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.
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