Shadows on the Rock can best be viewed as a source of inspiration and faith for both its writer and the reading public. It was published in 1931, as Americans were attempting to rebuild their lives after the Great
Depression. At the same time, Cather experienced personal hardship, when she was working on Shadows on the Rock in 1928. Her father, Charles Cather, died in March and her mother, Virginia, suffered a stroke later in the same year. There is no doubt that
these devastating events influenced her novel, as she interrupted her writing to be with her family. In the midst of struggling with personal tragedy and ill-health in her 60's, she turned to the world of her novel, where she could explore the safe and
distant setting of seventeenth century Quebec. As the critic Merrill Maguire Skaggs notes, Cather found in the setting of Quebec "a new and interesting place that seemed to her to represent something she at that point yearned for: stability and undisrupte
d cultural continuity," (131).
The novel is set in the French-Canadian colony of Quebec and details roughly one year, from October 1697 to November 1698, in the lives of the early colonists. The novel gathers its basic material from historical facts and characters, which Cather develop
s into a series of narrations divided into six books. It is a portrait which examines the development of a fictional twelve-year old girl named Cecile and her relationship with her widowed father Euclide Auclair, the "philosopher apothecary" serving the c
olonial governor Count Frontenac. The "action" of the story is told through a series of shifting narrations, where each character recalls the past. For instance, Euclide Auclair reflects on the circumstances in his youth that led him to transfer his home
to the New World, while the various bishops and nuns working to establish the Church in the colony recall the living legends of famous saints in their conversations with Cecile. The characters' focus on the past, the clear sense of separation of the New
World colony from Old World France, and description of the fierce Canadian wilderness isolate the rock of Quebec, forming a unique setting that manufactures its own stability, capturing the reader in a world that is fictional, but quite believable in its
own sense of reality.
The reassuring, stable aspects of that world are represented by the domestic rituals of selflessness and sacrifice that Cecile and Euclide Auclair stringently adhere to, as they strive to maintain a life as closely modeled on their past life in France as
is possible under the natural struggles of colonial life. The focus on domestic ritual illustrates the importance of the transmission of only the best aspects of French culture into the Canadian colony. The colony is an opportunity to start over again fo
r the Auclairs, frontiersmen, and clergy members dissatisfied with the pollution and greed of France. The idea of creating a new culture was also foremost in the mind of the survivors of the Depression at the time this book was published, as they sought t
o rebuild a culture on only the best elements of the old world which had failed them. A similar influence was also acting on Willa Cather as she wrote the novel. With the loss of her father and the likely death of her mother, Cather was in search of a dom
estic center and searched for a secure home by creating one in her novel. It is also likely that this sense of a stable, rock-enclosed fortress of domesticity and reassuring order would appeal to alienated readers struggling to create a strong new foundat
ion for their lives and redefine community after the Great Depression.
Yet, the reasons for the popularity of Shadows on the Rock are more complex than the escapist appeal of its narrative form, or the dream of domestic tranquility in the wilderness it portrays. The physical setting not only defines the order and stability
of Quebec and its characters, but alludes to a religious motif. The city of Quebec is built on the terraces of a "fortified cliff." As the narrator notes at the beginning of Shadows on the Rock, Euclie Auclair thought "this rock-set town like nothing so m
uch as one of those little artificial mountains which were made in churches at home [in France] to present a theatric scene of the Nativity; cardboard mountains, broken up into cliffs and ledges and hollows, with buildings on different levels," (Cather 4-
5). Skaggs notes, "from the first pages of Cather's novel, Quebec is associated with Nativity plays and with a permeating Christmas spirit, even though the actual time when the novel begins is late October," (136). And many similar references are found t
hroughout the novel which appeal to the rock geography of Quebec as a physical symbol of domestic stability and religious strength. The critical interpretation that the novel's view of domestic, communal life was meant by Cather to represent a medieval m
iracle or saint's play is a recurring argument in scholarly articles. The ritual nature of domestic life in the novel is linked to the religious rituals which define the stable community. In addition to the novel's focus on domestic order and the pleasa
nt escapism of its setting, its religious undertones would seem to explain its popularity as a favorite Christmas present in 1931. The combination of its themes of stability and faith would have fit nicely into the atmosphere of the 1931 holiday season, w
hen Americans would need a reminder of the lifestyle of safety, order and tradition they were working hard to reclaim. And, as critic Deborah Carlin notes, it is important to observe that, "Shadows on the Rock is not only narrated as a series of stories,
it is also composed of different story genres: legends, hagiography, personal histories, miracles, adventure stories, dreams, visions, and historical vignettes," (64). Thus, there is an aspect of the novel which can appeal to every reader, regardless of s
Contemporary critics may not have realized all of possible influences of Cather's novel on readers, but in the 1930's, reviewers praised Shadows on the Rock for its elegant prose style, humanly believable characters, and picturesque descriptions of land
scape and domestic life. Cather's most recent novel at that time was the Death of the Archbishop (1927), which received the Gold Medal award of the American Academy of Art and Letters. By the time Shadows was published in 1931, Cather had already estab
lished a presence as a good seller of books and many critics referred to her well-established reputation for quality work and her growing literary stature as likely factors in influencing readers to purchase her new novel.
Cather herself was surprised that the novel was such a success. Alfred A. Knopf revealed that "Shadows on the Rock had the largest sale of any novel by Miss Cather published by us: over 183,000 copies through 1963,"
(ed. Slote and Faulkner 213). Cather literary expert James Woodress offers perhaps the most reasonable explanation for the popularity Shadows on the Rock achieved: "Willa Cather's importance results from a successful graft of her native experience on to
the roots and trunk of
European culture. . .The New World experience in her novels gives them character and drama, color, and romance---the emotional content. The Old World experience provides the texture, the ancient myth and symbol, the profundity---the intellectual content,"
(ed. Slote and Faulkner 47).
