In My Antonia, who learns more through their friendship, Jim or Antonia?

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In Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia, the author relates a story about the settling of the American Midwest near the turn of the twentieth century. Much of Cather’s perspective comes from her personal childhood experiences. Adventures from her youth help the reader to decide whether Jim Burden or Antonia Shimerda ultimately gains more from the friendship they develop.

The main comparisons and contrasts in My Antonia are based on the struggles of native-born Nebraskans and European immigrants to the region. Jim is the primary narrator of the nostalgic tale about his relocation to Nebraska from Virginia after becoming orphaned at a young age:

I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska.

While Jim has family in Nebraska, he is still somewhat of a stranger and must learn to adjust to living with his grandparents. Although the challenges are real, native-born settlers to Nebraska farmland share cultural beliefs with which the family is familiar. They speak the English language and their religious beliefs are in sync with those of their neighbors. In times of trouble, people in the close-knit community are more than willing to lend a helping hand.

On the other hand, Antonia relocates to the prairie from Bohemia with no connections or ties to her new residence. She is a complete stranger to a foreign culture. The Shimerda family has no farming experience. They speak very little English, which is typical of immigrants from Europe. And Antonia is afraid:

During those first months the Shimerdas never went to town. Krajiek encouraged them in the belief that in Black Hawk they would somehow be mysteriously separated from their money. They hated Krajiek, but they clung to him because he was the only human being with whom they could talk or from whom they could get information.

On one Sunday morning Jim’s family decides to meet their new neighbors from Bohemia:

“We were taking them some provisions, as they had come to live on a wild place where there was no garden or chicken-house, and very little broken land. Fuchs brought up a sack of potatoes and a piece of cured pork from the cellar, and grandmother packed some loaves of Saturday's bread, a jar of butter, and several pumpkin pies in the straw of the wagon-box. We clambered up to the front seat and jolted off past the little pond and along the road that climbed to the big cornfield.”

Upon finally seeing the Shimerda property, Jim sees it is far from adequate for the family’s needs. As the neighbors exchange greetings, Jim and Antonia walk the property and Jim begins to teach Antonia some English. This is her first big opportunity to learn something about her new culture and their relationship grows.

In the fall, Antonia takes Jim to meet a Russian acquaintance who teaches them some farming lessons. As they continue to explore their newfound culture together, their personalities begin to absorb their circumstances and surroundings. Jim becomes enthralled with nature and the environment. As the narrator of the story, he reminisces about his days in Nebraska and the environment that appears to impact his personality. He is able to adapt to his place in society and ultimately achieve success. He becomes strong, like the land that served as the natural setting of his youth. In a sense, the Nebraska wild never leaves him.

Antonia is psychologically tied to the Nebraska landscape. However, unlike Jim who draws from the past as he thrives in the future, she remains in the past. While she becomes independent, she is so bound to the past and the immigrant experience that her personality seems to remain there.

Jim’s friendship with Antonia is the catalyst that enables him to learn from their joint adventures. Most critics would surmise that their relationship has more of an impact upon Jim than upon Antonia. They both embrace the past, but while she continues to struggle through life despite her emotional strength, he uses what he learned from the past to build and enjoy a better future for himself.

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Though Jim is the protagonist of the story, it is difficult to ascertain who would have the greatest impact on the other. It is easier to see the impact Antonia has on Jim as Jim is the protagonist of the story, and we have his point of view. My opinion is that Antonia has a greater impact on Jim in a sense. Jim is privileged, while Antonia lives a very hard life. She is not well off and is deceived by a lover in the book; she is then left alone and with her child. There is a sense that Antonia is always surviving, and while Jim is still important to her as the years pass, she survives alone until she remarries. Meanwhile, Jim always thinks of Antonia as another route he could have taken in his life, and fate just did not turn that direction for him. Cather writes,

Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

This quote is important because it highlights one of the major themes of the story—we carry the past with us, along with the question of what might have been.

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I think most people would say Jim learns the most, since Jim is the narrator and it is really his story that we experience in the novel. Antonia comes to represent for Jim a kind of idealized version of some great truth about life. He objectifies her, in the sense that he has trouble sorting out his feelings for her—she is at once someone he deeply identifies with yet also fundamentally different; he wants to protect her, and as they grow up he has some confused half-formed romantic ideas about Antonia. He senses something in her—he feels he understands her in a deep way. The poetry of the book lies in how it puts this empathic knowledge of Antonia on the same footing as the practical knowledge of life on the plains.

Antonia comes to learn about the nature of death and about self-sacrifice and her own immense emotional strength. Although she is betrayed by one lover, she finds it possible to marry and have a family. Her journey is much harder than Jim’s, who has a life of privilege at college (and has the common decency to know it). It is an open question whether Jim ever fully understands her transformation or what her struggles have been.

One of the reasons the book is so compelling is that these questions can’t be answered. When Jim returns at the end of the book and visits the adult Antonia on her farm, it is both cathartic, in the sense that we are glad to see these people together, and bittersweet, in that each has chosen a different path in life.

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