Death Comes for the Archbishop By Willa Cather Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapter 1

Summary

It is an autumn afternoon in 1851, and Jean Latour is lost in the New Mexico desert. He remembers his year-long trek from Cincinnati, Ohio, and a series of misadventures en route. His worldly possessions, except his books, were lost in a shipwreck in Galveston harbor. On the trip west, he injured his leg in a wagon accident and was delayed six months.

A year after leaving Mississippi, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant rode in a wagon train into Santa Fe, but the parishioners would not accept the new bishop without confirmation from the Bishop of Durango, prompting Latour to make the journey to Durango. Father Latour is now returning from the nearly 3,000-mile round-trip to Mexico, upon which he gets lost.

Believing himself to be hopelessly lost, Latour closes his eyes. When he reopens them, he sees a juniper in the form of the cross. He kneels at the base of the juniper to make his devotions and rises refreshed.

Following his devotions, Latour's horses smell water. He follows them for an hour until they lead him to a stream. Latour is greeted by a young woman at the stream who cannot believe that a priest has actually come to her village.

Analysis

Latour has endured many hardships to assume his new appointment. Once there, he has to endure the further hardship of a diocese that does not accept his authority. Stoically, Latour embarks for Mexico to procure the proper paperwork from the Bishop of Durango. Cather relates these hardships in a matter-of-fact tone that heightens the readers' perception of the Bishop's quiet acceptance of his duties.

In Latour's thirst, he identifies with Christ's cry on the cross, "I thirst." He thinks perhaps this is the end of his life and blames himself for the suffering of the horses. His quiet religious devotion, however, will not allow him to succumb to despair. He closes his eyes and reopens them to see a juniper tree in the form of the cross. He says his devotions, and, miraculously, the horses lead him to water. He sees a young boy shepherding goats at the river, a clear reference to Jesus as the shepherd of His people.

The religious nature of Latour prevents him from displaying despair in the desert or frustration with the necessity of traveling to visit the Bishop of Durango. He accepts the situations and tasks at hand, and his deep faith is rewarded by signs in the desert that eventually lead him to water and the village. By portraying Latour and his predicaments in such a fashion, Cather acknowledges the quiet presence of God in the lives of those patient enough to recognize the signs.

Father Latour is as much concerned for his animals as he is for himself. In appearance, he has an "open, generous, reflective brow," and his features are depicted as "handsome and somewhat severe." He wears a buckskin jacket but is a man of refined and distinguished manners. He appears to be courteous to his environment, his animals, and to God, and Cather describes him as "a man of gentle birth@ — brave, sensitive, courteous."

Glossary

devotions one or more prayers or other religious practices.

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