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Early Chapters: 4 Questions for Conversation

[ Edited ]
Early Chapters

Here are 4 questions for Conversation

1. Why Does Cather use a Male Voice?
Knowing, as we do, that Jim Burden is a representative of Willa Cather in the novel, why do you think she chose a male voice instead of a female one to tell the story of Ántonia Shimerda? Why didn’t Cather tell the story from Ántonia’s point of view, with Ántonia speaking in the first person? What do you feel you know about the psychology of both Jim and Ántonia that you wouldn’t if Cather had told the story in a different voice?

2. What's Beauty in Cather?
Cather gives Nature a central role in this book. She once wrote that when she started writing fiction, “‘the novel of the soil’ had not [yet] come into fashion in this country. The drawing room was considered the proper setting for a novel, and the only characters worth reading about were smart people or clever people.” What do you make of Cather’s relationship to nature? She seems to see beauty as a mix of danger and tranquility. Or: Can you better say what defines the Beautiful in Cather?

3. Is This a Critique of the City?
This novel moves between the farming land of the “Divide” and the city of Black Hawk. How do various characters respond differently to the two environments? Is Cather writing a critique of city life?

4. Immigration and Identity
If “foreigners” like the Shimerdas and the Cuzaks are, for Cather, developing a new American identity, what do you think this novel says about the multiracial nature of the U.S. today? Do you think the notion of American identity changes with each new wave of immigration, or do you feel that the U.S.’s national identity is becoming more fixed, allowing for less change or development than seemed the norm at the time My Ántonia was written?

Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 04-26-200705:50 PM




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Chapter 1

[ Edited ]
The first chapter begins with Jim's "interminable journey" from Virginia to Nebraska. His parents have just died, and he's heading out to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.
This part of the story is pretty autobiographical. Cather was also born in Virginia, where she lived on a prosperous farm, surrounded by lush greens and the Blue Ridge Mountains. At 9, she moved with her family to her grandparents' place in Red Cloud, Nebraska (on which she based the novel's Black Hawk). Red Cloud had no trees; it was barren living, and home to many struggling Czech immigrants. Cather called her experience from ages 9-15, during which she witnessed Nebraska's pioneer culture, her formative years as a writer.

For a great description of Cather's Red Cloud, see this link:
http://www.chipublib.org/003cpl/oboc/myantonia/nebraska.html

Question:
Why do you think she made Jim, her alter-ego, a male orphan?

Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 04-29-200701:06 PM




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Chapter 2: Gender

Gender is a huge issue in this book.
Cather's always playing with the roles that men and women have--helping us rethink traditional assumptions about the sexes.

In Chapter 2, Jim's Grandmother shows him the big stick "which hung from a leather throng from her belt," and says it's her weapon for beating away snakes in the garden. "[Grandmother] had killed a good many rattlers on her way back and forth."
So, here the matriarch carries a phallic symbol--and shows the boy how to use it.

Jim responds with quiet sensitivity, with that respect and silence he often has.

Does Jim generally seem more male or female to you, and why?

What other moments in the book seem to play with gender roles, do you think?

How does Cather think of feminine strength?



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Chapter 3: Is this Eden?

[ Edited ]
Jim and Antonia grow close. Cather paints some scenes that resemble the Bible's Eden. In Chapter 3, these innocent children play by the "gold tree-tops," racing along Squaw Creek "until the ground itself stopped.... We stood panting on the edge of the ravine, looking down at the trees and bushes that grew below us."
And here Jim indoctrinates Antonia into language, teaching her the names of everything that passes. They learn each of their own names, the name of the great blue sky...and they play with an innocent rabbit.

They seem to parallel the moment in the Bible in which Adam learns about, and names, the things around him:
"And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them:
and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field."

Do Jim and Antonia form a paradise together, or is this all foreboding for something darker? What marks paradise here?

Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 04-29-200701:14 PM




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Chapters 8 and 9: Two set pieces

Chapters 8 and 9 give us two stories within the larger story, and they strike an interesting contrast to one another.

In chapter 8, we hear the gruesome story of Peter and Pavel. Many years ago, when they were still living in Russia, they were in charge of driving the marriage buggy for a newlywed couple. They let the couple lie down for sex in the back while they drove along. But hungry wolves were chasing the cart, and Pavel thought they could only outrace the wolves if they lightened their load. So he asked the groom to throw the bride overboard. (Read the symbolism: Freud is just one big mind who's told us that wolves signify sexual fear and mystery. The wolves come hungry and snarling at the marriage bed.) I think Pavel essentially suggested a male bonding here: toss the woman off the buggy. When the groom resisted, Pavel threw both groom and bride over, and Pavel and Peter escaped--ironically arriving in town to the sounds of monastery bells. I do think there's a sense of homoerotic connection between Pavel and Peter here, a love which is emphasized by Peter's deep mourning at Pavel's death in Nebraska, with his insatiable hunger for large juicy melons.

