Change and Transformation
Willa Cather's straightforward story of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska, parallels the change in the lives of the two principal characters with the transformation of the Great Plains. Ántonia is fourteen when we first see her; Jim Burden ten. Both have been wrenched from their origins, Ántonia from her native Bohemia, Jim from his parents' home in Virginia. She is an immigrant. He is an orphan. It is no surprise we encounter them first in motion on a train. They are carried through an empty land. "There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields.... There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made."
That first ride is in sharp contrast with Jim's train crossing as an adult, when the "train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun." Ántonia has become the mother of a large family, and Jim is a successful Eastern lawyer, childless and unhappily married. Jim takes a long walk out of Black Hawk: "I had the good luck to stumble upon a bit of the first road.... Everywhere else it had been ploughed under when the highways were surveyed; this half-mile or so within the pasture fence was all that was left of that old road which used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie.... This was the road 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."
The novel is populated predominantly by immigrants, and the successes and failures of the American Dream are manifest. What drove people to make the long haul across oceans and then across the continent? Some came because they were ambitious. Mrs. Shimerda uprooted her family against her husband's wishes. She said, "America big country, much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls." Anton Cuzak seems to have drifted to Nebraska to keep away from the bad luck and trouble he seemed to have attracted in the past. Pavel and Peter were fugitives. The burgeoning country and economy provided many opportunities. The immigrant farmers hire out their daughters to the townspeople. Anton Jelinek rented his homestead and ran a saloon in town. Tiny Soderball follows the frontier to Seattle and then, during the gold rush, to Alaska. The Vannis take their musical talents and dancing tent on the road. And, as always, swindlers and loan sharks, like Wick Cutter, preyed on the weak. The immigrants pay an enormous price for these opportunities. The differences in language, occupation, and geography created hardships. '"It must have been a trial for our mothers,' said Lena, 'coming out here and having to do everything different. My mother always lived in town. She says she started behind in farmwork, and never has caught up.'" There is loss of social status. Even Jim, who prefers the hired girls, is aware they are not of his own set. Marriage to Lena or Ántonia is not even a consideration. And for many, there is homesickness. Antonia says, "I ain't never forgot my own country." For some the price seems materially worth it. Lena is a successful dressmaker in San Francisco. Tiny owns a house there and is wealthy, although soured. Ántonia and her husband flourish. For all the successes, the novel is riddled with disappointments and failures. Otto and Jake go west, and except for one postcard, they are never heard of again. "Rooshian" Peter, who proudly told Ántonia that "in his country only rich people had cows, but here any man could have one who would take care of her," loses his brother and bankruptcy forces him to sell his possessions. When Jim tells Ántonia that Coronado, who searched the American west for the Seven Golden Cities, died in the wilderness of a broken heart, she sighs, "More than him has done that." The American Dream had also broken her father.
It is through the eyes of Jim Burden, an orphan and thus something of an outsider himself, that Willa...
(The entire section is 1690 words.)
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Along with the settlement of the prairie, memory is the major theme of this novel. The "Introduction," which functions as a frame for the story, reveals that it is a memoir written by Jim, a recollection of his childhood and youth in Nebraska before he went East to acquire an education, a profession, wealth, and social standing. Subjectivity and retrospection thus characterize his narrative, which presents the point of view of a sensitive young inhabitant of the prairie world, a view that is enriched and complicated by the adult sensibility of the narrator.
Because Jim is a romantic by nature and finds his adult life unsatisfactory, he aims to find lasting value in his past and to celebrate the particular moment in America's history in which he grew up. Accordingly, he attempts to romanticize any disturbing and unpleasant memories and to give happy ones a sense of permanence. But the very shape of his narrative, with its chronicling of the passage of time, moves him ever further from the past, for it inevitably brings into sharp focus both the disappearance of the pioneer era and his own transition from youth to maturity. This tension between a desire to "fix" the past in imagination and memory and an awareness of the inexorable passage of time in the real world is felt throughout the novel.
Woven into Jim's presentation of his youthful responses to the frontier are his recollections of Antonia, whom he identifies as a child of the nature he loves so well. Despite his efforts to soften his descriptions of the harsh conditions of her life, Antonia also stands for the hardships with which the immigrant pioneers had to struggle.
When Jim moves to the more rigidly structured physical and social spaces of Black Hawk and experiences its provincial chauvinism, he starts to romanticize...
(The entire section is 733 words.)