Childhood and Friendship in My Ántonia

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In the following essay, Dykema-VanderArk, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, looks at how the stories of Jim Burden and Ántonia intertwine throughout Cather's novel to address themes of childhood, friendship, permanence, and the quest to find meaning in life.

"I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America." So begins Jim Burden's story of "his" Ántonia, and it is no accident that Jim's recollections are rooted in a journey. Willa Cather's My Ántonia was inspired by her own travels back to her childhood home of Red Cloud, Nebraska, and the novel is full of change, transition, and travel. Many of its characters are immigrants, classified by their very movement, and the divergent journeys through life of Jim and Ántonia are its central focus. Jim's narration of his story is, itself, a journey of sorts, a journey back through his life to recapture his relationship with Ántonia and all that she represents to him. And, finally, the reader of My Ántonia in a sense travels along with Jim as he returns to the country of his childhood, seeking something permanent and enduring beneath the unsettled surface of his life.

The Introduction of My Ántonia, narrated by an unnamed woman, provides some important clues to the motives and the manner of Jim Burden's story. This narrator, a childhood friend of both Jim and Ántonia, in some sense verifies Jim's impassioned view of Ántonia: "More than any other person we remembered," the narrator remarks, "this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood. To speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one's brain." The narrator's comment also suggests the motives that inspire Jim to write his "manuscript" about "My Ántonia ." By translating into writing the "pictures" and the "quiet drama" that Ántonia's name recalls, Jim hopes to revisit the "whole adventure" of his early life and recapture its emotional significance. The narrator of the Introduction also gives the reader fair warning that the subject of Jim's story is out of the ordinary, unknown to most people, even, perhaps, unknowable: "We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said." Paradoxically, this comment suggests that Jim's story will not succeed in explaining "the country" and "the conditions" of his childhood to anyone but his friend and a select group of readers, those with first hand knowledge of small-town prairie life. But Cather's introduction also gives away, in a sense, the secret password needed to understand the story that follows, the "name" that, once spoken, might recall the past and set it moving with life: Ántonia. On one level, Cather uses Ántonia's simple story to bring to life the "country" and the "conditions" encountered and endured by many of the immigrants who settled the American frontier in the late nineteenth century. By telling this one "Pioneer Woman's Story," Cather portrays the immense hardships faced by figures like Ántonia Shimerda and her family, not only the hardships of poverty, landscape, and climate, but also the social barriers erected against immigrants of particular ethnic and religious backgrounds. Cather also uses Ántonia's story to celebrate the virtues of the immigrant pioneers, virtues unnoted or ignored by many of her contemporaries who, like the people of Black Hawk, viewed all "foreigners" as "ignorant people who couldn't speak English." As a poor immigrant from Bohemia,...

(This entire section contains 1705 words.)

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Ántonia first appears an unlikely American heroine, but Cather celebrates Ántonia for her strength of character, her resilience, and her tenacity in the face of social ostracism. She appears at the end ofMy Ántonia as a figure who has triumphed over the hardships of her life through stalwart struggle, producing a fruitful farm from the difficult land, upholding a large and joyful family, and ensuring an easier future for her children.

Ántonia also provides the key to Jim Burden's story, in part because it is Jim who tells her story and reflects on its significance. In writing down all that he remembers of Ántonia, Jim discovers the extent to which his own identity is rooted in his relationship to her. As a ten-year-old orphan at the start of his story, Jim remembers seeing the Shimerdas "huddled together on the platform" of the train station, and the sound of their "foreign tongue" is as new and strange to him as the land that surrounds him. In the years that follow his first encounter with the Shimerdas, Jim's relationship with Ántonia provides him with several roles to play, acting as a language tutor, a companion, a helpmate, a suitor, and, in his "mock adventure" with the rattlesnake, a savior of sorts. As a young man, Jim distinguishes himself from what he sees as the narrow-mindedness of his immediate community by identifying with Ántonia and the other "hired girls" who were "considered a menace to the social order." He expresses his "contempt" for the veneer of "respect for respectability" that defines the townsfolk. In Ántonia's refusal to deny her desires, he sees an antidote to the town's "evasions and negations," its repression of "every individual taste, every natural appetite." Although Jim does not face the same restrictions as Ántonia and the other "country girls," he identifies with their experience of town life and, in a sense, this identification inspires his moving away from Black Hawk.

