Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Willa Cather's My Antonia: Haunting the Houses of Memory

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Willa Cather's My Antonia: Haunting the Houses of Memory

Article excerpt

Memory is much more than a recurrent or pervasive theme in Willa Cather's fiction; remembrance is the very essence of Cather's writing--the inexorable principle of her characterizations, the vital foundation of her settings, the impelling force within her novels. Her narratives exemplify, above all else, a certain style of remembrance, a mode of memory that one can neither overlook nor penetrate, that is both extensive and elusive, a fabric spun from unyielding cords and spectral fibers. In response to this complexity and vitality, Cather's readers have interpreted her representations of memory in a variety of insightful and provocative ways. [1] The very breadth and diversity of these critical interpretations suggest that memory has multiple and changing functions in Cather's work--suggest, in fact, that reading Willa Gather is perhaps most of all an act whereby one can both discover and imagine an almost endless number of ways in which memory inspires and terrifies, comforts and haunts, sustains and shocks not simply individuals but also communities, cultures, and nations. [2] For, if it is true that remembrance sketches the details of Gather's characters, draws the settings they inhabit, and colors their actions, fears, and longings, then it is also true that the shades and tinctures of remembrance seep out to Cather's readers as well, making us profoundly aware of how deeply we are inscribed by the past that we have forgotten, as well as by the one we sometimes tenuously remember.

Of all Gather's novels, My Antonia is perhaps her most thorough as well as her most intricate representation of the processes and effects of memory, both personal and collective. [3] As Jim Burden narrates his nostalgic return, Gather is able to portray not only the content of Jim's memories but also their structuring, their methods of articulation. [4] Throughout this novel, Cather is interested not simply in what Jim remembers but also in how and why he does so. Her deliberate, intense focus on the most enigmatic details within the architecture of Jim's remembrances ultimately creates a certain imperative to look beyond Jim's memories of Antonia to more closely examine the memories that surround and intrude upon her. If Jim's representation of Antonia seeks to keep her firmly within his control, as Katrina Irving and others have argued, the memories that surround and permeate that representation are essentially and frighteningly out of his control. Those invasive memories are significant not simply for wha t they mean to Jim but also for what they reveal about collective attempts to silence and subdue the ghosts of a communal past. My Antonia ultimately suggests that, much like Jim's more personal remembrances, cultural or national memory frequently struggles to preserve a sense of identity by excluding or abjecting memories for which it cannot or will not account.

Most critical studies of this novel emphasize the relationship between Jim and Antonia, seeing Antonia as, in one way or another, the center of the novel. Yet, in the spaces that separate Jim and Antonia, we find a shocking variety of memories that recount disturbing, radical violence, stories of "violent deaths and casual buryings" that give Jim "a painful and peculiar pleasure" (72, 41). [5] His memories of Antonia, and of the various homes that frame her, are thus riven with, even blasted by, his combination of fear and desire with respect to other, less-comforting and less-redeeming, memories. Jim's memory houses--the houses he remembers, and the home he finds in memory-may be constructed with Antonia as their foundation, but they are, nevertheless, haunted by figures infinitely less accountable. Setting Antonia temporarily aside thus clears the ground for a more complete analysis of the ways in which memory works in this novel, an analysis that suggests that Jim is not alone in his ambivalent embrace of the painful and peculiar, and that he is not the only one for whom the halls of memory are haunted. …

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