The movement from possession to loss, from union to separation, is the deep and central pattern of Jim Burden's experience in My Ántonia. It is first announced in the fact of his orphanhood, then repeated in his experiences of nature, and finally developed in the long, slow renunciation and forfeiture, the gradually widening breach, of his relationship with Ántonia. In ever-widening arcs, Jim's narrative traces and retraces what is fundamentally one loss, repeated and reinscribed: the loss of preoedipal fusion with the mother. My essay explores the multiple presentations of this single paradigm, in which the child falls from an imaginary state of preoedipal wholeness into what Jacques Lacan calls the Law of the Father, the world of loss and time that is also the world of culture. Margaret Homans remarks that Western metaphysics is founded on the myth that, "sorrowfully but fortunately," "language and culture depend on the death or absence of the mother and on the quest for substitutes for her" (2, 4). Jim's narrative bears out this remark; his language is a form of desire, which constantly seeks but can never arrive at that lost body.
It is true that at the end of the novel, in "Cuzak's Boys," Jim retrieves his friendship with Ántonia. This development has led some readers to suppose that, now that he has reestablished contact with her "rich mine of life" (353), he will pass beyond the barrenness of his own adulthood, as the Introduction describes it, and enter anew into rich and full experience. Jim himself seems to believe this; he alludes to his plans to "tramp along a few miles of lighted streets" with Cuzak and to go hunting "in the Bad Lands and up on the Stinking Water" (370) with Cuzak's sons. Sleeping in the hay with Leo and Ambrosch, eating Ántonia's kolaches, Jim seems to regain his own childhood and to become another of Ántonia's children-a magically timeless boy who will play alongside the children whose names echo names from the novel's beginning: Ambrosch, Nina, Yulka. However, such a blissful reading of the novel's final pages is highly problematic. Jim has no future with Ántonia; whatever reunions take place will truly concern not Ántonia but, in Jim's revealing phrase, Cuzak and and "Cuzak's boys." Furthermore, we cannot be certain that Jim will return to Nebraska. Once before he has told Ántonia, "I'll come back" (322), but he has chosen to stay away for twenty years; a similar ambivalence may overtake him now. In the Introduction, admittedly, Cather's persona "I" (heard only in these few pages) informs us that "Jim had found [Ántonia] again after long years, and had renewed a friendship that meant a great deal to him" (n.p.), but this reference need not apply to occasions beyond the novel's end. Finally, even while Jim is with Ántonia, the undertone of exile and impermanence is strong. Though he may believe he has come home, the bittersweet truth is that, except for art, he has no home. The loft he sleeps in, the fields he walks, the orchard he stands in, rich with fruit in its triple enclosure, are not his own, but Ántonia's.
After the initial reunion that ends the novel, Jim's retrieval of Ántonia takes place most truly not in his life but in his language. Despite Jim's putative occupation as a lawyer and his insistence, in the Introduction, that My Ántonia is an "artless" narrative, Jim's vocation is art. He exists only as the (fictive) creator of this highly artful novel. Though the brief biographical information given In the Introduction, which is about Jim but not by him, might seem at first to contradict this assertion, in reality it confirms it, for it shows us that, apart from the act of writing the pages that attempt to embody what Jim calls "my Ántonia" (emphasis mine), he belongs to the world of death. Childless, trapped in a sterile and unloving marriage, a practitioner of the law that helps the railroads develop-that is to say, annihilate-the open prairies, he is something like the shadows in Hades as the Odyssey describes them, who, drinking the hot, rich blood of the sacrificial beasts, take on substance just long enough to tell their stories. Apart from Ántonia, Jim has no story; of the twenty years that intervene between parts 4 and 5 of the novel-years during which he ages from twenty to forty, marrying, becoming a lawyer, settling in New York-he says not a word at all.
