The Alembic of Art is the chapter of My Antonia The Road Home that will be discussed. This chapter suggests that Willa Cather uses references from the arts in creating the novel My Antonia. Much of Willa Cather’s background came from her childhood in Nebraska. It even uprooted the character Annie Sadilek, from Red Cloud, a town Cather lived in during her adolescence (“Classic Notes”, 1). Despite her background, John J. Murphy believes “My Antonia is a novel in which vision and arrangement create character” (Murphy, 37) and Cather created this by using inspiration from such things as the Bible and paintings.
There are many specific and non-specific biblical borrowings and echoes in the novel, My Antonia. One example is when Grandfather Burden reads from the Bible, first from Psalm 47 and then the first two chapters from Matthew, the account of Christ’s birth. Then when the Burdens go to the Shimerdas after the suicide “they looked very biblical as they set off” (Cather, 100). The Christmas Story of Matthew and Luke echoes in Widow Steaven’s account of the birth of Antonia’s child. Also, Jim’s goodbye scene with Antonia, illuminated by the sun and moon, reflects Revelation 12:1.
Cather’s biblical subtext is an unusual one for an American western in that it incorporates Antonia’s Catholic tradition and Jim’s Protestant one to make events notable” (Murphy, 40). Murphy also suggests that Cather was influenced by paintings that she saw while visiting Barbizon in 1902. Many of the paintings Cather saw were reminiscences of Nebraska in the primitive huts of mud and stone, wheat fields, and peasant women. Cather associates Antonia with the paintings of Jean-Francois Millet.
These paintings often contained “women who looked old and battered, who were bent and slow and not food for much else. Such brave old faces as most of these field-working women have, such blithe songs they hum, and such good-humored remarks they bawl at a girl who sees too much of one particular reaper. There is something worth thinking about in these brown, merry old women, who have brought up fourteen children and can outstrip their own sons and grandsons in the harvest field, lay down their rake and write a traveler directions as to how he can reach the next town in a hand as neat as a bookkeeper’s.
As the sun dropped lower, the merriment ceased, the women were tired and grew to look more and more as Millet painted them, warped and bowed and heavy” (Murphy 45). Millet certainly contributes to Jim’s view of Antonia during several scenes in the novel. At first he says, ” her eyes are 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” (Cather, 23).
Millet’s influence is also strong later in the novel when Jim describes Antonia as, ” a battered woman now but she still had something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by the look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last” (353).
These paintings Cather saw obviously set her mind to the way women were and obviously had a great impact on her. Reading the critical analysis gave me a new perspective on My Antonia. I always enjoy seeing how others interpret literature, and John J. Murphy’s interpretation was very enlightening. I could see some of the biblical references while reading the novel, but I never would have know about the influence from Millet’s paintings. Knowing all this extra information makes the novel so much more interesting to me.