How is irony used by Cather in My Antonia to present and undermine myths in this story? What are ways she challenges or perpetuates the act of myth-making?

In My Antonia, Willa Cather could be challenging through irony and subversion of stereotypes the myth that women couldn’t handle the physical toil of American prairie life. Conversely, Cather is possibly perpetuating the myth that a woman’s life invariably results in marriage and children.

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In My Antonia, one myth that Willa Cather challenges concerns women and work. As historians have shown, a male-centric narrative about America and the West has developed. The presumption is that the American West was mainly explored and developed by strong, daring, courageous men. Yet Cather’s novel undermines this myth with Antonia and her family.

In the story, it’s Antonia’s father who lacks the strength to confront the harsh, alien realities of American prairie life. After he kills himself, Antonia has to do his work. Her ability to shoulder the burden of supposedly masculine labor counters the myth that women couldn’t handle the physical demands of American prairie life.

The suicide of Antonia’s father also counters the myth that America represents an improved standard of living. Cather's novel appears to argue that America doesn’t have a monopoly on happiness. Right before her dad’s death, Antonia tells Jim that her dad was better off in Bohemia, where he could play his violin for fun and for various celebrations.

Returning to myths around women, Cather’s novel perhaps perpetuates the myth that a woman’s main role is to marry and have children. Jim studies in Lincoln, Nebraska before becoming a lawyer in New York City. Antonia, alas, stays where she is. She’s married and has several children.

Then again, it’s possible to interpret Antonia’s fate as a precursor to the myth that women can’t find fulfillment in the domestic sphere. In a certain light, Cather’s novel is in dialogue with women who contest feminist ideology that tends to dismiss the potentially fulfilling qualities of traditional motherhood and marriage. When Jim goes back to visit Antonia, he finds Antonia to still be a “rich mine of life.”

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 17, 2021
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