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.
Off the Beaten Path
In My Antonia, the prairie, with its dogtowns, creeks, and grassy cliffs, is as prominent a force as Jim Burden or Antonia Shimerda, in that it becomes their home and playground in childhood and shapes their consciousness in adulthood. The portrayal of this landscape, and in particular the roads that Jim and Antonia use to navigate it, mirrors the state of mind and the maturation of both the two friends and of the pioneers as a group. Cather uses descriptions of the characteristics of these paths and how they change to represent the path Jim’s life follows and to capture the idyllic nature of childhood, the vigor and independence of the pioneer experience, and how the conventional alternative seems to dull in comparison.In general, the features of the roads in the countryside correspond with the overall state of the land and the pioneers’ relationship to it. Though the presence of roads on the prairie suggests habitation and civilization, in the early days the arrangement of the road haphazardly mimics the shape and features of the countryside, causing it to “[run] about like a wild thing,” as if it has a will of its own (Cather 18). The initially untamed prairie and meandering roads seem to echo the fact that Jim and particularly Antonia have not yet been restricted by hardship and responsibility. In the days before Antonia must work and Jim must attend school, their activities are as subject to whimsy as the wanderings of the roads themselves. The inconvenient, pointless curves of the trails seem to suggest that the frontiersmen, though established on the land, do not have a firm hold on it. The terrain seems to define their routes, actions, and lives more than their attempts to establish roads or farms define the terrain. This situation shifts as Jim returns to the prairie in his late teens and observes that in addition to fields filled with successful harvests, the new roads are “confined to section lines” (Cather 71). Jim is obviously delighted that his neighbors’ toil has come to fruition. Though Jim likens his observation of these changes to “watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea,” it becomes apparent in later passages that he also seems to harbor some sentimental regard for the old roads of the uncultivated prairie that was playground of his youth (Cather 184).Though Jim both comes to view the prairie as a crucial element of his identity and his childhood friendship with Antonia, both characters are initially strangers to it and each other. Though, he and Antonia travel to Nebraska on the same train, Jim has not yet made the Shimerdas’ acquaintance, making it impossible to guess Antonia’s thoughts during the journey from Jim’s narration. Jim’s own emotions, curiously, do not foretell the joys he will experience on the prairie. Instead, his sense of disorientation when he travels by wagon to Blackhawk is apparent when he notes that “if there [is] a road, [he can] not make it out” (Cather 11). The fact that Jim cannot see the road ahead, or even ascertain that a road is guiding him at all suggests a feeling of being lost and reflects the uncertain nature of his future. Taken figuratively, the roads Jim travel on seems to parallel his path in life. At this point he is indeed in between two lives: his former one with his late parents in Virginia (a time he can never return to) and the new one with his grandparents in Nebraska (which he presently knows nothing of). Antonia’s displacement between Bohemia and America is presumably even more acute, though whether or not she feels it at the moment is unknown. The wild land and seeming lack of path to direct travelers through it, prompts Jim to feel that this place is so untamed and uninhabited that it is “outside man’s jurisdiction” and is the “material out of which countries are made” (Cather 11). That he feels “blotted out” intimates that he is being reborn on this journey as the road he travels takes him further and further away from what is familiar (Cather 11). This slightly eerie description of the trek towards his new home seems to hint at the potential of the land surrounding the road to form countries, to define rules, and to create new lives.Once Jim settles on the prairie, he and Antonia enjoy the freedom it offers, but also learn the cost of this freedom. The connection Jim draws between the concept of independence and the prairie roads is implicit in his physical descriptions of the paths. For example, the sunflowers that line the prairie paths during summer call to mind Fuch’s story of how Mormons scattered sunflower seeds when passing through Nebraska to escape religious persecution. Though he knows that this tale is fictitious, Jim prefers it to a more botanical explanation. He reveals his romantic bent by declaring that “sunflower-bordered roads always seem to [him] the roads to freedom” (Cather 23). The period of time when Jim and Antonia ride along these trails is indeed relatively untroubled by cares and limitations, as they use the sunflower paths to embark on their snake-slaying, neighbor-visiting, and insect-rescuing adventures. However, when the sunflowers roads are “despoiled” and the flowers wither into “brown, rattling, burry stalks” at the end of the season, it portends a difficult winter ahead (Cather 32). The cold, desperate months that follow are instead reminders that the self-sufficiency of prairie life can also lead to the hardship and isolation that ultimately results in the Shimerdas’ near-starvation