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On the Gull's Road: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

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

A chance encounter on a ship leads to life-changing circumstances for the main character in Willa Cather's 'On the Gull's Road.' In this lesson, we'll summarize and analyze the short story.

Summary of ''On the Gull's Road''

''On the Gull's Road'' begins with the artist speaking to a friend in his home and ends when he finally opens the mysterious gift. Author Willa Cather chose to break up the story into simple sections, so we'll do the same. Read on.

Part One

When the story opens and we meet the story's narrator; he is an artist chatting with a friend at his home. As the two talk, the visitor notices a sketch of a woman named Alexandra Ebbling. He is so drawn to the image that his eyes are focused on it as he moves to leave: ''...it was only by turning sharply about that he took his eyes away from her.''

The sketch causes the narrator to think back on Mrs. Ebbling, and he flashes back to the time they became acquainted. That is how the remainder of the story plays out:

The artist was a young man when he was working in Italy, heading home aboard the Germania to New York City. Almost immediately upon boarding the ship, he comes upon a woman, ''apparently ill, who lay with her eyes closed, and in her open arm was a chubby little red-haired girl, asleep.'' He is immediately smitten with the woman and remarks about her ''red-gold hair'' being drenched in sunlight and about the ''singular loveliness'' of her mouth.

The narrator finds a brief affair of the heart aboard a ship.
gulls, road, willa, cather, ebbling

All day, the woman sits in her lounge chair alone while the little girl plays on the deck. The narrator gets his first glimpse of Mrs. Ebbling's husband, the ship's chief engineer, when he arrives on the deck. He is a heavy man in uniform, ''his trim coat was hidden by waves of soft blond beard, as long and heavy as a woman's hair ... He wore a large turquoise ring upon the thick hand that he rubbed good-humoredly over the little girl's head.'' Later, the narrator spies the man flirting with another woman aboard the ship. The Doctor tells the narrator that Ebbling must behave himself this trip because his wife, ill with a bad heart valve, is traveling with him.

Part Two

The days pass and, though the narrator enjoys some time on shore, Mrs. Ebbling is confined to the boat. They talk about the trip, her family, her illness, where she was from, and ''a hundred trivial things,'' remembers the narrator.

Part Three

When Part Three begins, the narrator starts working on his drawing of Mrs. Ebbling, using it as an ''opportunity to study her face; to look as long as I pleased into her yellow eyes, at the noble lines of her mouth, at her splendid, vigorous hair.''

Readers get an insight into the narrator's growing feelings for the married woman and his frustration at having just met a woman who has changed his life. He is saddened that she is ill in the prime of her life.

Part Four

As the journey continues and nears the end, the narrator admits his love for Mrs. Ebbling and begs her to run away with him. She, too, expresses feelings for him, but shares her gratefulness to her husband and tells the narrator not to ask her to join him: ''You forget that - that I am too ill to begin my life over. Even if there were nothing else in the way, that would be enough.''

As the ship nears port, Mrs. Ebbling presents the narrator with a gift, a little box that he is not to open until he hears from her again.

Months pass, and the narrator has spent the winter in New York with ''a good many idle hours in which to think of Mrs. Ebbling.'' He considers traveling to try to find her, but doesn't. In March, he receives a letter from the woman's father that she has passed away. A second letter is enclosed in the mailing.

Inside of the letter, Mrs. Ebbling finally gives him permission to open the gift. Inside is a lock of her hair, a withered magnolia, (a long ago gift from the narrator) and two pink sea shells. Twenty years have passed since their encounter, but the gifts --and the portrait of Mrs. Ebbling--remain a powerful force in the narrator's life.

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