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Andrew Pinkerton

Dr. Atlas

English 7330

15 December 2017

The Land and My Ántonia: Instability and Seeking Permanence

Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, released in 1918, offers a collection of stories that mix

immigrant struggles in America, vivid descriptions of the Nebraska prairies and reflections on

the function of memory and the human struggle for permanence. One exemplifying passage

comes from the middle of the novel, when Jim Burden is walking back home after attending a

town dance. Observing the flimsy town houses, containing the guarded, often unhappy lives of

the town’s citizens, he says, “The people asleep in those houses…tried to live like the mice in

their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the

dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the

wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all” (107). Throughout the novel, there is a

palpable effort by the characters to establish some sense of permanence and stability. Or, in

other words, to leave a mark to be remembered by, contrasting with the townspeople just

described. However, My Ántonia uses the permanency of the land as a device to contrast with

the novel’s characters, namely, the ephemeral quality of their existence in the prairie and the

unstable nature of identities and of memories.

Within the first several pages of the novel, Cather introduces the main protagonist Jim

Burden, recently orphaned and traveling by train to Nebraska to live with his grandparents, as

well as the novel’s principle character, the western wilderness to which Jim is moving.
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Immediately, the land is described in almost mystical, eternal terms, setting this land apart as

something wholly unique and other-worldly. It is dubbed as “a new world,” evoking thoughts of

European colonizers and the early history of the eastern United States. Seeing the land for the

first time, Jim instantly romanticizes it, stating:

There seemed to be nothing to see; no fence, 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 had a feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the

edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at

the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the

complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. (7)

The land was pure, unused, yet offered the materials with which to cultivate it and establish

oneself. Jim describes it as being something distinct from the land he was moving from and, in

connecting it with a term like “heaven,” he is associating it with the idea of eternality and

wistfulness. No matter what, the land would always remain. In addition, the “new world”

appears to be a place to forget all of the old, haunting burdens. Jim states, “I did not believe

that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there…I had left even their spirits

behind me” (7). The wilderness would be a place to create—to create a new life and new

memories, untethered from the old. For all of those seemingly positive qualities, however, Jim

also states something quite perplexing within his description. “Between that earth and that sky

I felt erased, blotted out” (7). The land held such an overwhelming power, that anything in

comparison felt irrelevant, ephemeral. With the eternality of the new world as a backdrop,
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everything performed on it distinctly contrasts as impermanent and unstable, as though it were

striving for lasting value yet always coming up empty.

Throughout its pages, My Ántonia offers example after example of people (and animals)

attempting to create something permanent, or adhere to concepts they had previously

conceived of as permanent and stable, only to find those things being swallowed up by their

own insignificance within the grand scope of time and land. In his 1958 essay “Haunting the

Houses of Memory,” literary critic James E. Miller, Jr., asserts that

Antonia is the insistent reminder that it is the tragic nature of time to bring life

to fruition through hardship and struggle only to precipitate the decline and,

ultimately, death, but not without first making significant provision for new life

to follow, flower and fall. The poignancy lies in the inability of the frail human

being to rescue and retain any stage, no matter how beautiful or blissful, of his

precious cycle. (Miller 477)

Whether we figure that solely stable figure as either the cyclic nature of the seasons or the

immenseness of the land, it still remains that My Ántonia is primarily a text concerned with

exploring the implications of being such an infinitesimal player on such a giant canvas. Even the

non-human characters in the novel face this struggle. While Miller is primarily concerned with

proving the unity of the novel via the passing of cycles, the principle argument here lies not in

seeking unity within the text, but rather in finding ways in which the text seeks to identify with

the reader’s own struggle with their humanity. In the fourth chapter of Book I, young Jim

Burden reflects on the times that he and Ántonia would venture out into the prairie and

observe the owls and the prairie dogs. The owls and dogs had created their homes
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underground; however, even they were not immune to the disruptions and havoc that life

brings about. “[The rattlesnakes] came to pick up an easy living among the dogs and owls,

which were quite defenseless against them; took possession of their comfortable houses and

ate the eggs and puppies” (17). Cather here uses the example of the prairie dogs and

rattlesnakes to illustrate a similar reality the Shimerdas were facing with their translator Krajiek.

The text states that the Shimerdas “kept him in their hole and fed him for the same reason that

the prairie dogs and the brown owls housed the rattlesnakes—because they did not know how

to get rid of him” (18). The Shimerdas, similar to the animals, were faced with situations outside

of their own control, which highlights their inability to combat the realities of their own

finiteness.

This problem is further magnified by Mr. Shimerda’s inability to adapt to his new

circumstances in the Nebraska wilderness. Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant, was a successful

man in his home country. However, after he marries a woman of lower-class status, he allows

her to convince him to move to the United States. In the new country, Shimerda is faced with

multiple difficulties, all due to the temporal, untranslatable qualities of his former life in

Bohemia. Although he was formerly a weaver and a musician, once in the wilderness, he was

not able to adapt his skills to his surroundings. Making matters worse, he and his family were

essentially illiterate in their new home, as the text notes they were the first Bohemians to settle

in their part of the country, and the only person they could find to translate for them, Krajiek,

“could tell them anything he chose.” So unfortunate was their plight that, “They could not

speak enough English to ask for advice, or even to make their most pressing wants known” (13).

In choosing to write of the family in nearly patronizing terms, Cather illustrates that even the
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mere ability to communicate the most basic of needs is an impermanent function, subjected to

and relative to the surroundings one finds themselves in. Ultimately, this struggle led Mr.