and Mr. Shimerda’s suicide. The roads on the prairie lead Jim and Antonia to times that are sometimes merry and sometimes brutal, but always rich in excitement and emotion. In contrast, when Jim gives up exploring prairie roads for a quiet life in the town of Blackhawk, he frequently feels trapped. His need for a sign of freedom is so great that he marks a nearby river as “compensation for the lost freedom of the farming country” (Cather 90). Though the river does periodically offer some entertaining hunting and fishing, Jim mostly finds himself restlessly wandering the “long, cold streets” of Blackhawk (Cather 132). These streets are not lined with sunflowers, but rather with houses that only serve to evoke in him a sense of disgust at the “jealousy and envy and unhappiness” and “guarded mode of existence” of the people who inhabit the town (Cather 132). These petty people are very different from the earnest and open people with whom Jim grew up. Jim can appreciate the reason and effort of constraining the country roads into more direct routes, but still is fond of the more serpentine ones for the memories they evoke. In the same way, Jim must forsake the romantic locales and characters of his childhood for a more practical route in adulthood. Though Jim’s path in life leads him to cities and towns where he can attend school and establish himself as a successful lawyer, he never stops loving the paths he traversed with Antonia above all others.A particular landmark on these remembered roads that acts as a connection to the past is Mr. Shimerda’s grave, located at a crossroads in accordance with superstition. While all other land has been cultivated, this plot becomes a “little island” as roads curve to accommodate the grave instead of building over it (Cather 74). Jim admires the romantic superstition that placed the grave in such an odd location, and commends the “error in the surveyed lines” that is a lapse in efficiency in favor of sympathy and respect (Cather 74). The gravesite was not mown down with the rest of the land, and therefore seems to be a small part of the past that has been preserved. It is a souvenir of the days when the prairie was being broken in and the roads were still rudimentary, a time that is stamped into the minds of those who were involved. This crossroads serves as common ground for Jim and Antonia to talk after his long absence in college. After so much has changed in both of their lives, they “instinctively” gravitate towards it as a symbol of the times they once shared, while the nature of the crossroads itself suggests that their paths in life have permanently diverged (Cather 191). It is the intimacy and nostalgia that this place summons that allows Jim to come the closest to directly confessing his love for Antonia when he states that to him she is “anything that a woman can be to a man” (Cather 192).Finally, after a twenty-year absence the on Jim’s part, the roads complete his physical and spiritual journey by awakening a dormant part of him that is resembles Jim as a child (or Antonia as she always has been) more than the unhappily married, financially successful, spiritually mediocre man that he becomes. Jim is overwhelmed with emotion upon encountering the familiar old paths, saying that he has “the sense of coming home to [himself],” of regaining the sense of possibility and exploration he had as a boy on the same roads (Cather 222). He declares the old road that first brought him and Antonia from the train station to the open land is a “road of Destiny,” in that it first introduces them, then serves as a vehicle for the adventures that their friendship and love for the frontier is created upon, and finally and joyfully reunites them after two decades (Cather 222). The road, in Jim’s view, “predetermined for us all that we can ever be,” reaffirming that the foundation of their identities are defined by the roads they traveled so long ago (Cather 222).The roads in My Antonia represent the conflict between practicality and romanticism, the changing face of the American frontier, the pioneer spirit, and Jim’s path in life and how it intertwines with Antonia’s. Though the roads of Jim’s childhood are eventually changed, though the land they once traveled through is tamed, though Jim and Antonia’s idealism and innocence suffer from deceit and dullness, the memories of these roads and the escapades they held are forever memorialized in their minds. Works CitedCather, Willa. My Antonia. 2nd ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003.
The Best Girls
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)â¹the 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 cheeksâ¹color 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 classâ¹men, 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 laughingâ¹the 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 thingsâ¹Harvard and Harvard Law School no lessâ¹his 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 Significance of Nature in the Nick Adams Stories and My Antonia
Nature is a vital and powerful component of life. It has the power to provide, as well as the power to take away. Human life depends upon it, but can also be destroyed by it. We are forced to interact with it in numerous ways, but at the same time have very little control over it. Both Nick Adams as well as the characters in My Antonia display some the benefits interacting with the land can have if one is able to connect to it, as well as how it can destroy someone if they are unable to connect to it.
