The prairie is as much a character in Cather’s book as Jim or Antonia herself. Like Antonia, for example, the land around Black Hawk also grows and develops over the course of the book, starting out as virgin prairie and gradually transforming in to settled farms. The landscape defines how...
The prairie is as much a character in Cather’s book as Jim or Antonia herself. Like Antonia, for example, the land around Black Hawk also grows and develops over the course of the book, starting out as virgin prairie and gradually transforming in to settled farms. The landscape defines how people exist in the book; the hardships the Shimerdas face in the beginning are in relation to their difficulty in farming the land, and Mr. Shimerda’s suicide is brought on by homesickness. But it is also the beauty of the land that comes to mirror Antonia’s life; there is an odd connection between her and the land that captivates Jim but also eludes his understanding. In this way the land can be thought of as a kind of emblem of Antonia, but it would be wrong to reduce its meaning to any simple symbolic formula, because the land always stands apart and separate from the characters or action of the story. There are many examples of this. Take, for instance, the passage where Mr. Shimerda offers to give Jim his ornately carved gun from Bohemia. This is a moment of genuine tenderness between Antonia, who has hidden a cricket in her hair, and her father, who has sunk into depression in this strange new land. It is as if he is saying goodbye. Cather writes a few sentences that in their beautiful simplicity, capture the moment:
We stood there in friendly silence, while the feeble minstrel sheltered in Antonia’s hair went on with its scratchy chirp. The old man’s smile, as he listened, was so full of sadness, of pity for things, that I never afterward forgot it. As the sun sank there came a sudden coolness and the strong smell of earth and drying grass. Antonia and her father went off hand in hand, and I buttoned up my jacket and raced my shadow home.
There is a certain unity between the characters, the sound of the cricket, and the “sudden coolness and strong smell of earth” that suggests that whatever emotions might be in play, they are reflected by, or intensified by, the fundamental truth of the flat landscape. The image of Jim racing his shadow across the plains back to his house only underlines this relationship.