If she merely bowed to you, merely looked at you, it constituted a personal relation. Something about her took hold of one in a flash; one became acutely conscious of her, of her fragility and grace, of her mouth which could say so much without words; of her eyes, lively, laughing, intimate, nearly always a little mocking” (I, Chpt. 3, p. 38).
Cather based the book on a portrait of a real woman and tried to make her come alive in Mrs. Forrester. Mrs. Forrester is fascinating, especially to men. She seems more intelligent and alive than others, like a movie star or royalty, gathering others to her.
“He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognized her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known” (I, Chpt. 3, p.45).
The story is told from the point of view of Niel Herbert, a young man from the town of Sweet Water, who adored Marian Forrester from boyhood. He recognized in her, even as a child, his ideal.
“It seemed a solemn moment, seemed to knock at the door of Fate; behind which all days, happy and otherwise were hidden. Niel drank his wine with a pleasant shiver, thinking that nothing else made life seem so precarious, the future so cryptic and unfathomable, as that brief toast uttered by the massive man, ‘Happy Days!’” (I, Chpt. IV, pp.54-55).
Niel idealizes Captain Forrester as much as he does Marian. The “massive man” is one of the pioneer men of the West, and when he drinks to the future, it reminds Niel of the inevitable passing of all things.
“How can anybody like to see time visibly devoured?” (II, Chpt. II, p. 118).
Captain Forrester has had a stroke and sits in his garden chair most of the day, watching the shadow creep across a sun-dial. Marian cannot understand and tells Niel about it. Marian is afraid of time passing and getting older.
“Money is a very important thing. Realize that in the beginning; face it, and don’t be ridiculous in the end, like so many of us” (II, Chpt. II, p. 120).
Marian Forrester gives advice to the young Niel. The Forresters have lost all their money because the Captain was honorable and paid back all the investors in his bank with his own funds. Marian cannot stand being poor.
“. . . was it another kind of cowardice, the fear of losing a pleasant memory, of finding her changed and marred, a dread of something that would throw a disenchanting light upon the past?” (II, Chpt. VII, p. 160).
Niel thinks this of Mr. Ogden, who wants to visit Marian Forrester after the Captain’s death but decides not to. He, like Niel, has been half in love with her, and like Niel, is afraid of losing his memory of the Forresters since Marian has become “a lost lady.”
“’I could feel his heart pump and his muscles strain,’ she said, ‘when he balanced himself and me on the rocks. I knew that if we fell, we’d go together; he would never drop me’” (II, Chpt. VIII, p. 175).
Marian tells the story of how she met the Captain. She had fallen and broken both legs in a mountain climbing accident. He carried her out of the canyon, and this incident led to their marriage. This speech is the key to her feeling for him, the security she felt with him.
“Niel felt tonight that the right man could still save her, even now. She was still her own indomitable self, going through her old part,–but only the stage hands were left to listen to her. All those who had shared in fine undertakings and bright occasions were gone” (II, Chpt. VIII, p. 176).
Marian is the aging “actress” trying to use her magic to captivate a group of young men who are too crude to understand her. Her youth and those who took part in her times are gone. Yet she still has that appeal that makes a man want to save her.
“The people, the very country itself, were changing so fast that there would be nothing to come back to. He had seen the end of an era, the sunset of the pioneer” (II, Chpt. IX, p. 177).
Niel goes to college and knows that what his hometown in the West has meant to him will be swallowed up by modern progress.
“ . . . she had always the power of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring” (II, Chpt. IX, p. 181).
Neil finally looks back on his memory of Mrs. Forrester without bitterness, understanding that like poetry, her power was in suggesting more than she was.