In My Antonia, the prairie and its gifts have the power to create life as well as take it away. Jim and Antonia’s friendship forms over their love of the prairie. And as a whole, the prairie provides the Shimerda family with a new start. But at the same time, it is the hardships of life on the prairie that end lives as well. The most prominent example of this is Mr. Shimerda’s suicide. There are several instances prior to his death in which one can infer that this new life
was very hard for Mr. Shimerda. For example, when Jim and Antonia encounter Mr. Shimerda after he has killed three rabbits, he seems sad. Antonia tells Jim, “My papa sick all the time . . .
He not look good, Jim.” Jim later discloses that Antonia was “the only one of his family who could rouse the old man from the torpor in which he seemed to live.” (Cather, 45) The
adjustment to the prairie and hardships his family are facing are too much for him. Like the husband in Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” Mr. Shimerda chooses to end his life so as to no longer
continue with the hardships and watching his family suffer.
Although her father could not adjust to the prairie life, Antonia is able to because she identifies with the land. Throughout the novel, she continues to grow and change, just as the land does. She is able to learn how to store food, live off the land, and provide for her family all while teaching her children how to do the same. She is able to do what her father was not because unlike her father, she is able to connect with the land. Her evolution is most apparent at the end of the novel when Jim comes to visit and she shows him her apple orchard. She goes into detail about how she grew them and states “I love them as if they were people.” (Cather, 383) Antonia’s connection to the prairie displays the life giving power the prairie has for its inhabitants not only physically, but spiritually as well. Overtime she has learned how to tend to the prairie so that it would provide food and shelter, skills she did not have when her family first came to the Prairie.
The most prominent interaction between Nick Adams and the land, in my opinion, can be seen in the “Big Two Hearted River”. He goes on this fishing trip alone in an attempt to regain
a sense of humanity. He has returned from WWI where he was surrounded by injury, death, destruction and carnage. The tragedy and chaos he was forced to endure has ruined his sense of
humanity, and thus he turns to nature in hopes that it can aid him in restoring his life into some
sort of balance. This is symbolically proven through his physical journey to the fishing camp.
Along the way, he passes the ruins of Seney: “There was no town, nothing but the rails and the
burned-over country . . . It was all that was left of the town of Seney.” (“Big Two-Hearted
River”, 177) He must go through the burned down town in order to get to the hillside to fish.
This journey symbolizes the internal journey he is taking to renewed mental health. He must go
through and process the horrors he faced in order to begin anew. Fortunately, this fishing trip and connection to nature allows him to do what he desires. His success is showcased in the second part of this story, His fishing process is extremely methodical. While Hemingway is never one to craft elaborate sentences full of detail, he provides intense detail into Nick’s fishing routine. This decision to incorporate a lot of detail for Hemingway serves to prove how therapeutic and healing routine can be. Hemingway’s attention to detail allows the reader to feel just as Nick does in the situation. The “feeling of disappointment left him . . . It was all right now.” (“Big Two-Hearted River”, 194) Overall, Nick’s return to fishing and connection to the environment around him allows him to heal and realize that he can continue on despite everything he witnessed and enduring during the War.
The complexity of nature makes it appear almost humanlike. It seems to know its inhabitants a little too well, especially in literature. It judges its inhabitants based upon its interactions with it. Nature gives to those who make an effort with it, and takes away from or even destroys those who cannot identify with it. Through Nick Adams, Antonia, and the Shimerda’s family, one is able to see some of the different ways in which humans are able to connect, or not connect, with nature. Ultimately, each character’s different relationship with nature serves as a reminder to readers that the majority of what we have and rely upon comes from the land. Thus, it is our duty to interact with it in the most positive ways possible.
The Trails of Home as Intrinsic Character Aspects in My Ántonia
A famous princess held captive by a beast once sang in the Beauty and the Beast musical by Ashman and Menken, “Home should be where the heart is, and never were words so true.” This idea clues in a relevant truth that resonates throughout Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and is embraced by protagonist Jim’s perception of home. Opening his journey midst childhood, he is seen going through a self restart at a young age, and through what he establishes as home, a fresh look at his character is offered. Home has a lasting impact on character throughout life, and this premise is exemplified through how overtly derivative Jim’s traits are from his friendship with Ántonia. Memories that have been effectively innate in self will rise up to the surface of character as life continues. The first treasured memory can hit very close to home. Jim’s perception of life as filtered through his acquaintance with Ántonia in My Ántonia demonstrates the lasting, intrinsic influence of the idea of home on character traits and decisions throughout life.
