I have a confession to make: I started reading My Ántonia because of beer. I had the Dogfish Head brew named after the book at Eataly last year and loved it (it’s a “continuously hopped imperial pilsner” and marketed as a “lager for ale lovers,” so perfect for me; but enough about the beer) and then I thought, “well now I have to read the book,” because really, what other choice did I have? When I visited Boston in November, I found a pretty 1952 Houghton Mifflin Sentry Edition for 3 bucks, and the rest was history.
I loved this book (the beer helped). It covers a period of American history I was never much interested in, with a setting I often overlook: rural Nebraska in the late nineteenth century, on a farm. Not exactly my favored topic of Regency England, or a dark moor of the same country, but I took to the setting immediately, and it might have had something to do with the “immigrant experience” so deftly wrought in this gorgeous novel.
At its heart, My Ántonia is about Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant girl living in rural Nebraska with her family. Broadly, it’s about one man’s relationship to the land, to the woman, and to America. I think I especially related to it for two reasons: one, because both my parents are Italian immigrants, and so the topic of immigrant experience is always interesting to me; and two, because I love reading books about women. This book stands out because it is narrated by a man yet written by a woman about a woman, and the way Cather/the narrator describe Ántonia (and all the women characters) is very telling: she emerges as a strong woman, both physically and emotionally. She’s also attractive and irreverent, independent and funny, sensitive, loving, and unfailingly kind. It’s easy to see why the narrator becomes enamored with her, and calls her my Ántonia. This is his story as well as–perhaps more so than–hers.
The title of the novel suggests possession, ownership, interpretation. Our protagonist is Jim Burden. He wrote the content of the novel for an old friend; when they meet on a train traveling across Iowa, Jim speaks to his friend about Ántonia, and what he remembers of her. A few months later, he gives his friend the manuscript, titling it “My Ántonia” after a few seconds’ deliberation. The title and Jim’s decision to prefix her name makes it clear that this is the version of Ántonia he sees, the version he loves. She’s a bedraggled Bohemian (Bohemia is the contemporary Czech Republic) when he first meets her, smart and hard-working. They grow up together on the Nebraska prairie, a place of stark beauty; bare, brutal winters, and sweltering summers characterize the prairie, which begins to take on a life of its own as the story progresses.
Naive, romantic Jim narrates as Ántonia grows from an impetuous and strong child to a teenager in a flourishing town, a jilted woman, and eventually to a mother of eleven, battered and toothless, but consistently strong and indomitable. When I read it, I grew to love Ántonia much like Jim does. I don’t know if I idolize her the same way though, or idealize her. Jim’s romantic nature and his unreliable narration lend a sense of mystique to Ántonia that she may not deserve. Nonetheless, Jim’s love makes the reader, myself included, appreciate Ántonia more. We appreciate her for her wildness, for her adaptability, for her passion and her perceived perfection. The image we get of Ántonia is just that: an image, a version of reality. Well, this is storytelling, isn’t it? Jim’s story is the only one we get, but it’s one I want to believe in.
Jim’s treatment of Ántonia subtly mirrors his treatment of the prairie. Descriptions of them both parallel each other; it’s clear that Jim idolizes them both, and in doing so, incorporates them into his base identity.
I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
Jim’s sense of belonging to Nebraska, to the prairie, is intense. He literally feels as if his identity is being consumed by his surroundings, and by extension, by the people he loves, Ántonia especially. It is this theme of possession that runs throughout the novel, characterizing Jim’s relationship to those around him. Jim’s feelings have to do with wanting to own something beautiful, wanting to be a part of something breathtaking. Jim describes how Ántonia has become a part of him, how his opinions have changed based on hers, how she has shaped his life in indelible ways.
Do you know, Ántonia, 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 part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.
First of all, I think it’s hysterical that Jim equates “sweetheart and wife” with “mother or sister,” as if a woman’s identity were reliant on her relationship with a man. The second thing that’s interesting is how much Jim incorporated Ántonia’s identity into his own: ironic, isn’t it? Which brings us to Cather’s–and Jim’s–treatment of women in the novel.
We meet Lena Lingard in town, a woman first presented as a flirt and a tease. She is shown encouraging married men’s advances and being far too sexual for safety. What a surprise it is when she shows an immense aptitude for business and a desire to be nothing more than a friend to any man: “Well, mainly because I don’t want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.” (291)
Preach it, sister. The novel is full of this kind of woman, bred strong on the prairie and ultimately independent of men. There’s another story of a woman who struck it rich when gold was discovered in Alaska, and ends up living in San Francisco with another woman from the prairie. Still, these women are treated by Jim’s narration as strange yet desirable, more desirable than girly girls raised to be wives and mothers, the kind of girl we would expect to learn about in this time period. The treatment of women in this novel is definitely interesting, filtered as it is through Jim’s skewed POV. There’s definitely a “type” of woman that is idealized, but it’s not the one we’d expect.
I think that’s all I have to say about this novel. Truly, I could go on for hours. There’s a lot of description of the hardships of the immigrant life and achingly beautiful descriptions of an otherwise unromantic part of America, the Nebraska plains. Cather manages to make me want to live on the prairie, which is no mean feat.
After I finished Ántonia I went on a Willa Cather buying spree. I love reading about strong women, and learning a bit more history about my country. This sounds cliche, but when I hear stories about my father and mother’s experiences as immigrants to America in the 60s and the 80s, when I learn how they acclimated, learned the language, worked menial jobs, and finally carved lives for themselves here, I feel proud to be American. Please don’t tease me. 😉