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My Antonia Essay, Research Paper

My Antonia

This remarkable piece of literature by Willa Cather is layered with its sense of place, connections between people and between people and places as well as visual, and surprisingly simple, descriptions of prairie life and events. The characters and the story are far more complex that at first appear. Even the simplistic tone of the narrative voice is deceptive in terms of the depth of feeling it ultimately reveals. Cather is the sort of author people read because they are told they ?should? or that is ?required.? In that process, the reader discovers that Cather?s writing, especially in ?My Antonia? presents a clear and meaningful story for the common thinking person who daily deals with and conquers challenges every bit as fierce as those encountered by Antonia.

?My Antonia? recalls the life of Jim Burden and retells the compelling story of the Shimerdas, with a special focus on Antonia, the girl who works in the fields like a man. Antonia Shemerda is a Bohemian immigrant to the Great Plains of America and serves embodiment of the classic American myth of a century ago. She arrives with her family in the Nebraska prairie to carve better lives for themselves from the untouched land as thousands before and after them did. In the introduction, the character of Jim Burden declares that he has set down almost at random what he remembers of Antonia and the whole adventure of their childhood in Nebraska. As a result, the reader immediately understands that the story is not to be one of a tightly woven plot. It also establishes that the reader is hearing the story and reminiscing of just on individual and is certain to be colored by Jim?s memories, attitudes, and time. Throughout all of the telling, despite the fact that she is not in every chapter, the reader learns that Antonia is strong, capable, and honest. In fact, she is what Jim Burden considers an example of the true spirit of America and what has made the country prosperous and great. For Jim, she exemplifies the clear, undaunted human soul.

Jim met Antonia when she was fourteen and was four years younger. They were both uprooted from the familiar places of their birth and dropped into a wild new country. Everything to them is novel and exciting, and, except for little Yulka, there are no other children near. As a result, they share a unique kinship in the joys of exploration and discovery. They are also together during such traumatic occurences such as the killing of the snake and the deathbed horror tale of Pavel. Later in Black Hawk, Jim must share her with the Harlings, the hired girls, and various male escorts. Still, she maintains a strong and caring interest in Jim. He believes that she is the epitome of all that is joyful and desirable in the country girls.

At virtually every turn of the page, a different adversity or barrier against progress presents itself to challenge that clear soul. First, there is the barrier of different languages. Unable to communicate, the newly arrived Shimerdas are unable to request the help they desperately need. They cannot make friends easily and they find themselves having to rely on a charlatan like Krajiek. Even the land itself serves as a barrier to the Shimerdas. If the winter has been less severe Shimerda and his sons might have been able to cache a better supply of food and forego the dreary and mostly miserable life in the cave. There was also an appalling lack of support amount the immigrants. Krajiek, already well established in his Nebraska life, wants only to cheat his countrymen. After his death, the Norwegians even refuse to permit the burial of Mr. Shimerda in their cemetery. This prejudice is even more pronounce on the part of native-born Americans. Even the most tolerant of the natives, Jim Burden?s family, and it is clear through all of their actions that the Black Hawk snobs consider any and all foreigners ?inferior.?

?My Antonia? is, by no means, a variation on the age-old theme of boy meets girl and doesn?t fall in love, as much as it is the story o mistrust and misconceptions, faith and fear, and above all else, a study of individual and always fragile human relationships. The devastating loneliness of Shimerda, his wife?s whining and general unpleasantness, Ambrosch?s sulky lack of courtesy, and even the painful shyness of Peter, all add to the already overwhelming odds stacked against the newcomers to the prairie. Nonetheless, many of them still succeed and that struggle and resulting success is what Cather holds up as their individual and collective great accomplishments.

Time and time again, the reader is reminded that the land to which the Shimerdas have immigrated is the Nebraska of a time when ?there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made? (11). Through the eyes of young Jim Burden, the reader sees the land which rolls ?as is the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping?(41). The Nebraskans of the story are immigrants ?the blue-eyed Burdens, the tragic Russian brother, Norwegian Lena Lingard who has violet eyes and a solid determination never to marry, and most importantly, Antonia Shimerda. Each of their stories stand out as individual portraits of life on the prairie and how their combined stories demonstrate America?s widely varying cultural heritage.