Friendship with Ántonia resets Jim’s remembrance of home. Diving into the beginning of his narration, Jim initiates a youthful self at a point of emotional exhaustion, with many allusions to the move into the countryside as a “complete dome of heaven,” the place where he “felt erased, blotted out” (Cather 7). He is only aimlessly motivated to live and close to giving up. The underlying dependence of his on a friendship is only noticed when he meets Ántonia. What follows is an immediate bond that precludes the amount of inner alignment the two achieve from the relationship. Jim self-adopts himself into the family, and even Ántonia’s father perpetuates Jim’s illusion of home further with a fatherly gesture that pulls Jim into the idea of family provided by Ántonia. The two become inseparable very quickly, learning life’s lessons together as they forage through school kid adventures, a notable tale being the “circus monstrosity” of a snake Jim slays (25). Home becomes the countryside, the setting of Jim’s roots of belonging and the frame of his childhood adventures with Ántonia, his eternal sidekick.
Jim clings to his memory of home, mummified in the state of experience, and it causes him to remain similarly in the mindset backdropped by country experiences with Ántonia. As the book transitions the majority of characters to the townside, Jim refuses the assimilation of the orthodox town ways. He is considered “something queer” and odd to associate with the country girls once exposed to the improved affiliation of townsfolk (105). At first, there is a palpable discomfort as he struggles to find a place in the balance between the rapport of his schoolmates and the preservation of his ties with his immigrant childhood friends. Yet he ends up treading over to the belittled side that whispers home: sneaking out to dances, even becoming a little silly. He hormonally confesses his love to Ántonia and flits around with Lena as well. Soon after, even when Jim is forced to sober up and progress to the adult expectations of schooling and the University a move away, his mind is still blocked by memories, being forever caught in the mindset of home. He notes that he could never be a scholar, because “mental excitement was apt to send me … back to my own naked land” (125). When he finds a trace of his old roots, a past loved girl from home, at his front door step, Jim latches on aggressively with the intent of sapping any trace of his recollections left, using this friend as both artifact and acquaintance. Lena and he spend a desperate amount of time together, each seeking refuge in the other in the expansive environment unfamiliar with their countryside history. Eventually, by the time the entire journey of adolescence and maturity is finished, Jim has preserved his memory of home to remain intact and vicariously conjurable in “the best days,” as stated in his chosen epigraph (xi). Other friends do not show this obstinate mindset after time dredges on and surroundings change, encouraging him to go back after passed time and visit Ántonia. It takes an eternity of twenty years before he finally brings himself to retrace his steps to home. He is not pleased at the horrors of time, and the way it has thieved his childhood remembrance. To Jim, Ántonia looks older, and he struggles to bring his thoughts to the intimate traits of her as to look at this scene with fondness. Gone are the days of pristine memory, and this visit spurs Jim with a need to search deeper for his unconditional love for his friend. His original home has weathered and eroded. Growing older is a sin, and Jim does not cope well with facing the changes of what he remembers as his centrality. The early impressionable impact of Ántonia is so great for Jim that it has become something he continually pursues throughout all the character decisions that shape his life.
Ántonia’s effect on Jim is evident as his actions and traits can be seen as derived through the shadow of Ántonia’s involvement in his life. From the point of youth, Jim hates when Ántonia acts pretentious and the “superior tone that she sometimes took” (24). There can be noted a want of his for the two companions to be harmonized and equal. Yet Ántonia has a power over him that he may choose to not be aware of. She is the one that propels his educational journey, telling him authoritatively that he is “going away to school and [making] something of [himself]” (109). He moves to the University, and that is where he ultimately makes the connection for readers of the epigraph to his story. His obedience goes to support the observation that Jim is awed by and admiring of Ántonia, as he even tells her face-to-face, “I’d have liked to have you for … anything that a woman can be to a man” (152). This closeness expressed makes it sorrowful that Jim is the one to make it out of the country, yet his motivation and most influential mentor is still stuck in a perpetual winter of hard work and hard life. However, because of the empathic link between the two, Ántonia’s approval of Jim’s endeavors is the parallel to the subordination of Jim’s course of life. Ántonia has helped establish and build Jim’s childhood, so her footprints continue to remain prominent throughout his life. She is overjoyed at his return twenty years later and has not lost any sense of pride in this brother of hers that has gained more than she could ever hope for. Their intertwined connection is described like he once said to Ántonia, “You really are a part of me” (152). Jim is subconsciously content to live in the comfort of Ántonia’s affectionate shadow, for that is where he most successfully cultivates as a person.
