Willa Cather witnessed and deplored the vanishing of Midwestern rural life. In her short story “Neighbour Rosicky,” published in 1932, the title character is an old Czech in Nebraska who fears that his new daughter-in-law, Polly, a town girl, is so unhappy on the farm that she’ll make his son Rudy move to the city. On a Saturday evening, Rosicky drives to Polly and Rudy’s house, hoping to get them to take his car and go to a picture show. When he enters the house, Rudy is out in the barn. Polly politely declines his offer, says she has work to do, but he offers to wash the dishes.
Excerpt: Polly blushed and tossed her bob. “I couldn’t let you do that, Mr. Rosicky. I wouldn’t think of it.”
Rosicky said nothing. He found a bib apron on a nail behind the kitchen door. He slipped it over his head and then took Polly by her two elbows and pushed her gently toward the door of her own room. “I washed up de kitchen many times for my wife, when de babies was sick or somethin’. You go an’ make yourself look nice. I like you to look prettier’n any of dem town girls when you go in. De young folks must have some fun, an’ I’m goin’ to look out for you, Polly.”
My Take-away: The story reflects a favorite theme of Cather’s, that the rural life of the Midwest is vanishing as the younger generation leaves the farms for the cities. Rosicky’s offer to “look out for” Polly, to the point that he’d don an apron & clean up the kitchen, is the act of a desperate father trying to ensure that his son carry on his way of life.
This domestic gesture is made most significant when Rosicky says he washed up the kitchen many times for his wife when the babies were sick. Without stating it in so many words, Cather makes it clear that a man would only do a woman’s work in extreme circumstances. This passage lets us know that keeping his son on the farm is one of the most important things in his life.