The Stories of Antonia
According to Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” storytellers are a dying breed, and the novel only contributes to the death of storytelling. If that is true, then Willa Cather’s My Antonia is a fan fueling flames on the somber coals of storytelling. Cather uses various instances of narrative that mirror oral storytelling. These instances attempt to “keep [the] story free from explanation” and leave the reader to “interpret things the way he understands them” (Benjamin 89). When Jim Burden kills the large snake in the prairie-dog town, the major source of pride for him is not just personal satisfaction. His contentment stems from the ability to show off his kill, the ability to tell that story. As a storyteller, he takes pride in his narrative, and enjoys the ability of his tale to inspire admiration in his listeners. Antonia is a witness to his account, and “Her exultation was contagious” (Cather 33) for Jim. That is because he is receiving contentment and pleasure from sharing his narrative. Antonia then also receives satisfaction from standing “in the middle of the floor, telling the story with a great deal of colour” (Cather 34). The story continues to pass on; instead of discarding the snake after the kill, they drag it home, and then leave it hanging up on the fence so that all the neighbors can witness their story. This shows Jim’s innate desire to receive and give “the most extraordinary things, marvelous things, [that] are not forced on the [listener]” (Benjamin 89). The next instance of oral storytelling jumps out of Jim and Antonia’s visit to Pavel on his deathbed. Pavel’s story is first heard by Mr. Shimerda and Antonia’s ears, and then related to Jim by Antonia. That furthering of the story gives pleasure to all parties. Pavel relieves himself of the story as a deathbed confession. The narrative echoes in Jim and Antonia’s mind throughout the novel, although they choose not to share the story. Pavel’s deathbed admission gives Jimmy and Antonia “a painful and peculiar pleasure” that they “guarded…jealously” (Cather 41). Jim and Antonia seem to understand that the story in itself is “the securest among [humanity’s] possessions” (Benjamin 83). To Jim and Antonia, this story gives them access to a foreign hidden land. Jim spends his night imagining himself in that sledge of Pavel’s story, with the setting “look[ing] something like Nebraska and something like Virginia” (Cather 41). The mixed setting reflects how the move and loss of parents displaced Jim. The death of Mr. Shimerda causes the spurring of various short oral tales from other characters in the novel. Jelinek’s story about his time as an altar boy during a cholera break helps the Shimerdas relate to another culture. Jimmy admits that they “had listened attentively. It was impossible not to admire his frank, manly faith” (Cather 70). This outpouring of an oral tale not only helps the characters to relate to one another and connect, but also causes the Burdens to connect to another culture. Otto tells the Burdens how he learned to make a coffin, a story that also elicits a reaction from the listeners. The passing of all these stories through the community strengthens them; “It is left up to [them] to interpret things the way [they] understand them” (Benjamin 89). It causes the other characters to react, to think. Mr. Shimerda’s death continues his stories as well, as Antonia passes them on to Jimmy. She does not want her father to be forgotten, and the passing of these stories gives her that satisfaction. When Jim does his commencement speech Antonia wishes that her father could have heard it, and Jim states, “I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony…I dedicated it to him” (Cather 147). Antonia tells more of Mr. Shimerda’s stories when they all go swimming at the river. It was “beautiful talk, like what I never hear in this country” (Cather 150). The tradition, the story of Mr. Shimerda continues. Oral stories also create connections between the characters within the novel. During Jim’s first winter in Nebraska, Otto and Jake sit and tell stories about animals and outlaws. These oral tales provide not only entertainment on the individual level, but as a group, these stories created a bond between the listeners and the speaker. Otto’s story of his arrival in America “makes it the experience of those listening to the tale” (Benjamin 87). The stories serve to bring the family together, and to forge connections within the family. When Antonia works for the Harlings, Nina Harling begs Antonia to tell them stories. “Everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart” (Cather 113), says Jim. Her oral stories bring the children together. The anecdote of the tramp’s suicide also elicits reactions from the characters. They take pleasure in their connections with Antonia through her stories. The oral story echoes in Jim and serves a more fulfilling purpose than that of the novels in Jim’s life. My Antonia begins with Jim reading Life of Jesse James. He uses the novel and books to hide from reality, rather than to identify and relate to his surroundings. When Jim meets Otto Fuchs, he places him as a character in Jesse James, but in Pavel’s oral story Jim identifies with Pavel and Russian Peter; he imagines himself in that sledge, running from those wolves. His own story of the snake gives him a sense of himself, and the reflections from telling the story to others fulfill him. The novels Jimmy reads in My Antonia never give him the connection oral storytelling does. They never resonate with him, and often give him just a place to hide from his surroundings, rather than to connect with them. When Jim promises his grandmother not to attend dances