Home shapes character, identity, and the individual walk of life. For Jim, Ántonia has become an embodiment of home. Everybody has a home that impacts their life in ways that is not perceptible until it is lain beside childhood directly in the gaze of analytication. Any intentions of obstructing the fact do not matter because the effects of childhood identity and home are inescapable. People who move away always end up coming home. People with a sense of belonging treasure it so much it leaves a seen mark on their lives. Children are chided to considerately think of what others experience behind closed doors, because home can be that intrinsic facet in character, that countenance masking every action. Like Belle sang, “Home is where the heart is,” and the heart dictates the direction of life that carves your character.
Naturalist Literary Elements in ‘My Antonia’: Viewing Human Essence Through Experiences
The idea of developing from your experiences is an idea applied to the methods of writing as well as everyday life in the present day. Such a method is mostly applied to Naturalist works. The goal of Naturalist literature was solely to develop and eventually reveal the attributes of the novel’s characters’ personality. This effective method can be used to identify various personalities due to the wide variety of events and feelings that could be experienced. This type of writing is applied to Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Overall, there are three prevalent experiences that broadly shape and identify the nature of the characters and their personalities. The elements of the social position, inevitable tragedy, and determination, all visible in the lives of the characters in Willa Cather’s My Antonia, are Naturalist elements that help develop insight into the human nature of the characters.
The element of social position is prevalently present in the nature of the immigrant characters in ways that show both the ethical and unethical reactions to their acknowledgment of their social position. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Shimerda, their low social position makes them cherish factors like self-respect, pride, and social reputation even more for this is what is left with them after relocating and not having a good social and monetary status. This also relates to the Naturalist themes of despair and struggle although these are concealed from their peers. This attitude is first witnessed during their first winter; this is when they realize that their monetary and social status is not favorable. However, they maintain their pride, respect, reputation, and even are over generous in attempt to conceal their struggle. Mr. Shimerda wanted his family to “know that they were not beggars in the old country; he made good wages, and his family was respected there” (Cather 53). Here, Mr. Shimerda indirectly tells his family that although they do not have everything that they expected from their move to the United States, they had enough and should be proud of what they have attained.
This mindset is also seen through Mrs. Shimerda’s actions. She repeatedly gives her family’s belongings as gifts to others and suffers the loss with a smile; although she knows that neither her social or financial status are distinguished, she continues to maintain her self-respect. Contrastingly, another immigrant character’s acknowledgment of their social status brings out the worst in them as a person. Peter Krajiek has a higher social position and takes advantage of this which brings out his greedy mindset. Cather writes: “..had paid him [Peter Krajiek] more than it [Shimerda’s home] was worth….Krajiek was their [Shimerdas’] only interpreter and could tell them anything he chose. They could not speak English to ask for advice or even make their most pressing wants known” (Cather 19). The affirmation of his high social position causes him to treat others unethically. In this quote, he has cheated the Shimerdas into paying him more for the house they bought from him. In that district, he is known for committing such cheating deeds. He, being of a higher social status within the immigrant community, takes advantage of this; he is corrupt, cunning, and cheating. In contrast with the Shimerdas, Krajiek’s acknowledgment of his significance within his community gives the reader insight into his greedy mind. But, not only do the characters’ social significance give the reader insight into their personality.
