Analysis Of How Willa Cather In My Antonia Strengthens Stereotypical Gender Roles

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

My Antonia by Willa Cather is full of powerful female protagonists. Every female throughout the novel has a dominant demeanor which drives her to become happy in her choice of life at the end of the book. In the book, women take over the household, make decisions, and perform labor on the field, just like men. My Antonia shows more than just the challenges of living in a strange land due to the realization of the feminist ideology of the women we meet. Antonia, the main protagonist, is represented by her essence, mind and attitude power, while Jim, the male narrator, is seen as absent-minded and powerless. Willa Cather’s female stance towards this specific historical era enlightens the duties women took in the Prairie. I will argue that the gender roles in My Antonia reject society traditions in the late 19th century by portraying women as strong independent characters while men are weak.

Boethel suggests during this period, gender expectations were already defined. Especially taking place before the Victorian Era. She argues that “Most were women who believed in the established Victorian values about the roles in capacities of women- believed that women and men had separate strengths and proper spheres of operation and that woman’s sphere was “home and earth”. Before the 19th century, there was a specific distinction on gender norms. Women were seen as less superior and incapable of performing what men were. Boethel goes on to state, “Women were essentially domestic and submissive to the superior strength and judgment of men, but women also were the protectors of morality and civilized behavior. ” Women were dependent and looked towards a man’s approval. Yet, they represented the dignity and were to act as such.

But Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia resists this idea of gender stereotypes. Antonia is presented as a girl who conquers all, she takes on the role of helping her family through the journey of moving to a different territory in Nebraska. She is also conscious of the fact that she does not display the typical gender norms. Instead of changing, she faces the negativity with dignity. Having this mentality Antonia shows her strength to a greater extent. In the novel, Cather makes it clear that societal gender norms are very restricting. Antonia demonstrated the contradictions of stereotypical gender roles by refusing to comply with the traditional gender expectations of the 19th century.

One scholar reads Cather’s gender roles in My Antonia and compares it to Darwinism. Darwinism is the evolution of species lies in natural selection, in other words saying “survival of the fittest”. In this case, our species are men and women, persevering through life. Fletcher states, “When Cather broke with Norris to claim that women could help preserve masculinity, she was thus not twisting Darwinism to suit her own idiosyncratic version of feminism. Rather, she was identifying a natural convergence between Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and her own views on gender”. This is a unique lens to read My Antonia through. Darwinism suggests that in a continuous state of change one must adapt. Masculinity and femininity can be adapted and not seen as the “norm”. There are qualities you need from both to survive during certain conditions. Due to Antonia adapting to a new environment, her responsibilities changed over time and the actions she had to take were viewed as “masculine”. Her response in many circumstances may have been what helped the men surrounding her progress, like Jim.

Another scholar reads My Antonia gender roles as Cather exposing the difficulties that a woman narrator has when creating heroic women characters. Lambert states, “Yet, because it has been difficult for readers to recognize the betrayal of female independence and female sexuality in fiction-their absence is customary-it has also been difficult to penetrate the ambiguities of My Antonia, a crucial novel in Cather’s long writing career. ” When reading a novel or any piece of literature, it is usual to see a woman protagonist as submissive. Many authors do not reveal their ideas on gender roles in novels, making it fall into the stereotypical category. Leading to a troublesome moment when it comes to unpacking the lack of female independence in a novel. Dealing with a character like Antonia, her strong essence and individuality, makes it hard to attack her as a character. Being that this is something we are not used to reading.

Gelfant, another scholar argues that Cather’s, My Antonia gender roles bring to light the history many want to forget. He states, “We, however, have as desperate a need for clarity of vision as Jim had for nostalgia; we must begin to look at My Antonia, long considered a representatively American novel, not only for its beauty of art and for its affirmation of history, but also, and instructively, for its negations and evasion”. In the novel Jim’s need for wanting acceptance is stronger than the women we encounter. And when Antonia praises her masculinity while giving Jim a compliment about his, it doesn’t make him any more of a boy than he already is. Yet he still looks for her approval. This can be considered switching gender roles and during this time the book took place, which was highly unusual.

