The Handling Of Gender In My Antonia By Willa Cather And The Painter Of Signs By R.k Narayan

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

The novel ‘My Antonia’ was written by the American author Willa Cather and published 1918. The bildungsroman novel follows the protagonist Jim Burden, who migrates to Nebraska after the death of his parents at age 10, throughout the various stages of his life as he narrates about his shared childhood with another immigrant Antonia. Cather’s novel is also considered an autobiography that closely mirrors her own experiences as a child growing up and with the people whom she shared relationships with.

The novel ‘The Painter of Signs’, written by R.K Narayan, was published in 1976. The novel follows the love story of the protagonist Raman and Daisy who struggle to compromise due to the difference of moral values and desires in the traditional society of Malgudi. Narayan articulately touches on the societal issues of the traditional culture of India in his novel- such as the expectation of women conforming to the norm of being housewives tasked with the duty to raise children.

In both novels, the authors shares dominant gender ideologies that both challenge as well as reinforce in their respective societies. The authors do so through the use of thematic concerns, characterization, juxtaposition and irony.

In ‘My Antonia’, Cather primarily challenges yet reinforces the ideology of genders through her use of characterisation, for instance, the protagonist Antonia. In the 1900’s, it was typical for the male sons to become the prioritised in families in terms of resources, yet in Book 1, Mr Shimerda requested that Jim teaches Antonia English. Not only does Antonia become entitled to education, after the death of her father, she immediately takes the role of breadwinner, rigorously working in the farm along with her brother Ambrosch. According to Altibi (2013) ‘Antonia’s character moves gradually from childhood into motherhood through various experiences. It is prominent that Antonia represents an independent woman during the twentieth century. She is also a representative of the aspects of American dream including hard working ethics and the pursuit of happiness during her life cycle.’ Antonia shows virtues such as independence, pride, willingness, strength (both physically and mentally) and success as a woman in the 20th century.

Typically, she opposes the traditional view of women who were expected to rely on marriage for stability as well as mobility as it was viewed as ‘masculine’ by Jim yet they do not take from her charm that everyone seems to be enchanted by. Irony is used however, when Antonia’s beauty is amplified by these qualities as Jim begins to sexualize and even admire this side of her. Cather however, reinforces the idea of women’s domestic role through Antonia as she becomes a great mother due to her experiences nurturing and tending to people in general. Jim notes ‘She pulled them out of the corners and came bringing them like a mother cat’. The use of the simile actively illustrates how Jim made the comparison of her to a mother cat because of the fact that she has become motherly.

In the novel ‘The Painter of Signs’ however, Narayan juxtaposes two female foil characters to challenge as well as reinforce the gender ideologies within the society of Malgudi. Daisy, the female protagonist and Raman’s aunt, symbolises the theme of contemporary versus tradition respectively. Narayan ‘s view has been tempered by his exposure to Western thought ever since he was a young boy at the Collegiate High School. Daisy is a woman of the modern doctrines- she does not stick to traditional values of women nor does she pay heed to those of religion as she is very passionate about her job on spreading the knowledge of family planning. Symbolic of this is her name ‘Daisy! What a name for someone who looked so very Indian, traditional, and gentle’. This statement by the third person narrator therefore, foreshadows the future issues between Raman and Daisy and it also gives a clear incite of what she is not.

The Aunt of Raman however, is an ideal representative of what was the expected mind-set of women within that period of time. The aunt held religion and superstition closely and she was also highly concerned with the caste system. The Aunt is an embodiment of the centuries of oppressions endured by Indian women (Mazloum 2009). This reflects deeply within the culture of India as it is a place well-known for its patriarchal system. The aunt, being a mature elder of society was taught to conform and commit to such ideology that it becomes a norm to her. Hence the conflict that arises between her and Raman on his choice as Daisy as his spouse.

In ‘My Antonia’, Cather presents the theme of marriage through multiple characters that experiences different types of lives while married. Most marriages were illustrated as suppressing and confining or a loveless and complex marriage such as Mr and Mrs Cutter and ironically Jim and his wife who lives separate lives. An ideal example that reinforces the expectations of the genders from the 1900’s would be the relationship between Mr and Mrs Harling, who is the neighbours of Jim in Black Hawk that also tends to him. Mr Harling is authoritative and domineering husband who focuses on work while leaving the welfare of the household to his wife, Mrs Harling. Mrs Harling is an ideal example of a woman in that period of time as she very meticulous about her responsibility. Jim mentioned how Mrs Harling always their ‘audience’, throwing suggestions yet as quoted ‘Mrs Harling paid no heed to anyone else if he was there’. This reinforces the traditional view of women being subservient to men who were the breadwinners.

Unlike the Harlings, Antonia and Anton Cuzak, Mr and Mrs Burden as well as Mr and Mrs Shimerda actually share a marriage of mutual respect and equality to an extent. ‘The marriage of Anton Cuzak is of a domestic rather than erotic character. Like the tale of Baucis and Philemon in pastoral mythology, it is a story of married love and hospitality’. Though these characters do conform to the norm of women being in charge of the grooming of the children and the kitchen and the men would do the activities such as hunting, etc, the marriages between these characters maintain a peaceful union in contrast to other marriages.

