My Antonia, by Willa Cather, is a book tracing the story of a young man, Jim Burden, and his relationship with a young woman, Antonia Shimerda. Jim narrates the entire story in first person, relating accounts and memories of his childhood with Antonia. He traces his coming to the Nebraska where he and Antonia meet and grow up. Jim looks back on all of his childhood scenes with Antonia with nearly heartbreaking nostalgia. My Antonia, is a book that makes many parallels to the sadness and frailty, but also the quiet beauty in life, and leaves the reader with a sense of profound sorrow.
One of the main ways Cather is able to invoke these emotions in the reader is through the ongoing theme of inevitable destiny and separation. Cather sets the tone of the story at the very beginning, a young Jim Burden’s parents have died leaving him to go to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. Right from the start Cather plants the seeds of abandonment, with the finality of death, in Jim’s life. When he arrives in Nebraska he is very numb to life, but he is soon caught up in daily life on his grandparents farm.
He is blissfully happy when he first meets Antonia. They become great friends and share numerous adventures. Cather uses brief, beautifully descriptive and nostalgic recollections of situations and feelings to increase the pain and sadness of the separations that she places throughout the book. An excellent example of this is the way Cather builds up to Mr. Shimerda’s suicide. Mrs. Cather describes Antonia’s love and strong bond with her father. Antonia talks of how much he loved the old country, how much he wanted to stay there and live among his friends.
She describes the beautiful relationship of her father and a trombone player and how much her father had cried and pleaded with Antonia’s mother to stay in the old country. Out of love and duty, Antonia’s father had given up everything he loved for his family. This builds the reader up to hoping that maybe the father can again be happy in the America, that maybe everything will be fine. Then he kills himself. An abrupt and incredibly sad and poignant parting. The trend of parting is beginning to be associated with the finality of death.
Another way Cather expresses the inevitability of these separations is through the changing seasons. In summer everyone in the story is happy and Cather uses beautiful, descriptive imagery that brings to life a world that is alive and wonderful. Inevitably though, summer is followed by the sobering fact of winter. Winter, in Cather’s narration that becomes synonymous with death, sickness and separation. Winter is always loathed by the characters in the story, but most of them also find a beauty in it. This suggests that in the inevitability of the sadness and partings of life, there is some meaning in it.
In the course of the story, the two Russians come and go, telling their own tale of sadness. Otto and Jake leave as well. A significant fact about Otto and Jake is that they are the first major characters in the story to leave. After all of their involvement in Jim’s development and the stability they provide they leave very suddenly. They leave because of circumstances that weren’t perfect and because their interests and motives conflict with those of Jim and his grandparents. An interesting parallel to Jim and Antonia’s relationship.
In a book with so many repeated instances of heartbreaking separations would almost certainly become predictable and repetitious. However Cather avoids this by seeing the action through Jim’s eyes and Jim’s thoughts. Since Jim himself can hardly be aware of the gigantic forces of fate moving about him, he keeps a wonderful optimism. Cather expresses this in Jim’s love of life and attention to imagery that is associated with Jim’s happiness. This keeps the reader almost as naive as Jim himself, and each crisis, no matter how many there are still comes as a jolt of sadness.
All of this culminates in the final shock of Jim and Antonia not eloping and living happily ever after. The reader is caught up in Jim’s optimism on life and Antonia’s vigorous personality, expecting some passionate scene that never comes. Rather, they grow apart in a quiet way, and never discuss the possibility of a relationship, even though they have an incredibly strong one already. Finally, Antonia is completely out of Jim’s reach and Jim realizes that she is gone from him with the “finality of death”. He does not go into fits over this, rather he accepts it and looks at all the beautiful times he and Antonia shared.
Much in the same way that he could marvel at winter”s beauty when all around him it brought down death and sickness. Mrs. Cather”s carefully drawn parallels in the story that build up to Antonia and Jim’s separation was a truly effective method of pointing out its tragedy. However she also used other tools, such as imagery and short anecdotes to further convey her message. All together these elements, plus a good story and plot make My Antonia an excellent all around book, worthy of being called a classic.