My Antonia Essays and Criticism
by Willa Cather

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Childhood and Friendship in My Ántonia

(Novels for Students)

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, 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 of My Ántonia as a figure who has triumphed over the hardships of her life through stalwart struggle, producing a fruitful farm from the difficult land,...

(The entire section is 5,231 words.)