Cather however, challenges the theme of marriage through her characters Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball (The Hired Girls from Black Hawk). Lena and Tiny are the character who, like Daisy of The Painter of Signs, signifies the contemporary woman. They do not wish to burden themselves with the responsibilities of marriage and prefers to build themselves by their own independence through their careers. Lena always mentions that she vows not to marry ‘I don’t want to marry…Ive seen a good deal of married life and I don’t care for it’ while Tiny as narrated by Jim ‘Nothing interested her much now but making money.’ Irony comes into play when such success only seemed possible for the Hired girls since the other American girls couldn’t earn wages and could only depend on marriage. ‘Cather subverts a lot of narrative expectations surrounding gender through the stories of the Black Hawk working girls. Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard and Antonia all defy the expectations and come to embody their own versions of success’.

These female characters all comes from the country where they have worked the land and rose to achieve their level of independence and success. Cather’s use of imagery in the lines ‘Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes towards it. In a moment we realised what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing on that field’ highlights the hard work of these women and how they were ought to be successful.

In ‘The Painter of Signs’ Narayan also uses the theme of marriage as a major issue within the novel while relaying the dominant ideologies of gender. From the very first chapter of Book 1, the main protagonist, Raman is very clear on his objective of not marrying or not fuelling any sort of sexual temptations. This therefore, leads to the irony when within the same book 1 when he is seen eroticising a woman’s bare thigh halfway clad in her sari and despite reprimanding himself for such behaviour, he can’t help but enjoy the lewd image in his head. The protagonist Raman is a study in the oddities and eccentricities of human behaviour. Also, Raman falls into a similar dilemma after seeing Daisy and starts fantasizing about marriage as according the narrator ‘He wish to establish that the man-woman relationship was not inevitable and that there were other more important things to do in life other than marrying’.

Daisy remains an assertive character of her contemporary beliefs even with regards to marriage unlike Raman. Irony comes into play once again as Raman contradicts himself by claiming that his is a man or ‘ration’ and ‘logic’ rather than conforming to the traditions of the society, yet his ideal image of marriage was to be done in Vedic rights where him and Daisy commute cohabitate together with children. In contrast, Daisy thinks the opposite. Here, Narayan highlights the pattern of patriarchy which is embedded in the society where women are constantly suppressed, domesticated and even sexualised by men. “Narayan is re-enacting the stereotypical Indian rapist propagated by colonial discourse: ‘He would just slip in and hold her down if she resisted. And then she’d become pregnant’. But Raman is a weak gentle character realistically portrayed with psychological depth”. Raman’s character challenges such gender stereotype with regards to men as he also torn between his decision for Daisy and his aunt yet he also reinforces such dominant ideologies his thoughts versus actions. He reinforces such ideologies of male dominance and patriarchy by completely disregarding Daisy’s opinions and rights especially when she is so passionate about opposing children and pregnancies since she is so dutiful to family planning.

In ‘My Antonia’, Cather, like Narayan, highlights instances of men stigmatising and preying on women due to patriarchy however, the actual genders of being male and female were employed as foil characters. The women’s success seemed to be more significant in comparison to the men. Cather gave qualities that would usually be associated with men to the strong women who worked in the land despite being victimized by men. For example, Lena Lingard who was eyed by Ole Benson and sexualised by Jim Burden and Antonia who was exploited by her brother Ambrosch, outsmarted and deserted by Larry and almost raped by Wick Cutter. ‘Through Jim’s description of Antonia and Antonia’s own description of herself, we see Cather is mixing and confusing her gender qualities’ (Everton 2006). These female characters face such hardships yet they move on while Jim is greatly affected when he was groped by Cutter in Antonia’s place. ‘There was a curious situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-setup country girls who had come to town to earn a living’. Cather makes this quality highly prominent in her male characters and their interests.

In conclusion, both authors Willa Cather of ‘My Antonia’ and R.K Narayan of ‘The Painter of Signs’ eloquently highlights gender in their text. They both challenges as well as reinforces the dominant ideologies concerned with gender within their society at the given time through their various uses of techniques such as characterization, thematic concerns, juxtaposition and irony. The handling of gender by both authors were seen through their portrayal of both men and women in different institutes such family, education and religion and even their work ethics that they displayed in their work environment that also seemed to be heavily influenced by gender issues as well.


  • Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Houghton Mifflin Horcourt, 1918
  • Narayan, R.K. The Painter of Signs. Viking Press, 1977
  • Kumar, Raman. “Dr. Rama Kumar/ R.K. Narayan’s The Painter of Signs: A study in the Dialectic of Being and Becoming.” The Achievers Journal, The Achievers Foundation, 2015, https://theachieversjournal.org/wp/dr-raman-kumarr-k-narayans-the-painter-of-signs-a-study-in-the-dialectic-of-being-and-becoming/
  • Stouck, David. “MARRIAGE AND FRIENDSHIP IN ‘MY ÁNTONIA.’” Great Plains Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 4, 1982, pp. 224–231. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24467939.
  • Mazloum, Sherine. “A Metonymic Reading of R.K Narayan the Painter of Signs.” A Refreed Academic Journal, no.51, 2009, pg 113-127, Academia, https://www.academia.edu/12414781/A_Metonymic_Reading_Of_R.K.Narayan_The_Painter_of_Signs
  • Altibi, Bahaa. “The Representation of Female Characters in Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia.” The Representation of Female Characters in Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia, Academia, 2013, https://www.academia.edu/7507824/The_Representation_of_Female_Characters_in_Willa_Cathers_novel_My_Antonia
  • “Historical Context in My Antonia.” Owl Eyes, 2019, https://www.owleyes.org/text/my-antonia/analysis/historical-context
  • Everton, Kristina Anne.’Willa Cather: Male Roles and Self-Definition in My Antonia, The Professor’s House, and ‘Neighbor Rosicky’.’ All Theses and Dissertations, (2006),821, BYU Scholars Archive, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1820&context=etd


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