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Jim Burden is the fictional narrator of My Antonia. He thus serves two functions, as a narrator and as a character. In this sense, Catherís technique looks forward to some of the great works of modernism. Ernest Hemingway uses this technique in his novels, often casting a character named Jake as the character narrator. F. Scott Fitzgerald also does it in The Great Gatsby with Nick Caraway. Katherine Ann Porter often has a character named Miranda cast in the role of the storyteller and the main character. This technique is rich in its possibilities for adding depth to the narrative. The narrator is not distanced and aloof from what is happening in the fictional world. If he were, the reader could generally rely on the accuracy of his perceptions, his disinterested view of what is happening. A narrator like Jim Burden is very close to the action of the novel. The reader must always question how his own perceptions and emotional issues color the story he relates.
Jim Burden is said several times in the narrative to be a romantic. Being a romantic enables Jim, this fictional narrator, to write about Antonia as he does. It also keeps him from engaging in the farm life of the Midwest, an occupation better suited to a realist. It is Jimís task to write about the settlement of the Midwest, not to do it. Jim romanticizes both the people and the land. The central person in Jimís romantic imagination is, of course, Antonia. She is distant enough from him on class and ethnic grounds that he can romanticize her from a safe distance. Usually when Antonia is in his daily life, Jim is disturbed by her. She either doesnít accord him enough respect or doesnít pay him enough undivided attention. When Antonia gets pregnant out of marriage, she tests Jimís capacity to love her. After hearing of her abandonment from Mrs. Steavens who paints Antonia as a naive victim of Larry Donovanís treachery, he goes to her and gazes deeply into her eyes telling her how much she means to him in every aspect of his moral life. The second time Antonia tests Jimís capacity to love her is when she gets married, has children, and ages. In fact, Jim stays away from her for twenty years for fear that the reality of her will spoil the fantasy he has of her. When he does see her, though, his romantic capacity is still strongly functioning. He makes of her an earth mother, in close contact with the earth, bringing out the bounty of the land, and raising her children in love and warmth. In this capacity, Antonia can continue to inhabit Jimís romantic moral universe.
Jimís romantic view of the land that is named in the late nineteenth century as the Midwest parallels his romantic view of Antonia. Jimís journey from Virginia to Nebraska is a perfect example of how romanticism functions. Jim has the chance to look out the window of the train and see the land from the larger view as it passes as landscape. Instead, he reads a book about Jesse James. When he gets to Black Hawk, Nebraska, it is dark. Jim canít see the land. This doesnít hinder him from making a first impression of it, though. He thinks of it as nothingness, a blank spot on the world, ready to be turned into something by the people who come. This perception would certainly be a useful one to people who were taking land from other people who had inhabited it for centuries. Jimís view of Nebraska remains colonial throughout the novel. He feels waves of nostalgia for the loss of the rich red prairie grass which has been plowed under, but he is generally pleased with any sign of change as a sign of progress and development. It is no surprise that Jim makes his living as a lawyer for railway companies who turned Native American land into European American land. At the end of the novel, Jim walks out to the bit of road that remains of the road he traveled that first night in Nebraska. He re-experiences the same feelings he had then. His romanticism enables all the history of his experience of the land to disappear in favor of a vague sense of adventure.
Jim admits to seeing Antonia in romantic terms at several points in the novel. The reader therefore must try to see Antonia both as a manifestation of Jimís fantasy life and on her own terms. There have been countless feminine characters depicted in this way. In the twentieth century, we have Faulknerís Caddy Compson, Fitzgeraldís Daisy, Henry Jamesís Isabel Archer, and countless others, but these figures go much farther back. Remember Petrarchís Laura and Danteís Beatrice. Jim even says at one point in the narration that great poetry wouldnít be possible without women like Antonia and Lena.
In her own terms, Antonia is a person who grows to love the land by working it. When she first arrives in Nebraska, she is subject to the deprivations of poverty in a Nebraska winter. Soon, however, she begins to learn the ways of the land and its creatures. She engages in enthusiastic debate over the architecture of a prairie dogsí underground homes. She discovers the quick danger of rattlesnakes. She also quickly sides with the sense of oneness with the land over the stiff conventionalities of Victorian womanhood. She canít see the point in wearing a bonnet on her head to cover her face from the sun. She refuses to let her gender keep her from helping work the land so she can help save her family from a second unbearable winter. When she has a baby outside of marriage, she refuses to hide her baby away, but has a large photographic enlargement made of her and displays it in the photographerís shop. Our final image of her is a fairly conventional one. She is a happy mother, surrounded by loving and well-behaved children, and is a good partner to her husband.
Antoniaís second dominant characteristic is her fierce attachments to people. Lena says that Antoniaís greatest failing is her inability to see any fault in anyone she loves. Her first attachment is to her father whose image she diligently protects. When the Burdens see her family in its dire poverty of their first winter, she assures them that her father was a well-respected man in Bohemia. She treats her father with reverence and gentleness when he is alive and she continues to honor his memory after his death. This is an attachment which the narrator approves of. The attachment he doesnít approve of is that to Larry Donovan. In falling in love with Larry Donovan, moving to Denver to marry him, then staying for three weeks until he abandons her, Antonia shows the danger of this kind of love. When it comes to other people, she is true to her family, helping to make the farm a success by working in the fields. In her work with the Harlings, the reader is given to believe that she is like family to them. However, when Mr. Harling gives her an ultimatum, threatening to fire her if she doesnít stop attending dances, she leaves the family seemingly without an backward glance. Perhaps when it comes to the Harlings, Antonia knows when a relationship is determined by money and when it is determined by love.
