Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1690
Change and Transformation
Willa Cather's straightforward story of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska, parallels the change in the lives of the two principal characters with the transformation of the Great Plains. Ántonia is fourteen when we first see her; Jim Burden ten. Both have been wrenched from their origins, Ántonia from her native Bohemia, Jim from his parents' home in Virginia. She is an immigrant. He is an orphan. It is no surprise we encounter them first in motion on a train. They are carried through an empty land. "There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields.... There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made."
That first ride is in sharp contrast with Jim's train crossing as an adult, when the "train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun." Ántonia has become the mother of a large family, and Jim is a successful Eastern lawyer, childless and unhappily married. Jim takes a long walk out of Black Hawk: "I had the good luck to stumble upon a bit of the first road.... Everywhere else it had been ploughed under when the highways were surveyed; this half-mile or so within the pasture fence was all that was left of that old road which used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie.... This was the road 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."
The novel is populated predominantly by immigrants, and the successes and failures of the American Dream are manifest. What drove people to make the long haul across oceans and then across the continent? Some came because they were ambitious. Mrs. Shimerda uprooted her family against her husband's wishes. She said, "America big country, much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls." Anton Cuzak seems to have drifted to Nebraska to keep away from the bad luck and trouble he seemed to have attracted in the past. Pavel and Peter were fugitives. The burgeoning country and economy provided many opportunities. The immigrant farmers hire out their daughters to the townspeople. Anton Jelinek rented his homestead and ran a saloon in town. Tiny Soderball follows the frontier to Seattle and then, during the gold rush, to Alaska. The Vannis take their musical talents and dancing tent on the road. And, as always, swindlers and loan sharks, like Wick Cutter, preyed on the weak. The immigrants pay an enormous price for these opportunities. The differences in language, occupation, and geography created hardships. '"It must have been a trial for our mothers,' said Lena, 'coming out here and having to do everything different. My mother always lived in town. She says she started behind in farmwork, and never has caught up.'" There is loss of social status. Even Jim, who prefers the hired girls, is aware they are not of his own set. Marriage to Lena or Ántonia is not even a consideration. And for many, there is homesickness. Antonia says, "I ain't never forgot my own country." For some the price seems materially worth it. Lena is a successful dressmaker in San Francisco. Tiny owns a house there and is wealthy, although soured. Ántonia and her husband flourish. For all the successes, the novel is riddled with disappointments and failures. Otto and Jake go west, and except for one postcard, they are never heard of again. "Rooshian" Peter, who proudly told Ántonia that "in his country only rich people had cows, but here any man could have one who would take care of her," loses his brother and bankruptcy forces him to sell his possessions. When Jim tells Ántonia that Coronado, who searched the American west for the Seven Golden Cities, died in the wilderness of a broken heart, she sighs, "More than him has done that." The American Dream had also broken her father.
It is through the eyes of Jim Burden, an orphan and thus something of an outsider himself, that Willa Cather considers differences of class, nationality, and gender. Even before young Jim arrives in Nebraska, he is met with prejudice against foreigners. Jake thinks that foreigners spread diseases. But Cather makes it clear that prejudice was not invented in America. Otto tells Mrs. Burden, "Bohemians has a natural distrust of Austrians." And Norwegian Lena feels fated by the Lapp blood of her paternal grandmother. "I guess that's what's the matter with me; they say Lapp blood will out." Throughout the novel, Jim himself is a perpetrator of pervading prejudices and conventions. As a boy, he is indignant that Antonia, a girl, should have a superior attitude toward him. After his success in killing a snake wins her admiration, he cannot help insulting her, "What did you jabber Bohunk for?" My Ántonia is not simply a study in human difference but in the destiny that binds us into the human condition. Stargazing with Ántonia, Jim muses, "Though we had come from such different parts of the world, in both of us there was some dusky superstition that those shining groups have their influences upon what is and what is not to be."
Coming of Age
My Ántonia is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, that traces Jim Burden's development from the age of ten. It begins when he is orphaned and newly transplanted to his grandparents' farm in Nebraska, where he first feels erased and blotted out. His escape into romanticism first takes the form of a young boy's fascination with outlaws, such as Jesse James, and lost adventurers, such as the Swiss Family Robinson. As an adolescent, he remains estranged although conventional. Bored by the sameness of his small, pioneer town, he is intrigued by the romantic foreignness of the hired girls, girls he will never marry, and he keeps away from girls that would be suitable for him. As an adult, he remains virtually without a real home. His marriage is childless; he and his wife live almost separate lives, his being a life of travel on the railway through the land that he loves.
Memory and Reminiscence
The novel has a rich aura of nostalgia and evokes a departed grandeur of a vast land that had once been a sea of red grass in motion. There is a sense of longing and homesickness that accompanies the characters as they move on in their lives. Ántonia misses the flowers and the woodland pathways of her homeland. Life-hardened Otto carries Christmas-tree ornaments from Austria in his trunk. The age-old prejudices that have been brought from Europe are familiar relics and, being so, are hard to relinquish. Ántonia's big box of pictures seems to be a container of this past, a past she has managed to pass on to her children. "Ántonia herself had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time." Jim has his own stores of pictures in his mind's memory. And he consoles himself by saying, "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."