Jim also finds a key to his own life in Ántonia's ability to hold onto her past—both its joys and its sorrows—through memory and through storytelling. When Jim returns from college and meets Ántonia working in the fields, they "instinctively" walk to Mr. Shimerda's graveside as "the fittest place to talk to each other," a place symbolizing the connection they shared as children. But as they talk there, Ántonia does not dwell on the painful loss of her father as a young girl; instead, she tells Jim that her father "never goes out of my life.... The older I grow, the better I know him and the more I understand him." Ántonia does not try to escape or ignore her past but embraces it, carrying it with her in the present. Jim sees in Ántonia's example a way to ground his life in something strong and permanent in spite of the continual movement that seems to define him. In the same conversation, Ántonia also looks to the future, telling Jim how eager she is to pass on her memories of childhood to her daughter: "I can't wait till my little girl's old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do." When Jim returns to visit Ántonia twenty years later, he finds her doing just that: Ántonia's box of photographs and her stories about each picture draw all of her children to her side, bonding the family together in "a kind of physical harmony." Jim sees that Ántonia uses her stories of the past not only to entertain but also to educate her children, to root their lives in the "people and places" of her childhood just as they are rooted in the language and customs of the "old country" despite being products of the new. In his own narration, Jim follows the example of Ántonia's storytelling, learning from her how to recapture the emotional significance of his childhood experiences and to create stories that keep the past alive in the present.

As many critics have noted, however, the stories that Jim tells in My Ántonia do not always provide a complete or entirely reliable portrait of Ántonia' s life or of his own. The narrator of the Introduction, for example, calls attention to Jim's "naturally romantic and ardent disposition," and Frances Harling suggests to Jim that his "romantic" temperament influences his view of the country girls: "You always put a kind of glamour over them." Jim himself notes that the "places and people" of his past stand out "strengthened and simplified" in his memory. Although Jim identifies himself with Ántonia throughout his story, he also frequently reveals the limitations of his understanding of her life. Early in their friendship, for example, Jim repeatedly finds himself confused and frustrated by the particular customs and religious rituals of the Bohemians. Even the simple, well-intended gift of dried mushrooms from the "old country" fails to connect the two families: In spite of Ántonia's testimony to their usefulness and flavor, Jim's grandmother cannot identify the strange chips and throws the gift into the fire. A similar inability to understand fully all that the Shimerdas "had brought so far and treasured so jealously" continues throughout Jim's story. Even after Jim travels around the world and visits Bohemia, the "old country" of Ántonia's youth, he remains isolated from her and her family life by their language, the same "foreign tongue" that he heard for the first time as a ten-year-old boy at the train station in Black Hawk.

But this sense of distance between Jim and Ántonia, even at the end of My Ántonia, only adds poignancy to Jim's story and interest to Cather's novel. Perhaps the deep and lasting appeal of Cather's novel reflects the sense of mystery that she weaves into its many stories, the unanswered questions that Jim's narration evokes. How, for example, might the narrator of the Introduction, who only "watched her come and go," tell Ántonia's story? How might Mr. Shimerda and the Widow Steavens, each of whom also calls her "My Ántonia," tell her story? And, perhaps most intriguing of all, how does Ántonia tell and retell her gathered children about "the country, the conditions, the whole adventure" of her life in Bohemia and America? While these questions remain, at the close of Jim's story, part of the "incommunicable past," the broader themes of Cather's novel—the child's sense of undistilled happiness, the dream of being "dissolved into something complete and great," the mystery of genuine friendship, the quest for permanence and meaning in one's life—become real in the present for each new reader of My Ántonia.

Source: Anthony M Dykema-VanderArk, in an essay forNovels for Students, Gale, 1997.

My Ántonia and the Failure of Materialism

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In the following excerpt, Miller explains how Cather's book is about the failure to find happiness by pursuing materialistic dreams.

