were usually drawn together defiantly, but never when she was with Dr. Archie. Her affection for him was prettier than most of the things that went to make up the doctor's life in Moonstone.
The windows grew gray. He heard a tramping on the attic floor, on the back stairs, then cries: "Give me my shirt!" "Where's my other stocking?"
"I'll have to stay till they get off to school," he reflected, "or they'll be in here tormenting her, the whole lot of them."CHAPTER 2
FOR THE NEXT FOUR days it seemed to Dr. Archie that his patient might slip through his hands, do what he might. But she did not. On the contrary, after that she recovered very rapidly. As her father remarked, she must have inherited the "constitution" which he was never tired of admiring in her mother.
One afternoon, when her new brother was a week old, the doctor found Thea very comfortable and happy in her bed in the parlor. The sunlight was pouring in over her shoulders, the baby was asleep on a pillow in a big rocking-chair beside her. Whenever he stirred, she put out her hand and rocked him. Nothing of him was visible but a flushed, puffy forehead and an uncompromisingly big, bald cranium. The door into her mother's room stood open, and Mrs. Kronborg was sitting up in bed darning stockings. She was a short, stalwart woman, with a short neck and a determined-looking head. Her skin was very fair, her face calm and unwrinkled, and her yellow hair, braided down her back as she lay in bed, still looked like a girl's. She was a woman whom Dr. Archie respected; active, practical, unruffled; goodhumored, but determined. Exactly the sort of woman to take care of a flighty preacher. She had brought her husband some property, too, — one fourth of her father's broad acres in Nebraska, — but this she kept in her own name. She had profound respect for her husband's erudition and eloquence. She sat under his preaching with deep humility, and was as much taken in by his stiff shirt and white neckties as if she had not ironed them herself by lamplight the night before they appeared correct and spotless in the pulpit. But for all this, she had no confidence in his administration of worldly affairs. She looked to him for morning prayers and grace at table; she expected him to name the babies and to supply whatever parental sentiment there was in the house, to remember birthdays and anniversaries, to point the children to moral and patriotic ideals. It was her work to keep their bodies, their clothes, and their conduct in some sort of order, and this she accomplished with a success that was a source of wonder to her neighbors. As she used to remark, and her husband admiringly to echo, she "had never lost one." With all his flightiness, Peter Kronborg appreciated the matter-of-fact, punctual way in which his wife got her children into the world and along in it. He believed, and he was right in believing, that the sovereign State of Colorado was much indebted to Mrs. Kronborg and women like her.
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Table of Contents
The Song of the Lark
Preface to the 1932 Jonathan Cape Edition
Notes on Emendations
Table of Rejected Substantives
Reading Group Guide
The Song of the Lark is the story of an artist's growth and development from childhood to maturity. More particularly—and decidedly more rarely—it traces the development of a female artist supported by a series of male characters willing to serve her career. Inspired by Willa Cather's own development as a novelist and by the career of an opera diva, The Song of the Larkexamines the themes of the artist's relationship with family and society, themes that would dominate all of Cather's best fiction.
Thea Kronborg is a Scandinavian-American singer who works her way up from the dusty desert town of Moonstone, Colorado, to the boards of the Metropolitan Opera house. Although Willa Cather herself was not a musician, the portions of the novel covering childhood, apprenticeship, and artistic awakening in the western landscape are frankly autobiographical. Its final section, dealing with Thea's professional life, is drawn largely from the career of the Wagnerian soprano Olive Fremstad, who was the kind of artist Willa Cather still aspired to be. For although Cather was forty-two when The Song of the Lark was published in 1915, it was only the third of her twelve novels, and belongs to the early stage of her distinguished literary career. After its publication, however, the great literary critic H. L. Mencken said that it placed Cather in "the small class of American novelists who are seriously to be reckoned with."
