Why is Jim an unreliable narrator in My Antonia?

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Greg Jackson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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 ....

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hearohan | Student

Jim Burden is telling the story in first-person. While the story may revolve around Antonia, we only see Antonia through Jim's eyes. Whatever she experiences, we only hear about the parts Jim sees.

It's also important to note that this book takes place over many years. Through those years, Jim's feelings towards Antonia are constantly evolving. We see him in awe of her, attracted to her, and even repulsed by her at different stages. Whatever he is feeling at the time is how he frames the story and Antonia, regardless of her own feelings of her experiences.

He also comes from a different social status. As he grows older, the influence of his status becomes much more apparent. For example, when Jim and Antonia both move to town, he begins to view her as beneath him. Though he is drawn to her, he follows the path expected of a man of his social standing. His own ideas about societal norms majorly impact his telling of the story.

In summary, Jim is giving his first-person perspective on another person's life, his feelings develop and change through the story, and his social status colors his perspective. This does not make him a bad narrator, but definitely an unreliable one.