Shimerda to take his own life one night, bringing his fight against the land to a premature end.

Although the most successful characters in the novel are those who are able to adapt their skills

to their surroundings, these same characters are still relegated to the “incommunicable past,” a

relic of the memory of Jim Burden, a character who is ultimately frozen by his own inability to

let go of what used to be and move forward in life.

Similarly, perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the decentralization and

instability of religious authority comes shortly after the suicide of Mr. Shimerda. Jim’s

grandfather is identified as a Baptist, and he is described as “rather narrow in religious

matters.” However, many of the story’s Eastern European immigrants are Roman Catholic,

including the Shimerdas. When Mr. Shimerda dies under mysterious conditions, presumed to

be a suicide, conflicting Catholic and Protestant views on death and eternal life are brought to a

head. Anton Jelinek, fellow country-man of the Shimerdas, insists on the intercession of a priest

for Mr. Shimerda’s soul. At this, Grandfather Burden, representing the Protestant view, says,

“[W]e believe that Mr. Shimerda’s soul will come to its Creator as well off without a priest. We

believe that Christ is our only intercessor” (53). Jelinek replies, “I know how you think. My

teacher at the school has explain. But I have seen too much. I believe in prayer for the dead. I

have seen too much” (53). While in the “old world” of Protestant New England where Jelinik

could easily be dismissed as wrong and even a heretic, in the new world where religious

authority has been rendered unstable by religious pluralism, Grandfather Burden is forced

instead to respond with a pleasant, “I am always glad to meet a young man who thinks
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seriously about these things…and I would never be the one to say you were not in God’s care”

(53). Although Ántonia never really strays outside of Christian sects, its exploring or

democratizing of beliefs ultimately opens up the door for other religious systems to have an

equal, yet just as impermanent, opportunity to circulate.

One of the more important aspects of the novel, especially in regards to its relevancy for

readers in the twenty first century, is its questioning of the boundaries of American identity

through the diversity of the characters’ cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Although the Burdens

typically take on an attitude of superiority and display a sense of noblesse oblige toward the

Eastern European immigrants in the novel, their attitude is usually mocked within the narrative.

For example, when Emmaline Burden decided to share her abundance with the “poor”

Shimerdas, Mrs. Shimerda would typically respond by demonstrating that she also could share

out of her abundance. Additionally, Ántonia, by the novel’s end, has become a successful

worker of the land in her own right, questioning the uniqueness of Mr. Burden’s abilities. Other

immigrant characters, such as Lena Lingard, also become relatively successful in their

“American Dream” pursuit. In their immigration to and settling in America, the novel’s

characters are not only expanding the possibilities of who counts as an American, they are

simultaneously participating in a give-and-take, as they are also conceding aspects of their

Bohemian, Russian, etc. identities in order to assimilate into an American one. Thus, their move

to the Nebraskan plains demonstrates the impermanence of both the American and Eastern

European identities.

Although the novel is titled My Ántonia, the narrative is just as much, if not more so,

about things and people who are not Ántonia than it is about Ántonia. Indeed, in the novel’s
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short introduction, the reader is told that “Ántonia” serves just as much as a capsule filled with

varied memories as much as it does the woman Ántonia. “I didn’t arrange or rearrange. I simply

wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Ántonia’s name recalls to me. I

suppose it hasn’t any form,” (3) Jim claims. Although one might expect a novel’s namesake to

serve as a stable figure around which the narrative revolves, it turns out “Ántonia” is just as

unstable as everything else the novel’s characters attempt to assign fixedness to. While Jim may

have stated that his manuscript has no form, it is more plausible that the concept of Ántonia

has no definite, fixed form. As a character, Ántonia often acts as a destabilizing force: being part

of the immigrant community that questions what the meaning of an American identity, acting

against the local gender expectations by working the land as her brother did, rebelling against

moral dictates yet proudly living a quiet life by the novel’s end. It is appropriate, then, that the

narrator is sure to mention that even her identity is impermanent. “She was a battered woman

now, not a lovely girl” (167). As the time in the novel passes her identity changes along with her

age. “As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and a girl

ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the

grass,” (153) Jim observes. Ultimately, even Ántonia is also reduced to mere memory, to be

swallowed up, blotted out by the “eternal” land.


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Works Cited

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Dover Publications, 1994.

Miller, James E. Jr. “My Ántonia: A Frontier Drama of Time.” American Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 4,

Winter 1958, pp. 476-484.


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Works Consulted

Goldman, Anne E. “Rereading My Ántonia.” The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather.

Cambridge UP, 2005, pp. 159-174.

Lucenti, Lisa Marie. “Willa Cather's My Ántonia: Haunting the Houses of Memory.” Twentieth

Century Literature, vol. 46, no. 2, 2000, pp. 193–213. JSTOR,

www.jstor.org/stable/441957.

Murphy, John J. ‘My Ántonia’: The Road Home. Twayne Publishers, 1989.

— and Merrill Maguire Skaggs. Willa Cather: New Facts, New Glimpses, Revisions. Fairleigh

Dickinson UP, 2008.

Ştefanovici, Smaranda. "Sense of Loss in Willa Cather's My Ántonia." Studia Universitatis Petru

Maior - Philologia, vol. 19, July 2015, pp. 110-115. EBSCOhost,

www.library.ohio.edu/ezpauth/redir/athens.php?http%3a%2f%2fsearch.ebscohost.com

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