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In My Antonia by Willa Cather, there are many dark overtones that pervade the novel. It is through the use of symbolism and contrast these overtones are made real. The prairie is the predominant setting of the novel. It may be shaped, and it conforms to the desires of those working it. The prairie¹s loneliness, shown by the wide open spaces, is a brilliant way of revealing internal conflict by using a setting. Also, it brings out the characters true meaning. Cather shows through the character of Lena Lengard that society¹s next generation would not be as good, or quite as noble as that of Cather¹s childhood. The primary inscription on the first page states that the best days are the first to flee. Cather contrasts these ideas with Antonia¹s personality, which is always bright. This contributes to the dreariness of the novel.
In the novel the prairie is a metaphor for internal conflict. Cather brilliantly demonstrates the prairie as a representation for internal conflict being portrayed by a setting (Kelley, Sean). It symbolizes loneliness and depression. When Jim, one of the main characters, was young, the prairie was uncultivated and there were not as many settlers; it was a lonely place. Being isolated from society with little or no human contact could drive anyone insane. Despair, bad luck, greed, and self-absorbtion make one lose hope also, but it is mostly the lack, or the underuse of, imagination (Kelley, Sean). The prairie was a desolate strip of land that continued as far as could be seen. In the beginning of the novel, Jim Burden states about the land:
There seemed to be nothing to see, no fences, no creek or trees, no hills or fields. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had gone over the edge of it.... If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth, and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out. (3 - 4)
It seems that Jim tries to express that the prairie is forlorn, and deprived of life, making one aware of being alone. Because Jim has left behind all that is familiar, and started over his life, he has a clean slate, and that is what the prairie is. E. K. Brown, once wrote, ³The impersonal vastness of the land is the freedom it represents.
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In My Antonia, there is the suggestion that the next generation will not be as gallant as the one Antonia lived in. Like Robert E. Scholes, many critics seem to agree that, ³There is the suggestion that the coming generations will be less heroic and more ordinary than the present breed.² (31:37) The rough experiences Antonia underwent molded who she is. She makes sacrifices so that her family can prosper, and her younger siblings can go to school, and thus have more ³options². Henry Steele Commager wrote that to Jim it seems that the experiences have made the sacrificers stronger, and that it is actually the ones who have sacrificed who have more ³options². Lena Lengard is a fundamental example of this. The situations that have shaped Antonia will not reoccur. Antonia looks to the future of her children, but Jim knows that the future will be, at the best, a poor imitation of the past.
Much like my latter point, the inscription on the title page from Virgil's Aeneid is dark and symbolizes childhood lost. The inscription reads ³Optima dies...prima fugit.² It means that the best days are the first to flee. Jim's childhood days were his best. He discovers this conflict between the past and the present when he leaves Black Hawk for college in Lincoln. This is portrayed at the picnic scene in which it is clear that those are the last true days of carefree childhood for Antonia and Jim. As Wagenknecht says, Jim becomes more ³successful professionally, but more disappointed personally²(109), he returns to his hometown of Black Hawk to try to recapture some of his warm past. Jim feels that by playing with Antonia's children, he is regaining his long since lost childhood. Commenting upon her own writing, Cather once said ³A book is made of one's own flesh and blood of years. It is cremated youth.²
In addition to the prairie being a setting, it is a symbol for Antonia herself. From her clothing to her mannerisms, to her abundant family, Antonia embodies what we think of as a reflection of the land she herself tilled. Because Antonia returns to the prairie, explaining that she has done so because she favors the open land of the prairie to the commotion of city life, it is even more apparent that Antonia is one with the land. Antonia fulfills what we think of as good. To Henry Steele Commager, Antonia represents the "human quest for beauty and truth. Antonia is love and despair, truth and beauty." (31:114) Antonia embodies the American values of personal strength, creative force, and essential goodness of the pioneer woman. She is energetic, intense and noble. Few characters bring all of those attributes together as well as Antonia. As one critic, John H. Randall III, has said, My Antonia ³shows fertility of both soil, and human being.² (31:35)
The use of symbolism and contrast is a prominent literary device. Cather uses it to convey the deep and engrossing meanings of the shadowy overtones that run throughout the novel. The style Cather chose is a perplexing one; it shows the goodness and wholesomeness of the human condition, by using a dark setting, dark backgrounds, and mostly dark overtones. Her approach is very interesting and makes one wonder if My Antonia is a viable story and if it is an accurate portrayal of the human condition at that time. Although Jim is a young boy, he is not too perfect which makes him an interesting character. This seems to be an accurate representation of a human being. By making her characters imperfect, Cather creates a believable story. It is the dark overtones that hold together this novel about the goodness of life. Without Cather¹s use of skillfully creating this paradox, the novel would have been quite different, and the meaning altogether changed. In the final analysis, the book seems to leave the reader asking: will the next generation be quite so dauntless as the one of the present?
Scholes, Robert E. Hope and Memory In My Antonia in 31 vols. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Heath 1967
Randall III, John H. The Landscape and the Looking Glass in 31 vols. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. 1982
Wagenknecht, Edward ³Willa Cather² New York: Lexington, 1994.
Commager, Henry Steele ³The American Mind² 1974
Brown, E. K. ³Myth and Livelihood in My Antonia² in 31 vols. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. 1946
Kelley, Sean. My Antonia Room . Freshmen Honors English. Orange, CA. 11-15 October, 1999