Cather, Willa. My Àntonia. Norton. 1918, 2015.
Sharon O’Brien, Introduction
“Was Jim Burden necessary as a male narrator because Cather, as a lesbian writer,w as prevented by her culture from having a female narrator express an enduring preoccupation with another woman? Was Jim a mask for a lesbian consciousness? Or did he signify a patriarchal gaze, imposing a reductive vision on Àntonia by ultimately viewing her as a fertile Earth Mother?” (xix).
Cather sets up in the Introduction that she, the writer, is retelling to us the story found in a manuscript by a childhood friend, Jim Burden, who is the narrator of the manuscript that we read. We find out that Jim’s wife “is handsome, energetic, executive, but to me seems impressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm. Her husband’s quiet tastes irritate her, I think, and she finds it worth while to play the patroness to a group of young poets and painters of advanced ideas and mediocre ability. She has her own fortune and lives her own life. For some reason, she wishes to remain Mrs. James Burden” (7). (AD: This woman is, in other words, fundamentally unfeminine. Why are we given this information about Mrs. Burden? Perhaps to drive us to see Jim as unfulfilled by womanhood in ways that drive him to idealize and think about Antonia as an earth mother.)
“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land–slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake… Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be” (12). (AD: the country is tautology, it is tradition, it is what is, it is conservative in that it is an ideal that stays stagnant. Antonia, and her maternity, is part of this and constitutes it.)
[Fuchs the farmhand… sounds like “Fuck”] “He got out his ‘chaps’ and silver spurs to show them to Jake and me, and his best cowboy boots, with tops stitched in bold design– roses, and true-lover’s knots, and undraped female figures. These, he solemnly explained, were angels” (14). (AD: reproductive woman is religion (but not God: not that powerful.) nature/beauty/flower, love, and nude women.)
“Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slaw squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermillion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. 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” (17). (AD: conservative roles, being part of a great, symbolic family, are happiness, but also lead one to torpor/sleep/death)
Antonia’s father pleads “te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Antonia!”(21). The Father is the first to call her “my,” claiming her in order to give her away.
He begins to call her Tony, which strips her of her european identity and rebrands her as his by renaming her. (25).
“Much as I liked Àntonia, I hated a superior tone that she sometimes took with me. She was four years older than I, to be sure, and had seen more of the world; but I was a boy and she was a girl, and I resented her protecting manner. Before the autumn was over she began to treat me more like an equal and defer to me in other things than reading lessons. This change came about from an adventure we had together” (29). (he kills a big snake)
“He had twelve rattles, but they were broken off before they began to taper, so I insisted that he must once have had twenty-four. I explained to Àntonia how this meant that he was twenty-four years old, that he must have been there when white men first came, left on from buffalo and Indian times. As I turned him over I began to feel proud of him, to have a kind of respect for his age and size. He seemed like the ancient, eldest Evil” (31). (AD: 24 is reproductive age; the ancient, eldest Evil is in fact the snake and this scene re-peats and re-imagines the Garden scene. Rather, it portrays the popular imagination’s image of Christ’s descendants stomping the head of the Devil that woman invoked, and asserting both his godlikeness and his power and her submissive passivity to that power. However:)
“So in reality it was a mock adventure; the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably as for many a dragon-slayer. I had been adequately armed by Russian Peter; the snake was old and lazy; and I had Àntonia beside me, to appreciate and admire… I had killed a big snake–I was now a big fellow” (32). (AD: It is entirely by chance, in fact, that it is Jim and not Tony who kills the snake – we know she is strong and equally capable. The fact of this scene, however, asserts the gender dynamic that both must accept for the rest of their lives. It is by chance, but it is written in stone.)
“For Antonia and me, the story of the wedding party was never at an end. We did not tell Pavel’s secret to any one, but guarded it jealously–as if the wolves of the Ukraine had gathered that night long ago, and the wedding party been sacrificed, to give us a painful and particular pleasure” (37). (AD: The two Russian men are chased from Russia because, when chased by a pack of wolves at a friend’s wedding, they throw the bride to the wolves to lessen the weight of the sled because the dogs are tired. This haunts them wherever they go. Unconsummated feminine fertility is sacrificed, and this is both socially unacceptable and deeply satisfying to the man who gets to control it. Also, the story is never at an end because woman is constantly being sacrificed to man. This is the dynamic created by man’s random killing of the snake.)
“Our lives centered around warmth and food and the return of the men and night-fall” (39).
Fuchs tells a story about how a pregnant woman on a ship with him delivered not one but three babies. “This event made Fuchs the object of undeserved notoreity, since he was traveling with her. The steerage stewardess was indignant with him, the doctor regarded him with suspicion… The husband, in Chicago, was working in a furniture factory for modest wages, and when he met his family at the station he was rather crushed by the size of it. He, too, seemed to consider Fuchs in some fashion to blame” (40-1). (Fertility out of control. Someone has to be to blame. Oddly, it’s the men and not the woman. Woman seen as so out of control of her own body and fertility that a man must have been the agent here.)
