In My Antonia, how does setting play an important role or affect Jim Burden?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

British novelist W. Somerset Maugham wrote,

It is very difficult to know people. For, men and women are not only themselves, they are also the region in which they are born....You can know them only if you are them.

The environment in which one lives forms the person. When Jim Burden comes to Nebraska to live with his grandfather after losing both his parents, he learns of a family who have come from "across the water," the Bohemians named Shimerda. Jim teaches the girl Antonia how to speak English, and becomes friends with her. Together they begin to have a psychological connection with the landscape, and an awe of nature. For example in Book I Chapter 7, Jim narrates, 

All those fall afternoons....As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death--heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.

Certainly, the raw and natural beauty of the Nebraska fields inspires the imagination and romanticism of Jim and draws him closer to his friend Antonia as they sit together transfixed in awe. The environment acts as a palette for the painter of words, Jim, who delights in and appreciates its beauty. It ignites his imagination which embellishes his narrative. 

In Book II in which the Burdens move to town, the emphasis is less upon the expansive and awe-inspiring land, and more upon the relationships of people. In the country, Jim could more freely exhibit his sensitivity and easily associate with girls as just other children. Now, in town, Jim finds himself assuming more of a male role as he learns to fight and starts to tease girls. When, for instance, the blind pianist d'Arnault performs, the men are in one room listening and d'Arnault hears Antonia and the other girls dancing behind the door in another room. This new environment causes a change in the young people's lives. Nevertheless, Jim remains an individual as he finds the "hired girls" from the country more interesting than the town girls. But, Jim brings disapproval upon himself for this action by the more socially elite town girls.

One evening Antonio invites Jim to sit with him and the other hired girls by the river so that they can feel as they did in the country, she begins to cry about her lost home in Bohemia and childhood. Then, as they watch the sun set, they notice as the "red disk" of the sun lowers itself behind the horizon a large plow is silhouetted before this setting sun:

The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Such a sight evokes more nostalgia for the beauty of the Nebraska country as well as for their more carefree innocence and tender friendship. Then, as the sun sets, the plow is returned to "its own littleness" and the environment reminds Jim that his romantic illusions are but dreams, and reality is a force with which he must contend.

Then, when Jim goes to Lincoln in order to attend the state university, he breaks further from his childhood environment and changes and matures both. Nevertheless, he feels the tug of his “own naked land and the figures scattered upon it” as the people of his memory and heart seem more real than those around him. Clearly, he carries in his romantic heart a love for the provincial, rather than the urban and sophisticated. His affections for Antonia are tied to this love of the land, a love she shares, a love that stabilizes them both. In the end, Jim finds himself returning to "the first road."

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My Antonia

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