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My Antonia by Willa Cather is a novel based on the memories of the protagonist, Jim Burden. Many critics have criticized this novel, and have focused on such literary elements as symbolism, motif, and characterization. The strongest argument however is the one that states that the foundation of every element in the book is based on the personal memories of Willa Cather.
Many critics have discussed the symbolism in this novel. One symbol that some critics have discussed is the plow. It was said that the plow suggests a way of life that not only helps the land to flourish but the individual as well (Brown). Another symbol that many critics discuss is Marek Shimerda. The fact that Marek has webbed hands and feet sets him apart from the other "normal" children who seem to represent creativity and innocence (Shaw). The road that Jim Burden travels on is another symbol that critics focus on quite a bit. It is said that the road symbolizes the "road to destiny" that America itself takes. (Brown). Critics have also pointed out that the red dust that covers everything, the intense heat, the burning wind, the wilting oak groves, and the stifling vegetation represent oppression, paralysis, submergence, and loss of vitality (as in the old ways of life) as opposed to the alternatives of the new world such as discovery and recovery (Holmes).
One thing that many critics have discussed is that the plot of My Antonia revolves around the ideas of childhood and the fact that the structure of the novel is centered around scenes that have to do with children. This shows up in the beginning of the book as ten year old Jim is riding the train from Virginia to Nebraska; and at the end of the book when all of Antonia's children are around (Shaw). A contrasting motif to that of childhood is adulthood. Throughout the book, Cather describes how adulthood has many hardships as compared to the carefreeness of childhood.
Another element of the novel that critics spent a lot of time discussing is characterization. One critic pointed out the fact that many of the characters in My Antonia have imperfections in their physical appearance that seem to bring out the imperfections of society that exist, and put the ideas of "social perfection" on the back-burner (Randall).
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Another part of the characterization that is discussed by the critics is that as children, Antonia and Jim were blind to the imperfections of society, for example greed and jealousy, and they thought that everyone was all in all good (Randall). This characterization ties into the childhood motif, which emphasizes the innocence of children.
The strongest criticism is the one that states that Willa Cather uses memories over and over again throughout many of her novels to represent many different things. It seems that ideas for characters, settings, and plots all come from personal memories from Cather. One critic said that memory has a few different functions in My Antonia. For example, the memories help the reader to "discover and imagine an almost endless number of ways in which memory inspires and terrifies, comforts and haunts, sustains and shocks not only individuals but also communities, cultures, and nations" (Lucenti). Throughout My Antonia Willa Cather does not just focus on the memories that Jim has but why and how he remembers these specific events. The memories that Jim has are key elements to the novel because they reveal that Jim has not forgotten about his childhood, and the way his life was before he became a successful lawyer. The fact that Jim remembers the good memories as well as the bad enhances the childhood and adulthood motifs. For example, the good memories that Jim has are mostly about he and Antonia as children, and the fun times that they would have; whereas the "bad" memories are of Jim after he and Antonia had lost touch.
Many critics have criticized My Antonia on all of the basic literary elements; however the one critic that made the strongest argument was the one that said that all of the elements tie together into one motif.
Brown, E.K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York, 1993
Holmes, Catherine D. "Jim Burden's Lost Worlds." Twentieth Century Literature. Fall 99
Lucenti, Lisa Marie. "Willa Cather's My Antonia: Haunting the Houses of Memory." Academic Search Elite. Summer 2000
Randall, John H. III. The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search For Value. Boston, 1960
Shaw, Patrick. "Marek Shimerda in My Antonia: A Noteworthy Medical Etiology." Academic Search Elite. Winter 2000
Palmer, Scott. "The Train of Thought." Studies in American Fiction. Autumn 2001: pp. 239-248