I’m really enjoying this narrative so far. There are a few scenes within the story that have caught my attention. The first time I notice Jim acting hostile towards the Shimerda family is when Mrs. Shimerda pleads with his grandmother to gift her a kitchen pot. “I thought it weak-minded of grandmother to give the pot to her.. She was a conceited, boastful old thing, and even misfortune could not humble her. I was so annoyed that I felt coldly even toward Ántonia and listened unsympathetically when she told me her father was not well” (Cather, 98). Ántonia expresses her concern for her father and Jim goes on to say, “People who don’t like this country ought to stay at home. We don’t make them come here” (98). This is the first time I notice Jim acting aggressive and annoyed towards his dear friend. Despite wanting to believe that Jim, his grandparents (The Burdens), Jake Marpole, and Otto Fuchs are utterly saintlike people for their hospitality and care towards the Shimerdas (from the very beginning), you are reminded that they still regard them as immigrants and don’t fully accept them in their society. “They ain’t the same Jimmy, These foreigners ain’t the same. You can’t trust ’em to be fair” (120). Often regarded as ‘the foreigners’ or ‘the Bohemians’, the Shimerdas are looked down upon as insignificant beings. It isn’t until later on in the story once Jim has grown up a bit that he explains his thoughts on the attitudes of his fellow townspeople. Although foreigners could have been very well respected in their home country, he concludes that the townspeople saw no difference, being that “All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English” (158). (On a side note, even a drunk tramp who jumped into a thrashing machine said, “My God! So it’s Norwegian’s now, is it? I thought this was Americy” (145). I’m not sure what to think about ‘americy’ and what it means? Randomly on pg. 170, Jim says, “Her warm, sweet face, her kind arms, and the true heart in her; she was, oh, she was still my Ántonia!” I believe this is the first time I see ‘my Antonia’ written out not just in the title. Another interesting passage, different from the ones above, is where Jim describes his neighbor Mr. Harling and the apparent power he holds over his family and wife. “Mr.Harling had a desk in his bedroom… in which no one else ever sat… Mrs. Harling paid no heed to any one else if he was there… his wife made coffee for him at any hour of the night he happened to want it”. Jim further says, “Mr. Harling, therefore, seemed to me autocratic and imperial in his ways. He walked, talked, put on his gloves, shook hands, like a man who felt he has power” (134). I know this passage holds significance and I look forward to discussing it in class.
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.