The inevitable natural tragedies that occur in the lives of the characters reveal the personalities of the characters in multiple ways; this is seen in the some of the characters’ reaction to a natural occurrence like a change in season. As winter approaches the small town in Nebraska, the residents react to the anticipated and drastic change which reveals their human mentality. When winter comes to the Burden household, the residents make the best of the harsh winter; Jim describes the scenery as beautiful and absorbs the hidden beauty of winter which others may comprehend as bitter. Antonia, specifically, does not appreciate the cold change as much; Jim says “the sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. As Antonia said, the whole world was changing” (Cather 46). Antonia is still confused as to how to react to this change but Jim is enjoying it wholeheartedly. This displays the Burdens’ optimistic attitude in such situations. On the other end of the spectrum, the Shimerdas, once again, are silently suffering from the cold winter. This is similar to their reaction to their social status where they keep their suffering inconspicuous as an effort to maintain their self-respect. But, their pride and self-respect go to a certain extent; when Jim and his family witness their hardships first-hand and provide assistance, Mrs. Shimerda breaks down crying out of gratitude. Cather writes: “…until Jim arrived with the hamper, as if in direct answer to Mrs. Shimerda’s reproaches. Then the poor woman broke down. She dropped on the floor beside her crazy son, hid her face on her knees, and sat crying” (Cather 52). The Shimerda’s persistent masking of their struggles stops at this point; this shows the tender and sentimental core of the Shimerdas’ hearts that was kept hidden for some time. Although such events display the fragile and sentimental aspects of the characters, others show the ambitious and hard-working side of the characters.
After being faced with a practical and no-nonsense situation, the characters’ choice as to whether or not to accept a persevering task reveals the determination in them. This is most prevalently seen in Antonia and the reason behind her most significant transformation in the novel. After the tragic death of Antonia’s father, Antonia has the option of either taking up the male role in the house or depending on her stiff brother to take up this role. Her determination surfaces when she accepts this masculine role despite being a typical female in her household; she defeats the social stereotype of females and becomes what society never expected: a strong, independent, and determined female with a quiet inner strength. Jim sees her new identity after Antonia’s father dies observes the noticeable change: “When the sun was dropping 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 … She wore the boots her father had so thoughtfully taken off before he shot himself, and his old fur cap” (Cather 83). This choice of determination changes her life forever and exposes the ambitious side of her personality.
Another female role in the novel that displays her previously-submerged determination is Lena Lingard. In her teenage years, Lena is an immigrant girl who, in her teenage years, was a “hired girl”; this slur implies that she was a social outcast and was not allowed to associate with the “decent” folks in their small town. She longed for adventure and self-govern with the security of having a decent financial income and successful career. Although her goals are quite contrasting to that of Antonia’s, her ambition and determination to defy the stereotyped capability of the “hired girls” win her a successful career as a business owner. When she visits Jim while in he is college, she tells him “I [Lena] live in Lincoln now, too, Jim. I’m in business for myself. I have a dressmaking shop in the Raleigh Block, out on O Street. I’ve made a real good start” (Cather 172). She is proud and appreciative of her success. Through her success, her underlying ambition that was somewhat submerged as a teen is visible. She also defies the restricting social laws of the town and embraces her strong femininity. Like the other elements visible in the characters’ lives, this also gives us insight into the characters’ human nature.
Factors like determination, natural tragedies, and social status all apparent in the lives of Willa Cather’s My Antonia make the human nature of the characters more evident to the reader. The three factors might be simple ideas which can be experienced by many but not always to develop or reveal the human personalities of people. This is what many naturalist works’ are made to accomplish within the text: to develop or showcase the human nature of characters using natural elements whether those elements are making ethical or unethical attributes of the characters’ nature visible. In this novel, there are varieties of contrasting characteristics revealed to the reader through the naturalist method of writing. From this observation, it can be said that the human natures of characters in novels such as Cather’s My Antonia can be perfectly identified by the naturalist method of changing through experiences.
The Midwestern Landscapes of Willa Cather and Mary Austin
Many authors have been inspired to write by their environments, beautifully rendering their scenery with their words. Willa Cather and Mary Austin are two examples of such authors, who recreate the vast expanses of the Midwest’s grassy fields and rolling hills. Cather and Austin were both Modernist authors, telling their stories with less concern for one connected plot and focusing more on developed prose and writing styles. Both Cather’s and Austin’s writing styles are characterized by long, periodic sentences and liberal usage of commas; however, Austin’s Land of Little Rain has a slightly more formal tone than Cather’s My Antonia, due to its non-fiction genre and lack of dialogue. While both authors recreate the landscapes in which their stories take place using visual imagery, Austin’s care in describing the types of flora and fauna of the Country of Lost Borders establishes Land of Little Rain’s setting more clearly and effectively than My Antonia’s, as Cather must focus both on the plot of protagonist Jim Burden’s memoir and on describing the setting of the novel while the bulk of Austin’s focus is on describing her surroundings. Because of this disparity, Austin’s descriptions of the setting of her story are more effective in illustrating the Midwestern landscape than Cather’s are.
