A month later Marian comes to the Judge’s office wearing new clothes in a good mood and begs Niel to come to her dinner party. It will be all young people. He doesn’t want to because Ivy Peters will be there, but he gives in.
Ivy acts the host, pouring cocktails, and his sister helps Mrs. Forrester, who had cooked a turkey dinner for eight people. Niel is critical, wondering why she is wasting herself on these ignorant young men from town, who don’t know the difference between her tableware and the dime store’s. The boys are crude and do not know the art of conversation. He tries to help out but gives up. These boys would rather have a beer and a steak and speak of sports. He of course thinks the evening a failure, but he prompts Mrs. Forrester to tell the story of how she met the Captain. Then she comes to life.
She skips the prologue that Niel has heard from his uncle, that as a girl of nineteen, she was engaged to a millionaire, Ned Montgomery, who was shot and killed in San Francisco by another woman’s husband. To spare her from the murder trial, she was whisked to a cabin in the Sierras.
Marian leaves that part out but starts the story in the Sierras. There, on a lark, she persuaded Fred Harney, a young mountain climber, to take her down the face of Eagle Cliff. The rope broke, he fell and died, and she broke both legs and could not move. Nobody knew where they were, but Captain Forrester found her and got her out by carrying her over treacherous trails. He stayed with her as she healed, and they were married. Niel has the thought as she finishes the tale that the right man could still save her.
Commentary on Chapter VIII
The dinner party seems a pathetic failure to Niel. He has seen her with the Dalzells, Marshall Field, and the president of the Union Pacific. With Ivy and his friends, “she was using up all her vitality to electrify these heavy lads into speech” (p. 171). Niel, however, saves the evening by prompting her to tell the dramatic story of meeting her husband.
The story itself is the culminating piece of evidence in the history of Marian Forrester, allowing us to see more of where she came from and why she married the Captain. She leaves out the first part about the murder of her fiancé. Until she meets the Captain, who is 25 years older, she seems to have run wild with a strange set of people who had money but no ethics. First there is the millionaire she is engaged to, who is having an affair with a married woman and then gets murdered. One can imagine what sort of marriage that would have been, had he lived.
Marian is then taken to the mountains for protection where her father’s partner has a cabin. Again, she runs around with all the young men available and persuades Fred Harney to take her mountain climbing. He is an expert, but she is not. They tell no one where they are going. He dies, and she almost does. The young Marian is plucky but irresponsible. Disaster follows her.
Some of these details are reminiscent of themes and characters in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose book came out two years later. Daisy Buchanan is like Marian Forrester, Nick Carraway like Niel, and Gatsby somewhat like the Captain. Fitzgerald wrote a letter to Cather stating that the similarity of the books was an accident.
Marian’s story suggests why she married the Captain. She was in so much pain as they carried her out of the mountains, she fainted over and over, but she never cried out. The Captain carried her in the most dangerous places: “I knew that if we fell, we’d go together; he would never drop me” (p. 175). The Captain has always been a mountain of strength and protection to her. He values her; he knows her, he won’t let her drop. The young men were exciting, but they could not protect her or value her. The Captain is like a father, and that is both a plus and a minus. As long as he is rich and respected and can travel and ride a horse, he is man enough. She cannot handle being poor and growing old before her time, however. She reverts to her wild behavior to save herself.
And why did the Captain love her, knowing her character? There is something “indomitable” about her, as Niel says. She loves adventure, like the Captain; she risks and does not cry out when she is hurt. He admires her courage, her strength, fascination, and something more. Niel says “the right man could save her, even now” (p. 176). Marian has a way of appealing to the knighthood in men—in Niel, Mr. Ogden, the Captain. Good men want to save her.
Niel sees her now, going through her same part, the same appeal, but “only the stage-hands were left” to hear her performance. Her real audience of peers is gone. (p. 176). She invites Niel to the party because he is one of the few who can appreciate her and draw her out. He has been part of her true audience, and she knows it.