Gender roles were made up by society, and adapted from generation to generation. One more scholar brings to attention, “Might Cather’s use of male characters as authorial figures, focalizers and vocalizers, and Barker’s “copying” of Cather’s technique be seen as resistant uses of the “logic of copy,” as examples of how female masculinity is discursively produced, not necessarily by “copying” men but by “copying” a masculine women?”. My Antonia is told from a males perspective and we see everything through his eyes, as well as Antonia’s character. Instead of looking at Antonia as “masculine”, we should see her as a dominant female. The word masculine shouldn’t only resemble a man but a woman. We see this while reading My Antonia, where she continuously displays a “masculine women”.

Antonia does not stick to the traditional gender roles set in place at the time of this novel. She follows her dad’s footsteps and shows that a woman is capable of doing just what a man can do both physically and emotionally. This is shown when she takes control of caring for her family. Her strength is shown when she is working on the field at a young age with her brothers, and while being pregnant when she is older. Insisting on taking care of her family and making sure they are comfortable in a new territory, increases her strength. A stereotypical 19th-century woman was not supposed to have all the qualities Antonia have. Instead, she is supposed to be submissive, while the man is dominant. This demonstrates how in the novel My Antonia, Willa Cather challenges gender roles during that period.

While Ántonia is determined to help her family survive by working in the fields, she loses the opportunity of going to school. She states, “I ain’t got time to learn. I can work like men. My mother can’t say no more how Ambrosch do all and nobody to help him. I can work as much as him. School is alright for little boys. I help make this land one good farm. ” When Antonia speaks she is firm, and confident, persuading the readers that taking on such roles is common and she can take on this task. Stating that school is for “little boys”, she understands that she has to sacrifice education due to her family’s condition. Antonia’s character continues to misrepresent what a stereotypical female role was during this century.

Antonia constantly refuses to fall into her society’s gender role, and in doing so she faces negative judgment. Jim states, “Nowadays Tony could talk of nothing but the prices of things, or how much she could lift and endure. She was too proud of her strength. I knew, too, that Ambrosch put upon her some chores a girl ought not to do, and that the farm-hands around the country joked in a nasty way about it. ” Although, Jim informs her about the comments he’s overheard he too views her actions as masculine. Stating that she was “too proud”, is jealousy. Knowing that Antonia is a female, Ambrosch still gives her man’s work. Thus showing that women have equal potential as a man. Seeing women work as hard as Antonia was rare, and her celebrating her work ethic was because of it.

Antonia learns to love working outside with the other men, but it is not clear if she is trying to persuade herself as such, or if she genuinely loves it. She states, “Oh, better I like to work out-of-doors than in a house!’ she used to sing joyfully. ‘I not care that your grandmother say it makes me like a man. I like to be like a man. ‘ She would toss her head and ask me to feel the muscles swell in her brown arm. ” Men usually work outside, and expressing her love of work to Jim, shows how content she is with her masculinity. Showing her muscles, the color of her arm displays mail traits. Women were delicate and acted opposite of Antonia.

Throughout the book, we meet two more female characters who are praised for their indifference during this century. Sally a tomboy was immediately acknowledged of her strength, Jim stating, “She was nearly as strong as I, and uncannily clever at all boys’ sports. ” Cather gives the readers her view on gender roles in this sentence. She is admiring a character who degrades the typical gender role. We also meet Lena whose character traits are close to Antonia’s. She is confident, independent and determined to take care of her mother. When having a conversation she states, “Well, it’s mainly because I don’t want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish, and want you to stay at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody. ” To maintain her independence she refuses to marry. This is unusual, a woman is expected to marry, raise kids, do the housework, while the men are out making money to provide for his family. Her decision plays a big role in Cather rejection to accept gender roles. Not only that but Lena resembles the more ideal feminist views. She is very modern, educated, and free. Knowing that the only way to succeed is through wealth and perseverance she is determined.

Antonia becomes the ideal woman when she combines both her feminine and masculine side. Cather shows that she is happy when displaying both sides, and becomes successful in doing so. The novel shows how gender roles are uncomfortably confronted and discarded, through Antonia’s work environment and attitude. She proves that it is okay, to undertake a man’s physical and mental role, to provide for your family. The women we encounter in the book, individually show different feminist ideas. They show signs of independence, strength by disregarding other’s judgment towards them. Each chooses their happiness first and becomes happy in the end. I displayed how Willa Cather’s My Antonia portrays the rejection of societal norms in the 19th century by showing women as strong and capable figures whereas men lack such qualities.


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