Writing StyleAntonia Setting Themes Jim Snakes and Owls Sun Moon Sun and Moon QuotePrairie City Snake!!
The rather unorthodox entrance to this exhibit pays an homage to a significantscene in My Antonia. Jim Burden, while walking through the prairie dog townwith Antonia, encounters a large rattlesnake about four or five feet long that was“a circus monstrosity….as thick as my [Jim] leg” (Cather 42). With a spade, hebeats the snake to death, much to the admiration of Antonia. As a result, shebegins to treat Jim as an equal, looking at him for advice. Before, due to their fouryear age difference, she took on a superior tone, and Jim “resented her protectingmanner” (Cather 41). Jim’s fight with the snake was a symbolic transformationfrom a child to an adult in Antonia’s mind. To properly represent this scene,visitors were asked to defeat the snake at the entrance to symbolize Jim’s passageinto adulthood.Another significant part of the entrance were the prairie owls at the foot of thesnake. In My Antonia, the rattlesnakes “pick[ed] up an easy living among the dogsand owls, which where quite defenseless against them” (Cather 30). The owls hadno power to fight the rattlesnakes and were forced to live with them as theydevoured countless eggs and owls. This predator-prey relationship is mirroredwith the Shimerdas and Peter Krajiek. The Shimerdas, like the owls, arevulnerable and unable to properly communicate unless through Krajiek. He,knowing his power of them, takes advantage of them and lives in their dugoutbarn. “ They kept him in their hole and fed him for the same reason that the prairiedogs and the brown owls housed the rattlesnakes – because they did not know howto get rid of him.” (Cather 31)
Themes Childhood vs. adulthood is a theme stressed throughoutthe entire story. Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda grow uptogether on the prairies of Nebraska, and they traverse manyobstacles together as well. Their past, or childhood, creates aprofound connection between. However, this connection istested when the lives of Jim and Antonio separate. Jim mustattend college while Antonia remains on the farm. When Jimreturns to his hometown of Black Hawk, Nebraska as an adult,he visits Antonia. Although they experienced vastly differentadult lives, Jim and Antonia share the same past that theycarried with them throughout their adulthood. Jim expressesthis feeling by writing “Whatever we had missed, wepossessed together the precious, the incommunicable past”(Cather 229).
Themes The theme of country vs. city is relevant in My Antonia.As Jim and Antonia travel between the country and the city,their experiences greatly vary. In the prairie, they are notjudged be others, but rather can relax and be themselves.However, the society of the city forces Jim and Antonia toconform and they grow farther apart because of it; they beginto live different lifestyles to meet the demands of others.When Jim and Antonia look back upon the prairie on page163, they see a sun setting on a plow. This image representsboth the nostalgia of the past, where they shared the besttimes, and the need to move on from it.
Themes In My Antonia, there is a distinct separation betweenimmigrants and native-born Americans. On the train ride toNebraska, the Shimerdas are said to be traveling in the separate“immigrant car ahead” (Cather 14). While in the city, people scornthe hired girls because they are essentially in a different classthan native-born Americans. The men risk “generalcondemnation” for associating themselves with immigrant girls(Cather 133). Throughout all of the setbacks involved with beingan immigrant, the hired girls are able to make a living in the worldand fight through adversity.
“As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a greatgolden globe in the west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big asa cartwheel, pale silver and streaked with rose color, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each otheracross the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world….I wished I could be alittle boy again, and that my way could end there” (Cather 202).The image created from this quote in My Antonia is an example of bothimagery and symbolism. Not only is the language and writing style of thisparagraph beautiful and flowing, but there are also multiple possiblemeanings to the words in this quote; perhaps the sun is Jim, pausing to restwith the moon, Antonia, from “opposite ends of the world” (Cather 202) forwhat seems like the last time. Or maybe the sun represents Jim’s childhood,a “great golden” (Cather 202) thing, and the moon represents the “thin asa bubble” (Cather 202) future that is to come. Either way, the imagery andthemes of Willa Cather’s My Antonia are something to be remembered.
CharactersFull of a very effervescent love of life, Antonia Shimerda isa strong-willed and resilient character. An immigrant fromBohemia, she is the first in her family to learn English.After her father’s suicide, she is crushed, but she soonbounces back to take his place behind the plow. Antoniahas an amazing ability to make something out of nothingand to take opportunities when they arise. Although shetruly believes that success will come to those who workhard, she never compromises her need to indulge herself.She clearly exhibits this quality by choosing the freedomto go to dances over a safe work environment. WhileAntonia has many hardships over her lifetime, she alwaysmanages to rebound and create something good out ofthem.
CharactersJim Burden is a well qualified protagonist of WillaCather’s My Antonia. He is intelligent, romantic,and very observant of his surroundings.Throughout the novel, he ages from a 10 year oldorphan traveling to live with his grandparents to awell educated, prosperous lawyer. My Antonia isprimarily written as Jim’s memories, thoughts,and feelings about Antonia, his childhood friend.For Jim, Antonia will always represent a verynostalgic past, as he treasures their sharedchildhood.
