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On the Gull's Road: Setting & Characters

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Twenty years pass in this story of unrequited love aboard a ship. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the setting of 'On the Gull's Road' and discover tidbits of information about the characters in the tale.

Traveling the Gull's Road

Has anyone ever made a lasting impression on you, one that transcends 20 years and death? That's exactly what we find in Willa Cather's story, ''On the Gull's Road.'' Our unnamed narrator meets a woman so lovely that the story turns into his reminiscences of their encounter.

Let's meet this mysterious woman, learn more about the narrator and see where all of this takes place.

Characters in ''On the Gull's Road''

1. Alexandra Ebbling: Mrs. Ebbling is the star of the story. She is described as having a ''splendid, vigorous body,'' with red-gold hair ''drenched with sunlight.'' The narrator pores over her high cheekbones, gentle chin and ''the singular loveliness of the mouth.''

The narrator is smitten with her, even though she is married and has a child. Despite that, she appears to spend a good portion of her time aboard the Germania alone, looking at the water and enjoying the sunshine, and is content to do so. The picture that is painted shows a woman who is wise beyond her years.

That maturity might be attributed to her failing health: ''She had a bad heart valve, he added, and was in a serious way,'' or it could be her worldliness in having traveled a good portion of her life. ''Her uncle was a skipper on a coasting vessel, and with him she had made many trips along the Norwegian coast. But she was always reading and and thinking about the blue seas of the South.''

We also see her maturity bloom when refuting the narrator's advances. He is clearly consumed by her, even suggesting that the two run off together. Yet, she rebuffs him multiple times: ''She had been held too long and too closely in my thoughts, and she begged me to release her for a little while.''

Although her husband, an engineer aboard the ship, seems to treat her well, she appears lonely and defeated. It seems unlikely that she has not noticed her husband's advances toward other women, yet she tells the narrator she is grateful to him.

By her own admissions, we discover that Mrs. Ebbling is vain, the trait that stops her from pursuing a relationship with the narrator: ''I had much to give you, if you had come earlier. As it was, I was ashamed. Vanity sometimes saves us when nothing else will, and mine saved you.''

2. Narrator: The narrator is a classic example of the lovesick young man. Just 25 years of age when he is aboard the ship and meets Mrs. Ebbling, he is immediately drawn to her and cannot get her off his mind: ''I could not help thinking how disappointed I would be if rain should keep Mrs. Ebbling in her cabin tomorrow.'' That admission comes after the pair's very first encounter.

We could describe the narrator as naive, his lack of worldly experience making it seem possible to overcome the roadblocks in his way (Ebbling's husband, daughter and illness) in pursuit of what he wants: a relationship with Ebbling. He practically pouts when she turns him down: ''And yet you will do nothing, I groaned. You will dare nothing. You will give me nothing.''

As they journey together, the two spend a great deal of time together, talking ''like two very young persons,'' while he dwells on his youthfulness and seems to disregard her very grave medical condition. He cannot, or will not, accept Mrs. Ebbling's terminal condition: ''I heard an American lady say that she watched it like one who is going to die, but even that did not frighten me: I somehow felt that she had promised me to live.''

The narrator is clearly a very emotional character, having saved the box given to him by the woman all these years. The story tells us he hadn't opened the box for years, but had ''barely time to close the lid and defeat the disapproving gaze'' of Mrs. Hemway when she delivers his tea to his office in the present.

3. Lars Ebbling: Mrs. Ebbling's husband, he is identified as one of his wife's father's friends. Throughout the story, we get a picture of Ebbling as an unrefined character to his wife's more delicate nature. He is the chief engineer aboard the boat.

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