Stormy Relations And Developments in Novel ‘My Antonia’
The novel My Antonia by Willa Cather has characters from different backgrounds and settings. The novel shows them trying to create social and economic identities for themselves as Americans while heavily influenced by their unique cultural backgrounds mostly from Europe. The novel’s title is borrowed from one Bohemian girl, the friend and love interest of James Burden, the narrator, who we first meet as a 10 year old recently orphaned boy. The time period is after the American Civil War, even though years are not explicitly stated, Lutze presupposes that the time period of Willa Cather’s novel is the 1880s.
Jim Burden grows to be a lawyer for a railroad company in the West, he marries another woman but he never forgets Antonia. In essence, all the characters in the novel, especially the young ones at the beginning such as Ambrosch Shimerda and Lena Lingard show people striving to create new identities and mingle with other people be it in business or social relations. Antonia is just a symbol for the struggle to create a personal identity while maintaining relevance culturally and economically in post-Civil War America. How Immigrants Strive to Build the Country Reading through the novel one asks himself, “Are immigrants useful members of 1880s American society?” Who deserves the most credit for building the country in My Antonia is the rhetorical question Cather invokes from the readers. Jim, when he meets the Shimerdas, is only a boy of ten years but he still has attitudes concerning immigrants especially when he meets the Shimerdas.
He focuses on what makes them different from him. Case in point the way Jim describes Antonia on meeting her, “Her skin was brown, too, and in her cheeks, she had a glow of rich, dark colour”. According to TUNÇ , there are racial undertones in My Antonia which accurately reflects American cultural attitudes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century accurately. For example, southeastern Europeans such as the Bohemians, the Shimerdas are treated as if they are less white. As of today, Bohemia is part of Austria, but in the novel, the Bohemians and the Russians Peter and Pavel are treated almost like outcasts.
The Russians and Bohemians do odd jobs, have the most difficulty learning the English language, but Cather wants the audience to understand that they are equally important to the story if not more. In the novel almost every character has to create their own identities. Even Jim Burden, who is the narrator in the story, has to adjust to life in the countryside of Nebraska and the small town of Black Hawk. Jim is originally from Virginia, and at ten years old he is already an orphan. When Jim meets Antonia as a ten-year-old, she is 13 years old but enthusiastic and curious about life: ‘Antonia had opinions about everything, and she was soon able to make them known”.
Jim admires Antonia and loves her romantically even though she sees him as a little brother. Jim is not an immigrant per se, but he provides an almost neutral point of view to show the readers how others live their lives. While some story arcs in the novel serve to teach that diligence pays off, that is not always the case. Antonia’s father, Mr Shimerda, has the most tragic story. The title of the novel comes from his words to Jim Burden, “Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Antonia”. Krajiek, their fellow Bohemian is suspected by some people to have been involved somehow, Jim Burden being one of them. Mr Shimerda was a musician in the ‘old country”, and he was depressed in the fact that making music could not fetch him money and respect in Nebraska. The Shimerdas have a very efficient work ethic. Ambrosch is a very hard-working farmer. Antonia too ploughs the land, and as fourteen and fifteen years old she has a muscular physique for a woman. Antonia’s brother Marek, who Jim calls ‘the crazy one’ due to his mental problems, puts an effort in working the land.
Most of the adult immigrants in the novel work the farmland. There are also the “hired girls” called so because they are the cooks, maids, waitresses and other subordinate roles. The best two are Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderbell. Both of them start from rags to riches. They are the older girls in their families and so have to work in Black Hawk to send money for their parents and younger siblings. Lena Lingard, a Norwegian, as a nineteen-year-old girl has a reputation for being a temptress. She surprises everybody when she moves to Lincoln and becomes a fashion icon there; designing and making clothes for all kinds of clients. Tiny Soderbell manages a guesthouse and then gets lucky in the gold prospection business to the point that she is the wealthiest person by the end of the novel.
There is a section where Jim, Tiny and Lena Lingard meet in San Francisco , and the two women are good friends and take care of each other. The working immigrant women are essential to the immigration narrative as they show that hard work pays regardless of background. Otto Fuchs is another immigrant from Austria. He is a farm-hand and a sort of jack of all trades for the Burdens. Fuchs is a hard-worker who has held various jobs, and his life is described to have been adventurous. Fuchs is a survivor. He has experienced life in the Far West and in that time horned in skills which are valuable practically. Fuchs assists in the farm, doing hard labour work, which considering that Nebraska is a farming country goes a long way in terms of building the nation.
When Antonia’s father dies, Otto is the only carpenter who can make the coffin. He remarks, I sometimes wonder if there’ll be anybody about to do it for me. Fuchs is concerned that he might not get a proper coffin when he dies. He is an excellent carpenter, and Jim Burden is sure that carpentry could make him more money. Later in the story, Fuchs goes farther west to prospect for gold, and that is the last thing we know about him. Otto Fuchs is that sort of immigrant who is highly under-rated but contributes a lot to society especially given his tremendous work ethic. Through reading the novel, one might remark how come the tile is My Antonia.
In the story, Lena Lingard has more character presence than the eponymous Antonia. Comparing the stories of the two, Lena Lingard contributes more economically to society than Antonia. She gets into the fashion and clothing industry and becomes quite successful. She and Tiny Soderbell are strong women; men do not dictate how they live their lives. Their decisions are theirs mostly. Meanwhile, Antonia gets married, has lots of children and seems to be content with her humble life at the end. Antonia represents the “pioneering spirit”. At the end of My Antonia, modernization and industrialization have changed how marriage is approached. It is not mentioned just how many children Antonia has, just that they are many and that the particular trend is not fashionable any more. Nevertheless, with just a large and loving family and not much in terms of material wealth, Antonia is both satisfied and proud of her life.
The reader then notes that Antonia’s nurturing spirit for other people is very important towards building a nation and empowering others even though it requires sacrifice. In conclusion, My Antonia manages to weave together many stories, and the main message is adapting to new conditions while upholding the useful components of culture and the past. The last two sentences of the novel, Jim Burden remarks, “Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past”.
