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Free Study Guide-My Antonia by Willa Cather-Free Online Book Notes
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Last summer, Jim Burden and the unnamed frame narrator by chance crossed Iowa together on the same train. They had grown up together in a Nebraska town. During the train ride, they enjoyed looking out the window and reminiscing about their childhood. They agreed that no one who hadnít lived in the west could truly understand it.

The narrator and Jim Burden both live in New York, but rarely see each other since the narrator doesnít like Jimís wife. His wife is a socialite, a patron of the arts, and does not seem to have the capacity for enthusiasm. She doesnít much like her husband, but does like having his name, so remains married to him. Jimís disappointments in marriage have not changed the romantic disposition he had in childhood. He is a lawyer for a railroad and he has great faith in the railroadís function in developing the west.

On the railroad ride together, they discussed Antonia, a Bohemian girl they had grown up knowing. They agreed that she "more than any other person we remembered, . . . seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood." Jim had found her after years of separation and had renewed his friendship with her. He told, the narrator that day that he had been writing about his childhood and about Antonia and weeks later, he brought her the completed manuscript. He told her that the manuscript was nothing more than memories, without form, or even a title. Before he left, he wrote "Antonia" across the first page. Then he frowned, unsatisfied, and wrote "My" before the name and seemed to be satisfied with himself.


The introduction is one of the most interesting parts of this book, though readers will probably find it very understated on first reading. The reader should come back to the introduction at different points in the reading of the novel to see it again since it serves as a frame for the book, like a picture frame will frame a picture and often influences oneís view of a picture. At this point in the reading, before one has read the book and seen Jim Burdenís relationship to Antonia, the introduction only indicates that Antonia was very important to him especially in his romantic idea of the country that he now makes money from.

However, a competing aim comes in here when Cather describes the western towns in the language of death--being buried and being smothered: "red dust lay deep over everything," "burning wind," summers when "one is fairly stifled in vegetation," and winters when the land is "stripped bare and grey as sheet-iron." Despite his enthusiastic descriptions of the countryside, Jim moved to New York and never returned to the country except for brief visits.

The two people on the train--Jim Burden, the fictional writer of the novel to come, and the unnamed frame narrator--are people who once lived in Nebraska as children, but who now live in New York. Jim Burdenís present job is lawyer to a railroad and the narrator accepts the function of the railroads in opening the West to European-American colonization as "development" and colors this view of the railroads with the language of adventure. According to this unnamed narrator, Jim Burden has transferred his childhood love of Nebraska to his law practice where he likely handles land disputes for the railroad.

The reader should remember the history of the westward expansion, initiated by the railroads. Railroads brought European settlers to the west. These settlers displaced Native Americans from the land. The railroads also brought hunters who virtually exterminated the buffalo, thus indirectly starving the Native Americans. It is no surprise that the romanticized figure of Jim Burden and the frame narratorís vision of the west is also a woman of color. Antonia is called Bohemian by the frame narrator. Jim Burden writes her story, names it after her, in a way, giving it to her, then he takes it back when he appropriates it--and her--for himself by writing "My" in front of her name. The second piece of information important for the frame of the novel is the fact that Jim Burden is unhappily married to a socialite who is more interested in entertaining artists and intellectuals than she is in the world of feelings, a woman who is "unimpressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm." Perhaps Antonia serves several purposes for Jim Burden. One of them seems to be that she provides the emotion that is lacking in his New York life.

The introduction therefore introduces the politics of the novel. It shows who has the power to shape the west, who has the power to write about it and thereby further appropriate it. The subject of the book, Antonia, is not the one with the power of language. Like the Native Americans who are not mentioned in the novel, Antonia is silent and as such can be used for romanticizing the west. Jim Burden even hands over his manuscript describing his life with Antonia in a legal portfolio.

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