Why is Jim an unreliable narrator in My Antonia?

Jim is an unreliable narrator because his experiences are so different from Antonia’s that he cannot accurately express the emotions of a young girl.

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Willa Cather’s My Antonia is a story set in the American Midwest near the turn of the twentieth century. Readers of this novel can relate Antonia Shimerda’s journey to that of Cather’s since the book is based on her childhood experiences. A key component of this novel is the struggle of the Shimerda family as they relocate to Nebraska from Bohemia. They are strangers in a foreign culture. They have no farming experience, speak very little English, and are frightened immigrants.

Jim is the primary narrator of the nostalgic tale, although this might be a misnomer. He relates a personal tale of his journey from Virginia to Nebraska after being orphaned as a child:

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.

For the purpose of discussion, the reader may compare Jim’s experiences to those of Antonia. However, that presents two problems when examining Jim’s reliability as a narrator. First, in the Introduction to the novel, Cather explains through an unnamed second narrator:

Last summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa in a season of intense heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion James Quayle Burden--Jim Burden, as we still call him in the West.

The anonymous speaker meets Jim on a train trip where they “sat in the observation car . . . talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns” like the one they lived in as children in Nebraska. The friends agreed to write and compare manuscripts about Antonia. Months later, Jim and his friend meet once again. Jim prepared a written recollection of the young Bohemian girl.

At the end of the Introduction, the unnamed narrator states:

My own story was never written, but the following narrative is Jim's manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me.

This revelation is troublesome. The narrator of the novel is Jim, but the source of the narration is Jim’s unnamed friend. The story purports to be something Jim prepared from memory. The potential for an unreliable recollection years later by Jim is quite evident. Furthermore, his friend admits that the contents of the manuscript prepared by Jim are only “substantially” as submitted. What changes did the unnamed friend make?

The second major issue with respect to Jim's reliability as a narrator concerns Antonia’s journey to Nebraska from Bohemia. Jim has family around when he travels to Nebraska. He is only partially a stranger. Moving to Nebraska is a change, but his grandparents are native-born settlers to Nebraska farmland. They share cultural beliefs with their neighbors. They speak English and their religious beliefs are substantially the same as their friends’s beliefs. Jim is not qualified to accurately relate Antonia’s experiences or emotions. Her journey is so different from Jim’s that he is an unreliable narrator.

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Jim Burden's unreliability as a narrator comes from his telling of the story as an adult after the passage of many years. The events of My Antonia take place decades before the telling, and Jim has changed and grown drastically in the intervening years. As is the case with anyone, the passage of time makes one's memory less and less reliable. Since this story is mostly the recollections of someone's youth, we should assume that events did not transpire exactly as Jim remembers them.

The reader is given a hint that the narration is not entirely reliable in the final line of the story's prologue. Here, a second and unnamed narrator tells us that "the following narrative is Jim’s manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me." This little remark, so easy to miss, is basically an admission that we will be experiencing only a narrow view of the events of the book from the perspective of a single person many years later. The introduction's narrator is warning the reader to reserve some skepticism when reading Jim's account.

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The main part of the story is narrated by Jim as an older man looking back on his younger days. Inevitably, with the passage of time, the memory's not quite what it was and so it's all too easy to forget certain details of one's formative years. In assessing Jim's reliability, it's perhaps best to separate Jim the narrator from Jim the young man, the character in the story.

What Jim the narrator does is to document the events of his life rather than challenge them or their veracity. That's pretty much left to the reader. Also, one should bear in mind the unnamed narrator—not Jim—who writes the introduction. At the end of that introduction we're told that the following narrative is Jim's manuscript "substantially as he brought it to me." This immediately puts us on our guard and forces us to recognize that what we're about to read might not be 100% reliable.

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The fact is that any first person account in a story can be considered unreliable. This is because we are seeing the action through the eyes of one character. Any person, because of their own unique set of prejudices and world vision and outlook on life, is going to have a skewed perception of reality. Therefore, if we are given an account from the perspective of one person, it will be unreliable to some extent. What we have to decide as readers is how unreliable the account is or not.

If we look at the character of Jim Burden in this text, it is clear that he exhibits the class attitudes that we would expect him to display in this novel. What is also interesting is the way in which he alternates between being repelled and attracted to the figure of Antonia. On the one hand, he is intrigued by the force of her character and will-power, but on the other hand he finds himself repulsed by her outspoken way of speaking. This is one way that we can definitely identify Jim as an unreliable narrator because of his own prejudices and outlook on life.

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