In this book the repetition is directly link with the anxiety and the impossibility of representing a subjectivity that has been absent from historical discourse. To speak about the story of these women is an attempt to include them in an alternative narration which cannot be completely coherent. The emergence of fragmented subjects, with fragmented speech and fragmented bodies is a gesture that challenges the notion of “progress” behind historical narratives. Moreover, these women emerge as a compulsive repetition (I think that the pronoun “she” is the most repeated the text), as a symptom of a voice that was repressed in a male-centered society.
Nevertheless, the use of repetition is not only related with the emergence of a subject but as a way of unifying the fragmented text. The strong sense of rhythm gives coherence and a sense of harmony among the different characters and episodes. It is also presenting the text as a ritual in which repetition and rhythm are part of a sacred process that is allowing the existence of a new subject. In this sense, the woman subjectivity depends on the evocative nature of language and the possibility of creating a different temporality, an outside from history and time. For these reasons, I consider that the book is proposing a strategic transcendentalism in order to make possible the representation of the self through words rather than through a structured speech.
One might suspect that in an immigrant novel, it is clear who the immigrant is and which immigrant experience is being narrated. In My Antonia, these lines are blurred as multiple experiences of relocation are conveyed and ideas of what constitutes an immigrant, and by extension an immigrant novel, are explored. Jimmy states, “She often reminded me, when she was preparing for the return of the hungry men, that this country was not like Virginia,” (pg. 85) effectively referring to Nebraska as a different country than Virginia, and entering into conventions of what is typically considered immigration. Furthermore he says, “I read ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ aloud…and I felt that the Swiss family had no advantages over us in the way of an adventurous life. I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold” (pg. 85). In this passage, the author is pulling from common themes of struggle and hardship that immigrants encounter when settling in a new land. On the other hand, the narrator acknowledges that in addition to the aforementioned hardship that Jimmy and the Shimerdas alike are exposed to, they must also cope with other challenges of cultural and linguistic assimilation. Jimmy states, “We were willing to believe that Mrs. Shimerda was a good housewife in her own country, but she managed poorly under new conditions” (pg. 66).
Based on this seemingly double-layered immigrant narrative, to what extent can My Antonia be considered a first person immigrant novel and to what extent does it qualify as a third person immigrant novel? Although Jimmy considers himself an arrival to a “new country,” he also refers to many of the other characters, including the Shimerdas and the Russians, as foreigners. Can Jimmy refer to others as foreigners (in contrast to himself) while also making genuine claims of being an immigrant?
Though Jim has not traveled as far geographically as Ántonia, he, too, is a type of immigrant; he arrives in Black Hawk, Nebraska from Virginia after the death of parents and is pushed to carve out a new identity in a foreign land. His travels are described as ‘interminable’, echoing his anxiousness and insecurities about his destination. It is incredibly poignant the way in which Cather vividly describes the Nebraska landscapes, and how the author compares the rhythms and the movement of nature to Jim’s emotional state of mind. Once in Nebraska, it seems as though the landscape mirrors Jim’s feelings about coming to a new land, about Ántonia, and about his journey of self-discovery. Cather writes, “I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin…I could see all the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me…I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and did not want to be anything more. I was happy” (60). In a moment of sadness, Jim describes his wish to “walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world”, disappearing as if he were a tawny red hawk that flew up above (59). Perhaps in likening Jim’s emotions to the ebbs and flows of nature, Cather is providing a commentary on the volatile and fluid immigrant experience of the time.
Another interesting aspect that is unique to this novel is the layered structure of narration. In the introduction, readers become aware that the bulk of the text is Jim’s impressions of Ántonia as described to an unnamed narrator. The fact that we never hear from Ántonia directly is puzzling, and quite frankly engenders feelings of immigrant women’s inferiority to man. I often found myself asking, “Would Ántonia have described this situation differently if she was given the agency of narration?” Furthermore, to touch on the theme of filtration that we discussed during class, how does Jim’s narration reflect the bias of his own storytelling? I’m not sure we will ever find the answer, but it does allow use to vie the text in a different fashion.
After reading both, “The Immigrant Novel,” and “Immigrant Writing: Changing the Contours of a National Literature,” a common theme emerging in immigrant narratives revolves around the idea of identity. Often times the experiences of the immigrant are troubling and include many obstacles, but also moments of clarity and success. These rough, conflicting experiences force clashes between the original identity and with the forced new character. The result is that many immigrant narratives produce a stereotypical image of a struggling character- both internally and externally.
Although there are numerous similarities that can be drawn between immigrant narratives, such as themes of assimilation, struggle, or bildungsroman, a defining feature of many immigrants experience is the shedding of their old identity to form a new conformed and adjusted character. In “Immigrant Writing,” Mukherjee writes that immigrants and immigrant narratives often work to deliberately erase the past and form a new identity (681). This transformation of characters can result in an internal conflict where new identities are forced on an immigrant. The struggle of the internal character revolves around this idea of conflict between the old and new. The common idea is that in order to assimilate and develop a new identity, the old one must be removed. Miller also echoes in, “The Immigrant Novel,” a similar idea that in order to be included in society, there is a sort of consensual amnesia that needs to occur, including shedding of individual pasts to join a collective identity of the new nation (209). However, is it possible to maintain both identities in tandem? Can immigrants truly merge both their native and new characters together as a result of the experiences they portrayed in immigrant narratives?
While reading Stein’s piece, I kept a red pen close to my paper to mark up the text, and kept finding myself writing down the word ‘order’. After finishing the short story, I realize that the presence of ‘order’ had more than one dimension. Stein uses a certain order to introduce her plot line and her characters; she begins by giving life to Anna and Miss Mathilda’s relationship, and only then retraces the past employers and the different steps that Anna to her beloved Mathilda. This shifting between time periods reminds me slightly of the migrant experience, moving temporarily from place to place, and I wonder if Stein used this literary technique consciously to mimic the life of her characters. Furthermore, Stein characterizes Anna in a way that focuses on Anna’s need for cleanliness, morality, and control over every situation. In countless different scenes, Anna is portrayed as taking leadership of the household, taking joy in providing for others, scolding bad behavior, and establishing order in an otherwise un-orderly environment. For example, one of the first introduction to Anna’s personality reads, “Anna has always a firm old world sense of what was the right way for a girl to do… girl was a girl and should act always like a girl, both as to giving all respect and as to what she had to eat” (15). When Anna feels as if she had acted poorly or when she herself in a precarious situation, Anna quickly takes measures to regain this order, and doesn’t feel content until she has done so. For example, when Anna visits the medium for advice, she soon after feels the guilt for acting against the Church and “Anna’s temper grew irritable and her ways uncertain and distraught. Everybody suffered and her glasses broke” (40). Anna’s need for order speaks to a larger message about the immigrant experience; though immigrants lacked complete control over their social, economic, and political status, perhaps they felt the need to assert their control in any other situation they could personally shape.