[My Ántonia] does not portray, in any meaningful sense, the fulfillment of the American dream. By and large, the dreams of the pioneers lie shattered, their lives broken by the hardness of wilderness life. Even those who achieve, after long struggle, some kind of secure life are diminished in the genuine stuff of life. For example, in one of his accounts that reach into the future beyond the present action, Jim Burden tells us of the eventual fate of the vivacious Tiny Soderball, one of the few to achieve "solid worldly success." She had a series of exciting adventures in Alaska, ending up with a large fortune. But later, when Jim encountered her in Salt Lake City, she was a "thin, hard-faced woman. ... She was satisfied with her success, but not elated. She was like someone in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out."

One of the major material successes of the book is Jim Burden, and in many ways the novel traces his rise in position and wealth. As most of the characters of the book travel west, his is a journey east, and, in the process, the acquisition of education, wealth, social position. In short, Jim has all the appearances of one who has lived the American dream and achieved fulfillment. But the material fulfillment has not brought the happiness promised. The entire novel is suffused with his melancholy at the loss of something precious— something that existed back in the hard times, now lost amidst comfort and wealth. The whole promise of the dream has somehow slipped through his fingers right at the moment it appeared within his grasp. Why? The question brings us around to a central problem in the novel: Why has Jim, so appreciative of the vitality and freedom represented by the hired girls, ended up in a marriage so empty of meaning?

Perhaps Jim's melancholy itself tells us the reason. The book in a way represents his confession, a confession of unaware betrayal of the dream. In looking back from his vantage point in time, Jim can come to the full realization of what the hired girls (especially such as Ántonia Shimerda and Lena Lingard) represented and what they have come to symbolize: simply all that is best, all that survives of worth, of the faded dream. Some critics have seen in Jim's obtuseness in his male-female relationship with Ántonia and Lena a defect in the book's construction. On the contrary, this theme is very much a part of the book's intention. Jim looking back from the wisdom of his later years and the unhappiness of his meaningless marriage can come to a much sharper awareness of precisely what he missed in his ambitious movement eastward and upward.

In "The Hired Girls," we are in a way witness to the dream turning sour: "The daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, unenquiring belief that they were 'refined,' and that the country girls, who 'worked out,' were not." "The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons. The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth." Jim Burden remembered his roaming the streets of Black Hawk at night, looking at the "sleeping houses": "for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shills to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People's speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution."

"Respect for respectability" is, perhaps, the cancer battening at the heart of the dream (a theme that William Faulkner was to emphasize later in his Snopes trilogy), and the reader may wonder to what extent Jim Burden himself had been infected, especially in view of the brittle wife he had acquired at some stage in his rise to the top. Moreover, Jim was strongly attracted to the vitality of the hired girls, consciously and unconsciously, as revealed in a recurring dream he had: "One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them. Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to me with a soft sigh and said, 'Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like.'" After this remarkable sexual revelation, Jim adds: "I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Ántonia, but I never did." Sister-like Ántonia cannot be transfigured, even in dream, to sexual figure. Her role in the book, and in Jim's psyche, is destined to be more idealized, more mythic.

But Lena Lingard is the subject of an entire book of My Ántonia. And that book works out metaphorically the meaning of the novel's epigraph from Virgil as well as the specific personal relation of Jim and Lena, this latter through symbolic use of a play they both attend, Dumas's Camille. The epigraph for My Ántonia is drawn from Virgil's Georgics, and reads: "Optima dies ... prima fugit." This phrase comes into the novel in Book III, after Jim has entered the University of Nebraska and begun his study of Latin, translating the phrase "the best days are the first to flee." As Lena Lingard, now with a dressmaking shop in Lincoln, brings to mind for Jim all the vitality of the hired girls of Black Hawk, he makes the connection between them and the haunting phrase from Virgil: "It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. I understand that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish " But if Lena (along with Ántonia and the others) is equated with poetry, she is also a breathing physical reality to Jim, and Book III brings Jim as close physically to one of the hired girls as the novel permits. A large part of the Book is taken up with a description of Jim's and Lena's attendance at a performance of Camille, the sentimental but highly effective drama by Dumas fils. As Jim remarks. "A couple of jack-rabbits, run in off the prairie, could not have been more innocent of what awaited them than were Lena and I." Although some critics see the long account of theatre-going as a kind of inserted story or intrusion, in fact it provides a kind of sophisticated mirror image in literature for the thematic dilemma posed in the novel itself—and particularly the dilemma Jim faces in his attraction to Lena. Only a few pages before this episode, he has come to the insight equating the hired girls, in all their vitality and freedom, with poetry. Now he is confronted with the physical presence of one for whom he feels a strong attraction.