Point of View
My Ántonia is at once the story of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to the Great Plains in the 1880s, and the story of Jim Burden, the narrator who creates his own image of Ántonia. As Jim's memoirs, the novel is the re-creation of a middle-aged lawyer whose failed marriage leaves him unloved and alone. His childhood in Nebraska becomes, in retrospect, the happiest time of his life, the period of potential and expectancy before the disappointments of adulthood. The rose-color cast and purple rhapsodies are products of this sentimental and romantic look backward. Ironically, despite the revisionist representation, it is clear that even as a child Jim is already alienated, different, orphaned. This use of a male narrator is typical in Cather's writing and has attracted much critical attention. It may account for Jim's inability to make Ántonia his girlfriend or wife, even though he clearly loves her. My Ántonia is also Willa Cather's story of children discovering the beauties and terrors of a vast new country and of themselves. While Ántonia emerges as an equally strong character, she is observed only from the outside. As Cather told a friend, she wanted her heroine to be "like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides ... because she is the story."
Deeply rooted in a sense of time and place, Cather evokes the shaggy virgin prairie around Red Cloud, Nebraska. During the late nineteenth century, immigrants helped populate this new land. The novel has been said to be a tapestry in the colors of the land that Cather describes for us. Time is measured by the seasons that appear in distinct colors; the sunflower-border roads to the pale-yellow cornfields of summer or the slimy green of frozen asparagus, the frail green of the half-frozen insect, and the rosy haystacks of autumn. In a sense, Cather's work is a metaphor for the American pioneer experience and the prairie, the land itself, is a force as important to the novel as its characters
My Ántonia is not a tightly plotted novel. Instead, it is told in a loose but focused episodic fashion. Like a painting with a small, almost incidental window that reveals an open landscape or a distant city, this collection of memories is interrupted at rare moments with stories from another time, from another life. The wretched past of Peter and Pavel and the humble and miraculous past of Blind d'Arnault are two such windows that open up this painting of the American Great Plains during the period of immigration. For those critics who believe that Ántonia is the center of the novel, these interruptions in the story are problematic—as is the long section about Jim's life in Lincoln and his affair with Lena Lingard.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733
Along with the settlement of the prairie, memory is the major theme of this novel. The "Introduction," which functions as a frame for the story, reveals that it is a memoir written by Jim, a recollection of his childhood and youth in Nebraska before he went East to acquire an education, a profession, wealth, and social standing. Subjectivity and retrospection thus characterize his narrative, which presents the point of view of a sensitive young inhabitant of the prairie world, a view that is enriched and complicated by the adult sensibility of the narrator.
Because Jim is a romantic by nature and finds his adult life unsatisfactory, he aims to find lasting value in his past and to celebrate the particular moment in America's history in which he grew up. Accordingly, he attempts to romanticize any disturbing and unpleasant memories and to give happy ones a sense of permanence. But the very shape of his narrative, with its chronicling of the passage of time, moves him ever further from the past, for it inevitably brings into sharp focus both the disappearance of the pioneer era and his own transition from youth to maturity. This tension between a desire to "fix" the past in imagination and memory and an awareness of the inexorable passage of time in the real world is felt throughout the novel.
Woven into Jim's presentation of his youthful responses to the frontier are his recollections of Antonia, whom he identifies as a child of the nature he loves so well. Despite his efforts to soften his descriptions of the harsh conditions of her life, Antonia also stands for the hardships with which the immigrant pioneers had to struggle.
When Jim moves to the more rigidly structured physical and social spaces of Black Hawk and experiences its provincial chauvinism, he starts to romanticize the past. For him, the immigrant farm girls personify the pioneer spirit-freedom, expansiveness, and a willingness to take risks - so lacking in the townspeople, whose ostracization of them therefore represents a betrayal of the American dream. While a student at the University of Nebraska, Jim senses that the events and characters of his past might be a proper subject for literature. This insight emerges when his classics teacher explains that Virgil drew on his rural background to write the Georgics (29 B.C.).
Inspired by Virgil, Jim begins the process of transforming his memories into art. Many years and many experiences intervene between this moment of insight and the completion of his book and by that time, both Jim's childhood and the pioneer era have receded into the past. But the distance only makes them more vivid and essential for him.
When he returns to the prairie in middle age he finds, as if in a fairy tale, that Antonia has preserved what was of value in the past, so that their long-delayed reunion seems to him an occasion for rebirth. In sharp contrast to her girlhood of almost unrelieved bleakness, in Antonia's present world Jim finds a model of tranquility and happiness amidst an environment which seems exempt from all negative outside influences. She is now a fully-rounded agrarian heroine, mistress of the domestic arts, equally at home in her fields and orchard, a goddess of fertility and motherhood, who by strenuous effort has been able to build a sort of Eden on the frontier.
Through Antonia, for one day and night, Jim is permitted to feel the embrace of a warm and luxurious landscape, to savor the joy of being surrounded by the ripeness of life, and to rediscover his deepest values. For him, this prairie homestead is more than simply an agrarian enclave. Rather, as in the best pastoral tradition, it becomes a spiritual realm that harbors all of the most profound human ideals and a symbol of the contrast between the harmony achieved through art and the anxiety inherent in life.
But even as Jim idealizes objective reality, he cannot hide his inner tensions: nostalgia for a lost childhood and for all those childish pleasures that provided a sense of security and repose; awareness of his own loneliness and alienation, both in nature and in society; a yearning for pure and total friendship; the inability to understand the source of pain; and disappointment in love. All of these pervade his narrative, revealing that he has been unsuccessful in his quest for self-knowledge and spiritual fulfillment.
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