The most common arguments of the contemporary critics who viewed Shadows on the Rock with distaste were that it had it no interesting action, it was undramatic, its characters were flat, and it was not in tune with the class conflicts and struggles of th
e 1930's. It would seem that these critics missed several facts about the novel. Part of the beauty of the novel is the indirect, narrative aim of storytelling which so beautifully illustrates Cather's artistic, polished style of writing. In this form,
direct description of plot and live "action" are not as effective. Critic Deborah Carlin reinterprets the main literary criticism of the novel: "the sketchiness and brevity of the novel's characters and scenes, which critics have complained of as imagina
tive anemia and thin writing, might instead be read as part of the tradition of storytelling Cather records in, and as, the text," (65). On the other hand, Biographer Gerber accounts for historical factors in criticism, saying that, "It may well have bee
n that for too many people in the drastically broken American economy were having an impossibly rough time making any kind of life at all for themselves and their families to be overly concerned about demanding that life be lived on their own terms." It i
s difficult to determine whether literary factors or historical circumstances, or both were responsible for the negative treatments of the book, but these are reasonable interpretations of the possible mistakes in judgement made by contemporary critics.
There was barely any mention of Shadows on the Rock after the boom in sales that propelled it to the number two spot on the Fiction Bestsellers List, behind Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. This drop-off seems to be best explained by the circumstances of
the time period. Shadows on the Rock's publication in August, its religious undertones, and the fact that Cather was a well-respected author represented by a prominent publisher, made the novel a natural item on any literary Christmas list. It affected
its public in a quiet, persistent way, allowing them to temporarily escape their post-Depression problems by spending time in an imaginary place the real world could not touch, exploring the challenges of survival in a colonial outpost isolated in a har
sh wilderness. It is even possible that the tragic circumstances of her father's death and her mother's illness may have influenced some sympathetic and curious fans to read the work she managed to produce out of those devastating years. However, the mi
racle play structure and allegorical form of the novel were probably important reasons why Shadows on the Rock did not continue to be popular and hold the interest of twentieth century readers. To appreciate Shadows on the Rock, the reader must accept the
fact that the success of Cather's storytelling makes flatter characters and shadowy details a necessity when trying to communicate within an interwoven series of narratives. The average reader would probably not realize, or care to analyze, the unique s
pecifications of the miracle play genre and medieval literary influences found in the novel. Instead, they would claim that the book is nicely written, but rather dull. Therefore, the greatest attraction to Shadows on the Rock appears to be its author's
acknowledged merit as a good writer. If the reading public had fully embraced the author's concept, Shadows on the Rock would have continued to sell and receive notice in features and reviews after 1931. Instead, Willa Cather fans and literary scholars
of the early 1950's, late 1980's, and today, seem to be the major audience for Shadows on the Rock, as they examine the novel for its significance in for determining Cather's place in American literature and interpreting her other novels.
Cather's public persona may also have been an influence on the short-lived boom in her bestselling book. Cather was notorious for her reluctance to discuss herself or her writing. So resistant was she that she destroyed much of her correspondence and for
bade publication of letters she had sent to others, even extracting promises from her correspondents to burn those letters. And, after allowing Warner Brothers to produce a silent film version of her novel A Lost Lady in 1925, she refused all other film
offers. More access to information about herself and her novels could have increased sales, but at the cost of Cather's privacy. It is interesting to note that both Pearl S. Buck's Good Earth and Cather's Shadows on the Rock, the number one and two boo
ks, respectively, on the Fiction Bestseller List in 1931, dealt with distinctly different cultures from America and also shared themes of hardship. However, Pearl S. Buck was more willing to share information, was describing a culture with more exotic app
eal to American readers, and had produced a novel which would receive international recognition when she won the Pulitzer Prize. That Shadows on the Rock still managed to do well even in 1931 against such formidable competition shows that it filled a def
inite need in literature, but just did not have the qualities that make long-term popularity. And obviously, Cather was not interested in promoting her book by revealing personal information, which may have been significantly related to the novel's sales
among the general public. Cather almost refused to allow the Book-of-the-Month Club to feature Shadows on the Rock, but her permission to include it as a selection definitely helped increase the sales. Alfred Knopf notes that "by early September [of 1931
], the sale of Shadows had passed seventy-four thousand" (ed. Slote and Faulkner 214). Knopf further notes, "She never quite realized how widely known, admired, and respected she was, and how many people were eager to shake her hand. Thus she resented the
fat that she could not sit on a bench in Central Park for long before being recognized and spoken to by strangers. . . (215). The world of Shadows on the Rock was a private place that provided personal rejuvenation for Cather, and this sense of renewal a
nd rebirth deeply affected post-Depression readers who needed a gentle, surreal story and the opportunity to cling to a sturdy rock of peace and faith.
-Shadows on the Rock. By Willa Cather. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 1931.
-After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. By Merrill Maguire Skaggs.
University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville. 1990. PS3505. A87Z85
-Willa Cather (Revised Edition). By Philip Gerber. Twayne Publishers: New York. 1995.
-Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. By Deborah Carlin. University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst. 1992. PS 3505. A875916
-Willa Cather: Writing at the Frontier.By Jamie Ambrose. Berg Publishers Limited: Oxford. 1988.
-The Art of Willa Cather. Edited by Bernice Slote andVirginia Faulkner. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln. 1974. PS3505. A87Z489
-Willa Cather's Transforming Vision: New France and the American Northeast. By Gary Brienzo.
Susquehanna University Press: Selinsgrove. 1994. PS3505. A87Z5836
-Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. By E.K. Brown [Completed by Leon Edel]. Alfred A. Knopf:
New York. 1953. PS3505. A87Z584