at the Fireman’s Hall, he turns to his schoolbooks to help sever his ties with the community. Books serve to isolate Jim, and he uses them in order to distinguish himself from negative oral traditions. A major moment in which Jim defines himself within the community is his commencement speech. Mrs. Harling states, “You didn’t get that speech out of books” (Cather 146), showing that for Jim his true connection with people is not through books, but through stories. Gossip as a form of oral storytelling also has a major effect on the community. Gossip is used mostly to negative effect, yet is the town’s most significant form of oral storytelling. One example of gossip’s effect on the characters and community is the way in which it shapes people’s understanding of Lena Linguard. Another is the way the “hired girls” are thought of once they begin attending the tent dances. When Jim meets up with them in the ice cream shop and the high-school principal comes in, they have to stop their laughter: Anna knew the whisper was going about that I was a sly one. People said there must be something queer about a boy who showed no interest in girls of his own age, but who could be lively enough when he was with Tony and Lena or the three Marys. (Cather 138)The effect of gossip on the community’s opinion of the subjects hits the youth. For the first time, Jim becomes the subject of negative oral stories. When one person, the principal in this instance, overhears something in a negative context, the subject of the gossip, Jim, becomes part of a story that will reverberate throughout the community. Jim also finds himself told by Jelinek to leave his bar because of what “church people think about saloons” (Cather 139). Because of gossip, Jim has to stop attending the dances at the Firemen’s Hall. “People say you are growing up to be a bad boy, and that ain’t just to us” (Cather 145), Grandmother tells Jim. My Antonia in itself is a composition of a novelist trying to recreate a novelist trying to capture the connections provided by oral storytelling. Jim attempts to reconnect with the oral storytelling of his youth by recalling and writing his accounts with Antonia. However, according to Benjamin, he is only furthering his state: The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. (Benjamin 87)Jim fits this profile of the novelist perfectly. Jim is grasping at the connection he once had with a community of his youth. However, as readers, we understand that Jim never really gets back those times. He lacks children to orally tell his stories to, and the only way he can attempt to relate these tales is by writing them down. Jim’s novel is an attempt to connect again, but this attempt only makes his situation worse. Cather’s point of making Jim the novelist struggling for a connection serves to reverse the belief that novels do not connect with readers. Her use of oral storytelling throughout My Antonia gives the reader of the modern novel a glimpse of our “wish to hear a story” (Benjamin 83). At times, My Antonia has almost a stream-of-consciousness feeling, emulating the processes of a story that is told orally. Some instances in the novel not only validate the importance of the oral storyteller, but also recreate that sense that information alone fails to give us. Willa Cather’s My Antonia proves that novels can create the essence of the oral story and conveys to readers the importance of oral storytelling. Works CitedBenjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” 1955. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken, 1968.Cather, Willa. My Antonia. 1918. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
The Confucian Struggles of Three Brothers
Throughout time, succeeding generations have rebelled against the values and traditions of their parents and grandparents. This continual pattern of insurgence is the key theme of Pa Chin’s Family, in which the new generation of “enlightened” students fights against the “antiquated” Confucian values of their elders. In the Kao family, three brothers – similar in their dislike of the traditional Confucian system of their grandfather, yet very different in their interactions with him and others – begin to throw off the heavy mantle of Confucianism and strive for a breath of freedom. Their struggles against the old values lead to pain, suffering and eventually triumph for the three of them, yet at a bitter price for two brothers.The story of the first brother, Chueh-hsin, is undoubtedly the saddest in this novel. Cheuh-hsin has lived his entire life in respect and constant compliance with his elders. Although he is an “enlightened” person and does not wholeheartedly agree with many of the Confucian values which he follows, he feels that his position in the social hierarchy of the family leaves him no other choice. As the “first son of the first son” he is the head of his household and as a result is forced to take on responsibilities he does not want and which his two younger brothers, Cheuh-min and Cheuh-hui, ridicule him for. Chueh-hsin has lived his entire life following a “compliant bow policy” and a “non-resistance strategy” reminiscent of Gandhi’s. At an early age, he was prevented from his dreams, by being forced into an arranged marriage, although his heart belonged to another woman, Cousin Mei. Although he comes to love the wife whom he lives with, he can never completely remove Mei from his heart and mind and neither can she, as is evident by her death, which is a result of her internal suffering through the years of separation and broken dreams from Chueh-hsin. In addition, Chueh-hsin hoped that despite his arranged marriage he would at least be able to finish his education and become a high-ranking official