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Many women characters appear in fiction who have been damaged by or disintegrate under the stresses of life. Just as in life, however, many fictional characters survive, adapt, and triumph; these characters may never be recognized within a larger world, but they are vitally important to other characters and are the objects of deep love and respect. Creating this woman in fiction can often be difficult, because the writer must present a whole character, not one trivialized by sentimentality or stereotyped by convention. Willa Cather in My Antonia and O.E. Rolvaag in Giants in the Earth have developed such characters.
As Michael Peterman points out, Antonia is "a celebration of vitality and of human potential within the context of natural and mortal limitations" and teaches us to "value the irrepressible, genuinely generous, life enhancing aspects of human nature" (98). Antonia also shares these characteristics to a large degree with another fictional character, Rolvaag's Sorine from Giants. Both women emerge as people of great strength, women who are touchstones for those around them.
Before considering the similarities, it might be well to review the apparent differences between Sorine and Antonia. In the first place, there are differences in their style. Sorine appears to be a conventional, Old World peasant woman fulfilling conventional roles: devoted mother and loyal wife, helping her husband achieve his dream. Furthermore, we see her only as a mature woman. In contrast, because we follow Antonia's development to maturity and centeredness, we see sides of her life which we can only speculate about in comparing her to Sorine. For example, Antonia works first as a boy might in her family's fields. Then she is brought into town to learn more "proper" roles--housekeeping skills. In town she gives herself to the social pleasures denied her thus far in life and eventually falls prey to the blandishments of an unprincipled charmer. When that relationship ends disastrously, she makes a new life for herself, marrying and happily raising a large family. At this point she is clearly important, not only to the narrator, Jim Burden, but also to many others. Life's path may have been different for her than for Sorine, but its destination was the same: the esteem, admiration, and love of those she held dear .
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What, then, are the qualities these women have? Many qualities could, of course, be cited. The significant ones clearly are these: strength, both physical and emotional, and adaptability; common sense and wisdom; dependability and generosity in providing for others' needs; and honesty, tact, and love. Even though their roles are conventional for their environ ment, they are large and demanding. Both Sorine and Antonia grow to fill them.
Sorine is often ignored by Rolvaag's critics; her personality and contributions to life are overshadowed by Beret. Nonetheless, she certainly deserves more attention. She is the center, the stabilizing force among the settlers of that struggling little community. In the first place, she is strong and adaptable. Physically, she is stout and healthy looking and her kindly face and ample bosom are frequently referred to. In the opening scenes she sings to herself while she prepares a meal in front of the tent, adapting cheerfully to the inconveniences involved. She is tender toward Beret and supportive of Per Hansa, instantly ready to do whatever she can in their distress. Facing her own widowhood with fortitude, she determines to succeed for the sake of her children.
Antonia shares this strength and adaptability. Not only is she physically capable of doing a man's work at fifteen, but she works as a hired girl in town, doing all the work of the Harling household--not exactly an easy task. Even at the end of the novel, after the rigors of bearing eleven children and running a farm, she is still vital and stalwart, brown-skinned and hardened, with no flabbiness. Her emotional strength is as great. As a child she survives the dislocation of immigration and the appalling suicide of the dignified father whom she dearly loved. Broken promises of marriage, an illegitimate child, and social ostracism are difficult realities for her, not elements of a cheap melodrama, but she only resolves to make a good life for herself and her child. Later on when she marries and has many more children, she works joyously with her family to make the land produce and to provide for them all. If her optimism ever wavers, no one knows.
Both Sorine and Antonia show an almost innate wisdom and common sense. Hans Olsa and Per Hansa alike turn to Sorine for advice when they are perplexed. Per Hansa depends on her to know how to handle Beret. At another time, she realizes that the cows have disappeared because they "need male company." She can be trusted not to panic when the Irish come to claim the land they had illegally staked out; finally, it is her idea to move the school from house to house so that all might have the mental stimulation they need in the confining winter days. Likewise, Antonia displays common sense by her determination that Jim will not endanger his prospects by becoming involved too early and unsuitably with a woman. She later handles her own large brood with the same mixture of humor and tolerance which endears her to the Harling children. She knows where she belongs--on the land--and that she is a part of it and cannot deny it without negating herself. Whether by instinct or experience, those women are both valued counselors.
Hospitality was a mandate on the prairie, and both Sorine and Antonia excel in generosity, providing for the needs of others. Sorine manages to produce a feast for the whole settlement in celebration of the safe arrival of Per Hansa and his family, even though her cooking facilities are still extremely primitive. She willingly takes over for Beret in both food preparation and household maintenance any time Beret is unable to do for herself. When she senses that Beret is depressed and in need of comfort, she brings a gift of a cap which she has made for the coming baby. She is willing to help anyone who asks for anything that she can give. Similarly, Jim Burden recalls that in addition to the regular cooking for the Harling family, Antonia is always ready to whip up a treat--cookies, cakes, or taffy--for the children to have during the long summer afternoons of outdoor play or the equally long winter evenings of schoolwork, stories and games. Antonia is justly proud to show Jim on his last visit all the sources of her ability to feed her family well: the orchard, the grape arbor, the garden, the food cellar and all that is stored in it. Her supplies are not only for her own family, however, but are freely given to any who needs them. Both Sorine and Antonia are "genuinely generous."
Finally, both women display honesty, tact, and love in their relationships with others. Sorine, listening to Per Hansa admit that he nearly struck Beret, can lighten her response with the laughing remark that he should be whaled for that, and yet seriously let him know that she understands the pressure he was under. In the same vein, when she and Hans Olsa are discussing whether they should offer to adopt Peder Victorious so that Per Hansa's load could be lightened, Sorine reveals both love for the child and sensitivity to the feelings of both parents in such a delicate matter. Antonia gives Jim and her own children truths about themselves with such tact that their self image is not threatened and they can accept her advice. Her husband depends upon her as well; he can even stay cheerfully on the farm where he feels he does not belong, and he credits Antonia's warm heart which has led her always to make things as good for him as she could. Her unstinted giving of herself reaps a harvest of bountiful love and admiration from others.
The humane qualities portrayed in Sorine and Antonia are actually quite common, ones which many people display. This is, of course, true. Society as we know it would be much less pleasant, less civilized, if you will, without them. There are at least two pertinent, if somewhat paradoxical, sides to this argument. First of all, the very pervasiveness of these qualities suggests the heroism of daily life and ordinary people. There have been thousands of women like Sorine and Antonia who, even within a traditional family setting, are strong, independent. and full hearted, bonding themselves to all they touch. There still are.
On the other hand, what lifts Sorine and Antonia and others like them above the ordinary and the common is their commitment to the roles they have chosen for themselves. They may or may not have felt they had any other options for their lives, but it is clear that they were doing what they wanted to do and that they truly loved doing it. If they found self definition in "traditional" pursuits, it was a thoroughly satisfactory one to both of them. Had they chosen other roles, they would have expressed the same largeness of heart and mind, the same cheerful independence and strength as they displayed in the lives they had. This is their legacy to their pioneer sisters, past and present.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1977.
Peterman, Michael. "'The Good Game': The Charm of Willa Cather's My Antonia and W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 14 (1981): 93-106.
Rolvaag, O.E. Giants in the Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1955.