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What is ‘Modernist’ about Cather’s My Antonia? Essay

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Modernism focuses on removing literature from the safety of nineteenth century conventions and propelling new ideas on how and what to write into the literary domain. In ‘My Antonia’, Cather embodies the push for new literary techniques as she revolutionises the practises of the novel and challenges the conformist society of capitalist America. This can be seen in her narrative technique, anti-Victorian views and character symbolism.

The modernity of ‘My Antonia’ can be seen through the narrative style used by Cather. The opening narrative sets the scene for a nostalgic reminiscence of Antonia’s life and delivers background information on Jim. It is through the initial framing narrative that we acquire Jim’s manuscript. This forms a secondary layer of narrative. Thus, we as an audience are reading the unknown narrator study Jim’s autobiography:
I suppose it hasn't any form. It hasn't any title, either." He […] [wrote] the word, "Antonia." He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it "My Antonia."[…]My own story was never written, but the following narrative is Jim's manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me.
(Cather 714)

The implication of Jim’s lack of form is that his narrative will be fragmented. This is made apparent when we see the manuscript is episodic containing five different books, thus five stories. This is a subversion of traditional novel techniques where narratives are singular and expansive. Cather conforms to the modernist ‘liking of fragmented forms [and] discontinuous narratives.’ (Barry 79). By prefixing the title with ‘My’ Jim is claiming ownership over his memoir of Antonia; this allows us to see the narration will be of a restricted first person narrator because...


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...rry, Peter. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary And Cultural Theory. 3rd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Gentte, Gerard. “Order in Narrative.” Literature in the Modern World. Ed. Dennis Walder. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lukacs, Georg. “The ideology of Modernism” Literature in the Modern World. Ed. Dennis Walder. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004.

Millington, Richard H. "Willa Cather’s American modernism." The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather. Ed. Marilee Lindemann. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Rabin, Jessica G. Surviving the Crossing: (im)migration, Ethnicity, And Gender In Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, And Nella Larsen. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Williams, Raymond. “Modernism and the Metropolis” Literature in the Modern World. Ed. Dennis Walder. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004.


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