Throughout ?My Antonia,? the reader learns that many of the strengths and weaknesses of one character are shared by another or several other characters. Cather does and excellent job in showing that even the characters are the most likable or admirable, are still imperfect and share many of the same failings as the less likable characters. Even people such as greedy, complaining Mrs. Shimerda demonstrates that she has both force and stamina, as well as an ability to take the initiative. Antonia herself is generous, intelligent and courageous, but she has her foolhardiness and misplaced loyalty to deal with. Such contrasts and comparisons serve as the shadow and light of each of the characters. The reader finds it difficult to completely dislike every aspect of one character or fully approve of or enjoy every aspect of another. In short, the characters present the same dichotomous personalities that all people possess.

Using Antonia as an example again, the reader sees her generosity when she offers Jim her ring for teaching her some English and enthusiastically praises his killing the snake. Her intelligence is illustrated by her quick learning, her constant questions, and the fact she has always, even as a young girl, had an option on virtually every topic. Her independence is highlight through her unwillingness to be intimidated by Mr. Harling, and she refuses to ?hide? her first child. She copes with disasters such as her father?s suicide and Donovan?s betrayal, and manages to still encourage and support her husband throughout the years of bad farming. She works as hard as any man in the fields and vigorously strives to build up the Cuzak place. She is able to do all this while being a caring and supportive mother while keeping her house well run, training the older children to help the younger. She was, for that time and place, the quintessential ?super woman.? And yet, she shows her foolhardy nature when she goes to work for Wick Cutter. Then she refuses to listen to her friends who distrust Donovan.

Jim Burden shares Antonia?s character traits of generosity, intelligence, independence, courage, and commitment t hard work. He is also a harshly judgmental man as can be seen when he shows his dislike for foreigners after Jake?s fight with Ambrosch. He is also unreasonably angry when Antonia lets herself be deceived by Larry. He shows that he can also act selfishly, the most obvious example is his leaving Lena so abruptly and staying away for twenty years.

Each of the primary characters and seveal of the lesser players are very carefully crafted this way. Cather was apparently determined to show that there is both something positive and negative in every person.

Jim Burden?s memories tell of a land that is incredible in its imagery of the beauty of youn America and the expanding frontier. Through Burden?s telling and Cather?s showing, the reader is able to see the fields of prairie grasses, smell and touch the flowers and grain, and hear the land and the events as they take place.

Cather successfully evokes the plains of the American Midwest. Anyone who has driven across the vast openness of Nebraska sees the horizon broken only by farms and fields. She has also encapsulated the hardships of immigrant life that is then magnified by farm life on the plains itself. The growth and changes in the characters are a reflection of the growth and changes of the land and the town of Black Hawk. The natural flow of the seasons cares the novel along with it. While the Nebraska landscape is essentially the same, there is a kind of natural development as seed is planted and then crops are harvested, and as winter miseries yield to the hopefulness of spring.

Throughout the novel, the narrative voice is one of pragmatic simplicity and clarity. The storis are told and the description presented as if they were standing under the harsh scrutiny of the Nebraska sun on an August afternoon. Parts of the novel are warm as a perfect summer evening as Jim?s memories tell of the land and of Antonia, a girl who he describes as working the fields like a man but adds to the lyrical note that she also hears the songs of old Bohemian women in the cities of a cricket. The descriptions of the frontier are graceful while the characterizations are sharp and wild. The reader understands the love of the land expressed, as well as the deep involvement and interaction of the characters. It is all of one piece; the evolving land and community. Through the use of Jim Burden as narrator, Cather presents the viewpoint of both the friend and admirer of Antonia, and a detached, impartial observer. Unfortunately, no observer can know everything about a girl like Antonia and, therefore, she sometimes seems less important as a person than as a symbol stimulating strong emotions in the narrator. But by having an ?outsider? tell the story, the reader also gains an extra sense of the experience of being outside the mainstream group which must be how Antonia and her family experience Nebraska. As a result, the reader is better able to understand the plight of uprooted immigrants.

The melancholy tone of the narrative both contrasts and parallels the ways in which Antonia and Jim representing youth and age, heart and head, actor and spectator, success and failure. However, the final and most enduring characteristic of the novel is the simple fact that it is a wonderful story of a strong woman who perseveres and manages to build a great life out of a bad situation. It is a story of heart and courage that is able to transcend the eighty years between the tine it was written and the present.

31b


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