The two sentences show us a lot; they are personal and also symbolic. Jim reminisces over his life-long friendship with Antonia, a girl from the other half of the world, who came to the United States with her family. She has a family now; her children will grow up as Americans and not Bohemians. She was once a hired girl, but now is the mother of the next generation in the novel. The same can be said about all the other immigrants with young families such as Ambrosch and the Bohemian Marys adult Antonia tells Jim how Mary Svoboda is “the best butter-maker” in the whole Nebraska countryside. My Antonia is a story of how some immigrants with very little in terms of education, social status and wealth worked hard and made life decisions which ultimately turned their lives around and more importantly helped build America.
Difficult Fate Of Antonia
My Antonia, by Willa Cather, is a historical nonfiction book that digs into the reality of life on the frontier and farming in developing America. It shows the transition from hard life coming into America a immigrants, to the immigrants finally experiencing the American dream. Taking place in Black Hawk, Virginia, My Antonia is a moving story that explains the hardships of immigrating and farming, the struggles of the availability and opportunity of an education, the objectifying of women, and how your upbringing did not always determine your future success.
Many children were put to work on farms and had to sacrifice education. One example is Antonia Shimerda. After Mr. Shimerda passed away, Ambrosch put Antonia to work almost immediately on the farm. He needed help since his brother was disabled, but Antonia did not complain. Antonia was her father’s favorite, and he always took good care of her and protected her. Antonia was too prideful to let anyone think down of her. When Jim asked her if she could go to school with him, she replied, “I ain’t got time to learn. I can work like a mans now. 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 all right for little boys. I help make this land one good farm.” All she wanted to do was to make her father proud. Antonia did not let her lack of education keep her from making the leap into city life. She eventually transitioned from working on the field on a farm to cooking for a nice family in the city. Her new job afforded her privileges that she could not of had otherwise. Antonia even got her own bedroom. She made enough money where she could send money back home for her little sister Yulka for nice clothes and shoes. Cooking is not constant throughout the day, so she could hang out with school kids and other young girls who worked for people nearby, such as Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball. Antonia was the best dancer in town. At night, she would hurry and finish her cooking and baking so that she could go dancing. Everyone in town wanted a chance to dance with Antonia Shimerda.
Antonia soon got overwhelmed by the amount of boys and young men that were infatuated with her. Married men started trying to make moves on young Antonia, as she walked home to where she worked. This soon caused massive tension between Mr. Harling and Antonia. He told her, “This is what I’ve been expecting Antonia. You’ve been going with girls who have a reputation of being free and easy, and now you’ve got the same reputation. I won’t have this and that fellow tramping behind my back yard all the time. This is the end of it, tonight. It stops, short. You can quit going to these dances, or you can hunt another place. Think it over.”Antonia was too stubborn and talented to give up dancing, so she went to work for the Cutters. The Cutters have a reputation of always fighting, but they never divorce. Mr. Cutter is extremely critical, and many kids throw rocks and bricks into his yard. After Antonia had worked for him a while, Mr. Cutter tried to pull a stunt. When him and his wife went away for a weekend, he told Antonia that he put valuable silverware and documents under her bed. She said to not let her friends in the house, and he also told her not to go out that weekend. Antonia was frightened by this strange behavior, so she decided to tell the Burdens about it. Jim’s grandparents decided it was probably best to send Jim there for the night. Jim got awakened to the sound of Mr. Cutters startling voice. He kept screaming and asking where Antonia was. Mr. Cutter started beating Jim, and Jim was lucky he only suffered a black eye, bloody nose, and bloody lips. Mr. Cutter had sent his wife on the wrong train, and he had planned an elaborate scheme that night. The way women were treated back then was horrendous. They were seen more as objects than as equals by men. Some menfigured if they gave a young girl a job, then she needed to return the favor in some way. One time, when Antonia and her friends were hanging out and dancing at the parlor, several men coaxed them out of the room they were in and said, “What’s the matter with you girls? Dancing out here by yourselves, when there’s a roomful of lonesome men on the other side of the partition! Introduce me to your friends, Tiny.” Young girls were shy and vulnerable, so they were often taken advantage of because of that.
The Theme of Love and Nostalgia in the Novel My Antonia
The word “nostalgia” describes a feeling of longing for the past. The feeling is both bitter, because the past cannot be retrieved, and sweet, because the feeling is triggered by warm, affectionate memories. Despite changes in its meaning over time, from a disease to something beneficial now, nostalgia has not lost its significance in literature. It is used in poems, novels, and plays to evoke feelings of sadness or pleasure a character experiences when recalling his past or his homeland. The past that they long for could be in the form of memory, place, love or relationship. Thus, nostalgia is an useful tool used in My Antonia as it serves to emphasize different themes in the book. It is also used in the characterization of different characters as they felt nostalgic, be it homesickness, longing for the past, isolation, loneliness, physical decline, isolation, loneliness or depression. Thus, in this essay, i will analyse the significance of nostalgia in My Antonia as it reminds the readers of different themes in the novel.
Nostalgia can be seen throughout the book as Jim Burden narrates the story of My Antonia. My Antonia is a book about the love and affection for the past as Jim expresses his nostalgia for Antonia. It is obvious that Jim felt nostalgic for places and persons throughout the novel and without the use of nostalgia, this novel would not have existed.
Nostalgia serves to highlight the theme of love, the desires Jim has for Antonia. Jim recalls “I used to think with pride that Ántonia, like Snow-White in the fairy tale, was still ‘fairest of them all.” Jim’s nostalgia for Antonia’s beauty is shown as he compares Antonia to Snow white, a perfect women sort after by men. As, Jim takes ‘pride’ in Antonia’s beauty, it reveals to us that Jim is taking some sort of ownership of Antonia, thinking that she belongs to him. He anticipates the relationship with Antonia, just like Snow White and the prince in the fairy tale which portrays his love and affection for Antonia. However, this also foreshadows that their relationship is just like a fairy-tale, an unrealistic dream. Also, Jim’s desire for Antonia can be seen as “I used to wish I could have dreams like this about Ántonia, but I never did.” Jim hopes to have dreams ‘about Antonia’ suggests that he merely use Lena as a replacement to show his love for Antonia. Jim’s inability to reconcile his sexual attractions with his romantic attractions for Antonia when in love with her. Despite his love for her, the comparison between dream and reality in this quote suggest the state of their relationship which he already knew as he recalled. Thus Jim’s nostalgia for Antonia serves to highlight the theme of love, but yet this unattainable love.
