Based on a true story, My Antonia, by Willa Cather, is a novel that carries us back to Nebraska in the 1880s, to a land of immigrants and their challenges to begin a new life far away from their “old country”.
Jim Burden, a successful middle–aged lawyer living in the East coast, promised a friend that he would write about Antonia, his dear childhood friend, and so the story is told from his point of view.
Orphaned at age ten, Jim was sent by his relatives from his native Virginia to live on his grandparents’ farm in Nebraska, where he met Antonia, a Bohemian immigrant five years older than him. Antonia and her family were the closest neighbors. They had arrived recently and did not even speak the English language. A warm friendship slowly developed between Jim and Antonia, one that would endure the tests of time, social differences and life experiences.
Antonia was a person full of energy and enthusiasm, and she was vividly portrayed by Cather; even the description of her features is full of energy: “Her eyes were big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood. Her skin was brown too, and in her cheeks she had a glow of rich, dark color. Her brown hair was curly and wild looking.”
Life in the countryside was not easy and we, as readers, are invited to travel to the past and meet both the beauty and the hostility of their environment when they first arrived.
“There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made…”
“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part 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.”
Through the lives of the characters we learn about the repressed existence that they were compelled to live for fear of judgment when they moved to Black Hawk, at the time Jim began to attend school:
“This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their kitchen; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark.” Even Jim, the endearing shrewd narrator of the story, was deeply affected and conditioned by the strict social pressure. “Disapprobation hurt me, I found – even that of people whom I did not admire. As the spring came on, I grew more and more lonely.”
Men and women were judged differently and this was made clear in different situations. Discrimination against immigrants was also evident:
“One is likely to get diseases from foreigners.”
“I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English.”
Antonia embodied the landscapes, the struggles, the disappointments. Her naïve trust of people led her to be “disgraced” by a man who fathered her first child and abandoned her before they got married.
The love between Jim and Antonia was an emotional force that ran constantly throughout the story. It is shown rather than told. No matter how real it was, an opposing unknown force would always emerge to prevent their romance from becoming a reality. Theirs was a romance that never truly happened, and yet it was as powerful as love itself. Jim made it clear when he told her:
“I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister-anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a 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”. Antonia did not seem to have any expectations, whether it was because she had been “disgraced” or because she accepted that he belonged to a different social class is not clear. However, her love for him was just as intense as his. “Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I’m so glad we had each other when we were little”. “You’ll always remember me…” He did, and their love for each other remained alive, even after twenty years of absence, bound eternally to their childhood memories and to the fate that each of them had to follow.