Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

I was first drawn to My Ántonia by its title.  My first reaction was that Ántonia is a pretty name, and even more alluring was the author's choice to title it My Ántonia, instead of simply, Ántonia.  The title, My Ántonia, is personal and intimate, and by reading this title and just a few pages into the book, readers know that the story will not be an objective, impersonal attempt to portray a girl, but a portrait of a girl as created by the narrator of the story, Jim Burden.  It was a fitting choice, then, for Cather to write the story from a first person point of view.
The novel's events move at a steady, relaxed pace.  Willa Cather's writing style is so confident and elegant that it is easy to find oneself lulled by her quiet words and touched by her vivid, intimate, and emotional descriptions.  This line described to me Cather's writing style:  "Before I could sit down in the chair she offered me, the miracle happened; one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart, and take more courage than the noisy, excited passages in life." 

Just like other great works of literature, Cather's words do not suggest how the reader should react to the writing, or explain away important passages that can only be deeply understood through direct experience with the words.  Much of Cather's genius lies in her ability to choose vivid, descriptive, appropriate words to create scenes that subtly conjure up in the reader the same feelings the characters experience during the story.

My Ántonia nostalgically presents the phenomenon of memory.  "Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again," Cather writes through Jim's narration.  This quote is reminiscent of the Virgil quote the reader first found in the pages before the novel begins, which is "Optima dies...prima fugit" ("the best days are the first to flee").  It is this retrospective writing style that made me cherish My Ántonia and in between passages, to remember on my own childhood and connection to the natural world.

The introduction, written by a female childhood friend of Jim Burden, occurs later in chronological order than the book's ending, but this choice does not hinder a reader's understanding or appreciation of the piece; it clarifies the book's subject matter:  the past.  Events occur throughout the book that change the characters' worlds, yet the past cannot be erased.  It leans over them and keeps them safe like a fragrant tree ripe with peaches. 

The book considers the idea of foreigners, of being treated differently from others, and of how people from different cultural backgrounds can relate to each other, as well as experience curiosity, fear, and prejudice towards each other.  It portrays both humanity's sameness and differences.

Nature is highly valued and esteemed by many of the characters, and it is nature that connects the characters of different cultural backgrounds to each other.  For example, Jim ponders the stars in the sky in these lines, "Though we had come from such different parts of the world, in both of us there was a dusky superstition that those shining groups have their influence upon what is and what is not to be.  Perhaps Russian Peter, come from farther away than any of us, had brought this from his land, too, some such belief." 

Nature is used literally and metaphorically throughout the novel.  When Jim describes the condition of Peter and Pavel, the friends the Bohemians, Ántonia's family had found up north, he writes, "Misfortune seemed to settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and to flap its wings there, warning human beings away."  It is through nature that Jim and Ántonia first encounter the world, and it is nature that shapes their perceptions of the world.

My Ántonia evoked many feelings and thoughts in me, many of which could not be easily put into sentences, so I will leave you with these words.  Perhaps what I was about to say could be found in Jim Burden's friend's story of Ántonia that we learn about in the introduction, since it is only Jim Burden's story that we read.

Question for Reflection:  Which natural thing(s) or animal(s) do you connect with most deeply and why?

9 comments:

  1. What a beautiful choice of book.. I am new found you via cobalt v. A new morning for some beautiful, inspiring new ladies in my life.. Happy 2012

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  2. I read this 30 years ago, and I think it is time to read it again. Thanks!

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  3. So nice to see you blogging again!

    God Bless.

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  4. Great review Jade, you could be a literary critic for a publication. The book sounds intriguing.

    Which natural thing(s) or animal(s) do I connect with most? Hmm.

    * thunderstorms- for reasons I spoke of in our earlier
    conversation
    * warm sunshine- I love laying out under full sun and
    tanning. Although it's probably not the
    best thing over an extended period I
    find the sun to be very revitalizing.
    * the moon - for its mystery and allure. It's a
    constant source of inspiration and often
    makes an appearance in my writing.
    * sunrise - because it's a reminder of how beautiful
    life can be. Makes me so thankful to be
    alive to see such a glorious sight in
    the morning
    * hawks - not for their predatory nature but I
    just love watching them soar high on
    the currents. They look so free

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  5. Lovely and well-thought out review, Jade. You really touched upon the things I loved most about My Ántonia and brought up some new points I hadn't considered. I really need to re-read it now. :)

    And in answer to the question: trees and cats. Trees because... I'm not really sure, but I can't see them without being moved by their beauty. And cats because they are somewhat aloof, but still have a great capacity to love. To speak plainly: I identify a lot with them. :)

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  6. I see so many similarities in our responses to My Antonia! What a great review :)

    I connect to landscape more than any one specific thing, except maybe trees and sagebrush. I love landscapes of all kinds - rainy, foggy hills, mountains with snow, desert sunsets. They move my soul.

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  7. What I connect to - mostly the extremes - there are two particular sets of traffic lights that I stop at on the way to work - there is always a pull towards the sky at these stops - just after dawn at the moment- then when I get to work to see the blackthorn pushing tiny papery flowers through the beads of frost. And as much as I can in between :)

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  8. This is such a well-written and analytical reflection of the novel. I don't know that I can pinpoint any one thing that I connect to. It keeps changing, depending on where my mind is wandering at any particular time. x

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  9. What a beautiful review. The book sounds amazing. I love the quotes you chose to elucidate your points.

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