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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to My Ántonia!