Also, nostalgia serves to emphasize the theme of the past. Both Jim and Antonia had a past and a fond memory of their place of origin. Jim was nostalgic for his homeland, where his first came from, “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Jim’s parents died and he moves alone to Nebraskan without parents, and Nebraska seems like an unfamiliar new world for a ten year old boy like him. The land , like Jim, is full of raw materials out of which something must form. Jim being an orphan has ‘nothing’ just like the land. He have nothing left to lose, feeling empty he recalls the memories he had in his homeland in order to fulfill the feeling of emptiness. However, despite the emptiness, he felt calm about his destiny and leaving it all to fate as ‘the world was left behind’ as he enters his world of memories and nostalgia, feeling ‘erased’. Thus, Jim felt nostalgic as he recalled his attitude towards his own past, highlighting the theme of past. Also, as Jim “went back alone over the familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and a girl ran along beside me, as our shadow used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass”. Jim visits Antonia at the end of the story where they had first met, feelings Nostalgic of their childhood friendship and dreams. The ‘shadow’ represents his past growing up on this land, running alongside him just like this memory following him him throughout his life. His nostalgia here suggests his longing for the past, the good times and the wonderful place that brought him up. As he walk along the road, Jin ‘ understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.’ Jim understood that ‘the road’, representing their memories today is what connects he and Antonia together and it contains what they ‘possessed together’, ‘incommunicable’ to others, something only they will know deep inside their hearts. Despite the fact that “the best days are the first to flee”, the beauty of whatever happened in the past could still be found as he look back at the memoir, communicating with the past, thus emphasizing the theme of the past.
Jim Burden’s nostalgia for Antonia also serves to emphasize the theme of gender. As Jim recalls of Antonia in Book 5 “She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination”. The adult Jim is still contemplating the fascination he feels for Ántonia, describing her as a ‘battered’ women who fires ‘imagination. ‘Battered’ is often used to describe objects damage by beating or hard usage and Jim memory of her as battered reveals his opinions of her, ultimately seeing her as an object more than a childhood friend, something he desires to own. “She was working in the garden when we got there, barefoot and ragged”. Women take control of families, earn money, call the shots, and even do field work with the men. She works under conditions that is harsh, ‘barefoot and ragged’, together with all the other men suggest the equality they have in terms of jobs. However, the mindset of women isn’t so. Thus, the use of nostalgia as Jim desired for Antonia can emphasize the theme of gender through the memory of Antonia, revealing man’s opinions of the role of women.
The use of nostalgia also serves to highlight the theme of youth. ‘I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it… I did not wish to lose the early ones.’ After twenty years, Jim returns to Nebraskan to find Antonia. However, he ‘dreaded’ that Antonia had lost her youth, which would ruined his perfect impression of her. Time does a huge damage to youth, to the extent that it breaks someone apart as Jim imagines Antonia to be ‘broken’. And Jim not only dislike it but ‘dreaded’ it, to the extent that he feared that Antonia, with her youth taken away by age, could no longer be connected with her ‘broken’ pieces. Thus the comparison between the adulthood and the memory of childhood as Jim recalls when he visits Antonia highlight the theme of youth.
Lastly, nostalgia helps in the characterization of Antonia as Jim’s memories of Antonia are the paradigm of his powerful nostalgia for his placid and idyllic childhood. Jim’s memory of Antonia, his description of her reveals Antonia’s characteristics to the reader. Jim describe Antonia, “She lent herself to immemorial humor attitudes which we recognise by instinct as universal and true.” This quote presents Antonia as a goddess, someone recognised universally as a perfect human being. Her ‘immemorial’ traits suggests her immemorial roots of human spirituality, her fullness of life in the spiritual state. Thus, nostalgia also serves in the development of characters in the novel.
In conclusion, My Antonia revolves around the memories of Jim Burden as he recalls what happened. All these memories evokes nostalgia in him and thus is significant in portraying many different themes in the novel and helps in the characterization of different characters.
Importance Of Memories in My Antonia Novel
Subversion of Gender Roles in Willa Cather’s My Antonia
Willa Cather provides an inverted perspective on gender roles contrariwise to the societal norm during the nineteenth century in her novel, My Antonia. Cather’s feminist approach to this period illuminates a different perspective on the roles that women played on the western prairies in America. The representation of female characters clarifies a clear image of what women really are. My Antonia enlightens readers through the depiction of female characters who are brave enough to overcome the hardships of life. Antonia is the dominant female figure in this novel. Her character is active, strong and hardworking. She rejects the traditional mold of femininity.
Antonia breaks the nineteenth century’s gender parameters by attaching herself to the land. After her father commits suicide, Antonia takes initiative and strives to work just as hard as her male relatives do in the field. By doing so, she adopts traits predominantly seen as “masculine”.
Antonia stood up, lifting and dropping her shoulders as if they were stiff. “I ain’t got time to learn. I can work like mans now. 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 all right for little boys. I can help make this land one good farm. (Cather, 61)
Cather uses the words: lifting, dropping, and stiff to emphasize the motion of Antonia moving her shoulders after the hard work she has performed in the field all day. A “lady” would not have dropped or lifted her shoulders during this time. Her shoulders would not be stiff because she would have been inside doing housework instead of using her muscles outside. Antonia confidently states that she can work just like a man would and be a great help to her family’s farm. Her father dies and she persuades readers to believe it is natural to assume his role by speaking with such assurance that she can handle the tasks. Antonia’s use of slang implies that she does not care about school anymore. It is for “little boys”. Her character distorts the image of what a conventional feminine figure raised on the western frontier during this century.
Antonia commands the role of “patriarch” after her father passes away. Her family depends on her strength.