Cather’s and Austin’s long, comma-filled sentences typify the Modernist style and help reconstruct the long, flowing fields and rounded hills of the Midwest in which both their books take place. The use of such long sentences employs a slower, looser rhythm that almost reflects the rolling hills and calm nature of the landscapes of the Midwest: “East away from the Sierra, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders” (Austin). The rhythm of this periodic opening sentence of Land of Little Rain establishes that slow rhythm, and as each comma is added the sentence stretches on longer and longer just as the Midwest’s sprawling fields do. The Midwest is often described as flat, monotonous, and expansive, and in using longer sentences, both authors reflect that expansiveness.
Cather and Austin both employ imagery in their descriptions of the Midwest, but Austin fleshes out her scenery by adding detailed descriptions of the desert flora and fauna throughout the passage. In My Antonia, Cather describes the setting of her novel by writing of the “never-ending miles of ripe wheat” and how “everywhere, as far as the eye could reach” there is “nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass.” This illustrates the vast expanse of the Midwestern fields with visual imagery, capturing the seemingly endless grasslands that typify the landscape. She intersperses this imagery throughout My Antonia in order to bring the reader fully into the events that take place in the novel, but the bulk of her novel focuses on Jim Burden’s recounting of his childhood friend Antonia. The descriptions of the setting are simply a backdrop for the events of the novel. Similarly, In Land of Little Rain, Austin recounts the “hills, rounded, blunt, burned,” and while she focuses less on the general look of the scenery, her more specific illustrations of the plants and animals that inhabit the Midwest end up elevating her recreation of the dry, grassy landscape above Cather’s. Both of the authors’ descriptions of the Midwestern terrain are similar, but Austin describes plants as well as the general countryside, pointing out succulents and cacti like “creosote…this immortal shrub” and other plants like “yuccas, cacti, low herbs, a thousand sorts.” These descriptions take up the majority of Austin’s passage, and while Cather also describes some animals of the Midwest such as “bull-snakes” and “badgers,” her descriptions take up less space in My Antonia than Austin’s descriptions do in Land of Little Rain. In this sense, due to her lack of specificity and her focus on characterization and dialogue, Cather’s depiction of the Midwest falls just slightly short of Austin’s.
The writing styles of Cather and Austin are extremely similar, and descriptions of the environment are present throughout both Land of Little Rain and My Antonia. However, these descriptions play a much larger role in Austin’s Land of Little Rain, and in making the landscape the main focus of the passage, she devotes more lines to fleshing that landscape out well. The landscape described by Cather in My Antonia serves mostly as a background for the recountings of Jim Burden, and play the role of the setting rather than the main part. Because of this, Austin’s recreation of the landscape is more effective than Cather’s. The Midwest is a vast, plain expanse, and in their effective uses of literary devices, both authors manage to capture that landscape with words and immerse the reader in the scene.
Examining Jim’s Emotions
Throughout the novel My Ántonia by Willa Cather Jim is very emotionally absent. He does not have an easy life by any stretch of the imagination, yet his hardships are not evident in his speech or actions. They are not the driving force that molds Jim into the man he is at the end of the novel. In fact, if Jim does not mention his struggles briefly in the novel, it would be possible for the reader to miss them completely. Jim has an extremely optimistic outlook on life. He sees the world through rose painted lenses and is oblivious the hardship and heartbreak that the people closest to him feel, namely Ántonia.
Jim is no stranger to heartache and is introduced to the novel shortly after the tragic death of both of his parents. Most children feel inexpressible sadness after losing the two people closest to them, but Jim is unfazed. He is eager to put his past behind him and start a new life with his grandparents in Nebraska. Jim does not even cling to the memory and spirit of his parents. On his way to Nebraska Jim says “I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; I had left even their spirits behind me.” (Cather, Page 8). This is last time Jim mentions his parents or their death in the account of his life. Jim’s lack of emotion is also evident when Mr. Shimerda, a man who meant a great deal to Jim, dies. While the Burdens and Shimerdas grieve over Mr. Shimerda’s death, Jim sits home reminiscing about Mr. Shimerda’s life before immigrating to America. There is no sorrow in Jim’s words over Mr. Shimerda’s death nor does he shed any tears. Jim does not believe the conventional theory that Mr. Shimerda’s soul is in purgatory. Instead he says that “As I looked with satisfaction about our comfortable sitting-room, it flashed upon me that if Mr. Shimerda’s soul were lingering about in this world at all, it would be here, in our house.” (Cather, Page 66). He refuses to let himself think that Mr. Shimerda is still suffering, even after death. It is easier for him to tell himself that Mr. Shimerda’s soul is still in a quaint Nebraska home than in purgatory.
