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S I S T E R P E T E R D A M I A N C H A R L E S , O. P. College of St. Mary of the Springs M y Antonia: A Dark Dimension The power and vigour of the heroine of Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia cannot be denied, nor can the persistent perfection of the author’s style; yet every serious critic of the work faces the problem of the structural significance of the narrator, Jim Burden. David Daiches believes that Jim ’s position in the book “raises prob­ lems which Willa Cather is never able to solve,”1while E. K. Brown, in his generally perceptive study, admits bafflement in the matter of Jim ’s relationship with Antonia, and finally concludes, “What is excellent in My Antonia does not depend on a masculine nar­ rator. It inheres in the material itself. . . ,”2 James E. Miller sees Jim as structurally essential to the story, but only insofar as the narrator elucidates Professor Miller’s thesis: “the cyclic fate of human destiny”3 —a conclusion that seems to narrow unduly the broad impact of Miss Cather’s rich and complex vision as embodied in Antonia. Though John H. Randall recognizes the importance of Jim as narrator, his solution to the problem in a consideration of the work as “the story of parallel lives”4 does not do justice to the integrity of the novel as a whole. I suggest, however, that the key to the book’s structure—and theme as well—lies in a careful examination of the Thanatos-natures of two important characters: Jim Burden, the narrator, and Mr. Shimerda, Antonia’s father. Their union of spirit creates, as it were, a single dark shadow which 1Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (New York, 1062), p. 37. 2Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (New York, 1953), p. 204. & l,M y Antonia: A Frontier Drama of Tim e,” AQ, X (1958), 478. 4The Landscape and the Looking Glass (Boston, 1960), p. 107. 92 Western American Literature emphasizes the brilliance of Anotnia’s life-force.5 A study of this “shadow” will, I believe, ultimately illuminate the work as a whole. The first hint of “darkness” in the work occurs early, in the melancholy line of the epigraph: “Optima dies . . . prima fugit; the best days are the first to flee,” taken from Virgil’s GeorgiesIII, 66-67. The ephemeral nature of time itself is evoked here, and a glance at the line in context merely strengthens the sense of sadness, for Virgil continues, “Disease and old age come on, and work;/ The ruthless grasp of death ensnares us all!” (Georgies, III, 67-68) This emotional penumbra, one discovers in the “Introduction,” has been cast over the book by the narrator, Jim Burden, a disappointed, romantic lawyer, whose imagination has recently been fired to artistic heat by a renewal of friendship with a childhood neighbor, Antonia Shimerda. The book, Jim warns the reader through the author, is simply an attempt to record “pretty much all that her name recalls to me.”6 And what does Antonia’s name recall? The author insists that to Jim and her, Antonia means “the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of childhood”; in other words, the “best days” and all the resonances those words carry. That the name of his heroine has for the narrator a special, personal meaning is clear when he shows satisfaction with his title only after having affixed the other word, making it “My Antonia.” The brooding, elegaic tone, then, generated by the epigraph, and the authorial explanation of the novel’s inception, provide the initial suggestions of the darkness that heighten the radiance of Antonia’s portrait. In the first part of Book I, “The Shimerdas,” Jim retrospec­ tively establishes himself as a romantic, imaginative, sensitive ten year-old, who sets out to “try his fortunes in a new world” (p. 3), following “into the empty darkness” the same country road that Antonia and her family travel in the wagon ahead of him. His thoughts turn easily and naturally to death even as they thrill to life, for as the wagon jolts away from the train station in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 91-108
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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