Modernism in My Ántonia

A novel is just a glimpse, a framed and sometimes fragmented exploration into the depths of memory, psychology, time and place.

Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (pronounced “an-ton-ee-yuh”) is one of the seminal works of the great American pastoral tradition, similar in style to O Pioneers! It is told as a reflection by Cather’s friend from their days of growing up on the Nebraska prairie together. Appropriately, the novel begins with an epigraph citing Virgil’s Georgics – Optima dies…prima fugit (“the best days are the first to disappear”). Like Virgil’s Georgics or Hesiod’s Works and Days, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia celebrates nostalgia for the rustic, Arcadian life.

The novel was published in 1918, and was Cather’s great masterpiece. It is sometimes grouped together as the “Prairie Trilogy” of novels written by Cather: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918).

The novel is uniquely modernist, as it contains no significant plot arc, aside from being a bildungsroman of sorts. What is at stake in My Ántonia? The book is framed and told through the perspective of Jim Burden, a childhood friend of Cather who is now a successful east coast attorney in a loveless marriage. Cather and Burden decide to embark on a competition to write a novel reflecting on their jovial childhood friend from Nebraska, ÁntoniaThe novel is told in five parts through Mr. Burden’s lens:

  • Book I: “The Shimerdas” -introduces our characters as Jim Burden, an orphan going to live with his grandparents who meets Ántonia, later nicknamed “Tony” while they ride the train out to Nebraska together. She is a young child coming with her Bohemian immigrant family to make a new life as homesteaders, however Tony’s father finds life meaningless on the prairie. As the long winter comes, he kills himself causing much grief to the community, yet Tony grows into a beautiful and vivacious young girl. We are also given a story of Peter and Pavel, two men from Russia who have a secret crime they are running from; during a happy wedding their carriage is attacked by wolves so they throw the bride and groom overboard and flee the scene, saving their own lives but leaving the bride and groom to be mauled by wolves. Not long after this confession is introduced, Pavel dies and Peter leaves town, never to be heard from again. There is a blend of styles and genres introduced in the novel, and in some cases it reads like gothic folklore.
  • Book II: “The Hired Girls” -tells the story of Jim and his grandparents as they rent out their farm and move into town. Jim starts attending courses at the University of Nebraska. Meanwhile, some of the young country girls come t work in town in “service” to wealthy elder families. Tony is one of those young girls. They also start going out to dances in the evenings, despite the distate from the adults. This section of the novel ends shortly after Tony joins a new house for work -the Cutters -but they leave Tony to watch over the house one day in a peculiar way so Jim spends the night at the house for Tony only to cause a physical altercation when Mr. Cutter shows up unexpectedly.
  • Book III: “Lena Lingard” -throughout reading the novel we find ourselves asking: will Tony and Jim finally strike up a romance? Alas, they never do. However, Jim seems to have a fling with one of the other young trouble-making girls in Book III. They go out to shows in the evenings while Jim attends school, however his teacher moves to Boston so Jim decides to follow him and promptly ends the relationship with Lena, who does not wish to get married or settle down. They separate on a somewhat sad note, but the plot continues to roll on and Lena seems to give little care.
  • Book IV: “The Pioneer Woman’s Story” -this section tells a sad tale of when Jim Burden returns to Nebraska to learn that Tony was set to be married but was abandoned just as she found out she was pregnant and has a child. Through it all, she remains positive and works hard on her farm. She moves in with her mother. In this moment, Jim and Tony go walking in what could be romantic, but is not. For a brief moment they return to their childhood together.
  • Book V: “Cuzak’s Boys” -the final section of the novel tells of how Jim fails to return to Nebraska for decades before suddenly going to pay a visit to Tony. She is now married with a large brood of children living on a homestead with a husband who is described as ‘good-enough.’ She remains chipper and active. Jim is welcomed but he has little connection to Tony with her large family present. He spends time talking to Tony’s husband. Jim’s life is busy, but when he returns to his roots nothing has changed. Life continues on the prairie as if there were no world outside.

As indicated by the title, the novel is possessive. That is, the narrator feels a certain ownership over the poor but lively bohemian immigrant-girl, Ántonia. However, he is not explicitly in love with her, though he wishes he was (despite having romantic dreams of Lena). He is jealous when she finds other men more courageous than he, except when he bashes the head of a rattlesnake for her. Like America, Jim is young. As in the old country of the bohemians, he is bound by the politics of circumstance, and as a scholar, he never seems to find true love. Like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the novel is circular, beginning as Jim and Ántonia ride the train to the dirt road in Nebraska, and closing with Jim departing from that same dirt road. The closest he gets to love is his recollection of Ántonia.

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the green prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there is so much motion in it; the whole country it seemed, somehow, to be running” (page 16).

“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep” (page 18).

– This passage is unique in that Cather had a portion of it imprinted on her gravestone: “…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

“In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there” (page 208) -Jim Burden reflecting on returning to visit Tony in Nebraska after learning of her illegitimate child.

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