Yet neither would Jim have a story to tell had he been with Ántonia. His vocation is art, and art for him—as for Cather herself, as, indeed, for many of the great modernists—is the parable of loss. In this context, book 4 of My Ántonia, "The Pioneer Woman's Story," reveals itself as crucial, for it subtly and precisely situates loss in the process of creativity. Jim has come back to visit Ántonia, but only briefly, before beginning law school at Harvard. She has suffered, has borne an illegitimate daughter, and has returned to the family farm. Their paths have been diverging and will continue to diverge: Jim's, toward success within the law, until he becomes, as it were, the exemplar and practitioner of the Law of the Father; Ántonia's, increasingly back toward the realm of the material, the maternal. In a passage filled with longing and nostalgia, they walk in the fields and he tells her, "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man" (321). In phrasing similar to Cathy's in Wuthering Heights-who cries out to Nelly Dean, "Nelly, I am Heathcliff—he's always, always in my mind"—Jim tells Ántonia, "You really are a part of me. . . . The idea of you is a part of my mind" (321). Jim at this time is twenty years old; Ántonia is twenty-four. She is, furthermore, more accessible than she has ever been. Though she is not ashamed of being an unwed mother, she is sad and very lonely; she needs him. Nor does he seem to disqualify her because of her sexual experience. Yet for all Jim's words, for all Jim's longing, inexorably they part. Then, the question naturally arises, why does Jim not marry Ántonia?
There are almost too many reasons. The first and perhaps most obvious is that of class and education: Jim would no more take a farmer than Ántonia would make a lady. "Things will be easy for you," Ántonia predicts at the end of "The Shimerdas," when Jim goes off to school and Ántonia returns to the fields to help her family. "But they will be hard for us" (140). Other reasons are more subtly established in the text. While Jim does not seem to disqualify Ántonia because of her sexual experience-though, in fact, he has already told Lena that he had "better go home and look after Ántonia" (268) -Jim's allusion to Byron's "When We Parted" in "The Pioneer Woman's Story" hints at his bitterness and anger over what he unconsciously sees as Ántonia's betrayal. "We met," he says of himself and Ántonia, "like the people in the old song, in silence, if not in tears" (319), and it is hard to know how much of Byron's accusation against a faithless lover Jim's allusion is meant to carry. The subtext cannot be entirely unintended: Thy vows are all broken, And light is thy fame: I hear thy name spoken, And share in its shame. They name thee before me, A knell to mine ear: A shudder comes o'er me— Why wert thou so dear? They know not I knew thee, Who knew thee too well:— Long, long shall I rue thee, Too deeply to tell. In secret we met— In silence I grieve, That thy heart could forget, Thy spirit deceive. If I should meet thee After long years, How should I greet thee?— With silence and tears. (14)
But how, exactly, are we to interpret the effect of these lines? In Jim's imagination, has Ántonia betrayed chastity, or has she betrayed Jim? How aware is he of his latent accusation? And what is the nature of his entanglement, anyway? When he tells Ántonia that he'd like to have her as a mother, a sister, a sweetheart, or a wife, the very profusion of possibilities indicates the problem: choosing all, he chooses none, for they cancel each other out. Paradoxically, this is what Jim most deeply does seem to desire. Blanche Gelfant and others have pointed out the pattern of sexual eschewals and evasions that characterizes Jim's narrative, in which, incapacitated by an infantile and morbid fear of sexuality, he backs away from any real chance to become involved with a woman. Gelfant argues that this tendency in Jim reveals Cather's own terror of surrendering her own autonomy, her own fear of sexuality as threatening the precarious boundaries of selfhood. I agree, yet would add that, insofar as Jim is Cather's persona, the only possession of Ántonia that he truly does seek is imaginative, linguistic. In this sense, he gets what he wants. Faced with the choice Yeats phrases as "Perfection of the life, or of the work" (242), he chooses the latter, for, insofar as Jim is Cather's persona, he participates in her conviction, as she wrote in 1891 in her essay on Thomas Carlyle, that "Art of every kind is an exacting master, more so than even Jehovah. He says only, 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.' Art, science, and letters cry, 'Thou shalt have no other gods at all.' They accept only human sacrafices" (Kingdom of Art 423; quoted Woodress 74). Seeking not physical but linguistic possession of Ántonia, Jim must choreograph the loss that brings forth language-the loss of Ántonia that repeats and represents his initial separation from the mother.
