Impressions of My Antonia

Impressions of My Antonia

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Impressions of My Antonia

 

 

        My Antonia has been called nostalgic and elegiac because it

celebrates the past.  The inscription on the title page of My Antonia is a

quotation from Virgil: "Optima dies... prima fugit." This sentence, meaning

"the best days are first to flee", helps incorporate all the elements of

the novel I would like to discuss.  It not only makes clear that Willa

Cather will deal with memories of a glorious past, but also allows suitable

basis to show how nature can change and affect a relationship.  It also

hints at the Hellenic, to a large extent pastoral tone the novel will be

set in.  A pastoral work retreats to an ideal rural setting.  Jim Burden

not only goes back to the prairie, but more importantly, he retreats to the

innocent days of his very first memories.  While this reflects on the focus

of the paper, I will use two characters, Jim and Antonia, to illustrate

these issues, and show why they make this book such a delightful work of

art.

 

        My Antonia is told from the point of view of Willa Cather's

fictional friend, Jim Burden.  He writes in the first person, and his use

of the pronoun "I" makes you feel his personal involvement.  The point of

view is immediate and subjective.  Looking back on his memories, he knows

what is eventually going to happen to the characters.  He persuades you to

sympathize with all of them.  His perception, being broad and persuasive,

sets the tone for the whole book.  What is the purpose of having the story

told by Jim Burden thirty years later?  From that perspective he can

present with great clarity and tenderness the highlights of his memories.

A man of the world, he is reinvestigating his values.  Jim Burden sets down

everything the name of Antonia brings back to him.  Antonia represents to

him the most fundamental, traditional way to lead one's life, including the

virtues of hard work, charity, love, optimism, pride, and sympathy with

nature.

 

      The prairie makes one think of the forces of nature--immense,

cyclical, and unpredictable.  When Jim Burden arrives on his grandparents'

farms, he is awed by the sight of "nothing but land."  His parents are both

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recently dead, and he's starting life over again.  The huge, impersonal

land makes him feel that he has left all that's familiar.  The boundless

setting gives him a new perspective on his own identity.  "Between that

earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out."  He adopts the attitude

that life will take its own identity.  "Between that earth and that sky I

felt erased, blotted out."  He adopts the attitude that life will take its

own course here on the prairie.  Attracted to this idea of the vast

universe absorbing him, he feels at one with the landscape.

 

        Sometimes the author lets her meanings become clear through the

symbols rather than direct explanations.  Cather includes various uses of

natural as well as practical symbolism throughout the book. The image of

the plough magnifed against the sun at the end of Book II and on the cover,

symbolizes cultivation and civilization -- the ultimate domination of the

uncultivated land through the toil of people like Antonia and her husband.

The red prairie grass symbolizes freedom, the children's shadows represent

the passing of childhood, and Antonia arguably symbolizes the hard work and

fruitfulness of the pioneers.

 

        As stated before, the past is what My Antonia focuses around.

Although the memories emanate from many years ago, each scene seems

immediate and vivid, as if time has been suspended.  Jim's memories from a

child to when he matures are all described with lucid detail.  The

childhood days were best for Jim Burden, as he discovers when he leaves

home.  Jim's carefree childhood is flavored by the land.  He will always

associate his time in the country with happiness and with Antonia, his

playmate.  After he has become successful professionally, but personally

disappointed, Jim returns to Black Hawk to try to regain some of the warm

feelings of the past.  He finds Antonia with her own family, continuing a

kind of life he himself has lost.  He feels he can become a child again by

playing with her children.  Moved by her assuredness as well as her love

for the land, Jim suddenly confesses his feelings for her; he thinks of her

more than anyone else from his youth.  Her personality continues to

influence h im.  "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife,

or my mother or my sister--anything that a woman can be to a man.  The idea

of you is part of my mind."  What has prevented Jim from asking Antonia to

marry him?  Several barriers have unknowingly stood in their way:  Antonia

is four years older, they're from different social classes, and Jim is now

far more educated than she is.  Nearing the end of the book, the past is

further explored as Jim spends a disappointing day in Black Hawk, where

very few of the people from his youth remain.  Walking out to the edge of

town, he finds a half-mile stretch of the old wagon-road "which used to run

like a wild thing across the open prairie."  Out there he experiences once

again the beauty of sunset and autumn.  The memory of his first ride over

that road comes to him strongly.  Now he feels that this road has brought

him and Antonia back together.  It is "the road of Destiny" along which

their lives have traveled.  "I had the sense of coming home to mysel f,"

Jim says, "and of realizing, in the context of the vast prairie, what a

little circle man's experience is."

 

        Looking back on it all, Jim believes, "Whatever we had missed, we

possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."  However, Jim's

memories seem to contradict his own last sentence.  Full of nostalgia,

Jim's memories vividly evoke the places, people, emotions of his past, and

notably, Antonia.  As Jim tells his story, his gaze may sometimes be drawn

away from her--Antonia sometimes disappears for long sections--but he comes

back to her with a richer sense of what she means to him.
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