Mr. Shimerda is only a minor character in the novel, but he plays an important symbolic role. He is an embodiment of the Old World as it exists in the romantic imagination of Antonia and Jim. Jim knows very little of Bohemia but what Antonia tells him. Her stories center around her father. He is well-read and much respected for his intelligent conversation. He is a valued musician and skilled craftsperson in weaving. He is also a man with a stronger sense of honor than that of his family. When he gets the familyís maid pregnant, he refuses to leave her to her own devices as his mother wants him to do. He marries her and faces the consequences of being disowned by his family.
Antonia doesnít see any flaws in her father and Jim never mentions any either. His fatal mistake seems to have been marrying Mrs. Shimerda to whom he was not in the least compatible, but being who he is, he could have done nothing else. Perhaps his second mistake is moving to the United States at Mrs. Shimerdaís insistence. The decision is foolhardy. He has a valued skill in Bohemia and he has no knowledge whatsoever in farming. His family is large but only one of his sons is capable of helping with farming responsibilities. However, it is likely that Mrs. Shimerda is right about her sonsí and daughtersí poor chances in their home country. Children of a marriage that was not socially sanctioned, they might have had trouble succeeding in the world. It turns out that the family does succeed in the United States. The sequence of events suggests that Mr. Shimerda, representative of the old world, has to die in order for his family to become Americans.
Lena Lingard also plays a fairly minor role in the novel despite the fact that Book 3 is named after her. Lena figures prominently in Jim Burdenís sexual fantasies when he is an adolescent and a young man. She, like Antonia, is portrayed in two ways: symbolically and realistically. The symbolic Lena Lingard is a figure of the Midwest. When Jim spends so much time with her in Lincoln, derailing his passionate engagement with his studies, his mentor Gaston Cleric tells him he will never do anything with his life if he continues to spend time with Lena. When Jim follows Gastonís advice, he leaves the Midwest altogether, not just Lena. He moves to Boston and he never returns to live in Nebraska again.
One of Lenaís strongest characteristics is her indolence. She seems to be very easy going about social mores. When Ole Benson is following her around, she lets him. She doesnít see any harm in his attentions and she likes the company in the boring job of cattle herding. She doesnít seem to take notice at all of the strict codes of social propriety that governed womenís behavior in the Victorian era. Her second strong characteristic is her desire for beauty, especially beautiful clothes. If Lena loses her indolence at any point, it is when she is engaged in making new clothes.
The realistic Lena Lingard is not at all a symbol of the west. She is a woman who learned from her motherís example that marriage to a farmer would not be a good life. In fact, she seems to have learned from all the marriages she sees that marriage in general is not a good life for a woman. Lena seems very indolent, but she is actually quite self-driven. She tells Jim that even the wildest boys turn into exacting moral masters when they become husbands and she wants to be able to do as she pleases whether itís socially sanctioned or not. Therefore, Lena turns out to be quite a rebel. Marriage in the Victorian era even more so than now was virtually compulsory. Tiny Soderball understands that Lena needs to get out of Nebraska if she wants to live the life of an independent woman. Lena moves with Tiny to San Francisco where she continues in her success in the clothing business and her independent existence.
Mr. and Mrs. Burden, Jimís Grandparents
Cather represents the Burdens in reverential tones. By the time the narrative is written, they have long since died. Memory often casts a nostalgic glow over people and it also often blurs the outlines of the picture.
Mr. Burden has very few lines in the text. He is most prominently known as a very quiet man who is a loner when he is in the house. He likes to spend all his free time studying the Bible. Although he is reputed to be intolerant of other peopleís religious ideas, at no time in the novel does he show this intolerance. When Mr. Shimerda kneels in front of the Christmas tree, he violates Mr. Burdenís sense of religious decorum. Mr. Burden is a staunch Protestant. There was a great deal of anti-Catholic propaganda at this time in U.S. history. Mr. Burden restrains himself, however, and prays, "thus protestantizing the atmosphere." When Anton Jelinek tells him of his experience in being protected during the Prussian war when he served the priest in administering the Last Rites to the dying soldiers, Mr. Burden takes a large view of it and agrees that God must have been with them saving them from contracting the disease. When Ambrosch gives his brotherís earnings to a priest for prayers for his fatherís soul, Mr. Burden doesnít dispute the doctrine, but recognizes the noble intent.
Mrs. Burden is Jimís intimate caretaker while Mr. Burden is his moral guide. Mrs. Burden is represented as an industrious woman who works hard to be tolerant of her neighbors. She teaches Jim to care for the creatures of the earth and to be a good neighbor. Despite the fact that she is a more intimate figure in Jimís life, she is not a very clearly defined character. The reader remembers her as a good mother figure for Jim and a good neighbor to the Shimerdas. She clearly disapproves of Mrs. Shimerdaís manners, but she tries to recognize that much of Mrs. Shimerdaís greediness comes from a winter of dire poverty in Nebraska.