The hired girls are not, of course, Camilles, but they have some of the same kind of magic, poetry, freedom, love of life that attracted Armand to Camille—and that attract Jim to Lena. As Jim and Lena find themselves drawn closer and closer together in Lincoln, their conversation turns more and more to marriage—but only obliquely do they hint of anything deeper than friendship between themselves. Lena, pressed by Jim about her future, says she will never marry, that she prefers to be "lonesome," that the experience of marriage as she has witnessed it is even repellent. Jim answers," 'But it's not all like that.'" Lena replies: "'Near enough. It's all being under somebody's thumb. What's on your mind, Jim? Are you afraid I'll want you to marry me some day?'" Jim's immediate remark after this, to the reader, is: "Then I told her I was going away." The moment has passed, the future for Jim has been, in a sense, determined. Lena will go on her successful, "lonesome" way; Jim will go on to his considerable achievement and position—and his disastrous marriage.

What happened to the dream—to Jim's dream of Lena, to the larger dream of personal fulfillment? Was his failure in not seeing some connection between the dreams? Was Jim's destiny in some obscure sense a self-betrayal? And is this America's destiny, a self-betrayal of the possibilities of the dream? ...

This road is not, of course, simply Jim's and Ántonia's road. It is America's road, leading not into the future, but into the past, fast fading from the landscape, fast fading from memory.... It is Jim's and Ántonia's—and perhaps America's— "road of Destiny":

This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny, had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

As Americans who have dreamed the dream, we might say with Jim: "Whatever we have missed, we possess together the precious, the incommunicable past." In some dark sense, Jim's experience is the American experience, his melancholy sense of loss also his country's, his longing for something missed in the past a national longing.

The lost promise, the misplaced vision, is America's loss—our loss—and it haunts us all, still.

Source: James E. Miller, Jr., " My Ántonia and the American Dream," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer 1974, pp. 112-23.

A Comparison of Jim Burden and Ántonia Shimerda

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In the following excerpt, Scholes compares the characters of Jim Burden and Ántonia Shimerda.

The two central figures in My Ántonia are, in different senses, Innocents. Jim Burden, bereft of both his parents within a year, is removed from the warm and comfortable Virginia of his early days and thrust into the strange and frightening world of Nebraska. As he bumps along on the wagon ride to his new home, he feels that he has left even the spirits of his dead parents behind him:

The wagon jolted on, carrying me I know not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night; here, I felt, what would be would be.

Ántonia Shimerda, though also a young, innocent creature in a raw country, is not bereft of the past as Jim Burden is. Ántonia's Bohemian ancestry is a part of her and exerts a decided influence on her present and future. We are reminded of this past constantly: by the Bohemian customs and culinary practices of the Shimerdas; by the observations of Otto Fuchs on the relationship of Austrians and Bohemians in the old country; and especially by the Catholic religion of the Bohemians, which is their strongest link with the past, and which serves to bind them together and to separate them from the Protestant society of their adopted land. But, most important, Ántonia herself cherishes her connection with the past. When Jim asks if she remembers the little town of her birth, she replies,

"Jim ... if I was put down there in the middle of the night, I could find my way all over that little town; and along the river where my grandmother lived. My feet remember all the little paths through the woods, and where the big roots stick out to trip you. I ain't never forgot my own country "

But despite the importance of the past for Ántonia, she and the other hired girls are figures of heroic and vital innocence, associated with nature and the soil. Like Lena Lingard, they all "waked fresh with the world every day." They are unused to the ways of society, and Ántonia, especially, is too trusting. Lena tells Jim that Ántonia "won't hear a word against [Larry Donovan]. She's so sort of innocent." The struggle of the "hired girls" with society is one of the important themes of the novel. Jim Burden remarks that

the country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons. The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth.

