“Optima dies… prima fugit,” (Virgil). This simple yet powerful statement is the quote chosen by Willa Cather to set the expectational theme for her 1918 novel My Ántonia. The classic adage translates to “the best days are the first to flee”, which perfectly expresses My Ántonia’s general themes of longing, perception of the past, and fondness of memory. While Jim has a fruitful childhood filled with remiss optimism for the future, his ultimate fate is to lead a bland adult life. This reality steers Jim to be constantly stuck in the past, escaping from the present. As an adult, he glamorizes his adolescent past a realistic point in order to avoid the inevitable future. On the contrary, Ántonia is satisfied and content with her life, as misfortune humbles her. The epigraph’s nostalgic tone anticipates a harsh juxtaposition between Jim’s romanticized childhood and Ántonia’s satisfaction with her lifestyle.
Jim lives his younger years biased by the honest happiness that comes with being a child. He never has reason to be concerned, with a financially satisfied, happy, and fortunate family. When Jim conveys, “this was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither” (Cather 247), he patently knows nothing of what is in store for his future, as he and Ántonia are mere “wondering children”. For her part, Ántonia is invariably immersed in pauperdom and pennilessness, yet develops her relationship with Jim as an escape. They share many thrills, such as when “[their] tree became the talking tree of the fairy tale; legends and stories nestled like birds in its branches” (Cather 59). Jim holds her in high regard for this trait; she has humble joy despite persevering through situations Jim could never imagine. In his adolescence, Jim says, “I read ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ aloud to her, and I felt that the Swiss family had no advantages over us in the way of an adventurous life” (Cather 48). They are the ideal pair, as Ántonia admires Jim for his possession of what she craves, while Ántonia’s lifestyle gives her an adventurous appeal for Jim. As a child, Jim easily refrains from concerning himself with real-world problems, while Ántonia has no option. This contrast proves that a child-like mentality attached to memories is a primary contributor to Jim’s preference for living in the past.
Ántonia is less affected by comparing her current way of living to her past because they are so similar, while living with hardships eases Jim’s ability to recall fond memories. He states, “This is reality, whether you like it or not-all those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth” (Cather 119). Jim, whose life has become the product of bland shades of black and white, can reflect on his colorful childhood and mistake these vivid experiences for fun. Reality hits Jim hard, and offers quite a contrast to his fantastical childhood. Before growing up, Jim effortlessly mocked the routine life-styles of those living in cookie-cutter houses, never suspecting the contents of such witticism to become his eventual fate as an adult. This disappointing truth causes Jim to constantly dawdle over the past, as detailed in the following quote: “Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again” (Cather 220). Meanwhile, Ántonia persistently lives in a reality filled with suffering and despair, and is less affected by the lack of gaiety. She tells Jim, “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us,” (Cather 97). This mindset aids Ántonia in appreciating her younger years truthfully for what they are, rather than with relativity to the present, since she knows the future to bring no promises.
Throughout Jim’s life, from childhood to adulthood, his reflections on and perception of the past are altered significantly by comparing himself to Ántonia. Yet Ántonia has not a clue what to expect of her future. As she recalls through Jim, “A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can. Maybe there won’t be any tent next year” (Cather 142). The unpredictability provides her with an opportunity for hope and optimism. Unlike Ántonia, Jim has a preconception of a successful future and therefore expects nothing less. His relationship with Ántonia is strengthened by his esteem for her adventurous life. That being said, for the teenagers, the suicide of Mr. Shimerda does not affect Jim directly because he was close to Mr. Shimerda, but rather because of his close friendship with Ántonia. He is saddened by her being upset, and ultimately can sympathize, yet never empathize. Jim admires Ántonia so much as a teenager that he never wants his opinion to be tainted, even when he is a mature adult. He muses, “I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again” (Cather 220). Jim, as an adult, knows that his best days have fled, as the epigraph foreshadowed, and fixates on memories to relive his best days.
If the best days are the first to flee, then Jim’s foremost experiences are already behind him. Ántonia is aware from the start that her youth will be the acme of her life, and thus strives to make her adolescence ideal. Jim finds out later, through experience, that his early years will be the pinnacle of his life, after the time passes for him to truly savor the adventures. Jim constantly reminds himself of better days, a habit which explains why he lingers on his adventures with Ántonia: “As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass” (Cather 218). In this manner, Jim adjusts his memories, making them more vivid and adventurous so that he can flee from the agony of reality and of having grown up.
This idea of Jim and Ántonia’s perceptions of the past is easily applicable to the real world. Much like Jim, people who lack true excitement in their lives have a tendency to fabricate thrill through memory, while people like Ántonia cannot afford to live in the past when memories are just as bad as the present. The way a person interprets the past is easily altered by comparing a former lifestyle to a current lifestyle, a friend’s more difficult lifestyle, or even lack of optimism for a future lifestyle. These real-life themes which connect directly to My Ántonia are, once more, found in the astute words of Virgil: “Optima dies… prima fugit.”