56 pages 1 hour read

Willa Cather

A Lost Lady

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1923

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Lost Lady” was published by American author Willa Cather in 1923. Set at the end of the 19th century, this western novel chronicles Marian Forrester’s life through the eyes of Niel Herbert, a young boy from the railroad town of Sweet Water. The Forresters’ decline in financial and social position mirrors the decline of the pioneer era; the contrast between this idealized era and the exploitative capitalist one comprises the novel’s main theme. The Lost Lady was so popular it was adapted to film twice, in 1924 and 1934, and is considered to have influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), with many critics and readers noting similarities between Mrs. Forrester and Daisy Buchanan.

Plot Summary

Mrs. Forrester’s husband, Captain Daniel Forrester, is a prominent railroad contractor. He is of the elite pioneer class, greatly respected by other industry titans who settled the west. The Forresters frequently entertain railroad executives and other influential people as they stop on their way to their destinations. These men admire Mrs. Forrester, as she is beautiful, charming, and has the unique ability to captivate every man who meets her. Every winter, the Forresters return to their home in Colorado.

The Forresters are Sweet Water’s elite citizens, along with Judge Pommeroy. Niel Herbert, the judge’s nephew, is a middle-class boy with good manners that set him apart from his peers, whose fathers are laborers and tradesmen. One day while playing with his friends on the Forresters’ land, Niel is injured when a cruel older boy named Ivy Peters cuts out a woodpecker’s eyes and Niel climbs a tree to put the bird out of its misery. Niel falls and is knocked unconscious, so Ivy carries him to the Forresters’ house. As Mrs. Forrester tends to him, Niel is enthralled by her graciousness and by her elegant home.

Years later, Niel is invited to the Forresters’ house along with his uncle, who has been Captain Forrester’s lawyer and friend for decades. Niel’s father moved away after his business failed, so Niel stays with his uncle and studies his law books. At dinner, Niel meets Frank Ellinger, a businessman from Denver, and the Ogden family, including Constance Ogden, a young woman Niel’s age. Mrs. Forrester asks Niel to entertain Constance, but she is instead attracted to Frank Ellinger. It is revealed through a point of view apart from Niel’s that Mrs. Forrester is having an affair with Frank Ellinger.

Niel begins to spend a great deal of time at the Forresters’ home, and he aspires to their refined lifestyle. He falls in love with the captivating Mrs. Forrester, who is the most charming and perfect woman he has ever encountered. Niel views Captain Forrester as a role model, as he is a man of high moral character. Captain Forrester loses his fortune when his bank in Colorado fails and he insists on fully paying the depositors, though the other bank directors only offer them cents on the dollar. Niel becomes disillusioned when he discovers that Frank Ellinger shares Mrs. Forrester’s bedroom while her husband is away. This realization that his ideal woman is unfaithful to her husband causes a loss of innocence for Niel. Captain Forrester suffers a stroke due to the stress of his financial loss. The Forresters are forced to retire to Sweet Water, to the dismay of Mrs. Forrester, who cherishes the much more sophisticated society in Colorado.

Niel decides to study architecture instead of law and leaves to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before leaving, he goes to say goodbye to the Forresters, though he is uncomfortable because he knows of Mrs. Forrester’s affair.

Two years later, Niel returns home for the summer. He meets Ivy Peters, who has become a lawyer, on the train into town. Niel learns that Ivy has leased the Forresters’ marshland and is cultivating it, which angers Niel because Captain Forrester had always loved the wildness and the marsh’s natural beauty. The Forresters had no choice in the matter, because they are in dire financial straits. Upon visiting them, Niel finds that Captain Forrester has aged and grown heavy, spending all his time sitting in his rose garden and watching his sun dial. Mrs. Forrester is still beautiful but has aged as well. Ivy Peters hangs around their property, speaking rudely to Captain Forrester and acting overly familiar with Mrs. Forrester. Niel asks her why they tolerate Ivy, but Mrs. Forrester replies that Ivy is a good businessman and is helping her invest money.

Niel reads in the Denver newspaper that Frank Ellinger married Constance Ogden. As he fears, Mrs. Forrester finds out and shows up drunk at his uncle’s office in the middle of the night, demanding to use the telephone. Niel manages to cut the telephone cord so that the telephone operator does not hear all of Mrs. Forrester’s tirade. After she passes out, Niel puts her to bed, asks his uncle to sit with her, and goes to make sure Captain Forrester is all right.

Captain Forrester suffers another stroke and becomes incapacitated, forcing his wife to care for him completely. She has a nervous breakdown and is so overwhelmed that she must accept help from the women of the town. The women pitilessly mock and gossip about Mrs. Forrester, which offends Niel, so he takes a year off from school to care for the Forresters himself. Captain Forrester passes away, having expressed his gratitude to Niel for letting him end his life in a dignified manner. Mrs. Forrester has his sun dial placed on his grave, along with rose bushes from his garden.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Forrester increasingly behaves in ways that upset Niel. She replaces his uncle with Ivy Peters as her lawyer, and Niel discovers that Mrs. Forrester expects Ivy to help her sell her house for more than it is worth. Ivy spends more time at Mrs. Forrester’s house, bringing other young men from town with him, which leads to more gossip. Niel tries to warn Mrs. Forrester that people are talking about her, but she claims not to care. She tells Niel that she still has a life to live, and she is determined to make enough money to escape Sweet Water. Mrs. Forrester tries to put together a dinner party like the elegant parties she held in the past, inviting Niel, Ivy, and young men from town, but it does not go well. Niel saves the evening by asking Mrs. Forrester to tell the story of how she met her husband. As she tells the fairytale-like story, Niel experiences his old feelings for her and thinks that she could still be saved after all, if only the right man were there to do so.

Niel prepares to return to Boston and goes to see Mrs. Forrester. Through a window, he sees Ivy Peters embrace Mrs. Forrester. Feeling betrayed and angry, Niel leaves town without saying goodbye, feeling like he wasted a year of his life.

Over the years, Niel forgives Mrs. Forrester. He’s glad that he knew her and thankful for her role in shaping the man he became. Niel runs into Ed Elliot, an old friend from Sweet Water on business in Chicago. Ed shares that he saw Mrs. Forrester in Buenos Aires while on a business trip. She had remarried a wealthy Englishman and was living a life of luxury again. Niel wonders if she is still alive, but Ed says she passed away a few years ago, and her husband sent money to maintain Captain Forrester’s grave on behalf of his late wife. Niel is glad that Mrs. Forrester regained the position in life that she deserved, that in the end she was not a lost lady.