September 03, 2009

"My Antonia"- Willa Cather's Sensitive Portrayal of the Eternal American Displacement

Thank you Gloria, for lending me Willa Cathers 'My Antonia', an amazing piece of American literature that brings alive Nebraska of the 1880s. It is in this backdrop that Ms. Cathers presents her endearing protagonist, Antonia, the epitome of the female pioneer spirit of the late 1800s, when a woman was but an adage in a male dominated world.

Antonia, a Bohemian immigrant comes to Nebraska as a twelve year old along with her family, all of who don't speak English. There she meets Jim Burden, a young American boy who is forced to move in with his grandparents after the untimely death of his parents. This marks the beginning of a very deep and unique relationship that Kathleen Norris calls "a remarkable friendship between a man and woman of different cultures and classes, a childhood affection that helps ...reconcile them to Nebraska, to the past, and to life itself." It is no surprise therefore when an adult Jim confesses, "You really are a part of me." Ms. Cathers has presented two very enchanting individuals in Jim and Antonia, both of who are committed to overcoming their odds with a stoicism that baffles. What is more intriguing is their deep understanding of each others decisions and actions, even as their living worlds are gradually growing apart with Jim going to university for a 'mental awakening...that introduced (him) to the world of ideas", and Antonia, in the meanwhile 'had come home disgraced' because she is 'not married... and (she) ought to be."

The underlying message in the novel is brilliantly captured by an image that Cathers introduces toward the middle of the novel, that of a gigantic plow against the orange hue of the setting sun epitomizing the harshness of frontier life in Nebraska as completely dominating every nicety and finesse that life chanced to offer. The endless struggle for survival amid the 'brutality of pioneer life in the prairies' appeared to have overshadowed, perhaps even defeated, and certainly redefined many sublime human emotions such as love and caring. The 'plow' with all its symbolic undertones wins hands down as it looms large between Antonia and the warmth of a comfortable life. Yet the plow cannot be hated since it singularly sustains life in the cold and cruel prairies of Nebraska. It is extremely valuable, so much so that it could make university learning, like Jim's 'mental awakening', appear shallow and meaningless in comparison.

Willa Cathers has spun a remarkable story of lasting friendship that is unique and undoubtedly ahead of its times given that Tim and Antonia could just as well have been ideal lovers or a well matched couple had it not been for the time period in which they lived. Their deep respect and unconditional love for each other and for the land that sustains them make for tragic undertones which strangely enough are satisfying for the reader. The novelist so nonchalantly spins the tragic and the sublime as it follows the lives of two undaunted human beings who are, both lovers and victims of Nebraska's unforgiving prairies.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you liked this book. Next summer read "Death Comes to the Archbishop" another novel by Willa Cather that I really like.
Have agood school year.

D said...

Hey, III..have you read "Ka" by Roberto Calasso. Will be nice, if you try writing a review of the same. I haven't read similar kinds in a long time...

Georg said...

Bonjour Id,

Whenever you write about a book I feel the urge to grab it somewhere and read it.

I hope you only write about books worthwhile.


EYE said...

sounds interesting!