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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
In My Antonia, Willa Cather explores the ties between the land and the people, especially how colonizing land brings people together in intense relationships. The central relationship of this novel is that between Jim and Antonia. At one point he tells her, "Iíd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister--anything a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I donít realize it. You really are a part of me." In this remarkable statement, Jim Burden sums up the dominant theme of the novel--his fascination with Antonia.
Antonia represents two things for Jim: first, she represents an alternative to his life as a middle-class boy. She breaks out of the boundaries of class and gender with seeming ease while he is constrained within them. The choices she makes are from the heart. They are not determined by fear of social sanctions. The choices Jim makes in the end are completely determined by his fear of social sanctions. For a time, he plays the "bad boy" neglecting his social duties to his own social class and spending all his time and energy with people who his family and friends think are inappropriate companions. Yet when he realizes his choices are hurting his grandparents, especially their sense of honor in the community, he renounces rebellion and becomes a model student and a model citizen. Jim momentarily turns back toward the world of the country women when he befriends Lena Lingard in Lincoln and neglects his studies. It takes only a subtle piece of advice from his mentor Gaston Cleric for Jim to set himself back on the conservative course and forgo the pleasures of Lenaís company. This course takes him far from Nebraska and he can never fully return thereafter.
At the present fictional writing, Jim is not a happy man personally, though he is satisfied with his professional life. He likely wishes he could have had both, the pleasures of being with what he considers "real women" like Lena and Antonia, and the pleasures of being admired for his upright and successful professional life. In the end, he seems to have found a way to have both. He plans to visit Antoniaís family often while continuing in his own New York life.
The second thing Antonia represents for Jim is a close tie to the land. Jim loves the land, but is able to give it up for the successes of the city, while Antonia is happiest when closest to it. Perhaps it is this difference between Jim and Antonia that constitutes the conception of the Nebraska prairie in the novel. Jim loves the land and feels quite at one with it, but he never works the land like Antonia does. He never experiences the pain of its privations. During winter, when he becomes ill, he is protected in the warmth of his grandmotherís house. When Antonia is cold on her first winter in Nebraska, she stays cold until spring comes. When he has only lived on the prairie for three years, he moves to town and thereafter only sees the prairie on brief visits. He misses it, but is fully occupied in Black Hawk and never seems to consider returning to it to farm his grandparentsí land. Whenever Jim sees the land, he thinks of its potential for human uses. He doesnít consider it in its integrity. When the grasslands are wiped out, having been plowed under, Jim approves of their destruction because for him it means progress. Jimís profession involves him in the further "development" of the west via the railroads. For him, then, the land is an instrument. It is nothingness until a person comes along and makes it worthy of human use. Antoniaís conception of the land is much different. For her the land is animated with its own force. The last image of her in her orchard, touching the trees she has planted and nurtured as if they were people, shows her to be sister to the land rather than master of it.
When Jim tells Antonia how important she is to him, he is telling her that she is his counterpart. They were never the same, always significantly different in their social positions and in their attitudes. Her difference helped him to define himself, his own choices. He might have liked to have Antonia as an intimate--"a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister"--but he never pursued her in that way. Antonia serves him best as his counterpart, not as his intimate. His last act of appropriation then, when he writes "My" in front of her name, misses this point. On the other hand, though, Antonia is an intimate of Jimís just as anyone who serves as a measure for oneís own choices is. She is his because he has internalized his own image of her and made it part of himself. So he can tell her that "The idea of you is a part of my mind." Here, Jim gets the point that it is "the idea" of Antonia that is part of his mind, his own imaginative use of her in his psychic life. In that sense, Antonia "really [is] a part of [Jim]."