When the sun was drooping low, Antonia came up the big south draw with her team. How much older she had grown in eight months! She had come to us a child, and now she was a tall, strong young girl, although her fifteenth birthday had just slipped by. I ran out and met her as she brought her horses up the windmill to water them. She wore the boots her father had so thoughtfully taken off before he shot himself, and his old fur cap. Her outgrown cotton dress switched about her arms and throat were burned as brown as a sailor’s. Her neck came up strongly out her shoulders, like the bole of a tree out of the turf. (60)
Antonia has matured tremendously in eight months, she is not seen a little girl anymore. She is described as strong and tall which were traditionally masculine descriptions of young boys who worked on farms. She performs male tasks on the farm by taking care of the horses. She wears her father’s old boots. Girls were not to be seen in dirty and unruly clothing such as an outgrown dress. Her skin is brown and not fair. Young ladies during this time were to well groomed and brown skin suggests field work. Women were not supposed to be in the fields. Antonia’s neck is compared to the bole of a tree. The bole is the main wooden axis of a tree. Her neck holds a lot of weight. It is the foundation of her strength and muscular advancement. This description is one that emphasizes the warped role.
Antonia’s strength is carried as a dominant trait throughout her life into adulthood.
All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.(167)
Inside is where she finds her strength and courage. Her sons are a mirror reflection of who she is. Usually boys are compared to their fathers and girls are compared to their mothers. However, here Cather emphasizes the synonymous traits between mother and sons. Her sons stand tall because she has given them her strong heart and raised them as a powerful force. Antonia raised her children and installed the values that are seen within her.
Antonia maintains her leadership role and lends another helping hand to her husband when they get married.
The first ten years were a hard struggle. Her husband knew very little about farming and often grew discouraged. “We’d never have got through if I hadn’t been so strong. I’ve always had good health, thank God, and I was able to help him in the fields until right up to the time before my babies came.(162)
Her husband doesn’t know how to work on a farm, while Antonia has years of experience and practice under her belt. She has the experience that most women during this time did not have because they weren’t allowed to have such experiences working outside. Again, Antonia is cast in a masculine role. She has to teach her husband how to do traditional “mans” work. Antonia works on the farm while pregnant which allows her strength to be seen to the fullest extent. If she hadn’t been so giving and healthy her family and her farm would have suffered. She is the backbone of her family and the men in her life depend on her more than she depends on them. Cather utilizes Antonia’s character to prove that women have what it takes to perform the same tasks that men perform. Women are capable of leading along with nurturing. Antonia has provided a sturdy foundation for her family which was generally the male role to protect. Antonia takes on this role and challenges the notion that women came secondary to their husbands. Her role is equal if not superior to her husband’s role.
Antonia is proud of her inner masculinity. She is aware that she is seen differently than other young women but isn’t afraid of what others think.
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. (Cather, 68)
Antonia expresses to Jim that she likes working outside rather than inside. Men typically worked outside, while women took care of household chores, but not Antonia. She liked the rough men’s work. She is comfortable with her masculinity and does not mind what others think of her because she likes it enough. Her body language also implies that she is fine with the fact that she is cast in a light unlike other women of her time. She tosses her head back implying her carefree notion to the situation. She confidently shows off her muscles because she is proud of the hard work she has put in. Her arm is brown because of all the time she spends outside. The sun turns her skin darker which also presumes a male trait. Women wanted fair skin, they wore clothes specifically to keep themselves covered up, but Antonia clearly does not care about that at all. She just wants to be outside working despite the sun’s effects on her skin tone.
Gender roles are a tool used by society to set acceptable boundaries and ideals upon the sexes. Cather’s novel, My Antonia challenges this tool. This novel emphasizes the fluctuating role of the “New Woman”. As Antonia takes on characteristics commonly associated with men, readers are confronted with the subversion of the female role.
The Use Of Symbolism in “My Ántonia” By Willa Cather
In Chapter VII of My Antonia, Cather uses a rattlesnake to symbolize one of the most important moments in the book. At the beginning of this passage, it is well known that Antonia is not only older, but also more traveled than Jim. Because of this Antonia begins to treat Jim as if he is her younger brother rather than her equal, which leads to Jim feeling resentful towards the superior tone she would sometimes take with him. Jim killing the rattlesnake may not seem significant at first, but throughout this story we learn that it holds a much deeper meaning of a transition from childhood to adulthood. Jim was trying to assert his masculinity and by showing both courage and strength while killing the snake he ultimately becomes a real man when he succeeds in winning the fight. Jim is proud of himself, but the fact that the snake is the biggest he has ever seen shows how terrified he was and how important and intense this adventure was.
Later in the book in Chapter XVI we come across a second use of symbolism during Mr. Shimerda’s funeral. Mr. Shimerda was laid to rest in a small plot in a large prairie which years later would become a crossroads. One possible form of symbolism could be that being at a crossroads represents being at an incomplete place in a person’s journey through life. This would then relate to the way that Mr. Shimerda died and how he was feeling at that specific time in his life. The gravesite of Mr. Shimerda is a reminder of what the prairie once was in its purest form. It symbolizes Jim’s longing for the past. One other way that symbolism was used is shown through an older Jims words. He states, “in all that country it was the spot most dear to me” because when all of the land had been cleared for other uses, this plot of land where two roads would meet is the only place where the tall grass still grows and stands in its natural state. The grave is a way of symbolizing something from the old world surviving to see the new world. It is a connection between the two places.
The third form of symbolism is found in Book II, Chapter XIV in the plough. The plough can most simply symbolize farming as a whole and it is used to depict Man’s attempt to live off the land. This is translated through a quote given on page 118, “There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.” The word heroic could also be used to describe the farmers who attempted to make their living off the Nebraska prairies and farmlands. Relating to this analysis is another quote that state, “and that forgotten plough had sunk back to his own littleness somewhere on the prairie.” This reminds us that however heroic man’s attempts to farm the land may be, he is still considered small in the bigger picture of the natural world and its beauty.
Role Of Past in My Antonia Novel
The Past is Passed
I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.
