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E V E L Y N I. F U N D A University ofNebraska, Lincoln "TheBreathVibratingBehind It”: Intimacyin the Storytelling ofAntonia Shimerda As though structured like a series of Russian nesting dolls, one character revealed from within the other, Willa Cather’s My Antonia contains layers of narrative voices. The introduction, narrated by an unnamed “I” (presumably Cather herself), gives way to Jim Burden’s first-person, written account that comprises most of the novel. However, Jim’s narration is not the definitive one, for from within his text, Antonia’s own narrations emerge to express her artistry and power as the composer of oral stories. Much of the scholarship about the novel, however, has focused almost exclusively on Jim Burden’s role in telling the story of his Antonia. The first to considerJim as narrator, David Daiches speaks of the autobiographical impulse and the inherent “dangers” that Jim’s point of view poses in the novel where “the narrator’s sensibility takes control” (44-45).1 Antonia, Daiches suggests, is distanced from the reader byJim’s point ofview because: No observer, however knowing and sympathetic, can tell the full story of the development of a character like Antonia. A character who is constantly talked about, described and discussed but who never reveals herself fully and directly to the reader tends to be­ come the kind of symbol the observer wants to make of her, an objectification of the observer’s emotions, and this in large measure does happen to Antonia. Her growth, development, and final ad­ justment is avast symbolic progress interesting less for what it is than for what it can be made to mean. (44) Since Daiches, virtually every critic of note has given some attention to Jim’s process of making symbolic meaning from the raw material of Antonia’s life. For example, James E. Miller, Jr. considers cyclical fate and the effects of time onJim’s “awakening consciousness” (478), while 196 Western American Literature Terence Martin suggests that the novel is ordered byJim’s “drama” of memory in whichJim portrays “how he has come to see Antonia as the epitome of all he has valued” (308). David Stouck believes that the novel focuses on Jim’s efforts to find “permanent values in a world of transi­ tory experience” (286). And similarly, Blanche Gelfant’sstudy is the first to challenge our reading ofJim Burden as a reliable narrator, suggesting instead that in order to purify his past of sex,Jim unconsciously shapes his vision ofAntonia with his “plastic powers”of selection and omission (“Forgotten” 63). In this tradition, other critics have interpreted Antonia as important mostly for what she “comes tomean toJim Burden” who, William Stuckey says, is the “special consciousness” of the novel (475, 479, original emphasis); or, like Mary E. Rucker, who concludes that the novel is aboutJim’s life “as Antonia impinged upon it” (303), they have afforded Antonia a minor part in Jim’s struggle to reconcile his commitments to agrarianism (which Antonia represents) and letters (305); or, representing the extreme, they have dismissed Antonia’s own point ofview almost entirely, as Anthony Channell Hilfer does when he asserts thatJim as narrator is necessary to “justify the emotional weight Cather brings to bear”on Antonia, who represents the novel’svalues but who is, nevertheless, not very “interesting” in her own right (94). Such criticism has consistently brought to the fore the drama ofJim’s own “special consciousness” and, by default, has accorded Antonia herself a secondary role in the story of her own life. Those critics, on the other hand, who would deliver Antonia from serving merely asJim’s passive muse by crediting her with a more active narrative role, nevertheless have defined that role byher relationship to Jim. In 1960 John H. Randall III, taking up the question of Jim as narrator, called the novel “the story of parallel lives” in which “the center of interest shifts back and forth between Jim and Antonia,” resulting in what Randall calls a “double protagonist” (107).2 Susan Rosowski has since extended the idea of a shifting center of interest by arguing that Jim and Antonia exchange roles as the novel progresses: Antonia begins...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 195-216
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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