“The red of the grass made all of the great prairie the color of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up.”(Cather 20)“…the pale yellow cornfields … the smartweed soon turned a rich coppercolor and the narrow brown leaves hung curled like cocoons about the swollenjoints of the stem.” (Cather 29) “..a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun…exactly contained within the circle of the disc: the handles, the tongue, the share – black against the molten red.” (Cather 163)“…but now his great frame, with big, knottyjoints, had a wasted look, and the skin was drawntight over his high cheekbones.” (Cather 33-34) “ the low sky was like a sheet of metal: the blond cornfields had faded out into ghostliness at last; the little pond was frozen under its stiff willow bushes.” (Cather 51)“When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behindthem, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the windsprang up afresh…” (Cather 121) “…almost a giantess in height, raw-boned, with iron-gray hair, a face always flushed, and prominent, hysterical eyes.” (Cather 144)
Willa Cather utilized heavy imagery throughout My Antonia todescribe the setting and characters in great detail. This allowsthe readers to visualize the scene in their mind, to pictureAmbrosch with his “close-cropped, flat head, and a wide, flatface “ (Cather 25) or the “ rough, shaggy, red grass” (Cather 20).With descriptions like those, she created not only a book, but amural out of her story. Provoking the five senses, Catherfocused on the senses touch, sight, and sound. Usingcommonplace language, she allowed the readers to connect withdescriptions and imagine the story. Other than theintroduction which introduced Jim Burden as an adult, MyAntonia was written chronologically. Starting from when Jimwas ten years old, it steadily progresses through his childhoodup until a few years before his current age. Throughout it all,events are portrayed as they happen. Another part of Cather’swriting style was to have the setting mirror events. For example,during chapters of Mr. Shimerda’s suicide, the normally vibrantprairie is hit with a severe blizzard, becoming cold and solemn.Cather’s writing style placed an enormous emphasis on setting,using it to tie together My Antonia.
Presently Ambrosch said sullenly in English: “You take them ox tomorrow and try the sod plough. Then you not be so smart.” His sister laughed. “Don’t be mad. I know it’s awful hard work for break sod. I milk the cow for you tomorrow, If you want” (Cather 91).Life on the prairie was extreme in many ways. The landwas treeless, making conventional houses nearlyimpossible. Six foot tall grasses could swallow up a person.Endless heat combined with drought, rainstorms,tornadoes and plagues of grasshoppers made the summerunbearable. The winter, on the other hand, brought longand deadly blizzards that could trap and livestock andpeople under feet of snow.
The setting in My Antonia is used to bring together all the different themesand events in the story. The two main settings, country and city, are usedto show the immense difference between Jim and Antonia’s lives in theprairie and their lives in the city. Also, the two different settings show thecontrast between Jim’s childhood and his adulthood. The first setting, theprairie, is described as open and free, yet so immense that one can’t helpbut be overpowered by it at times. “There was nothing by land: not acountry at all, but the material out of which counties are made.” (Cather15). The prairie is beautiful and full of life, mirrored by Jim and Antonia’scarefree and lively manners. However, parts of the prairie are alsodesolate. The Shimerdas’ dugout, for example, is always described as dingyand “no better that a badger hole” (Cather 24). Their dugout shows theShimerdas’ meager existence and their struggle as immigrants. TheBurdens’ on the other hand, while not living in a mansion, are far betteroff. Their house is comfortable and appropriate for living, showcasing theirmore fortunate life, due to their American roots.
The second main setting is the town and city. While peppered withmoments of brilliance, the town and city are given a serious solemn tone.This tone reflects how the characters in My Antonia must deal withbecoming adults and facing the perils of the world. The town, BlackHawk, is “ a clean, well-planted little prairie town, with white fences andgood green yards about the dwellings, wide, dusty streets, and shapelylittle trees growing along the wooden sidewalks” (Cather 102). This is insharp contrast to the prairie’s freedom and unpredictable land. The onlypart reminiscent of the prairie is a river that was “my *Jim’s+compensation for the lost freedom of the farming country (Cather 102).Willa Cather uses the setting to echo the story’s events and thecharacters’ emotions. As the tone of the story grew more serious, thesetting becomes bleak and darks. As the tone became cheerful, thesetting turns lively and vibrant. Throughout the entire story, the settingconnects the themes and emulates the different moods and tones.
After living in the countryside for many years, Jim Burden and hisgrandparents decide to move into the town of Black Hawk. However,their workers, Otto Fuchs and Jake Marpole, do not accompany them.This is the first of many changes that occur when Jim migrates to the city.When the Burdens arrive, they befriend their immigrant neighbors, theHarlings. Antonia soon arrives in town as well, for she has been hired towork for the Harlings. Jim and Antonia begin to reacquaint themselvesand they grow extremely close in the city; however, while Antoniabecomes increasingly carefree, Jim remains responsible to hisgrandparents and focused on school. This creates a separation betweenthe two because Antonia spends most of her time dancing with her newfriends, such as Lena Lingard. Conversely, Jim resists the temptation todance out of respect for his grandmother. When Jim goes off to college,they do not see each other for many years. Antonia must remain on thefarm to work for her family. However, Jim is finally persuaded to return toBlack Hawk by Lena. When he and Antonia meet, they begin to talk as ifthey had been connected the entire time. In a way, they were connectedbecause their shared past gave them a relationship that would last fortheir entire lives.
“…and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.” (Cather 29) In My Antonia, the legend of the sunflower-bordered roads was that Mormons, escaping persecution in Missouri, planted sunflower seeds as they explored to form a trail for their fellow travelers to follow (Cather 29). For Jim, the roads symbolized freedom. In his mind, the Mormons had created these roads in search of freedom. As they struggled through foreign terrain, the sight of the vibrant, yellow flowers gave them hope. Fast forward through the years, the sunflower- bordered roads gave Jim the same feeling. These roads are a crucial part to the prairie’s theme. The prairie, independent and open, gave Jim and Antonia hope, especially Antonia, who ended up living in the prairie while Jim was in the city.
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