In chapter 9, we get a different set piece, also centered on sex. Otto tells his story of coming over from Austria to America on a ship. A woman gave birth to triplets on the ship. Otto did everything he could to help, but these three kids were an undeniable burden. When he helped hand the kids over the women's husband in Chicago, the husband "seemed to consider [Otto] in some fashion to blame."
"He had a sullen eye for me alright!" Otto said. The kids are not as much a gift as a burden.

So in the first story, men reject women or heterosexuality in a way. In the second, Otto does everything he can to help the woman out.
Putting one story after another, Cather seems to be underlining some ideas common to both: maybe the burden of womanhood, the violence involved in sex, the myth of how sweet marriage and motherhood are.

Or maybe these are just 2 stories to remind us of how tough the immigrant experience is, how tinged with violence.

What do you get from these 2 chapters?



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Chapter 10: Mrs. Shimerda's Dignity

Mrs. Shimerda is trying to maintain some sense of dignity, and her struggle often shoots out as rude comments. Later, Grandmother will say, "you see, a body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in 'em. It makes a woman grasping to see her children want for things."

What do you make of Mrs. Shimerda's style?
What about Jim's Grandmother: What kind of women does she seem to be?



Ilana
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Re: Early Chapters: 4 Questions for Conversation

This is from Willa Cather's biography from the same website that was sited for Black
Hawk/ Red Cloud
During this time, Cather became friends with Annie Sadilek, the model for Ántonia Shimerda. In an interview in 1921, Cather explained: "One of the people who interested me most as a child was the Bohemian hired girl of one of our neighbors, who was so good to me. She was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains. I did not realize all this as a child, but Annie fascinated me, and I always had it in my mind to write a story about her."


Willa is Jim Burden and Annie Sadilek is Antonia. So it would seem that Willa wanted
to tell this story from her point of view.
The question of gender comes up when I looked Willa Cather's biography. She is wearing
a white shirt/ blouse and a man's tie. I do not know if that was the fashion of the
day or that was Willa Cather's choice of clothing. This was way before Annie Hall wearing a man's tie.
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Re: Early Chapters: 4 Questions for Conversation

http://www.chipublib.org/003cpl/oboc/myantonia/biography.html


This is the website that I mentioned in my above post. I found it to be very
interesting.
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Re: Early Chapters: 4 Questions for Conversation

Willa Cather loved and enjoyed nature. It is evident in her prose. I have never been
to Nebraska. Though, I can visualize it from her writing.
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Re: Early Chapters: Why Does Cather use a Male Voice?


IlanaSimons wrote:
Early Chapters

1. Why Does Cather use a Male Voice?


The fact that a male voice tells the story it not obvious at all. The narrator has a behaviour which could really not be considered as a typical male behaviour. He just behaves as a child who gets the best from the country life with his best friend. No hard work seems to be demanded from him as a boy and he has a lot of free time at his disposal so as to be able to discover his new country and its inhabitants.The reader has to wait until chap 7 so as to read some comments about some characteristics of the relationships between Antonia and Jim and their respective male v/female attitude. The ending remark of the chapter sums it up "I was now a big fellow".
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Re: Early Chapters: Why Does Cather use a Male Voice?

[ Edited ]
nice observations. I hadn't really thought of that before: The most obvious reversal of the sexes that Cather does here is that Antonia is working in nearly every chapter, and Jim is just watching, loving.
This also has to do with class: Jim's family has workmen like Otto to do things for them. But you're making a great observation: In the two protagonists of this book, the woman is the worker, and the man is the fawning bystander.



chadadanielleKR wrote:

IlanaSimons wrote:
Early Chapters

1. Why Does Cather use a Male Voice?


The fact that a male voice tells the story it not obvious at all. The narrator has a behaviour which could really not be considered as a typical male behaviour. He just behaves as a child who gets the best from the country life with his best friend. No hard work seems to be demanded from him as a boy and he has a lot of free time at his disposal so as to be able to discover his new country and its inhabitants.The reader has to wait until chap 7 so as to read some comments about some characteristics of the relationships between Antonia and Jim and their respective male v/female attitude. The ending remark of the chapter sums it up "I was now a big fellow".


Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 05-02-200708:48 PM




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Early Chapters: Why Does Cather use a Male Voice?

I really didn't think about a male voice versus a female voice; to me, it was just Jim telling his story of Antonia. But it is a good point about the female being the worker/participant while the male is more of a spectator. It probably is more about class than gender.