Thea, like Olive Fremstad, comes of Swedish-Norwegian stock and is the musical daughter of a Methodist minister, obliged to give lessons and play and sing at the prayer meetings and revivals. Most of the other details of her youth, however, are drawn directly from Cather's own experience. Like Cather, Thea is one of seven children growing up in an overcrowded little house in Moonstone, Colorado, a small western town that resembles Cather's own hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska. Her parents recognize and respect their daughter's unusual gifts, but her more conventional siblings and neighbors think of Thea as spoiled, rebellious and stuck-up. Her refuge is a tiny room in the high-windowed gable of the attic, a rose-papered bower where she can read, write, and dream in peace.
Thea's closest friends are a handful of adult men who appreciate her qualities and are themselves restless or unhappy in Moonstone. All have counterparts in Cather's life: the chivalrous, self-educated railroad brakeman Ray Kennedy, who loves to explore cliff ruins, combines features of her brother Douglass and his railroading friends. Professor Wunsch, the romantic, alcoholic piano teacher, is a sympathetic portrait of Herr Schindelmeisser, an itinerant musician Cather knew in Red Cloud; while the wild mandolin player Spanish Johnny was inspired by the musical Mexicans Cather had met in Arizona. Thea's most important childhood friend, the town physician, Dr. Howard Archie, was modeled on Dr. G. E. McKeeby, with whom Cather assisted as a teenager on prairie housecalls.
When Thea leaves home to study music in Chicago, she manages to remain oblivious to the city itself, with its bustling crowds, brilliant shops, and obnoxious loitering men. What grips her imagination is a Jules Breton painting in the Art Institute called "The Song of the Lark," depicting a peasant girl standing in a field, arrested by the song of a meadowlark. The image reinforces an even more important revelation in the concert hall, when Dvorák's New World Symphony reveals to Thea a link between the landscape in her memory and the musician she wants to become. From that moment she understands what she wants, and she leaves determined that "as long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height."
Thea's first teacher in Chicago, a sensitive, one-eyed Hungarian violinist named Harsanyi, discovers her voice, and steers her away from piano to the voice teacher Madison Bowers. But Thea's demands and ambition are beyond Bowers' reach or interest, and his cynicism and slovenly standards make her depressed and surly. She finds both a champion and a romantic interest in the musical dilettante Fred Ottenburg.
Thea's full artistic awakening does not take place in the cold gray canyons of Chicago, where she labors at her music lessons, but in a brilliant desert canyon where Fred sends her to rest and recuperate. There she comes upon an isolated gorge sheltering silent prehistoric ruins and spends weeks lying alone on the sunbaked rock ledges and in the shade of ancient pueblo rooms. Enfolded in the shelter of the canyon she sheds restrictive clothing and mental debris, bathes naked in the stream at its base, naps under an Indian blanket, and opens every pore until her body becomes completely receptive, a vehicle of sensation. Thus poised, she suddenly recognizes the spiritual connection between the shards of ancient Indian pottery she finds in the stream—vessels designed to bear life-giving water—and her own throat, a vessel which carries song: "what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment, the shining, elusive element which is life itself?. . . In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and held it on one's breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals."
From here on, Thea views her vessel, her body, as part of the sacred order of things. Her daily bath in the stream in Panther Canyon "came to have a ceremonial gravity. The atmosphere of the canyon was ritualistic." To Thea, the vessel bearing spiritual gifts deserves to be treated sacramentally. Becoming an artist means being able simultaneously to abandon her body to sensuous experience and to control that experience, keeping it from contamination. "The condition every art requires," Cather would later explain, is "freedom from adulteration and from the intrusion of foreign matter," and at this point, Thea severs those human ties that threaten to compromise her.
The mature Thea Kronborg we meet in the novel's last section is ten years older than the young woman who came of age in Panther Canyon. She has returned from study and successful performances in Germany, and is now a reigning soprano at the Metropolitan Opera. The diva Thea Kronborg, whose first name means "gift of God" and surname means "crown fortress," is presented as a woman both blessed and isolated by her divine gift. Her professional crown is won by the resolute defense of her person as the vehicle through which that gift can be perfected and returned. Her family, mentors, and suitors serve Thea the woman only as they serve Thea the artist. She is completely obsessed with the intellectual and physical rewards of her craft. Her regimen is grueling, and her exacting standards make her arrogant and lonely. She is sometimes frightened, and more than once the idea of marrying and being taken care of tempts her. She grieves at the conflict between personal and professional needs, particularly when choosing an important European debut over a journey home to see her dying mother.