Ántonia also deals with immense pain in her life. She is uprooted from her home as a child and is forced to adapt to a different country without knowing its language, culture or people. Even though Ántonia comes to America as a young girl she never forgets Bohemia, nor does she ever lose a feeling of homesickness. Jim does not notice Ántonia’s longing for her homeland. The only glimpse the reader has of Ántonia’s homesickness occurs late in the novel after Ántonia has been in the United States for more than ten years. While Jim and Ántonia share an intimate moment by the river she tells him through tears, “It makes me homesick, Jimmy, this flower, this smell. We have this flower very much at home, in the old country.” (Cather, 150). Like Jim, Ántonia also loses a parent but the reader does not notice how much this loss affects her until many years after Mr. Shimerda passes. “Look at my papa here; he’s been dead all these years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else. He never goes out of my life. I talk to him and consult with him all the time. The older I grow, the better I know him and the more I understand him.” (Cather, 206) Ántonia says many years later. As a child, Jim is aware of the troubles Ántonia and her family face, but he does not dwell on them or worry about they affect the Shimerda children. Jim says, “We knew that things were hard for our Bohemian neighbors, but the two girls were light hearted and never complained. They were always ready to forget their troubles at home, and to run away with me over the prairie.” (Cather, 23). It is not likely that the Shimerda girls forget their troubles when they played with Jim; it is likely that only Jim forgot their struggles. As Ántonia grows older, her troubles do not end. She believes the lies of a sleazy, smooth-talking man who impregnates her and then abandons her. Ántonia is left to survive without her father, without her native people, and without a man to help care for her child.
Jim’s romantic disposition and lack of empathy are very evident during his reunion with Ántonia. Jim puts off reconnecting with Ántonia for twenty years because he wants to cling to his old image of her and does want to see her old and broken. “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, 211) Jim says before visiting her. Jim finally puts aside his trepidations and returns to Blackhawk to see Ántonia. While in Blackhawk, a mutual friend of Jim and Ántonia’s, Tiny Soderball, warns him that Ántonia does not have a very successful life. “When I met Tiny Soderball in Salt Lake, she told me that Antonia had not “done very well” that her husband was not a man of much force, and she had had a hard life.” (Cather, 211) says Jim. Jim arrives at the Cuzack household and begins to remember the many years he had spent frolicking through the country as a boy. He tries to recapture these feelings of youth and freedom through Ántonia’s sons. He offers to sleep out in the barn with them and spends most of his time sharing stories of his youth with the family. The most significant part of Jim’s reunion with Ántonia is his reaction to seeing her again. Initially, he is surprised by how her physical beauties have declined with age but as she moves closer to him, her physical flaws become less noticeable to him. Jim says that Ántonia’s “fire of life” (Cather, 216) is not gone and he is surprised by her large, lovely family. In Jim’s eyes, Ántonia has a wonderful life; a life that ought to be envied. The reader must dig deeper and read between the lines to realize that Ántonia still struggles with a very difficult life. She lives in the country and, although that is where she feels the most comfortable, it is extremely difficult to make a living off of a farm. For the rest of her and Cusack’s lives, they will struggle to support their large family.
Jim is certainly not a heartless or apathetic person. He loves Ántonia and wants nothing more than to see her happy. However he is unable, or unwilling, to face his own pain and therefore, cannot relate to Ántonia’s pain. One may think that since Jim and Ántonia both have had to face so much tragedy in their lives that they are able to lean on each other during their hard times. These mutual struggles should be what makes them become such great friends. However, their hardships do very little to push them together. In fact, it seems as though they are able to become friends despite their hardships. Even though they do not immediately turn to each other during life’s toughest moments, Jim and Ántonia are able to share a friendship that few are lucky to experience.
The Fine Line Between Dreams and Memories: Comparing 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.