A Point of View
My Antonia is at once the story of Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to the Great Plains in the 1880s, and the story of Jim Burden, the narrator who creates his own image of Antonia. As Jim’s memoirs, the novel is the re-creation of a middle-aged lawyer whose failed marriage leaves him unloved and alone and whose childhood in Nebraska becomes, in retrospect, the happiest time of his life, the period of potential and expectancy before the disappointments of adulthood. The rose-color cast and purple rhapsodies are products of this sentimental and romantic look backward. Ironically, despite the revisionist representation, it is clear that even as a child Jim is already alienated, different, orphaned. This use of a male narrator is typical in Cather’s writing and has attracted much critical attention. It may account for Jim’s inability to make Antonia his girlfriend or wife, even though he clearly loves her. My Antonia is also Willa Cather’s story of children discovering the beauties and terrors of a vast new country and of themselves. While Antonia emerges as an equally strong character, she is observed only from the outside. As Cather told a friend, she wanted her heroine to be “like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides … because she is the story.”
Deeply rooted in a sense of time and place, Cather evokes the shaggy virgin prairie around Red Cloud, Nebraska, during the late nineteenth century, when immigrants helped populate this new land. The novel has been said to be a tapestry in the colors of the land that Cather describes for us. Time is measured by the seasons that appear in distinct colors; the sunflower-border roads to the pale-yellow cornfields of summer or the slimy green of frozen asparagus, the frail green of the half-frozen insect, and the rosy haystacks of autumn. In a sense, Cather’s work is a metaphor for the American pioneer experience, and the prairie, the land itself, is a force as important to the novel as its characters.
My Antonia is not a tightly plotted novel. Instead, it is told in a loose but focused episodic fashion. Like a painting with a small, almost incidental window that reveals an open landscape or a distant city, this collection of memories is interrupted at rare moments with stories from another time, from another life. The wretched past of Peter and Pavel and the humble and miraculous past of Blind d’Arnault are two such windows that open up this painting of the American Great Plains during the period of immigration. For those critics who believe that Antonia is the center of the novel, these interruptions in the story are problematic-as is the long section about Jim’s life in Lincoln and his affair with Lena Lingard.
Cather’s superb prose style is disarmingly clear and simple, relying on a straightforward narration of facts. Yet it is also subtle, using carefully selected images to create a rich portrayal of the prairie environment. She worked consciously to achieve this effect through the selection of which details to include and which to leave out. She also heaped up incidents to achieve a realistic portrayal of life, known as verisimilitude. Cather described this prose style as “unfurnished” in an essay entitled “The Novel Demeuble.” She compared it to throwing all the furniture out of a room and leaving it as bare as the stage of a Greek theater. To accomplish this, she eliminated many adverbs, used strong verbs, and many figures of speech.
Cather’s sparse but allusive style relies on the quality and depth of her images. She consciously used the land, its colors, seasons, and changes to suggest emotions and moods. Summer stands for life (Antonia can’t imagine who would want to die during the summer) and winter for death (Mr. Shimerda commits suicide during the winter). Animals are used as symbols of the struggle for survival experienced by the Shimerdas during their first winter. The essential grotesque image of the cost of this struggle is that of Mr. Shimerda’s corpse frozen in his blood, his coat and neckcloth and boots removed and carefully laid by for the survivors. At the end of the novel, Cather uses animalistic images as symbols of fertility and abundance. Antonia’s children come up out of the well-stocked larder like “a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight.” One image has become almost emblematic of the novel. A plough, magnified through the distance, “heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun,” freezes the moment when Jim picnics for the last time with his childhood friends. The vision disappears, the sun sets, and “that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.”
Jim Burden gives voice to a romanticism, or overly sentimental or positive outlook, that Cather was not quite distant from. The homesteading German, Danish, Bohemian, and Scandinavian settlers were the embodiment of a cultural tradition she cherished. However, the novel is saved from sentimentality by the evocative depiction of the harsh realities of pioneer and immigrant life and the complexity of the characters, who are rarely, if ever, only sympathetic or only despicable.