as was hoped for him by his mother, of which he only had his tragic memories. Instead, he is removed from school and forced to enter the workforce in order to provide for his family and younger brothers, as dictated by the Confucian values of filial piety.Although Chueh-hsin did not agree with these values, which so unfairly restricted him from his goals and desires, he felt as if he had no choice but to follow the word of his father and grandfather, the Venerable Master Kao. Towards the end of the novel, Chueh-hsin takes his last harsh blow from the Confucian dictates of his family, when his wife dies during childbirth, as a result of being forced away beyond the safety and comfort of the town and home, because of superstitious values of children being born in a household where a death had recently occurred. When this event occurs, Chueh-hsin realizes that he has made a mistake that is entirely irrevocable and that he himself is largely to blame for in adhering to the values and restrictions of the family. Upon realizing this, he decides to strike back in his own way, against the family, by helping his youngest brother, Chueh-hui, escape at the end of the novel.Chueh-min is perhaps the wisest and most coolheaded of the three brothers, yet also the most resolute in his actions and decisions; thus he is the one who suffers the least in this novel and fully prevails against the Confucian mandates of his family. Chueh-min stands up for his love of his cousin Chin and prevents the marriage arranged for him by his grandfather from going through, which is an action his two brothers were unwilling to take – their inaction and adherence to the Confucian traditions leads to the deaths of three different women. Chueh-min also rebels against the family by espousing the ideas and thoughts of the new generation, which are so alien and different from those his family holds. He and his brother Chueh-hui are the organizers and contributors to a new magazine which hopes to promote these novel ideas and despite adversity by both their family and the government, they continue on their goal of spreading the “message of truth.”The third and youngest brother, Chueh-hui, is the polar opposite of his eldest brother, Chueh-hsin, and is the most headstrong of the three. He is called the “humanitarian” in his family because despite his upbringing in a traditional, rich and elite family, he cares for the common people and feels more at home with them – an example of this being the fact that he would under no condition sit in a sedan-chair, as he refused to be carried by others. Chueh-hui constantly mocks and ridicules his eldest brother for being so weak and not standing up for the two women he loves, thereby killing them both and ruining his own life. Nevertheless, in this Chueh-hui is hypocritical himself, as he falls in love with a bondmaid, Ming, yet refuses to take any action on her account when she is in dire need of his help. It his lack of action that leads to her death and brings up the similarity between his inaction and that of Chueh-hsin’s. However, it may be said that it is this mistake which leads to Chueh-hui’s resolve which makes him more of a rebel against his family and their “antiquated” values. When his grandfather is fatally ill, the elders of the family bring in a witch-doctor to cure him, despite their own lack of faith in these healing methods, but Chueh-hui is the only one brave enough to confront the elders, and show them the idiocy of their actions. Finally, at the end of the novel, Chueh-hui takes the utmost action against the Confucian value of filial piety by leaving his family entirely. This action demonstrates his total disregard for the Confucian system of his forefathers, as filial piety is one of the core values of the social structure and disregarding this fundamental part by abandoning his family is an extreme example of his dislike for them.Although the three brothers share in their disenchantment with the social structure in which they live, they have different ways of demonstrating this. The first follows a policy of inaction, which only leads to additional suffering, but earns him the approval of his elders, at the price of his love. The second one stands up to the family, although it is extremely difficult, and finally manages to succeed in winning his choice in marriage. The third, though, is essentially forced to escape from home, because he feels as if his family is “choking” him and that he must cast them off in order to truly live. The three brothers thus represent three different points on a scale of adaptation and coping to the Confucian hierarchy and society of the time. The first represents the extreme point of being weak, unable to stand up for anything and thus giving up the woman which is his; the third represents the other extreme. He is so headstrong and rebellious that his only means of surviving is to run away. The second brother is the middle-point of the two. He opposes the values of his time, yet he realizes that he must live with his family as that is also an essential part of his life. By standing up to his family, but not in a way that he cuts off all ties entirely, he reaches the goal that neither of his brothers were able to. He is the only brother who does not suffer needlessly, leading to useless deaths, and is the only brother able to finally attain his true love. As a result, it may be claimed that in order for any of the three brothers to have succeeded in truly throwing off the Confucian mantle, he would need to do so through compromise. The solution is not through the utter submissiveness of Chueh-hsin or the violent rebellion and escape of Chueh-hui, but through the strong resistance and slight compromises of Chueh-min.