Sunday, April 13, 2014

Willa Cather, My Antonia


Opening Passage: The story has an introduction in which an unnamed female narrator, representing Cather, introduces Jim Burden, the primary narrator of the story, but Burden's manuscript is the major beginning of the work.

I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the 'hands' on my father's old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake's experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.

Summary: The epigraph for My Ántonia is from Virgil's Georgics, a line that will be found as well in the main body of the text: Optima dies...prima fugit, "The best days flee first." The combination of nostalgia and reflection on the life in the country represented by this quotation from Virgil's pastoral summarizes the book very well.

The narrator, Jim Burden, arrived on the prairie as a young boy, and there in the frontier lands he discovers a wild mix of immigrants: Swedes, Norwegians, Bohemians, and the like. Among the Bohemians he meets a young girl, slightly older than he, Ántonia Shimerda, and begins a lifelong friendship. Much of the story is about Burden remembering Ántonia as she grows from an immigrant country girl on the farm to a "hired girl" in the city acting as governess and housekeeper while she and other girls her age become a little crazy for dances. Then Burden goes off to university and Ántonia falls in love with a man, Larry Donovan, who abandons with her a baby before they even marry. And it ends with Burden reuniting with Ántonia, who is now married and on a farm with ten or eleven children. It's a simple enough story. The major dramatic point, Ántonia's being abandoned, is entirely offstage, because this is not a dramatic story but a nostalgic one. When we think back on the stories of our lives, we do not think in terms of climactic plots and denouements, nor rising and falling action; we remember little doings and happenings that flow into bigger doings and happenings as they fade away in memory and evidence. Hopes and dreams burgeon, constantly changing, some leading to good things and some dissipating like clouds, and the point is not some specific struggle or profound crisis but instead layers and layers of stories interwoven with each other.

At one point Burden says of Ántonia, "Ántonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time.... She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true." And, as he continues, what this means is that she -- and by extension her story -- "somehow revealed the meaning in common things." Human lives are like that; we live well when the goodness of common things is brought out by our lives, as if our lives consisted of planting and tending and harvesting meaning in the simple things of the world. Ántonia's story is not some wild, romantic adventure; it is the kind of story that people live everyday. Btu that's the point, of course. It's fitting that as the story nears its end Burden and Ántonia meet again to tell stories over old pictures and memories. Those kinds of stories are not exciting creative adventures; they are usually not 'original' in any rigorous sense of the word, just being tales of ordinary things. But they are the most fundamental stories of human life, the true heart of human story, not artificial entertainments, but the way we naturally tell the tales of our own lives.

Favorite Passage:

Before I could sit down in the chair she offered me, the miracle happened; one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart, and take more courage than the noisy, excited passages in life. Antonia came in and stood before me; a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled. It was a shock, of course. It always is, to meet people after long years, especially if they have lived as much and as hard as this woman had. We stood looking at each other. The eyes that peered anxiously at me were—simply Antonia's eyes. I had seen no others like them since I looked into them last, though I had looked at so many thousands of human faces. As I confronted her, the changes grew less apparent to me, her identity stronger. She was there, in the full vigour of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well.

Recommendation: Very good and highly recommended.


  1. Itinérante12:40 AM

    I am reading it right now!! I read "Death Comes for the Archbishop" and I was mesmerized so I decided to read something else for Cather and I started this one about a week ago! Breathtakingly beautiful so far! (*blush* sorry for the super excitement)

  2. Enbrethiliel4:42 AM


    I read this in high school and was definitely not ready for it. I vaguely remember it feeling warm and lovely, but I was looking for plot rather than "the true heart of the human story," and so I missed the point.

  3. branemrys6:36 AM

    I think I liked Death Comes for the Archbishop much better, but this had some very excellent parts.

  4. branemrys6:39 AM

    When I moved during high school to South Dakota, they read it quite closely, although I happened to miss out on it. I suspect most people had the same problem you had -- it really does seem to be the kind of book you'd have to be ready for. And nostalgic reflection on the past is to some extent perhaps a mood you usually have to be older to know the ins and outs of.

  5. Itinérante7:12 AM

    Yes Death Comes for the Archbishop was a strong coup de coeur for me! It actually made my "Top Ten Favourite Books" list, and that's something because I read in three different languages and to conquer that list is pretty much something!


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