I was first drawn to My Ántonia by its title. My first reaction was that Ántonia is a pretty name, and even more alluring was the author’s choice to title it My Ántonia, instead of simply, Ántonia. The title, My Ántonia, is personal and intimate, and by reading this title and just a few pages into the book, readers know that the story will not be an objective, impersonal attempt to portray a girl, but a portrait of a girl as created by the narrator of the story, Jim Burden. It was a fitting choice, then, for Cather to write the story from a first person point of view.
The novel’s events move at a steady, relaxed pace. Willa Cather’s writing style is so confident and elegant that it is easy to find oneself lulled by her quiet words and touched by her vivid, intimate, and emotional descriptions. This line described to me Cather’s writing style: “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.”
Just like other great works of literature, Cather’s words do not suggest how the reader should react to the writing, or explain away important passages that can only be deeply understood through direct experience with the words. Much of Cather’s genius lies in her ability to choose vivid, descriptive, appropriate words to create scenes that subtly conjure up in the reader the same feelings the characters experience during the story.
My Ántonia nostalgically presents the phenomenon of memory. “Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again,” Cather writes through Jim’s narration. This quote is reminiscent of the Virgil quote the reader first found in the pages before the novel begins, which is “Optima dies…prima fugit” (“the best days are the first to flee”). It is this retrospective writing style that made me cherish My Ántonia and in between passages, to remember on my own childhood and connection to the natural world.
The introduction, written by a female childhood friend of Jim Burden, occurs later in chronological order than the book’s ending, but this choice does not hinder a reader’s understanding or appreciation of the piece; it clarifies the book’s subject matter: the past. Events occur throughout the book that change the characters’ worlds, yet the past cannot be erased. It leans over them and keeps them safe like a fragrant tree ripe with peaches.
The book considers the idea of foreigners, of being treated differently from others, and of how people from different cultural backgrounds can relate to each other, as well as experience curiosity, fear, and prejudice towards each other. It portrays both humanity’s sameness and differences.
Nature is highly valued and esteemed by many of the characters, and it is nature that connects the characters of different cultural backgrounds to each other. For example, Jim ponders the stars in the sky in these lines, “Though we had come from such different parts of the world, in both of us there was a dusky superstition that those shining groups have their influence upon what is and what is not to be. Perhaps Russian Peter, come from farther away than any of us, had brought this from his land, too, some such belief.”
Nature is used literally and metaphorically throughout the novel. When Jim describes the condition of Peter and Pavel, the friends the Bohemians, Ántonia’s family had found up north, he writes, “Misfortune seemed to settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and to flap its wings there, warning human beings away.” It is through nature that Jim and Ántonia first encounter the world, and it is nature that shapes their perceptions of the world.
My Ántonia evoked many feelings and thoughts in me, many of which could not be easily put into sentences, so I will leave you with these words. Perhaps what I was about to say could be found in Jim Burden’s friend’s story of Ántonia that we learn about in the introduction, since it is only Jim Burden’s story that we read.
Question for Reflection: Which natural thing(s) or animal(s) do you connect with most deeply and why?