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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to My Ántonia!