‘My Antonia’, a novel by Willa Cather 1918

Sensation, landscapes of the past, and the female Muse

Antonia is less of a character than she is a sensation or feeling. We feel her presence rather than see or understand her, and we do not interpret her character but use it to interpret other experiences and characters within the novel. This is similar to the way the landscape is described and experienced by narrator and male protagonist Jimmy. He describes “there were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia […] There was only – spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere…” (97). This emphasises that My Antonia is not about outward appearances and concrete representations, but is about feelings. These are feelings of loneliness, rootlessness, nostalgia, and fear of others, from people struggling to retain their passions and inspirations in the face of different sources of oppression and prejudice within the hostile landscape of Nebraska and surrounding towns. 

My Antonia sprawls out in uncontrollable directions, reflecting formally some of the characteristics of memory and of the Nebraskan prairie land that it describes, to explore the power of language and imagination to conjure up fading or half-forgotten worlds. Jimmy states, “I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Antonia’s name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn’t any form. It hasn’t any title, either” (5). This creates less of a narrative plot than an exploration into the psyche of Jimmy, a white American boy growing up infatuated with a supposedly liberated and independent Bohemian girl. Although it is specifically Jimmy’s memory that is explored, Antonia and the fiercely wild and free life she lives as a Bohemian on the American frontier inspire his memory. This portrays Antonia as the muse for Jimmy’s storytelling, which empowers the female presence within the novel and suggests creative inspiration is feminised:

This girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood. To speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set quiet drama going in one’s brain (3).

This quotation illustrates the idea that the novel centres not on an individual but on the collective experience of different cultural groups living together in Nebraska.

However, Jimmy’s recollections of Antonia as an autonomous, independent spirit is problematised because whilst growing up he is unaware of the amount of sexual oppression and racial disharmony that is cultivated on the frontier. For example there is an obsessive focus and desire by members of Jimmy’s family and his neighbours for establishing a social hierarchy, with differences of opinions, food and levels of education attached to each cultural or gendered group. Antonia herself acknowledges that she needs to act as a man to survive the harsh life on the frontier. Antonia’s subsequent performance as a working man allows the novel to investigate the break down of traditional gender boundaries, and explore the possibilities and limitations of being a labouring Bohemian woman.

Jimmy’s assumptions of Antonia as an independent being juxtaposed with racial and gender inequalities is mirrored through the irresolvable tensions within the physical and spiritual space of the prairie landscape. It is a space of creative freedom and possibilities outside of traditional norms, as well as being a site of suicide, homesickness, inhospitable weather and a declining way of life. In Jimmy’s eyes Antonia embodies an American dream of liberated life on the frontier (called “the mythology of an American national childhood” in the Introduction). According to Jimmy, she is inseparable from the landscape – they not only mirror each other’s qualities, but shape each other too. However, there is irony maintained throughout the novel over this perspective, as Antonia is not free – she is of a ‘lesser’ race than Jimmy (this is distinguished by her accent, working in the fields, the food she eats, and her familial relationships), and so is forever constrained by those above her.

Jimmy’s naïve assumptions make us question just how liberated the characters are, and create suspicion that they are in fact trapped within their individual dream worlds, with any real progression being marred by an intense nostalgia for an imagined past/world that is more accommodating than the present. Jimmy’s narrative is further questionable because although he often illustrates a sympathetic portrayal of the lives of immigrants, he also takes on the discourses and prejudices of the more narrow-minded Americans (this is particularly apparent when he is in Black Hawk, the most extreme case being the racist language with which he describes the black pianist). In this way, My Antonia can be seen to explore, investigate and challenge the fetishisation of women and people from other cultures.


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