Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Humankind’s Relationship to the Past
The central narrative of My Ántonia is a look into the past, and though in his narration Jim rarely says anything directly about the idea of the past, the overall tone of the novel is highly nostalgic. Jim’s motive for writing his story is to try to reestablish some connection between his present as a high-powered New York lawyer and his vanished past on the Nebraska prairie; in re-creating that past, the novel represents both Jim’s memories and his feelings about his memories. Additionally, within the narrative itself, characters often look back longingly toward a past that they have lost, especially after Book I. Living in Black Hawk, Jim and Ántonia recall their days on the farms; Lena looks back toward her life with her family; the Shimerdas and the Russians reflect on their lives in their respective home countries before they immigrated to the United States.
The two principal qualities that the past seems to possess for most of the characters in the novel are that it is unrecoverable and that it is, in some way, preferable to the present. Ántonia misses life in Bohemia just as Jim misses life in Nebraska, but neither of them can ever go back. This impossibility of return accounts for the -nostalgic, emotional tone of the story, which may have been autobiographical as well, informed by Cather’s own longing for her Nebraska childhood. But if the past can never be recovered, it can never be escaped, either, and Jim is fated to go on thinking about Black Hawk long after he has left it.
The other important characteristic of the past in My Ántonia is that it is always personal: characters never look back toward bygone eras or large-scale historical conditions, but only toward the personal circumstances—places, people, things—that they remember from their own lives. As a result, a character’s emotions are destined to color his or her memories for the rest of his or her life, a fact that is made thematically explicit in the novel by Jim’s decision to call his memoir “My Ántonia” rather than simply “Ántonia." In thus laying claim to Ántonia, Jim acknowledges that what he is really writing is simply a chronicle of his own thoughts and feelings.
The novel ends on an optimistic note, however, with Jim’s return to Nebraska twenty years after he last saw Ántonia and his mature decision to visit more often and to keep Ántonia in his life. This decision implies that, by revisiting his past, Jim has learned to incorporate it into his present, to seek a real relationship with Ántonia rather than transform her into a symbol of the past in his own mind. The past, the novel seems to suggest, is unrecoverable, but the people who shared one’s past can be recovered, even after a separation of many years.
Humankind’s Relationship to Its Environment
Related to the novel’s nostalgic feeling for the past is its in-depth exploration of humankind’s relationship to its environment. What characters in My Ántonia miss about the past is not simply lost time but a lost setting, a vanished world of people, places, and things, especially natural surroundings. The characters in My Ántonia respond powerfully to their environments—especially Jim, who develops a strong attachment to the Nebraska landscape that never really leaves him, even after two decades in New York.
As Cather portrays it, one’s environment comes to symbolize one’s psychology, and may even shape one’s emotional state by giving thoughts and feelings a physical form. The river, for example, makes Jim feel free, and he comes to prize freedom; the setting sun captures his introspective loneliness, and the wide-open melancholy of Nebraska’s plains may play a role in forming his reflective, romantic personality—if it does not create Jim’s personality, it at least comes to embody it physically. Thus, characters in My Ántonia often develop an extremely intense rapport with their surroundings, and it is the sense of loss engendered by moving beyond one’s surroundings that occasions the novel’s exploration of the meaning of the past.
The Immigrant Experience in the United States
On a more concrete level, My Ántonia explores the lives of immigrants on the United States frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Nebraska prairie of the novel is an ethnic hodgepodge combining American-born settlers with a wide range of European immigrants, especially eastern and northern Europeans such as the Bohemian Shimerdas, the Russians Peter and Pavel, and the Norwegian Lena. The novel creates a sympathetic portrait of the many hardships that immigrants faced, including intense homesickness (a form of longing for the past), inability to speak English, and a bewildering array of cultural and religious differences that the novel’s immigrants must overcome if they wish to fit in with the often quite judgmental American settlers who make up the economic and cultural mainstream in Black Hawk. Because of the rigid (and, in Jim’s eyes, preposterous) social hierarchy of Black Hawk, simply getting by can be very difficult for the immigrants, who lack the same opportunities as the Americans—Jim goes to school, for instance, while Ántonia must help her family eke out an existence after her father’s suicide.
