The 1918 novel My Ántonia by Willa Cather follows the narrator, orphaned Jim Burden, as he travels from Virginia to Nebraska. This amounts to a bit of a culture shock for the ten-year-old introvert. Jim is receptive to his environment and very in touch with nature; however, his preference for...
The 1918 novel My Ántonia by Willa Cather follows the narrator, orphaned Jim Burden, as he travels from Virginia to Nebraska. This amounts to a bit of a culture shock for the ten-year-old introvert. Jim is receptive to his environment and very in touch with nature; however, his preference for academic work over rugged country life renders him somewhat of a recluse. Nevertheless, he quickly befriends Ántonia (the title character), the daughter of a Bohemian immigrant family, and Jim's help is immediately enlisted to help teach her English.
Jim's friendship with Ántonia, his commitment to college-preparatory studies, and his appreciation of nature make him feel at ease in his Nebraskan world. Jim first encounters Ántonia when his family goes to welcome hers (which speaks little English and has been duped into purchasing land without a sturdy farmhouse on it). Jim, Ántonia, and her younger sister play in the fields, communicating using hand gestures and expressions. Jim tells Ántonia how to say "blue sky, blue eyes," and he reports that, "While we snuggled down there out of the wind, she learned a score of words. . . . We were so deep in the grass that we could see nothing but the blue sky over us and the gold tree in front of us. It was wonderfully pleasant." Jim is admittedly happiest when he is with Ántonia and amid nature.
One of the most compelling passages the author gives us to demonstrate Jim's adaptation to his new environment is his description of an early experience following his grandmother out into the garden. He describes lying under the sun in a pumpkin patch: "I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge." Jim likes time and space for introspection and is uncomfortable amid conflict (when, for example, he angers his grandparents by attending a social dance at the Fireman's Hall).
Another transformative moment for Jim occurs when he delivers a valedictorian address at his high school. As a narrator, he exhibits little affect at the commendations of several others in attendance; however, he tells Antonia that "I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech." Upon hearing this, Ántonia "threw her arms around [him], and her dear face was all wet with tears." Jim announces that he has had "no other success that pulled on [his] heartstrings like that."
In the latter part of the novel, Jim Burden finds fulfillment as a scholar. He takes great pleasure in his intellectual pursuits during his first semester at the university in Lincoln, under the tutelage of one Gaston Cleric (whom he later follows to Harvard). Jim writes of his first semester: "I shall always look back on that time of mental awakening as one of the happiest in my life."
As narrators go, Jim Burden is a very self-aware and reliable one. He is devoted to his studies, though not immune to the distractions of women and dancing. As he finds comfort in his new life as a child in Nebraska, he is happiest when he acts as a tutor and friend to Ántonia (with whom he loses touch when he leaves Lincoln) and when he has time to reflect on and enjoy his natural surroundings.