Analysis of Major Characters
Intelligent and introspective, Jim is well qualified to be the narrator of the story. His thoughtfulness gives him the ability to portray himself and others with consistency and sympathy and to convey the sense of a lost Nebraska with an evocative, poetic accuracy. Furthermore, his romantic nature and strong attachment to the people of his youth and to the Nebraska landscape give his narrative a sense of deep commitment and a longing, nostalgic quality that colors his story. The wistful nature of Jim’s memoir highlights the novel’s emphasis on the past as something personal to the individual who remembers it, which Jim acknowledges in choosing to call his memoir “My Ántonia” rather than “Ántonia.” Jim is not claiming ownership of Ántonia; he is indicating that the story of Ántonia contained within his memoir is just as much a product of his own mind and heart as it is of the past.
Over the course of the novel, Jim ages from a ten-year-old boy into a middle-aged man, and grows from a shy orphan into a successful lawyer for the railroad companies, acquiring an impressive education along the way at the University of Nebraska and Harvard. In spite of the great changes that he undergoes, Jim remains a consistent character. He always has interest in others but is content to spend time alone; he often assumes the role of the detached observer watching situations unfold. The word “I” appears in My Ántonia with surprising infrequency, given the fact that the novel is a first-person memoir. Only at the end of the novel, when Jim sets aside his reservations to reunite with the middle-aged Ántonia on the Cuzak farm, does he seem to move past his passive role and make an active attempt to connect with the past he cannot forget.
Jim’s most important relationship in the novel, of course, is his friendship with Ántonia, and the fact that he allows Ántonia to recede in his mind as an abstract symbol of the past is itself a strong illustration of Jim’s introspective mentality. Rather than remaining close to Ántonia through the years, Jim allows himself to drift apart from her, always preserving her special place in his heart by treating her memory with greater and greater nostalgia as the years go by. Though the final segment of the novel—Jim’s reunion with Ántonia after twenty years apart—is not presented as a staggering breakthrough, it nevertheless seems to be a great step forward in Jim’s growth and maturity. He can at last contemplate re-creating a real relationship with Ántonia, acknowledging that she still exists and is still herself even after the past that they shared has ended.
Captured by Jim in his nostalgic memoir of his younger days, Ántonia gradually emerges from Jim’s emotional presentation of her to become a believable, independent character in her own right. In fact, by the end of the novel, Ántonia has perhaps made more of an impression on many readers than Jim has. Many critics argue that Ántonia, despite the fact that she barely appears in the last quarter of the novel, is the real protagonist. Pretty, vivacious, and extremely generous, Ántonia fascinates Jim. He feels that Ántonia is unusually alive, a sentiment that he echoes even after meeting her as the mother of ten children at the end of the novel.
Throughout the novel, Ántonia is caught between her natural optimism and cheer and the extremely difficult circumstances that she faces after her emigration from Bohemia and her father’s suicide in America. She is also trapped by the cultural differences that make her feel like a perpetual outsider in Nebraska and lead, in part, to her inability to love Jim as more than a brother: the Shimerdas go hungry, and their poverty forces Ántonia to work as a servant girl; certain members of the Black Hawk community judge her harshly for her love of dancing; her fiancé betrays her and leaves her to raise a child alone. Yet she never loses her quality of inner grace and self-sufficiency. Ántonia always tries to make the best of her circumstances, but she refuses to sacrifice her independence to improve her life. For example, she would rather work for the wretched Wick Cutter than follow Mr. Hartling’s order to stop going to the dances.
Ántonia is based on an actual figure from Cather’s childhood—a girl named Annie Pavelka, like Ántonia an immigrant and a hired girl in town whose father committed suicide. Cather admired Annie’s inner radiance and her independence, and sought to capture those qualities in Ántonia. In the process, she created a character from whom the heart of her novel developed: Ántonia symbolizes the past, possesses a deep rapport with her landscape, and embodies the experiences of both immigrants and the Nebraska pioneers.
While Jim and Ántonia are by far the most important figures in My Ántonia, one should not overlook Lena’s importance to Jim’s youth (the third book of the novel bears her name as the title, indicating the extent of her impact on his life). Cather conjures Lena to contrast sharply with Ántonia: while Ántonia possesses an independence that gives her quiet inner strength, Lena craves excitement and autonomy, refusing to marry any of the men who fall in love with her beauty and charisma. Her choice to live in San Francisco is nearly as extreme for someone from Black Hawk as Jim’s decision to move to New York.
It is no coincidence that Lena becomes important to Jim’s life at the moment he begins to transition out of childhood and into adulthood. Just as Ántonia comes to embody Jim’s memories of childhood innocence and purity, Lena, with her desire for sophistication and her precocious sexuality, comes to represent Jim’s emergence as a young adult. Tellingly, Jim fantasizes sexually about Lena in a way that he cannot about Ántonia. Even as a young man in Black Hawk, Jim already associates Ántonia with a lost past and invests her with an aura of emotional purity that precludes sex. Lena continues to become more important to Jim as he attends college, when they are both in Lincoln together. Though Jim never grants Lena an exalted place in his memory as he does to Ántonia, she is still a pivotal figure in his growth from childhood to adulthood, and, given the importance he gives her in his story, she may continue to figure more largely in Jim’s dream of the past than even Jim -himself realizes.
by heggedunk, August 19, 2012
My Antonia is a modernist novel about the coming of age. Modernism is a style of writing used from the late 19th century till the 1930s. Modernism is a style that has no central plot instead it is more of a series of episodes. Please take note that most teachers ask for a specific plot where this novel doesn't really have one. My advice here would be to talk about the aging of the main characters or Jim's attraction to Antonia as a main plot. Also take note that both Jim Burden and Antonia can be considered Protagonists. I hope this helps as... Read more→
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