Ántonia

Ántonia

Ántonia

Ántonia

Excerpt

My Ántonia, the title of Willa Cather's most searching study both of her own longing and of our national nostalgias, remains our best entry into the analysis of Antonia as a literary character. When Jim Burden calls his manuscript "My Ántonia," he highlights what it is that we mean when we remember a friend, and call her or him "my" followed by her or his given name. Burden loved and loves Antonia, but was never her lover, and did not become her husband, indeed could not, for Burden is to be identified with Cather. We say "my" precisely where we have lost what we could never hope to have possessed, so that "my" in such a context is a metaphor or fiction, a verbal figure substituting for a desired but unlikely possession.

Antonia is so moving and memorable a character because she brings together her author's image of erotic desire with our intense vision of a lost America, a land of pioneers who sought a better life than Europe afforded them. The Bohemian (Czech) girl Antonia belongs to the visionary company of American fictive heroines that includes Hawthorne's Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter), James's Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a Lady), Faulkner's Caddy Compson (The Sound and the Fury), and Zora Neale Hurston's Janie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God). Diverse as they are, all these are strong vitalists, women who carry the American version of the biblical Blessing, tragic or doom-eager as that carrying may become. Ántonia, despite her earlier experiental misfortunes, concludes in a happier destiny than any of the others, perhaps because she so authentically is loved by her creator, When Jim has his final vision of her, the perspective that dominates is not less than heroic:

Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time. In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer: Antonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Antonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave in the snowstorm; Ántonia coming in with her work‐ team along the evening sky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human atti-

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