Poor misguided Claude. Somehow, despite clear warnings from Enid’s father and Enid’s own clear statement that she doesn’t feel well-suited to marriage, he’s convinced her to marry him. And now she’s acting strangely, more interested in the house he’s building than in him, detached from the romance he was expecting. Well, thank goodness marriage is a magic spell that transforms each woman into the wife her husband had always wanted.
Worst of all, of course, is that Claude is just beginning to realize what I could have told him long ago: that Gladys Farmer, the schoolteacher and his childhood friend, was the woman for him. She has always believed in his talent, and she feels it would be a grave tragedy for Claude to live out an empty life as a farmer trudging crops to the station—only with her could he ever have the life he wants. But Claude’s older brother, Bayliss, has his sights set on Gladys, so Claude could never really step in and claim her love, even if she made it clear that she loved him, even if he was not already engaged. There’s a heaviness to this realization—good or bad, with Newland Archer, you didn’t sense that he’d let his marriage to May be an anchor around his neck, but Claude’s innate sense of honor and duty seem to be forming a cage around him. By the end of Book II (there are five “books” to the novel), Claude is, in fact, married to Enid, and he seems resigned to a very cold and loveless life indeed. It’s not clear what Enid’s approach to marriage will be, but I doubt she will forgive Claude easily for convincing her into a union she never truly wanted.
In the background (but coming rapidly to the fore) is the Great War—it is the summer of 1915 by the time Claude marries Enid. There’s something really fascinating about watching the news of the war spread: Mrs. Wheeler dragging a map of Europe out of the attic into the sitting room, where she can study it as she reads the daily papers, asking Claude to read aloud from encyclopedia articles about French towns. Ernest Havel explaining painfully to Claude why the soldiers in the Austrian army have no real choice in the matter…that they must fight or face persecution and violence. Cather’s uneven here. Sometimes her characters are too knowing. They see the war too clearly, and speak with too distant a historical eye on the proceedings. It’s a bit reminiscent of Ernest Poole in those moments (see my notes on His Family for more). But as often, if not more often, I think she retains her strengths: she places the war in very real Nebraska terms, and it’s complicated. Claude and his mother have to reconcile what the papers say about Germans with their German friends—people like the Erlichs—who bear no resemblance to the “Huns” who apparently aim at devouring Europe. War means fear and death, but also prosperity: Mr. Wheeler has never worked so hard to plant so much wheat, knowing that the prices for grain will go sky high due to the war. And underneath everything, the war looks eerily like the manifestation of what she positions herself against—the elevation of machine over humanity, the march of industrial “progress” slowly crushing the life out of the world. You don’t have to agree with Cather to find this a powerful theme.
And because I continue to really enjoy Cather’s clear and serious tone, I’ll include another short passage from this section, in which Claude and his mother have just discussed what it means that the government of France has fled south out of Paris:
“It was curious, he reflected, lying wide awake in the dark: four days ago the seat of government had been moved to Bordeaux,—with the effect that Paris seemed suddenly to have become the capital, not of France, but of the world! He knew he was not the only farmer boy who wished himself tonight beside the Marne. … One’s manners wouldn’t matter on the Marne tonight, the night of the eighth of September, 1914. There was nothing on earth he would so gladly be as an atom in that wall of flesh and blood that rose and melted and rose again before the city which had meant so much through all the centuries—but had never meant so much before. Its name had come to have the purity of an abstract idea. In great sleepy continents, in land-locked harvest towns, in the little islands of the sea, for four days men watched that name as they might stand out at night to watch a comet, or to see a star fall.”