Beryl Markham, West with the Night
A person’s past situation and actions are not as important as their current ones. One of the most important things for any human to be able to do is the ability to discount anothers’ past mistakes and situation in order to be able to accept them without any prejudices. Immigrants often come to America to escape from their troubled backgrounds, but they experience new difficulties when facing prejudices in the new land. When people refuse to let go of their preconceived notions, it hurts the person they are trying to judge. This is especially true when a person learns something about their friend’s past that changes their perception of them. It is in these moments that someone’s values are truly tested; many less virtuous people would push their friend away after learning something undesirable about them, or they may refuse to become acquainted with someone in the first place because of their prejudices against that person’s minority. Many of the characters in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia are involved in similar or related situations. Emmaline Shimerda, Jim’s grandmother, initially is very loving and caring to the Shimerda family but it later becomes clear that she still harbors prejudices against immigrants like them. In contrast, Mr. Shimerda, Ántonia’s father, shows the depth of his compassion when the two Russians, Peter and Pavel, tell Mr. Shimerda about a dark part of their past but Mr. Shimerda forgives them for their actions and continues to treat them with kindness. It later becomes evident that, although Mr. Shimerda disregarded Peter and Pavel’s pasts, he dwelled on his own far too much, which lead to his eventual death. It’s clear that, though the future seems formidable, it is better to approach it the “fastest way [a person] can” and to keep one’s “yesteryears…buried deep” (Markham, 2010).
Emmaline Shimerda is one of the non-immigrants living in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Though she does have a lot of maternal concern not only for her grandson Jim but also for the Shimerda family, she still has prejudices about immigrants like the Shimerdas. While she tries her best to suppress these preconceived notions, she begins to show her prejudices when she is presented with a gift from the Shimerdas. Neither Jim nor Emmaline know what the gift is and none of the Shimerdas have the English skill to accurately describe what it is, only that it something “for cook” (Cather, 1954, 78) that “[the Burdens] no have in [America]” and that Ántonia thinks that it is “very good” (ibid). Emmaline’s response is very dry and almost sarcastic in a way. She appears doubtful that anything the Shimerdas could give the Burdens could be as good as Ántonia describes, or that “all things for eat better in [Ántonia’s] country” (ibid). Even though the Shimerdas give the Burdens a gift, Emmaline still remarks that they are “wanting in everything” (ibid). Once the Burdens investigate the strange present, Emmaline becomes “afraid of [the gift]” because she doesn’t know what it is (ibid). She doesn’t “want to eat anything that had been shut up for months” in the Shimerdas’ house, implying that she thinks the Shimerda’s living quarters were dirty (ibid). Instead of trying to cook and eat the present like the Shimerdas had intended for her to, “she threw the package into the stove” without even attempting to learn about the Shimerdas’ cultural food. By letting her xenophobia get the best of her, she demonstrates that, no matter how outwardly kind or caring a person is, they can still be very judgemental about other peoples’ cultures or lives.
Not all compassionate people secretly harbor prejudices against people who are different from them. The Russian dialect that Peter and Pavel spoke “was not very different from Bohemian[, the language of the Shimerdas]” (ibid, 35), so Mr. Shimerda soon takes to visiting the Russians often. He even occasionally allows Jim and Ántonia to sit in on his conversations with them. Mr. Shimerda soon learns about a dark part of the two Russians’ past; they had been driving a sledge for a newlywed bride and groom and many other people from their village when they began to be surrounded by wolves. Eventually, Peter and Pavel had abandoned the couple and the rest of the wedding party to be eaten by wolves and had instead escaped with their own lives. As Peter and Pavel tell the story, Mr. Shimerda never once interrupts or questions them about their story; he simply listens and allows the two men to “unburden [their minds] to Mr. Shimerda” (ibid, 60). After Pavel dies, Peter leaves, and “the loss of his two friends [has] a depressing effect upon old Mr. Shimerda” (ibid, 61). Even though Mr. Shimerda knew that the two men were, essentially, manslaughterers, he still forgave them and considered them both to be his friends. This was likely because, although the Russians did some questionable things in the past, they were still good people at heart. Peter “always seemed pleased when he met people on the road, smiled and took off his cap to everyone” (ibid, 34). Mr. Shimerda’s capacity for emotion allowed him to help comfort the two men and gives him the ability to judge them not for their past actions but for their personalities.
It’s this same emotional capacity that eventually led to Mr. Shimerda’s demise. He is unable to let go of the good life he had in Bohemia and falls into a deep depression. His sadness is visible from the moment Jim meets him; his face looked “like something from which all the warmth and light had died out” (ibid, 24). He “seemed to believe that peace and order…existed only in the old world he had left so far behind” (ibid, 86). He is “sad for the old country” (ibid, 89) and his wife had pressured him into agreeing to immigrate to America. His longing to return to Bohemia, and the hopelessness he inevitably felt when he knew he could not, were likely the main factors in his suicide. Though “he was always considerate and un-wishful to give trouble” (ibid, 96), he only lived in the past and was unwilling to let go of his old life. Even the kindest and the most compassionate of people can still fall victim to the past, and in Mr. Shimerda’s case, his dwelling on the past was what killed him in the end.
One of the worst human vices is the tendency for people to dwell too heavily on the past or to rely too much on the things they learned in the past. It is best that a person approach all situations and people with a sense of childlike innocence and love. The ability to forgive or forget is one of the hardest for anyone to master, even caring and considerate people like Emmaline Burden, many of whom seem to be the most likely to have done so. Yet, the lack of this virtue could lead to serious consequences, such as in Mr. Shimerda’s situation. This can also be seen in the classic modern novel The Giver by Lois Lowry. In The Giver, a dystopian society is run by a government that has decided to make all their citizens forget about everything in the past. The only person with any knowledge of history in this society is the “Giver”, who retains all the memories from the entirety of human history. A young boy is chosen by the Giver to inherit these memories, and though he initially enjoys the pleasant ones, such as sledding down a hill, he eventually discovers that the past is actually quite painful and he begins to regret his decision to accept the memories, which have become a heavy burden to him. The Giver is representative of how memories and the past are pleasant in moderation, but are harmful when relied on too heavily. This can not only be applied to the characters in Cather’s My Ántonia, but also to all of humanity.
