My Antonia Essay: Weak Structure and Powerful Drama
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Weak Structure and Powerful Drama in My Antonia
Much of the earliest criticism of My Antonia focuses on the apparent failure of the narrative. Many critics take the title of the story and its introduction at face value. When the story says it is to be about Ántonia, it must be about her! Therefore, many critics see the stunningly crafted pieces of "variation from a theme" -- the stories of Peter & Pavel (the Russians and their wolves) and the sections of the novel dealing with the hired girls Lena Lingard and others-- as divergences which weaken the overall structure of the novel. In other words, these stories distract us from the real story, that of Ántonia and her relationship with Jim. Other critics talk mostly about the landscape of Cather's stories, the way the pioneer story and the struggle with nature is a vital piece of her work. This is partly why, I think, Cather has been viewed as a minor writer of "local color" for so long. Because she sketches her landscapes with such simplicity and yet detail, many critics do not look past the landscape to see the characters and the true drama that they play out.
An example of a critique which accepts the critical opinion that the novel is "defective in structure" is James E. Miller's 1958 essay "My Ántonia: A Frontier Drama of Time." I group his essay here because he spends the bulk of the essay arguing that the defect of structure is overcome when we look at the cyclical nature of time in the novel as its unifying theme. This article does seem to be one of the first ones that looks to disprove the "failure" of Cather's narration. Of course, by disproving this argument, Miller is still working within the context of failure/success which I don't think other writers (read male authors) are judged by.
Miller begins his argument by pointing out that many critics "have felt the unified emotional impact of My Ántonia and have grappled with the puzzling problem of the book's actual lack of consistent central action or unbroken character portrayal" (Miller 52). Miller argues that there seems to be no consistent character portrayal, "The action in My Ántonia is episodic, lacks focus and abounds in irrelevancies"(Miller 52). But Miller believes that there is a consistency within the novel, that of the evocation of feelings which the reader has.