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.
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