IlanaSimons wrote:
nice observations. I hadn't really thought of that before: The most obvious reversal of the sexes that Cather does here is that Antonia is working in nearly every chapter, and Jim is just watching, loving.
This also has to do with class: Jim's family has workmen like Otto to do things for them. But you're making a great observation: In the two protagonists of this book, the woman is the worker, and the man is the fawning bystander.



chadadanielleKR wrote:

The fact that a male voice tells the story it not obvious at all. The narrator has a behaviour which could really not be considered as a typical male behaviour. He just behaves as a child who gets the best from the country life with his best friend. No hard work seems to be demanded from him as a boy and he has a lot of free time at his disposal so as to be able to discover his new country and its inhabitants.The reader has to wait until chap 7 so as to read some comments about some characteristics of the relationships between Antonia and Jim and their respective male v/female attitude. The ending remark of the chapter sums it up "I was now a big fellow".


Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 05-02-200708:48 PM



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1. Why Does Cather use a Male Voice?

So we can see Antonia grow into a woman through the eyes of a boy who is growing into a man. If Lena were the narrator, we would have a different story.
"Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it." ~~G.K. Chesterton
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Re: Early Chapters: 4 Questions for Conversation



2. What's Beauty in Cather?
Cather gives Nature a central role in this book. She once wrote that when she started writing fiction, “‘the novel of the soil’ had not [yet] come into fashion in this country. The drawing room was considered the proper setting for a novel, and the only characters worth reading about were smart people or clever people.” What do you make of Cather’s relationship to nature?

This novel to me is unique to other great novels because of the display of utter astonishing descriptions of nature. Viewing pictures of Nebraska are heartrendering in beauty and context beauty of land forever and forever. I can see vividly the scenes without the pictures before me by reading Cather's descriptions. I have read her other novels for the skill Cather has in descripted writing. And the stories are so heartfelt also. You could tell that her heart and soul was in the region she was writing about.
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Re: Chapters 8 and 9: Two set pieces

The wolf story was very strange and gruesome to me. It reminded me of a book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase that I read as a child. I was terrified of those wolves. It made me think about the fear of wolves. Were wolves really that aggressive back then? We are told now that wolves will not hurt us, and they are more afraid of us than we are of them, etc. I don't necessarily believe that either. We have wolf issues where I live, they've attacked farm animals and pets, but are protected of course so there is little anyone can do about it. I find it interesting the way wolves were viewed then and now. The symbolism of wolves (Freud) is new to me. I had heard about it in reference to Little Red Riding Hood, but admit at the time I thought it was a stretch! I wonder if Willa Cather intended for the story to be read that way or if it was on a subconcious level? Did she sit down and intentionally decide to add that many layers of meaning and symbolism to one chapter or story? It's no wonder it can take years to write a novel! If it was merely a tale to explain why they left Russia and came to America, it was pretty extreme. That does make me think there must be some other reason or symbolism in it.

I thought Otto's story was pretty funny. It made me immediately think of my husband's job - he's an OB-GYN. He has often told me about the reactions he gets from fathers when he finds multiple babies during an ultrasound. Joy is not usually the first reaction!
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Early Chapters: Nature

I agree that nature represents beauty in My Antonia. Cather makes nature a character in this novel. Nebraska's landscape comes vividly alive and has a persona all its own. It's obvious that Cather had a great affinity for nature.
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Re: Chapters 8 and 9: Two set pieces

I really think this is a great question: Have wolves become domesticated, so that we’ve outgrown the symbol of the wolf as sexual predator? And where did the symbol come from?

Your Little Red Riding reference strikes home. Freud had his Wolf Man. Both stories present the wolf as a sexual predator.

Here’s some other stuff I found on the web:

from http://www.wolfsongalaska.org/wolf_folklore.html
“There is good evidence that when humans were hunters, they lived in peaceful and respectful coexistence with wolves. Only when man began to farm and raise animals did the wolf become his adversary, a threat to his very life (and livestock).”

from http://www.sandplay.org/symbols/wolf.htm
“The wolf…represents the union of opposites. From mythology and story telling from all parts of the world the wolf has carried a sense of contradiction: a wild and fearful animal that can represent death and Satan; but at the same time a companion to the goddess Artemis and Scandinavian god, Odin. The theme of opposites in the imagery of the wolf is also represented by the contrast between the masculine and feminine nature. ….

“People from many cultures and traditions have interpreted the wolf as an instinctive creature. At some point in psychological development, most people struggle with integrating the spiritual and physical aspects of their being. The image of the wolf has been used to represent both aspects. …
“The association of the wolf with the goddess was seen in the primitive Roman cult of Lupa or Feronia, which was inherited from Sabine matriarchy (Walker, 1983). 'Sometimes known as 'Mother of Wolves', she was also the divine midwife and mother of the ancestral spirits' (Rank, 1959, pp. 45-46). An ancient statue in the Lupercal grotto was later enhanced with images of the infants, Romulus and Remus, whom she was supposed to have nursed. …The frequent connection between goddess figures and totemic wolves may be taken as another indication that ‘it was women rather than men who first established relationships with wolves and eventually domesticated them’ (Newmann, 1955, p. 275).

