Jane Austen wrote her books with an omniscient narrator who knows and tells the reader what is going on in the world around which the narrative revolves. As a female author in the early 19th century, she was following convention in keeping her narrator distant and opinionless most of the time. Charles Dickens, on the other hand, learned to use narration to great effect, and in Bleak House (1853), he gave alternating chapters to two separate narrators: a woman, Esther, speaking in first person and a hard-voiced, bitter and cynical distant narrator who brings forth the problems with London society that Esther is too “good” or naïve to see. A bold move on Dickens’ part, using a female narrator, but not as brave as Charlotte Bronte’s use of the first person narrative in Jane Eyre (1847), one of the most famous books to use a female first-person perspective to tell her story that was also written by a woman.
By the time Willa Cather wrote My Antonia (1918), she had published three novels, all of which used the technique of third-person narration. Two of those are considered to be part of Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy”, based on her own experience as a child of moving from Virginia to Nebraska and falling in love with the land and farm-work of the open prairies.
Turning to write My Antonia, however, Cather chose a different course. She frames her narrative as that of a man, an old friend, Jim Burden, but doesn’t exclude herself entirely, for part of the novel is the introduction, also in first person, which is presumably supposed to be Willa Cather’s own voice. The conceit she uses is that she, an author, never got around to writing her own memories of Antonia Shimerda, and so she presents the pages handed to her by Jim.
Why does Cather choose this method of storytelling? Certainly, frame narratives can be useful, but in this case it seems unnecessary. Cather could have presented Jim’s story as its own narrative, without introducing him as “a friend.” By doing this, however, she manages to distance herself even further from the tale being told. Perhaps she chose this option in order to make her male narrator more convincing. Jim’s opinions about both men and women change throughout the book, occasionally finding girls’ boyishness appealing (“[Antonia] would toss her head and ask me to feel the muscles swell in her brown arm.” 110), and often judging apparent masculinity or seeing it as the façade it could be (“[T]heir very roughness and violence made them defenseless. These boys had no practiced manner behind which they could retreat and hold people at a distance. They had only their hard fists to batter at the world with.” 69)
Another possible reason for Cather’s reticence to use her own voice as the narrator is that she was uncomfortable presenting her own love for women – being a lesbian in the early 20th century was not a simple matter – or her changing and developing opinion of immigrants. At the start of the novel, Jim is incredibly condescending and judgmental of the Czech family’s customs and lifestyle: “We were willing to believe that Mrs. Shimerda was a good housewife in her own country, but she managed poorly under new conditions.” (29, emphasis added) Later in the novel, though, Jim criticizes the people in Black Hawk for being so snooty to the foreign girls: “I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. […] There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or the cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Antonia’s father.” (155)
There are a great deal of changes and transitions in both manner and opinion throughout the book, whether it be tomboyish Antonia growing up to become a motherly housewife or Lena who begins as a flighty girl unaware of her sexual allure and grows up to be a savvy businesswoman who loves her profession as a dressmaker. Jim, however, stays the same throughout the novel in one sense: his narration is always that of the boy who came to Black Hawk and became enraptured with the people he came to know in his youth. Although the introduction tells us that one of the reasons the Cather narrator doesn’t see much of Jim is that she does “not like his wife,” (3) Jim himself never tells the reader about his wife, never brings her into the story at all, even though he has been married to her for a great many years. He doesn’t even tell Antonia that he is married when he sees her when they are both middle-aged, but simply tells her that he has no children. Jim’s ability to keep the past sacred in his mind is what makes him such a good narrator – for he remembers his bad opinions as well as his good, and perhaps that is why Cather uses him, in order to show a developing attitude towards the Other.
I need this tonight.
I like this aesthetically but I can’t help thinking about that round space at the bottom and what a waste of book-space it is… Maybe I’d pile my New Yorkers there?
"open book" by Sarah Browning
"SSA51498" by Dorothy Tse
"Stacks of Books" by Andrei.D40
I’ve posted some of these before, but this is the full thing. Art by danor shtruzman
A slice of orange floated in Kera’s beer. She had made the mistake of dunking it into the drink with a straw until it was shredded. Perhaps it is more correct to say, then, that a slice of orange peel was floating in Kera’s beer. The pits had sunk to the bottom and were turning a nauseating vomit color.
Kera wished she could vomit. But she had no gag reflex to speak of, and hadn’t thrown up since…
"Tolstoy" by Blasco