The Interconnection of Dream and Memories in My Antonia and Hands
Dreams are usually experienced when a person is sleeping, but idealizations and memories can turn into dreams as well. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between dreams and reality, especially when thinking of the past. People may mistake what they hoped to have happened as what has actually happened, or the past can come back in a haunting way. Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia explores the idea of the past carrying both nostalgic and dream-like qualities, while Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio presents dreams and dreaming in a whole other abstract and complex way. However dreams and memories are portrayed, they strongly affect the characters in each of these stories.
My Antonia is a highly nostalgic narrative that recounts Jim Burden’s memory of life on the prairie and his dear friend Antonia. The introduction of this piece details a train conversation between Jim Burden and the “narrator” of the story. As it is suggested by Jim that the mystery narrator should write a story about Antonia, it was decided that “[he/she] would set down on paper all that [he/she] remembered about Antonia if he would do the same. [They] might, in this way, get a picture of her.” (49). This introduction already suggests the fact that the story that is written down may not be entirely accurate or true. As the story progresses, it is quickly noted that the character of Antonia seems to be greatly idealized by Jim and the story itself becomes almost dream-like. Jim clearly thinks very highly of Antonia and of life on the prairie and many of his stories seem slightly exaggerated. It is never truly known whether or not the tales recounted in My Antonia are entirely true or even true at all, but nevertheless this story is the product of the dream Jim has chosen to remember.
Sherwood Anderson’s collection of stories Winesburg, Ohio similarly reflects on the idea of dreams versus reality and how these two can oppose each other. George Willard is a seemingly impressionable young man living in the town of Winesburg, Ohio. He has found the company of Wing Biddlebaum, a strange, nervous old man who prefers the company of children to that of adults. Biddlebaum is seen to be somewhat of a hermit by the townsfolk as he usually keeps to himself, but “in the presence of George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum…[loses] something of his timidity…” (265). George Willard, seemingly most enamored by the nature of Biddlebaum’s hands, often comes to visit the old man. Dreaming is a very important aspect to Wing and his life, and he believes it to be a key element in a person’s individuality and freedom, telling George, that “[he] must begin to dream. From this time on [he] must shut his ears to the roaring of the voices” (266). The concept of dreaming is so important to Wing that he condemns George for “want[ing] to be like the others in town” (266) and even goes as far to say that he is “destroying [himself]” (266). Wing seems to be constantly living in a dream state, oblivious to reality and those who occupy this space, other than George. Wing creates a divide between his world and the real world, and requests that George chooses his world.
Although Wing seems captivated by the notion of dreaming and encourages George to the same, dreams and memories are not always a positive experience for Wing. One day with George, Wing reaches out to caress his face, but a look of horror quickly occupies his face: “Tears came to his eyes” (267). In this moment, his dream-like reality is shattered as he is thrown back into the nightmare of his past. He has attempted to forget or alter his past in his mind, but this incident with George sends him back into the horrible reality that he was once apart of. On the contrary, George Willard’s father confronts George angrily telling him that he’s “got to wake up” (271). He compares George’s actions to those of a “gawky girl” (271) as he is often seen wandering aimlessly in thought. Tom Willard claims that George is living too much in his head and he is obsessed with the success of his son in the future. In this sense dreaming is seen as not only bad but something that is effeminate…something highly inappropriate for a boy to be doing. Tom Willard’s opinions directly oppose Wing Biddlebaum’s when it comes to dreams versus reality, but Tom lives a sad and negative life. His hotel is constantly on the edge of failure, he has a terrible relationship with his wife, and he is all around just a miserable person (269).
For Jim Burden, dreaming seems to have little negative effect. He feels so much nostalgia for his past and for Antonia that he is compelled to have this story written down. Although he hopes for his friend to write the story, what he has written down is so thoughtful and well-written that his writing becomes the actual story. His writing is reflective of a positive memory, one that Jim seems to be constantly carrying. It seems as though Jim thinks of his past life quite often. It is obvious that Jim has thought very highly of Antonia for his whole life, and he even recounts their first meeting recalling that her eyes were “big and warm, and full of light, like the sun shining on the brown pools in the wood” (57). This imagery is so vivid that it seems as if Jim is actively looking into Antonia’s eyes versus looking into a memory. His memory of her is very idealized and nostalgic, just as the rest of his memories of his former life are. It is interesting to consider the idea of selective memory and how this affects these two main characters.
Both Jim Burden and Wing Biddlebaum are living in a dream world to some extent. In Jim’s case, he has chosen to remember only what he wants to from the past and these memories cumulatively become the story of My Antonia. It is difficult to say whether or not Jim ever had any truly negative experience, because his writing mostly focuses on the positive main events, most including Antonia. Winesburg, Ohio, however, presents Wing’s interactions with dreaming and memories a bit differently. It seems as though Wing attempts to live in a dream world in order to suppress his past and the desires that he still seems to feel. By choosing to live this way, he can attempt to forget the misery and pain of his past in order to live in the present. When something triggers his memory to the past, he is snapped back into reality and must face the consequences of his actions. This in turn affects his current relationships, in this case his relationship with George.
Whether or not Jim’s past was as great as he remembers, or Wing’s was as awful as he seems to recall, both men experience great emotion when visiting these past memories. While Jim’s memory seems to be more constant, Wing seems to subconsciously carry these memories that are triggered by certain actions. Wing lives happily in his current dream world, but his past is a haunting nightmare. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between dreams and reality, especially when thinking of the past. My Antonia explores the idea of the past carrying both nostalgic and dream-like qualities of a positive experience or one that is at least perceived in this way, while Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio shows quite the opposite. The way in which dreams and memories are portrayed in these two texts, greatly affect the main characters in contrasting ways.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.
The Girls and the Poetry
After Jim moves to town with his grandparents, he begins school with other children of his age, yet is never interested in their antics or infatuations. His relationship with the Harling children next door, demonstrates the conventional mode of childhood affection and friendship, but as Jim grows older, his only admiration rests upon the immigrant girls and their “wild” ways. In Willa Cather’s My Ã?ntonia, descriptions and details are heaped upon the girls from afar rather than the young girls who were expected to fit into Jim’s social set. Cather demonstrates Jim’s fascination with women such as Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard and Ã?ntonia Shimerda, through rampant description whereas Jim’s interest in other women of his age and class, is stymied. Though Jim never consummates a relationship with anyone in the novel, the closest he gets to an overt love interest is with the stunning and self-made Lena Lingard.
