My Ántonia

by: Willa Cather

Jim Burden

Characters Jim Burden

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.