Willa Cather’s powerful novel offers with each read a freshness and colorful view of life, tolerance, and feminine existence; this review by Sangeetha Bharath intends to pay homage to the tale on its 100th anniversary, addressing its delicate complexities without revealing too much of the story.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather
I did not grow up in a little prairie town.
I did, however, live in a rural Central Valley town (still do) for a long, monumental phase in my life, and Cather has reminded me that I can touch the “brilliant sky” anytime I want and feel the lick of “burning summers” (1) that so ravenously nipped at the frays of Ántonia’s cotton dress.
My Ántonia is a classic, and is known for being such— a romantic novel of incredible merit, a richly winsome prairie story— but to me it was also a reminder of the difference between what we can and cannot have, a story with fundamental analyses of life and human interaction so delicately kneaded into the plot.
One of the most inspiring ideas in this novel was the portrayal and influence of religion and culture. Religion itself is such a composite topic, and My Ántonia does a remarkable job of avoiding ablution in the pursuit of conveying various authentic Christian perspectives—insightful views that capture both the naiveté and tolerance of children in conjunction with similar behavior from adults. Some of the value in the novel is gently intertwined with the talk of religion; e.g. “Grandfather’s prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression. Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to know his feelings and his views about things” (56). Cather uses religion as a vehicle to provide keen observations of personality and being without being overt or forceful.
As such, to me, the most treasurable part of the novel was Jim’s grandfather’s reaction to Mr. Shimerda’s odd form of prayer. Jim’s grandmother looked “apprehensively at grandfather” being that “he was rather narrow in religious matters, and sometimes spoke out and hurt people’s feelings” (57). In today’s ostensibly bleak sliver of world history—one in which religion and differences of opinion plague global society—this literary moment reigns with clarity and potency.
The man “looked at [Jim] searchingly” and he said, quietly, “The prayers of all good people are good” (58). And I daresay I will never forget those words.
The novel became personal to me via tangible descriptions of the lives and rather philosophical experiences of the characters; Cather hungrily rips open a box of adverbial chocolates in the descriptions of My Ántonia. Each one carries a distinct, yet similar taste; some are sweet, some gracefully bitter, some with strong notes of molasses and others with ripe fruit.
You’ll have to read it yourself in pursuit of the warm earth and loud, metallic thunder, and for great splashes of rain and a sky “chequered with black thunderheads” (89). I have come across too many people that harshly criticize the trenchant prose that is this book, but I have grown to see the descriptions as props of theatre- they are scarcely the focus, but you notice them and admire them all the same.
This novel illuminated, like I have suggested, the difference between what we can and cannot have. The romance of Jim and Ántonia was heartbreaking and disappointing, and through it I learned such an invaluable lesson of the workings of fate and of satisfaction. Eventually it became very clear to me why Ántonia was so important— why this story was so important. \
My Ántonia is so odd in that it is written with such a prolific, orchestrated boldness that somehow conveys a demureness and nostalgic melancholy. This is perhaps the appeal of Ántonia herself—a steadfast woman unafraid of both her sensuality and quietude.
As with many novels of its nature, My Ántonia presents itself with ennui, with the lifelessness and lackluster possessed by the hundreds of other prairie stories it is often grouped with.
But as Cather wrote, “[These] girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background” (129).
And so, Ántonia was more than a battered woman as the story closed, for she was recherché in her simplicity and fiery in her calmness, and she had understood the difference between what she had, could have, and would never get, taking zealously a vivid spark and keeping it close while still traveling the same road home.
Sangeetha Bharath is a young woman of color and of mixed race from the very charming and Steinbeckian Central Valley of California. A voracious consumer of all things literary, Sangeetha is inspired by dynamic intertextual and interdisciplinary relationships. She is delighted by the prospect of cooking and eating good food, enamored with learning or reading anything from applied mathematics to philosophy, and enchanted by the thought of a long hike. Sangeetha, a student, spends much of her time away from school teaching at her (tiny) local library, teaching herself languages, baking, or scouring the bookstore. Connect with her on Twitter: @seabharath
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