This struggle of the country girls with the city is a very perplexing one, in which apparent victory and apparent defeat are both apt to prove evanescent in time. Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball become successful, triumphing even in the metropolis of San Francisco, while Ántonia becomes the foolish victim of her love for a conniving railroad conductor. But Lena and Tiny succeed only in becoming more like the society from which they had been ostracized, while Ántonia, and the other country girls who stay on the land, ultimately change the structure of society itself. Jim Burden remarks,

I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into their own, and I have. Today the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant can hope for is to sell provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian girls are now the mistresses.

Jim Burden, like Lena and Tiny, has made his success in the city and on the city's terms. From the narrator of the introductory chapter we learn that Jim's personal life, his marriage, has not been a success though his legal work flourishes. Jim's failure to find happiness or satisfaction in his career and in the city, constitutes for him the "fall" into self-knowledge which is characteristic of the Adamic hero. It is Jim's recognition of his own fall that makes him superior to Lena and Tiny, and enables him to live vicariously through Ántonia and her children.

Ántonia's seduction is a more clear-cut "fall" than Jim's unhappiness, and her subsequent self-knowledge is more strikingly evidenced. When Jim meets Ántonia after she has had her illegitimate child, he notices "a new kind of strength in the gravity of her face." At this meeting she asks Jim whether he has learned to like big cities, adding that she would die of lonesomeness in such a place. "I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly," she says; and after they part Jim feels "the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at night-fall," and he wishes he could be a little boy again, and that his way would end there.

When Jim revisits Ántonia and her thriving family, she has in some ways relapsed toward the past. "'I've forgot my English so.'" She says, "'I don't often talk it any more. I tell the children I used to speak it real well.' She said they all spoke Bohemian at home. The little ones could not speak English at all—didn't learn it until they went to school." But her children, her involvement in life, makes her concerned for the future. She has lived "much and hard," reflects Jim as they meet, but "she was there, in the full vigor of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well." Jim, however, is not recognized by Ántonia at first, even though he has "kept so young." He is less battered, perhaps, but he is more diminished.

So it is that Ántonia, who is always conscious of the past, is nevertheless free of it, and capable of concern for the future. And her past is not merely that of a generation or so. Jim observes,

"She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true.... It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races."

Whereas Jim, who has no such connection with the past, who came to Nebraska without a family and rode on a wagon into a new life which he felt was beyond even the attention of God, is still bound by the recent past, by what has happened to him in his own youth, and he lives in both the present and the future only vicariously through the plans and lives of others. He reflects, "In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can happen to one again." Jim is haunted by the past, by the sense that, in the phrase of Virgil which is the novel's epigraph, Optima dies ... prima fugit. When he contemplates in the closing lines of his narrative the road on which he had entered his new life as a boy, he reconsiders his whole existence:

I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny, had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

Ántonia's life is not tragic. She is neither defeated nor destroyed by life, not even diminished. Yet the distinguishing characteristic of this novel is its elegiac tone; the eternal note of sadness pervades especially the closing passages of the book. The direct cause of this element of sadness is the nostalgia of Jim Burden, through which the story of Ántonia filters down to the reader. But behind Jim Burden's nostalgia, and merged with it, is the nostalgia of Willa Cather herself.

There is a suggestion in this novel and in the earlier O Pioneers! that the younger brothers and the sisters of this splendid generation of pioneer women will not be their equals. Emil Bergson—the youth in O Pioneers! for whom his older sister Alexandra labors and plans—attends the university, escapes from the plough, only to ruin several lives through his adulterous love. And in My Ántonia there is the suggestion that the coming generations will be less heroic and more ordinary than the present breed. Jim Burden at one point muses on this problem, thinking of the hired girls in Black Hawk:

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had "advantages," never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.

The circumstances which formed Ántonia will not be repeated; the future will be in the hands of a diminished race. It is the feeling which haunts Willa Cather's novel. Ántonia looks to the future of her children, but Jim Burden knows that the future will be at best a poor imitation of the past. Ántonia's life is a triumph of innocence and vitality over hardship and evil. But Willa Cather does not celebrate this triumph; rather, she intones an elegy over the dying myth of the heroic Innocent, over the days that are no more.

Source: Robert E. Scholes, "Hope and Memory in My Ántonia," in Shenandoah, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Autumn 1962, pp. 24-29.


Critical Overview