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.