But art always comes first. It takes every ounce of strength, leaving her drained, aged, and often unfit for company. When urged to take more time for her "personal life," she replies, "Your work becomes your personal life. You're not much good until it does." Her work requires the kind of perfect dedication that Nietzsche called chastity, and its goal is a paradox, the kind of "sensuous spirituality" which is also the goal of the mystic.
In this novel of an artist's single-minded pursuit of beauty, Cather made one of her most eloquent statements about the artistic vocation. Although the claims of personal attachments are made persuasively at times in The Song of the Lark, it is clear that for Cather the serious artist must renounce these claims and in an environment of solitude labor to fulfill the dreams of creation.
ABOUT WILLA CATHER
Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, the eldest child of Charles and Mary Cather, both descendants of established Virginian families. Her childhood was reportedly happy and well-ordered, and is remembered in her late novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl. In 1883, the Cathers moved to Webster County, Nebraska, joining members of the family who settled there earlier. This crucial move, dislocating and dramatic, introduced Cather to the landscape and to the ways of life she would memorialize in her famous prairie novels, O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and A Lost Lady, as well as in parts of The Song of the Lark. In the small town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Cather was a notably energetic, intelligent, and outspoken child, while, as her novels show, the town often seemed to her repressive. In Lincoln, Nebraska, where she attended the state university, she began her journalistic career, writing numerous reviews for the local newspapers. There, too, she published her earliest stories, formulated her idealistic and romantic ideals about art, and nurtured her literary ambitions. Those ambitions had to wait for their fulfillment while she earned a living in Pittsburgh as journalist and teacher, and then in New York as an editor for McClure's Magazine. With the publication of O Pioneers! in 1913, Cather became the dedicated writer of her own dreams, in time achieving recognition for her prairie novels and for rare and unique works such as The Professor's House, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock. She led an ordered life, writing stories, novels, and critical essays, traveling regularly, and maintaining valued friendships, among them with neighbors from her childhood, as well as with famous writers and musicians. She was honored for her writings, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours, a novel about a soldier in World War I. She died at her New York home on August 24, 1947.
- What is Cather's message about beginnings and separations? How do these facets shape the life of an individual? Is Thea's separation from her family and primary environment necessary for promoting her growth as an individual or was she simply destined to be different? Does Cather imply by the later lives of the Moonstone people that severing ties is a positive or negative experience?
- Some critics have characterized Thea as indulgent and self-centered. Is this a fair assessment of the character?
- Compare the marriages of Dr. Archie and Fred Ottenburg. Is there a common thread between these two men? In what way are they both strivers?
- What is the significance of Aunt Tillie in the novel? Why did Cather include this character?
- Why is romance so difficult for Thea? Is Cather at all critical about the artist's renouncing of romantic love? What price is paid for Thea's success? Does Thea nurse any regrets?
- Does the town's treatment of the "tramp" reflect on their morality or their fear? What does the tramp's spiteful act say about the inherent nature of man?
- When Thea refuses Fred's monetary assistance with her trip to Germany, she is obviously hurt by his revelation. She elects to borrow money from Dr. Archie because taking money from Fred would make her feel like she was being "kept." Is this her true motivation or is it an act of retribution against Fred for misleading her?
- Discuss the complexities of Dr. Archie's love for Thea. Why does it never blossom to romance when she is old enough and Dr. Archie is free? Does Thea perceive him as too much of a father figure for this ever to occur?
- Towards the end of the novel Spanish Johnny reappears, moved to tears by Thea's success. As she leaves the theater he sees her but does not step forward or call to her. He seems to keep his "place." What does this convey about the climate of the country at that time and the characters' own feelings on race, class and propriety?