Reading Mindfully: Willa Cather’s “On the Gulls’ Road”

Reading Mindfully: Willa Cather’s “On the Gulls’ Road”

Each month, we pause for a moment to read mindfully, using literature as a springboard to think about, and to practice, compassion, empathy and awareness – of ourselves and of the world we live in.

American author Willa Cather’s novels evoke the landscapes of the American west, from the plains of Nebraska to Colorado’s Mesa Verde, and they depict frontier life in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Though she is primarily known for longer works such as My Ántonia, O Pioneers and The Song of the Lark, Cather began her career as a poet and writer of short stories, and published many of them throughout her life.

“On the Gulls’ Road” (1908) takes place at sea rather than in the American west. Nonetheless, Cather’s short story attends to landscape and seascape, as well as the relationships between people, in a manner similar to her better-known works.

As you read “On the Gulls’ Road,” consider these questions:

  • At the beginning of the story the narrator reflects (about Mrs. Ebbling), “Out of all that is supposed to make for happiness, she had very little.” What relationships do the things that are “supposed to make for happiness” have with actual happiness? Where does beauty fit in?
  • Throughout the story, Cather offers us images of water. How does the story use water as a metaphor for life and self-determination?
  • “On the Gulls’ Road” offers readers competing depictions of courage. Which portrayal captures the nature of courage most accurately? Why?

On the Gulls’ Road
By Willa Cather

Image via the Willa Cather Archive, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Image via the Willa Cather Archive, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

It often happens that one or another of my friends stops before a red chalk drawing in my study and asks me where I ever found so lovely a creature. I have never told the story of that picture to anyone, and the beautiful woman on the wall, until yesterday, in all these twenty years has spoken to noone but me. Yesterday a young painter, a countryman of mine, came to consult me on a matter of business, and upon seeing my drawing of Alexandra Ebbling, straightway forgot his errand. He examined the date upon the sketch and asked me, very earnestly, if I could tell him whether the lady were still living. When I answered him, he stepped back from the picture and said slowly:

“So long ago? She must have been very young. She was happy?”

Keep reading the story here, or listen to it on YouTube.

Image: Frederic Leighton, The Isle of Chios, c. 1867, Manchester Art Gallery, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Reading Mindfully: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited
Reading Mindfully: Leo Tolstoy’s “Three Questions”
Reading Mindfully: Wendell Berry’s Poetry

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Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.