Still, though Cather’s portrait of the immigrant experience is sympathetic, it never quite rises to the level of advocacy: Jim is describing a vanished past, not agitating for social change, and he himself shares many of the cultural assumptions of the American-born settlers. Thus, My Ántonia has little in common with more socially inflammatory works about the hardships faced by immigrants such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which was written to bring about social change. My Ántonia is a much more personal story and is more concerned with re-creating an emotional reality than with awakening the nation to a moral outrage.
The Traditional Nature of Frontier Values
My Ántonia evokes the living conditions and mindset of the nineteenth century, as well as the simple, hardworking, homespun ethic of that era’s settlers, an ethic Cather approves of strongly even if she does not always approve of its application, for instance, the -prejudicial treatment of the hired girls in town. The novel also explores the social assumptions of the frontier people on matters such as race (in the passage about Samson d’Arnault) and gender (in the passages about the hired girls, and in Jim’s general desire to spend time with girls rather than with boys). These rigid traditional social assumptions require that Jim learn to fight and swear so that he will seem more like a boy. Nevertheless, despite their shortcomings, the settlers share values of family, community, and religion that make Black Hawk a close-knit and positive community, not unworthy of the nostalgia in which it is bathed throughout the novel.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Childhood and Adulthood
As the generation to which the main characters (Ántonia, Jim, and Lena) belong grows from young children into adults, the novel indirectly evokes many of the characteristics and feelings of children as they make the transition into adulthood. As a result, the vanished past for which many of the characters long is often associated with an innocent, childlike state that contrasts with the more worldly, grown-up present. But the motif of childhood and adulthood is propagated in the novel mostly by the feelings of the characters as they gradually begin to experience independence, responsibility, and sexuality, leading to a natural contrast between the before and after states of their lives. Once Jim begins to fantasize sexually about Lena, his earlier years become less relevant; once Ántonia begins to live for the town dances, she is never again the same simple farm girl. In marking these sorts of divisions, the novel charts the growth of its principal characters, who eventually gain the maturity to understand the relationship between their past and their present.
Of all the cultural differences between the European immigrants and the American settlers (and there are many, often complicated differences, as we see when Jim’s grandmother attempts to give the Shimerdas a gift of food), the one that recurs most interestingly is the difference in religion. Most of the Europeans are Catholic, as the Shimerdas are, and most of the Americans are Protestant, as the Burdens are. In addition to this dichotomy, there are smaller cultural differences, such as language and attitude, which the novel explores from time to time. The motif of religion is most visible during the novel’s depictions of Christmas and the circumstances surrounding Mr. Shimerda’s suicide.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Nebraska Landscape
The most important and universal symbol in My Ántonia is the Nebraska landscape. Cather’s poetic and moving depiction of it is perhaps the most famous and highly praised aspect of the novel. The landscape symbolizes the larger idea of a human environment, a setting in which a person lives and moves. Jim’s relationship with the Nebraska landscape is important on its own terms, but it also comes to symbolize a great deal about Jim’s relationship with the people and culture of Nebraska, as well as with his inner self. Throughout the novel, the landscape mirrors Jim’s feelings—it looks desolate when he is lonely, for instance—and also awakens feelings within him. Finally, the landscape becomes the novel’s most tangible symbol of the vanished past, as Jim, the lawyer in distant New York, thinks back longingly on the landscape of his childhood.
The plow, which Jim and Ántonia see silhouetted against the enormous setting sun, symbolizes the connection between human culture and the natural landscape. As the sun sets behind the plow, the two elements are combined in a single image of perfect harmony, suggesting that man and nature also coexist harmoniously. But as the sun sinks lower on the horizon, the plow seems to grow smaller and smaller, ultimately reflecting the dominance of the landscape over those who inhabit it.
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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