26 pages 52 minutes read

Willa Cather

Neighbour Rosicky

Fiction | Short Story | Adult

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: "Neighbour Rosicky"

In an office in rural Nebraska, Doctor Burleigh diagnoses Anton Rosicky with heart failure. Rosicky is a sixty-five-year-old Czech immigrant with a good-natured disposition, and he reacts calmly and even amusedly to the news. Although he reluctantly agrees to leave the heavy labor to his five sons, he stubbornly refuses to give up his coffee.

The two men chat pleasantly for a while. Doctor Burleigh is troubled, because he is very fond of Rosicky. He begins to think about an incident the previous winter, when he had come straight to the Rosickys after delivering a neighbor's baby. In contrast to their wealthy but overworked neighbors, the Rosickys had provided him with a hearty breakfast; for Mary, Anton Rosicky's wife, "It was a rare pleasure to feed a young man whom she seldom saw and of whom she was as proud as if he belonged to her" (Part I, Paragraph 26). He spent a pleasant meal talking with the Rosickys and left wondering why the family never seemed to thrive financially, ultimately concluding that it might not be possible to "enjoy your life and put it into the bank, too" (Part I, Paragraph 44).

Back in the present, Rosicky leaves Doctor Burleigh and stops at a store to pick up some fabric for his wife, bantering with the shopgirl, Pearl, as he does so.He then drives home on his wagon, pausing for a while by a cemetery; although he doesn't want to die anytime soon, Rosicky likes the "snug and homelike" feel of the graveyard, as well as its proximity to his farmlands (Part II, Paragraph 13).

Once Rosicky arrives home, his wife presses him for information on his health, and he good-humoredly scolds her for her anxiety. Mary decides to go visit Doctor Burleigh herself, however, and privately thinks about how much she loves her husband. Mary is a "rough farm girl" who deeply appreciates her husband's "gentle" nature (Part II, Paragraph 32). The couple has also always been in tune with one another, particularly in their determination "not to hurry through life, not to be always skimping and saving" (for example, by selling cream for a profit, rather than giving it to their children) (Part II, Paragraph 33).

After Mary goes to talk to Doctor Burleigh, she and the children go out of their way to prevent Rosicky from doing any hard work. As a result, he spends a good deal of the winter mending and sewing, which gives him time to think back over his life. He finds his memories of apprenticeship in London unpleasant, but the time he later spent as a tailor in New York Citywas largely happy. He particularly enjoyed going to the opera, even though it meant spending his hard-earned money. Ultimately, however, he began to feel stifled by city life and cut off from the natural world, so he decided to find work as a farmhand in one of the Czech settlements out west.

One Saturday, Rosicky tells his family that he'd like to lend the car to his eldest son, Rudolph, that night. Rudolph has recently married a town-girl named Polly, and Rosicky is concerned she may be growing restless. He therefore takes the car to the couple with instructions to go see a movie; Polly objects at first, but finally gives in to Rosicky's encouragement, pausing for a moment to ask whether Rosicky doesn't find life in the country "lonesome" (Part IV, Paragraph 19). Rosicky promises to tell her about London sometime, and then tidies the house up after Rudolph and Polly leaves. As he does so, he thinks more about Polly, worrying that her dissatisfaction with rural life may lead Rudolph to give up farming and take work in the city: "To Rosicky that meant the end of everything for his son. To be a landless man was to be a wage-earner, a slave, all your life; to have nothing, to be nothing" (Part IV, Paragraph 32).

On Christmas Eve, Rudolph and Polly join the rest of the Rosickys for dinner. They discuss the outlook for the coming season, and Rudolph predicts there will be "hard times" if the weather stays dry, hinting that he may go to work on a railroad or at a packing house if things don't improve (Part V, Paragraph 5). At this point, Mary breaks in with a story of a heat wave one summer that ruined the entire crop of corn in a day; despite the loss, Rosicky insisted that the family enjoy what they had by having a picnic. Privately, however, Rudolph is unconvinced that this was the right decision, since other families in the area have enjoyed more financial success. He also worries that Polly is not enjoying herself, since she seems to find Mary's "hearty frankness" off-putting (Part V, Paragraph 22).

Rosicky then recounts a story from his time in London. He was living with his employer, Lifschnitz, at the time, and was so constantly hungry that on Christmas Eve he ended up eating half the goose Mrs. Lifschnitz was preparing. Once he realized what he'd done, he felt guilty, because the Lifschnitzes were poor themselves and had several children. He therefore went out into the streets and wandered around until he found some fellow Czech immigrants who would give him enough money to buy Christmas dinner for the Lifschnitz family. Not long afterwards, these same immigrants helped Rosicky pay for passage to New York City, in order to start a new life.When Rosicky finishes his story, Rudolph and Polly return home, and Polly suggests inviting his family over for New Year's Eve.

The rest of the winter and spring prove dry, and Rosicky worries about what the weather will mean for Rudolph and Polly. He does not want his son to take a job in a city, in large part because he feels that cities encourage greed and cruelty. Since Rudolph and the other children are busy tending to the corn fields, Rosicky decides one day to help out by clearingthe weeds from the family alfalfa field. The work brings on a pain in his chest, but Polly fortunately finds Rosicky before he collapses and brings him inside her house, to lie down. She tends to him until he is feeling better, and as he thanks her, she suddenly realizes the depth of his affection for her. Rosicky, meanwhile, is reassured by Polly's kindness and feels certain that "everything [will come] out right in the end" (Part VI, Paragraph 28).

Rosicky dies the next day, while Doctor Burleigh is out of town. When Burleigh returns, he stops by the cemetery and reflects on how fitting a resting-place it is for Rosicky: "Nothing could be more right for a man who had helped to do the work of great cities and had always longed for the open country and had got to it at last" (Part VI, Paragraph 32).