Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Ántonia: Review

My Ántonia by Willa Cather is the final book of her "pioneer trilogy" of novels...and I must confess that I haven't read the other two. The novel consists, primarily, of Jim Burden's memories of life on the Nebraska prairie and his interactions with Ántonia and her Bohemian family. Jim's parents have died and he travels by train to Nebraska where he will live with his grandparents. On the same train are the Shimerdas--the Bohemian family who have come over from the old country to take possession of land which they have bought sight unseen. Jim and Ántonia form a strong bond somewhere between friendship and siblings and first love--later in the book Jim will admit that he loves Ántonia, but she will not accept his declaration. The novel is divided into five books that roughly follow the stages of Ántonia and Jim's lives and ends with Jim's return to Nebraska to visit Ántonia one more time.

The introductory notes to my edition make a fairly big deal of the possessive "my" in the title. "Is the emphasis in the novel's title on the pronoun or the noun, or, to put it differently, is this Ántonia's story or Jim's?" Quite honestly, I don't think that's the point at all. I would say that the title, as a whole, comes from Ántonia's father's plea to Jim's grandmother: "Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Ántonia!" Ántonia will become the Bohemian family's ambassador to their English speaking neighbors and the family's interpreter. Without Ántonia, they would have to depend on their rather unreliable (if not down-right dishonest) distant relative--the one who "helped" them pay too much for land and a house. So--maybe in that sense--it is Ántonia's story and not Jim's. And certainly Ántonia never truly belongs to Jim, except perhaps in friendship, so the possessive should not be emphasized by him.

In some ways Cather writes beautifully. The descriptions of the Nebraska prairie are lovely and her characterization of  Ántonia and her family are compelling. Jim, on the other hand, is rather lackluster. His narrative is pretty lifeless and I found myself wishing that Ántonia had told her own story. Given her rendition of the flight from the wolves and the hobo who threw himself in the threshing machine, she is a lively storyteller and would, I think, make a better narrator.

I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become 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 sleep. (p. 17)

Gaston Cleric introduced me to the world of ideas; when one first enters that world everything else fades for a time, and all that went before is as if it had not been. (p. 139)

If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry.

I was thinking, as I watched her, how little it mattered –about her teeth for instance. I know so many women who have kept all the things she had lost, *but whose inner glow has faded*. Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of life. 

I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister--anything a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.

1 comment:

fredamans said...

Good review, I just don't know it would be for me.