The tree in their yard “became the talking tree of the fairy tale; legends and stories nestled like birds in its branches. Grandmother said it reminded her of the Tree of Knowledge” (48). (This not only links the fable of his childhood with Antonia to the Biblical tale and the instantiation of gender roles, but the biblical tale to a “fairy tale.”)
“Before I knew Lena, I thought of her as something wild, that always lived on the prairie, because I had never seen her under a roof… [she] kept a miraculous whiteness which somehow made her seem more undressed than other girls who went scantily clad” (86).
“Maybe you lose a steer and learn not to make somethings with your eyes at married men,” Mrs. Shimerda told her hectoringly.
Lena only smiled her sleepy smile. ‘I never made anything to him with my eyes. I can’t help it if he hangs around, and I can’t order him off. It ain’t my prairie” (89). (AD: and space is not hers to claim or to push men off.)
Winter comes. “All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth. It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer” (91). (AD: Also mirrors both life stages and the progression of woman into Antonia’s type of haggard maternity)
The “Negro Music scene” p 98+ he “couples” with the instruments
“Physical exercise was thought rather inelegant for the daughters of well-to-do families…When one danced with them their bodies never moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing–not to be disturbed… The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons. The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth” (102-3).
The three Marys were “considered as dangerous as high explosives” (104).
Jim chastises Tony: “I thought you liked children. Tony, what’s come over you?”
“I don’t know, something has… A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can…” (106).
Mrs. Cutter is a shrewd, argumentative, unfeminine woman: “I have found Mrs. Cutters all over the world; sometimes founding new religions, sometimes being forcibly fed–easily recognizable, even when superficially tamed” (109).
“she was, oh, she was still my Antonia!…I knew where the real women were, though I was only a boy; and I would not be afraid of them, either!” (114).
“One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them. Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to me with a soft sigh and said, ‘Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like.’ I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Antonia, but I never did” (114).
“As I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the harvest field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual experience. It floated before me on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line: Optima dies… prima fugit.” (133).
“Lena was at least a woman, and I was a man” (135). (AD: “at least” – “at base”)
Lena rejects traditional womanhood and refuses to marry anyone, even Jim. She doesn’t want to be under anyone’s thumb or bear children. (142-3). This makes Jim uncomfortable, but her reasons make sense to the reader. “Lena gave her heart away when she felt like it, but she kept her head for her business and had got on in the world” (145).
Tiny also makes a lot of money creating a boarding house for itinerant workers and does not marry nor have children. She and Lena live together and complement each other with business acumen and wealth.
Meanwhile, Antonia runs off to be married to a man who promises to care for her and who subsequently dumps her. She returns home disgraced and pregnant, but still proud. Says her brother Ambrosch to Jim, “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” (155).
Antonia “asked me whether I had learned to like big cities. ‘I’d always be miserable in a city. I’d die of lonesomeness. I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here. Father Kelly says everybody’s put into this world for something, and I know what I’ve got to do. I’m going to see that my little girl has a better chance than ever I had… I told her I knew she would. ‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of any one 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 I 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. You really are a part of me” (156). (AD: insofar as she represents generic womanhood, Eve domesticated.)
When Jim decides to visit Tony, he is told that she has ten or eleven nice children and “somehow it’s just right for Tony” (160).
When Jim tells her he has no children “she seemed embarrassed” (163). She had not “lost of fire of life” (163).
These are “Cuzak’s boys,” as the section title flippantly indicates, not Antonia’s. There are also, you know, female children, but Jim bonds with the boys.
Antonia says, “Ever since I’ve had children, I don’t like to kill anything. It makes me kind of faint to wring an old goose’s neck. Ain’t that strange, Jim?’
“I don’t know. The young Queen of Italy said the same thing once…”
“Then I’m sure she’s a good mother,” Antonia said warmly.” (166).
Antonia’s husband says “my woman is got such a warm heart. She always make it as good for me as she could. Now it ain’t so bad; I can begin to have some fun with my boys, already!” (176). Such as dancing at the fairs while Antonia stays at home with her children. Good thing she insisted on going to the fairs as a girl.
Final passage: “The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past” (179). (AD: But it was the Adam and Eve scene, and theirs, that set them on this path. Their gender roles. Is this accidents or predetermined? He seems more blasé about this because he is able to do so from his masculine position of power.)
Gelfant, Blanche H. “The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Antonia.” American Literature 43.1 (1971): 60-82.
“[Jim] was afraid of growing up, afraid of women, afraid of the nexus of love and death. He could love only that which time had made safe and irrefragable – his memories. They revolve not, as he says, about the image of Antonia, but about himself as a child. When he finds love, it seems to him the safest kind–the narcissistic love of the man for himself as a boy” (370).