Jim notices the attraction of the girls from the farmlands as he compares them with their younger sisters or the women from town. He finds some attraction in the fact that these girls had to struggle to survive and had to undergo the transition from one country to another. “I can remember something unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigor which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women” (153). This vigor, according to Jim, presented a gorgeous alternative to the town-bred girls who were taught to stay inside and cater to their gentle femininity. The strong, unrefined women of the immigrant families presented a challenge to Jim and the other men of Black Hawk; they were lovely figures to contend and they continued to work unceasingly to aid their families on the farm. The “hired girls,” though somewhat looked down upon by townspeople, nonetheless caused love interests to abound even though “Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used” (155). And though this scene was the norm and the goal of Black Hawk boys, they couldn’t help but notice the “menace to the social order”(155)â?¹the country girls. Cather writes that “their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background” (155). These girls, when observed at work over the ironing boards, stoves and counters, were constant symbols of strength and infatuation.
Though the Harling women, such as Frances, were granted description by Cather, she is much more involved in the influence of the country girls. Jim sees the Danish laundry girls at the firemen’s dances, but the “girls never looked so pretty at the dances as they did standing by the ironing-board, or over the tubs, washing the fine pieces, their white arms and throats bare, their cheeks bright as the brightest wild roses, their gold hair, moist with the steam or the heat and curling in little damp spirals about their ears” (170). Infatuated with their ability to work and play with such strength and good cheer, Jim never associates himself with the town-bred girls, but rather fascinates himself with observations of the three Marys, Tiny, Lena and, of course, Ã?ntonia. Cather continuously describes the deep color of Ã?ntonia’s cheeksâ?¹color that would never grace the complexion of a town girl. And due to her strength and purpose, Ã?ntonia, like the other immigrants, is always granted a special place in Jim’s memory. The simplicity and steadfastness of the hired girls are what jogs Jim’s memory of the Nebraska prairie. Even the men that are close to his heart, such as Jake and Otto, are those of the working classâ?¹men, who through their labor and good cheer, influenced Jim’s young life.
Even as Jim went forth into the world of academia, he falls in love with Lena Lingard and her self-made womanhood as she works away at her business in Lincoln. Lena’s first visit to his comforting armchair, brings a rush of memories. “When I closed my eyes I could hear them all laughingâ?¹the Danish laundry girls and the three Bohemian Marys. Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry” (203). Jim’s feelings for the goodness of these immigrant women are so strong that he associates them with one of the greatest poets in the world. Promptly, he becomes infatuated with Lena in a manner that had never effected him while associating with town girls in Black Hawk. Though Jim moves on to bigger and better thingsâ?¹Harvard and Harvard Law School no lessâ?¹his memories always remain intertwined with the power and influence of girls like Lena, Tiny and Ã?ntonia. When he returns to visit the latter on her own farm, he still revels in her strength and persistence in the same manner that used to fascinate him as a young man. Similarly, he remains impressed with the ambitions of Tiny and Lena as they move further west to San Francisco to demonstrate their nerve in an entirely new microcosm. Throughout the novel, descriptions of women are never so apt as when they are associated with the great strength of the working-class girls from Norway, Denmark, Czechoslovakia and the like.
The Contrasting Effects of Jim’s and Ántonia’s Perceptions of the Past
“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.”
My Antonia: The Early-American Working Woman’s Reprimand
Despite the trajectories and implications Jim Burden may have imposed upon the female characters of My Antonia, each of the “hired girls” winds up successful by their own means, simultaneously demonstrating and defying the stereotypical roles of women during the late 19th century and ultimately cementing My Antonia as a critical work in Early-American feminist literature. Willa Cather, accredited American author famous for her depictions of pioneer life, rather brilliantly created a frame for the women of My Antonia by juxtaposing their lives with the critical narration voiced by Jim Burden while simultaneously showcasing her eloquent writing in this küntslerroman that has withstood the test of time. In analyzing aspects of Willa Cather’s personal life, Jim Burden’s hypercritical narration, and the outcomes of said female characters, it becomes quite clear that the portrayed women of My Antonia are feminist heroines rather than defiant subordinates as Jim may have once thought of them.
Upon reading through the first books of My Antonia, the female characters are tainted by a negative commonality in the way Jim undermines his affection for them with denigration, seeming at first as though Cather’s regards for women are indistinguishable from Jim’s. Jim Burden has a very resolute idea of how women are to act, and anytime one of these characters defies his constrained perception, he is quick to point it out. Numerous points of evidence can be addressed in proving these notions; for example, Jim dictates his shallow contempt for Antonia as she begins to treat him “more like an equal” by saying, “she was four years older than I, to be sure, and had seen more of the world; but I was a boy and she was a girl, and I resented her protecting manner” (Cather 24). He rather blatantly states that Antonia knows more than him in the regarded situation, but because she is a girl, her help is not wanted. Later on, when Antonia declines the offer to attend school because she instead chooses to work on her family’s farm, Jim regards her as boastful and states that “[e]verything [about her] was disagreeable to him, […] [s]he had lost [all of her nice ways]” (Cather 61, 62). Antonia isn’t the only character to be scrutinized in this way. When Jim later moves to Black Hawk, he regards Lena, Tiny, and Antonia as “menace[s] to the social order,” noting them to be unrefined and often comparing their actions to that of boys (Cather 98). Despite that Jim affectionately thinks of the women being discussed in this essay, he still holds them all to a rigid and objectifying standard. Having a first person perspective in this regard is critical in showcasing just how Antonia and her female counterparts defy the stereotypes set before them. Jim is simply a delegate of the society he was written into; his words represent how America as a whole felt towards women during the late 19th century, and by illustrating how these women far surpassed Jim’s initial impressions, they defy the relevant societal implication of women of their generation.