“The wolf today still represents our ‘instinctive nature that is wild and natural’ (de Vries, 1984, p. 505). Estes (1992) suggests that there is a wild and natural creature within every woman, who is filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. This wild woman within is seen as an archetype that carries images, ideas, and unique behaviors for humankind. The gifts of wildish nature come to women at birth, but society, in many instances, will attempt to civilize them into rigid roles which will destroy the inner treasure and muffle the deep, life-giving messages of the soul. As a result, women become trapped, over-domesticated, uncreative, and have fearful feelings. For women to find their soul, they will need to face their instinctive wild self so that they can become free, creative, and loving.”

Hm!!! Sounds a lot like Antonia!




KristyR wrote:
The wolf story was very strange and gruesome to me. It reminded me of a book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase that I read as a child. I was terrified of those wolves. It made me think about the fear of wolves. Were wolves really that aggressive back then? We are told now that wolves will not hurt us, and they are more afraid of us than we are of them, etc. I don't necessarily believe that either. We have wolf issues where I live, they've attacked farm animals and pets, but are protected of course so there is little anyone can do about it. I find it interesting the way wolves were viewed then and now. The symbolism of wolves (Freud) is new to me. I had heard about it in reference to Little Red Riding Hood, but admit at the time I thought it was a stretch! I wonder if Willa Cather intended for the story to be read that way or if it was on a subconcious level? Did she sit down and intentionally decide to add that many layers of meaning and symbolism to one chapter or story? It's no wonder it can take years to write a novel! If it was merely a tale to explain why they left Russia and came to America, it was pretty extreme. That does make me think there must be some other reason or symbolism in it.

I thought Otto's story was pretty funny. It made me immediately think of my husband's job - he's an OB-GYN. He has often told me about the reactions he gets from fathers when he finds multiple babies during an ultrasound. Joy is not usually the first reaction!





Ilana
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Re: Chapter 10: Mrs. Shimerda's Dignity


IlanaSimons wrote:
Mrs. Shimerda is trying to maintain some sense of dignity, and her struggle often shoots out as rude comments. Later, Grandmother will say, "you see, a body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in 'em. It makes a woman grasping to see her children want for things."

What do you make of Mrs. Shimerda's style?
What about Jim's Grandmother: What kind of women does she seem to be?




This chapter was very painful for me to read and the characters are too stereotyped to my taste. The grandmother and his grandson are described as being the best persons in the world: generous, understanding and forgiving. Whereas, the foreigners or new immigrants appear to be very primitive and without any common sense (or horse-sense).

At first, Mrs Shimerda seems to have lost all sense of dignity: she wants her visitors to know how poor the family is and how much they need to be pitied. Later on, when she discovers the goods which have been brought her family, her behavior improves and she even offers mushrooms to her benefactress. Thus she means to regain some dignity. But basically, as the grandmother explains it later, poverty brings out Mrs Shimerda's real traits of character which are not flattering at all. In this case, poverty is no excuse but rather a enlightener of someone how is basically very unpleasant. Did really Willa Cather had to create such an awful character?
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Re: Chapter 10: Mrs. Shimerda's Dignity



chadadanielleKR wrote:
At first, Mrs Shimerda seems to have lost all sense of dignity: she wants her visitors to know how poor the family is and how much they need to be pitied. Later on, when she discovers the goods which have been brought her family, her behavior improves and she even offers mushrooms to her benefactress. Thus she means to regain some dignity. But basically, as the grandmother explains it later, poverty brings out Mrs Shimerda's real traits of character which are not flattering at all. In this case, poverty is no excuse but rather a enlightener of someone how is basically very unpleasant. Did really Willa Cather had to create such an awful character?




That's interesting--I didn't see Mrs. Shimerda as awful, just struggling hard in a world with such wildly different habits.
I keep thinking of the way Mrs. Shimerda keeps her food warmed up in a blanket--and the way her kids sleep in the cave. These things _shock_ Jim's family, but they're necessities for the Shimerdas.
I agree that Mrs. Shimerda is really rough-edged, but she also seems pretty real to me--less romanticized, I guess, than Antonia seems at times.



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Re: Chapter 10: Mrs. Shimerda's Dignity

I just thought of Mrs. Shimerda as a strong and courageous woman. Doing things her own way. Who are we to say that ours are better? She does not have much but she does the best she can, with what she has. Even being generous with the best that she has (the mushrooms).
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