Desire and fear “contend with one another.” The image of Lena in the field is “a surreal image of Aurora and the Grim Reaper as one” (371).
Jim sets the image of Lena against pages of poetry that deal with cattle breeding, quoting the Georgics: “So, while the herd rejoices in its youth / Release the males and breed the cattle early,/ Supply one generation from another. / For mortal kind, the best day passes first” (373).
“At best, marriage has dubious value in Cather’s fiction. IT succeeds when it seems least like marriage, when it remains sexless, or when sex is only instrumental to procreation. Jim accepts Antonia’s marriage for its ‘special mission’ to bring forth children. Why doesn’t he take on this mission? He celebrates the myth of creation but fails to participate” (376).
“Antonia’s illegitimate pregnancy brutalizes her even more than heavy farmwork. Her punishment for sexual involvement–and for the breezy pleasures of courtship–is thoroughgoing masculinization. Wearing ‘a man’s long overcoat and boots, and a man’s felt hat,’ she does ‘the work of a man on the farm,’ plows, herds cattle. Years later, as Cuzak’s wife, her ‘inner glow’ must compensate for the loss of her youthful beauty, the loss, even, of her teeth. Jim describes her finally as ‘a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled’–his every word denuding her of sensual appeal” (378).
Antonia “belongs” to the farm and the earth. “Though she marries, Cuzak is only the instrument of Antonia’s special mission. Through him she finds a self-fulfillment that excludes him. Through her, Jim hopes to be stored to himself” (383).
Rosowski, Susan J. “Pro/Creativity and a Kinship Aesthetic.” From Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999) 80-92. As in Norton Critical My Antonia.
Rosowski claims that “Willa Cather sent Adam packing and claimed paradise for women, restoring to them a psychosexual identification with nature and appropriating for them the promise of nature’s wildness. Rather than writing about a virgin land waiting to be despoiled, Cather conceived of the West as a female nature slumbering, awakening, and roaring its independence” (438). (AD: eh. I’m not sure about this.)
“By structuring her novel around images of birth, Cather evoked traditional mythologies of cosmogony and parturition, then revised those traditions as she created her birth of a nation” (438).
“Earth caves may suggest to Jim a frightening descent into a secret, sealed, womblike space closely associated with death, but Antonia presents another view: ‘I like for sleep there,’ she insists, ‘this is warm like the badger hole’. Her description echoes not only emergence myths generally…” (439).
“Tensions is inevitable when a fertility goddess from emergence myth is transplanted into Protestant Black Hawk, and Black Hawk responds by tightening its constrictions upon Antonia until, following her lover to Denver, she disappears from the text” (440).
“By Cather’s account, however, the Earth Mother tradition is no imprisonment to earth, no secret and sealed space. Instead the nurturing womb is liberated and celebrated, fertility goddess and Earth Mother restored into a birth myth for the New World” (441). (AD: except that Antonia cannot go to the dances or do what she wants to do; she is tied to her children and to the farm.)
Jim “distinguishes himself from that tradition” of Judeo-Christian classical logical rhetoric, recognizing that “he ‘should never lose himself in impersonal things,’ and he acknowledges an alternative idea of memory for which he uses language of conception, gestation, and quickening” (444).
“Rather than speaking only through a man, Lena speaks for herself, and rather than submitting to a relationship of dominance and possession, she invites equality in friendship. Jim’s expectations are the familiar ones of the male poet to ‘his’ Muse: he feels himself possessed, perceives the encounter as sexual, and assumes her dependency upon him. What Lena offers to him, however, is an alternative to such conventional notions of creativity. Her self-possession contrasts comically to Jim’s assumptions that because she lives alone, she is lovely; that by visiting her in her room, he will compromise her; and that because she is unattached to a man, she wishes to marry” (445-6).
“Jim goes to see a midwife for the re-visioning necessary to break the silence surrounding birth. Rhetoric and ritual signal that this is no ordinary visit… This scene is a ritual supplication of youth to age, quester to oracle” (446-7).
“In telling a woman’s version of procreativity, Cather’s midwife releases birth from teh secrecy that had enshrouded it, thereby setting in motion the powerful symbolic processes by which a birth story will become a national epic. By the Widow Steavens’s account, rather than suffering the punishment inherited from a fallen Eve, Antonia gave birth without confinement and apparently without pain (‘without calling to anybody, without a groan, she lay down on the bed and bore her child’) rather than affirming a male line, she gave birth to a daughter; and rather than suffering shame over her child, ‘she loved it from the first as dearly as if she’d had a ring on her finger” (447). (AD: but: this isn’t real birth. Instead it affirms a less messy type of procreation in which men aren’t bothered by the real screams of real women in pain that they have caused.)