In proving My Antonia as an iconic work in feminist literature, it is also important to establish the difference between Cather’s views and that of Jim’s. In exploring Cather’s background, it makes sense that she would hold high regards to her female characters as most of the notable relationships in her life were with women (Koss). While several critics have come to discuss the potential of Cather being lesbian, the only point that really matters is that Cather respected and looked up to the women she kept in her life. Knowing that Cather wrote mostly from personal experience also goes to further prove her adoration for and the importance of the female characters in her novels (Koss). However, critics often argue that Willa Cather was not a feminist at all. It’s easy to point out examples where Cather portrays a sexist voice in her writing. Even going to point out Cather’s defiance of femininity as a young adult is a credible reason to argue how Cather is far from a feminist, but as English and Humanities expert, Elaine Aprthorp, goes out to point, Cather’s writing is a reflection of “her later conscious evaluation of that period from the vantagepoint of a different consciousness, itself the product of her earlier evolutions,” essentially stating that Cather’s negatively implicative voice is a projection of “her adult embarrassment of her actions as a youth” (Apthorp 8). From here, it is easy to assume that Jim Burden’s narration may simply be a reflection of Cather’s early opinions and rejections of femininity in combination with the gender-based stipulations she felt as a woman of the 20th century. Proof of Cather’s regards for the women in her story is evident simply in knowing that Antonia’s enamoring character is drawn from a woman Cather knew personally and wholeheartedly respected as a child, Anna Sadilek; Cather stated in an interview that “[Anna] was one of the truest artists [Cather] ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains,” later going on to state that Anna’s strong personality was always something that she had wanted to write about (Koss). While Cather’s work may come across as sexist or critical of women, Cather simply used Jim’s voice as a brilliant framework to juxtapose the strength in the women of her story. Using this device shouldn’t be misjudged as Cather also holding women to a stereotypical standard but as a highly crafted way to highlight the roles of the female characters in her story, conclusively providing further reason as to why My Antonia is clearly brilliant feminist prose from the perspective of Early-American literature.
In addition to the aspects of Cather’s life that influenced the structure of the text, it is also essential to talk about the characters themselves that solidify the piece’s importance. The three major female icons in My Antonia that are being referenced are Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard, and Antonia Shimerida, the “hired girls” as Jim calls them. As Erika Koss, administrator for the National Endowment of the Arts, notes, “[s]ince the most popular American novels featured upper-class ladies and gentlemen, it was a radical aesthetic move for Cather to feature lower-class, immigrant ‘hired girls’” (Koss). From the beginning, these girls are cast as outsiders, working for wages of the townsfolk who let them live amongst them. While Jim often depicts these factors as components of weakness by regularly establishing his class differences between the girls, these factors that are seen as unfavorable are ultimately the fundamentals to what brings them their success.
Tiny Soderball, previously working a fickle job at a men’s boarding house, might be considered to have wound up the most successful of the girls after finding fortune in her keen independence in Alaska. Lena Lingard most closely portrays modern feminist ideals. For numerous male characters throughout the book, Lena is an icon of sexuality; not only is she described endlessly based on her physical traits, she is also the center of Jim’s sexual desires, and yet despite all of this, Lena treats her luring air of sexuality with indifference. She rather blatantly stated that she had no interest in seeking a husband and is often noted by Jim to refuse his offers to pay for her (Cather 138). Her strong attitude and fidelity to her own desires, regardless of the impressions they may have imposed on her, led to quick success as the leading dressmaker of Black Hawk. In the end, Lena moved to San Francisco in pursuit of even greater endeavors alongside Tiny. Even after Lena’s eventual success is accredited, Jim still discounts her achievements by saying, “Lena’s success puzzled me; [s]he was so easy going,” only reiterating both the predisposed implications he has for the girls and his role as their own personal naysayer (Cather 133). Regardless of Tiny and Lena’s scrutinized secondary roles, it goes without saying that Antonia is most heavily affected by Jim’s gender-based confines. Even the title of the novel itself is steady proof of Jim’s misguided idealizations of Antonia. David Laird, professor at UCLA, reiterates this by saying, “[Jim’s] appropriation of her is evident in the title, […] [it’s] his way of claiming ownership [over her]” (Laird 248). Somewhere as a child, Jim created a romanticized vision of Antonia, despite that she never once reciprocated his affection. In response to this unsatisfied affliction, Jim turns Antonia into some idyllic pinnacle, and anytime he catches a glimpse of Antonia’s natural human flaws, he is more rash in pointing them out, as was previously noted. When Antonia is visited later on in the book, it is blatantly obvious that her character is Jim’s personification of his undying tie to a romanticized past. Antonia’s success lies in her thriving family and omnipotent happiness, and by association, Jim seems to come to terms with a likeminded contentment. Despite that Jim may feel that he has found happiness at this point, his experience is really only a secondary echo of Antonia’s abundant joy. In the end, the women of the story are the only one’s who really seem to find happiness. While Jim’s voice leads the reader throughout My Antonia, these women sail a course of their own, refusing to fit the standards that had been set for them. In the end, it was their determinedness to sense of self and their undying courage to uphold their strengths in the face of adversity that led them to success.
In the end, these women grew up to defy the precedents set before them. True of Cather’s brilliant nature to share more in what is left unsaid, My Antonia is a story voiced in opposition to an unspoken narrative. Contrary to the conventional attitude and feigned artificiality of Jim’s thoughts of these girls, these women find a success far superior to anything he has ever known. In comparing Jim Burden’s hyper-analytical voice towards these girls and their eventual individual successes, a powerful juxtaposition is created, conclusively demonstrating their strengths despite the gender barriers held against them. Cather’s depiction of feminism in My Antonia is a story of which strict holds to conventionality forbad success and bravery amongst adversity became rudimentary to happiness, irrefutably rebelling the ideals of gender as a patriarchal construct and solidifying My Antonia as exemplary feminist prose of its generation.
Apthorp, Elaine. “Speaking of silence: Willa Cather and the “problem” of feminist biography.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal (1990): 8. Web. 19 Oct. 2015
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1994. Print.
Koss, Erika. “My Antonia – Reader’s Guide.” The Big Read. Arts Midwest, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Laird, David. “Willa Cather’s Women: Gender, Place, and Narrativity in O Pioneers! and My Antonia” (1992). Great Plains Quarterly: 242-253. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.