My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy

First edition
Author Willa Cather
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)

My Mortal Enemy is the eighth novel by American author Willa Cather. It was first published in 1926.[1]

Plot summary

Myra and her husband Oswald return to their fictional hometown of Parthia, Illinois, to visit their relatives. Nellie and Aunt Lydia then leave to spend the Christmas holiday in New York City with them. They live on Madison Square. They dine with Ewan Gray, a friend who has an infatuation with another actress, Esther Sinclair. Oswald receives silver-buttons for his shirt from an old Western acquaintance, and asks Lydia to pretend she gave them to him to thwart his wife's jealousy. Later Myra and Nellie go to the opera; in a lodge they spot an erstwhile friend of Myra's, which makes her sad. Later they take a hansom around a park and chance upon a rich acquaintance of Myra's, which leads her to be scornful over her own poverty. They spend Christmas dinner with friends of the Henshawes - both artists and people of privilege. Later they spend New Year's Eve with artists again. A few days later Nellie witnesses the Henshawes argue; the husband takes her out to lunch. Soon after, she and her aunt are to return to Illinois. On the train, they are joined by Myra, who has argued with her husband again and is going to visit a friend in Pittsburgh for a change of scenery.

Ten years later, Nellie moved into a shabby flat in a little town on the west coast, and bumps into the Henshawes. Myra is now bedridden and Oswald works full-time; their upstairs neighbours are atrociously noisy, regardless of Myra's illness. Nellie takes to visiting her at tea-time; she also takes her out by the sea. Myra expresses her regrets over her husband. (If she had not married him, her great-uncle would have bequeathed her his fortune. Instead, she eloped and he gave it away to the church.) Oswald takes to having lunch with a young woman. Once, Nellie asks her why she is so harsh on her husband, and Myra dismisses her. Shortly after, her condition gets worse. She dismisses everyone and runs away; she is found dead by the seaside the following day. Her husband expresses no remorse about his wife; he loved her despite her difficult conduct. After her death he moves to Alaska and later Nellie hears about his death.


Allusions to other works

Literary significance and criticism

It has been suggested that the novel 'represents the bitter apotheosis of the issues of exile Cather worked on all of her life'.[2]


  1. "And Death Comes for Willa Cather, Famous Author". Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. 25 April 1947 via North Side: Willa Cather, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
  2. Laura Winters, Willa Cather: Landscape and Exile, Susquehanna University Press, January 1994, page 54
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