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JO H N L. S E L Z E R Penn State University Jim Burden and the Structure of i My Antonia At the close of Book IV of Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Jim Burden (the story’s narrator) describes a climactic episode in his relationship with Antonia Shimerda. Having completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard, now ready to begin law school, Jim has returned to Nebraska for the summer to visit his grandparents and his old acquaintances. In the meantime, having been seduced, used, humiliated, and abandoned by her fiance Larry Donovan, and having borne a daughter without assistance twenty months before, Antonia has been reduced to a desperate predica­ ment. In virtual exile on account of her shame, she performs heavy field­ work under the tyrannical thumb of her brother Ambrosch. At the age of twenty-four, she suffers so from toothaches and other physical privations that she is convinced that “I’m not going to live very long.”1 At last Jim goes to see Antonia: “We met like people in the old song, in silence, if not in tears. Her warm hand clasped mine.... She was thinner than I had ever seen her, and looked as Mrs. Steavens said, ‘worked down’” (319). As the two share news and reminiscences while walking the fields together, they grow intimate: “She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly. . . . ‘Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other?’” Jim admits his own feelings: “Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. 46 Western American Literature You really are a part of me” (321). In spite of this profession, Jim shortly bids Antonia goodbye: We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breath, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women’s faces, at the very bottom of my memory. “I’ll come back,” I said earnestly, through the soft, intrusive darkness. (321) And yet Jim returns only after twenty years. Why does Jim abandon Antonia to her struggles? Why does he not rescue someone he loves so deeply from these circumstances? It might be too much to expect Jim to marry Antonia, even though he has just admitted that Antonia could be “anything” to him, even a sweetheart or a wife, even though later in the novel Jim acknowledges to Antonia’s sons that he “was very much in love with your mother once” (376), and even though his friend Mrs. Steavens has recently hinted at a marital solution: “Antonia is a natural-born mother. I wish she could marry and raise a family, but I don’t know as there’s much chance now” (318). After all, Antonia is older than Jim, and she does not seem particularly interested in him as a potential husband. Nevertheless, it is also too much to ignore Jim’s aban­ donment of Antonia—though most commentators on the novel do precisely that. Either because they regard the book as only superficially concerned with Jim (and more profoundly concerned with Antonia or with a nostalgic celebration of frontier life) or because they see the novel as a testimonial to Antonia’s courage, it simply does not occur to them that the twenty-yearold Jim should interrupt his own life to involve himself with...


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pp. 45-61
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