My Mortal Enemy, by Willa Cather

My Mortal Enemy

It’s really a stretch to call Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy a novel. Even to call it a novella or novelette is probably being generous. The edition I have is 85 pages long, not counting an introductory essay by Marcus Klein. But that’s with fairly large print, and bigger than normal margins. Printed like the average book it would probably be 50-60 pages. Really this is a short story, albeit a longer than average short story.

My Mortal Enemy is the story of Myra Henshawe, as told by Nellie Birdseye, the daughter of a friend of Myra’s. Nellie is the Nick Carroway to Myra’s Gatsby, the young impressionable narrator fascinated by the charismatic protagonist and eager to understand him/her better.

As a child, Nellie knows of Myra by reputation. She then meets her for the first time at age 15 when Myra stops back in their small Midwest town for a few days. Shortly thereafter she visits New York where Myra lives, and spends time with her there, and some years later their paths cross accidentally (and not very believably) when they just happen to both be living in the same residential hotel in California.

Myra grew up rich, or at least “big fish in a small pond” rich, raised by a wealthy businessman great uncle of hers. They were very close, but the introduction of a suitor named Oswald drove them apart. Oswald was the son of someone the uncle had some longstanding low-level feud with, and so Myra was forbidden to see him. She pursued a secret romance with him anyway. The uncle dug in his heels, declaring that he would disinherit his beloved grandniece if she ever married Oswald, even though Oswald had seemingly done everything he could to make himself an acceptable match, including establishing himself in a promising business career in New York. Myra chose love over her uncle’s fortune, and My Mortal Enemy traces the consequences of that momentous decision.

Over time Myra and Oswald grow apart. Myra is a person of great passion, very strong-willed, very self-directed, someone who has always seen herself—and been seen by others—as special, as destined for some ill-defined greatness. Her adult life, though, for the most part fails to live up to that promise. She seems to see Oswald and the life they have together as just too ordinary for someone like her.

I say “ill-defined” because it’s never clear to me just what Myra wants, or what she thinks she’s missing. To the extent that she identifies it at all it seems to be just that she wants to be richer and to have the kind of life that that would make possible. She ends up wishing she had chosen her uncle’s fortune over marrying Oswald.

The thing is, though, she is rich with Oswald, at least for a good portion of their marriage. True, at the end things have taken a turn for the worse, and they’re just scraping by (though still living far better than the truly poor), but her dissatisfaction comes well before then. In New York she’s “medium-to-large fish in a big pond” rich, which I would think is at least as good as the “big fish in a small pond” rich she grew up used to. Oswald is evidently making a more than healthy living, they live in ritzy digs, they have an active fancy schmancy social life with the beautiful people, and she hob nobs with various artist types, including famous ones.

So while the book seems to be set up as (and this is consistent with how I’ve read it described) the prudent choice of a wealthy future versus the romantic choice of a love-based marriage, it seems to me like she gets both—and still isn’t happy.

Is there something else she wanted, that her marriage to Oswald and the resulting lack of her great uncle’s fortune denied her? Would she have traveled in different—and to her more desirable—social circles if she’d married someone more to her great uncle’s liking and inherited his money? I doubt it. Did she have dreams of being a great writer, a college professor, a doctor, a business owner, or something along those lines? Not that’s ever mentioned, and it’s not clear how an alternative future without Oswald would have made such a dream more likely to come true.

I suspect she was the kind of woman who would have felt frustratingly constrained by the sexism-based gender roles and such of that era regardless of whether she had chosen love or money (or both, as I think she did), but in her mind she has somehow twisted things around to make Oswald’s ordinariness and their faded love somehow the cause of her missing out on her expected greatness.

He actually seems a very good, albeit imperfect, fellow. When they do fall on harder times and she becomes seriously ill, he becomes an even more devoted husband. Instead of that making her appreciate him more, this is the very time she becomes more bitter and more disparaging in her attitude toward him.

That being said, even toward the end she is sometimes able to step back and realize she’s being unfair to Oswald. But that realization doesn’t make her treat him any better.

Myra is a person who has had an enormously better life in a material sense than 99% of the human population throughout history, but also a somewhat better life in terms of the intangibles, such as having a loving spouse, being treated respectfully and deferentially by most people for most of her life, enjoying the kinds of interactions and relationships she most desires with artists and other people she thinks highly of, etc. But she chooses instead to focus on the negative, on how her life just never turned out as “special” as she and those around her expected it to.

I’m not completely unsympathetic to that, and I suppose there are even vague parallels to my life, but really I feel it’s more Oswald that got a raw deal. You don’t notice that as much because he’s not the focus of the book, and he’s mostly stoic about the whole thing rather than broadcasting his disappointments, but it seems like he made the greater sacrifices for love.

Certainly I agree that it’s unlikely that even if you do get to be with the love of your life everything will work out long term like the most romantic fantasy, but I would hope that if I had ever had that opportunity I would have done at least as well as Oswald in handling the imperfections, and vastly better than Myra. Maybe it’s not always going to be as euphoric as that initial youthful period of being madly in love with each other, but I think—and I’ve known couples about which this seems to be true—that it can still be possible to retain a more emotionally mature appreciation for each other and for the fact that really you’re two of the extremely few people who even get to try to make a life with their greatest love.

It’s a shame Myra and Oswald, especially Myra, couldn’t do more with that great opportunity, couldn’t better handle the inevitable disappointments and imperfections of a real relationship. The very fact that the biggest imperfection in Myra’s eyes seems to have been “we’re rich, but not rich enough” indicates that maybe there was a fundamental shallowness to her that made it all but impossible that any relationship would have satisfied her.

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