Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Nebraska Sunset: Willa Cather's My Antonia

2008: for an American novel class

Willa Cather uses two narrators in My Antonia because she knows one of them is hopelessly biased and a dispassionate third party would lend deeper, truer perspective, as well as much needed credibility. Indeed, without the 2nd narrator, Jim’s tale of Antonia would be closer to a tribute piece than a novel. This is because Cather is not endeavoring to just tell a story just about Jim, or Antonia, or Black Hawk. She’s painting a snapshot of Nebraska, and writ large, Midwest life, at a particular time in American history.

“He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it ‘My Antonia.’ This seemed to satisfy him” (5). From the beginning, the reader knows that this story is not some objective snapshot. It is told from Jim Burden’s perspective, whom we later find out is quite smitten with Antonia. Antonia thus drives the plot and gives the reader a starting and ending point. Jim tells us of how he met Antonia, about her family, how they grew up together, and how they parted for years, only to meet again before the end of the novel. The important thing is that the “My” in “My Antonia” is self-reflective to Jim and the universe that contains him.

This “My” means we can hear about any number of people, places, and things that are not directly related to Antonia and her family, the Shimerdas. The reader can hear about Jim’s grandparents, Otto Fuchs, Russian Peter and Pavel, Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard, and Jim’s education and career path. These “backstories” to Antonia provide a rich figurative and actual landscape. Indeed, in making it “My” Antonia, Cather allows there to be a story within a story. The basic level is the story of Antonia, the secondary level is that of Jim’s story about Nebraska and Antonia, and the third level, the synthesis, is what we observe when we see the two intertwined. The two best examples of this synthesis can be seen in the retelling of Russian Peter’s wolf story (told by the “alternate narrator”) and in the gathering of elderberries scene with the hired girls (told by Jim).

Cather introduces Russian Peter’s story so casually we hardly know we’re entering a flashback: “What she (Antonia) did not tell me then, she told later; we talked of nothing else for days afterward” (49). What this sequence manages to convey is not only the heartbreak of exile for making a mistake in one’s own native land, but the circumstances of the telling, Pavel’s death away from his beloved village, remind us of Sir Walter Scott’s famous lines: “Breathes there the man, with souls so dead, / Who never to himself hath said, / This is my own, my native land!” Effortlessly, Cather manages to capture, through the sequence of the flashback delivered by the “alternate narrator,” what many foreigners dealt with. The story is not directly told by Jim, but is rather conveyed with a factual gloss so that the reader cannot doubt its veracity nor chalk it up to Jim’s Antonia-colored glasses. The alternate narrator gives the novel factual credibility.

If the foil to Jim’s voice gives the novel credibility, Jim’s voice vivifies it with authenticity. “’Come here, Jim. You never got the sand out of your hair.’ She (Lena) began to draw her fingers slowly through my hair. Antonia pushed her away. ‘You’ll never get it out like that,’ she said sharply. She gave my head a rough tousling and finished me off with something like a box on the ear” (190). Jim doesn’t stoop to didactic storytelling. This very pregnant scene, captured shortly after the afternoon of gathering elderberries, snapshots Jim’s complex relationship with Lena Lingard, Antonia Shimerda, and the interplay between all three of them.

Cather’s unconventional approach of having two narrators succeeds primarily because of the subject of the novel: Antonia. Unlike the tragic tales of Tolstoy’s Anna, Dreiser’s Carrie, or Flaubert’s Emma, Antonia’s overarching story is one of warmth and love, as told by Jim. A dispassionate narrator wouldn’t convey that love and authenticity that vivifies the warm, dark earth of the Nebraska Cather paints.

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