Shortly after Jim tells Ántonia that she is "a part of my mind,"
they walk home across the fields. Jim describes the sunset:
The sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west.
While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a
cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a
bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two
luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on
opposite edges of the world.
In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every
sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up
high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to
stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic
that comes out of these fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a
little boy again, and that my way could end there. (322)
The sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world.
In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of these fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there. (322)
These lines, seemingly just a passage of landscape description, suggest the deepest reason for Jim's separation from Ántonia. They present the epiphanic moment as the moment of farewell; briefly, meaning flares forth, and there is potency in "every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain." The sun gives way to the moon in the sky, the imagination begins to come into its own, and the beloved actual, or the actual beloved, is on the point of vanishing. "In that singular light," nature enacts the tense dance between male and female entities or symbols in which we may see Jim's plight: like the stalks and shocks and trees, he must draw himself up, phallically differentiate himself, from the "solemn magic" of the maternal earth. In nature, each thing is intensely individuated, yet all are grounded and held in a harmonious tug and flow. Jim's situation is more poignant. "In that singular light" the percipient self remains single, does not join with the body of the mother. Only childhood and death are states of wholeness, places where "my way could end." In between, Jim is poised longing yet leaving, pulled back toward the realm of the mother, the longed-for realm of childhood, yet in the act of flight.
Jim's separation from Ántonia in "The Pioneer Woman's Story"
takes place twenty years before his reunion with Ántonia in
"Cuzak's Boys," but it casts its long shadow forward and teaches us how
to read the end of the novel. Like Proust's narrator-persona Marcel in
Remembrance of Things Past, Jim dies in the
end in order to be reborn in, and as, his autobiography; his future will
lie in the act of linguistically rendering "the little circle" (372) of
his experience. As in Remembrance of Things Past,
the circle begins with an initiatory experience: for Jim, a symbolic
death and rebirth his first night on the prairie; for Marcel, the first
withholding of his mother's kiss. The narrative in both instances then
traces a long trajectory through separation, disillusion, and
intensifying, nearly final, silence and circles around to close with a
sudden rediscovery of the sources of identity, which enables a
reclaiming of the past. This is the Oedipal pattern that Teresa de
Lauretis sees as universal to narrative; in a passage from Alice Doesn't, which centrally pertains to my own
reading of My Ántonia, she writes:
All narrative, in its movement forward toward resolution and backward
to an initial moment, a paradise lost, is overlaid with what has
been called an Oedipal logic-the inner necessity or drive of the
drama-its "sense of an ending" inseparable from the memory of loss
and the recapturing of time. Proust's title, A la
Recherche du temps perdu, epitomizes the very movement of
the narrative: the unfolding of the Oedipal drama as action at once
backward and forward, its quest for (self) knowledge through the
realization of loss, to the making good of Oedipus' sight and the
restoration of vision. Or rather, its sublation into the higher
order attained by Oedipus at Colonus, the superior being capable of
bridging the visible and invisible worlds. (125-26)
All narrative, in its movement forward toward resolution and backward to an initial moment, a paradise lost, is overlaid with what has been called an Oedipal logic-the inner necessity or drive of the drama-its "sense of an ending" inseparable from the memory of loss and the recapturing of time. Proust's title, A la Recherche du temps perdu, epitomizes the very movement of the narrative: the unfolding of the Oedipal drama as action at once backward and forward, its quest for (self) knowledge through the realization of loss, to the making good of Oedipus' sight and the restoration of vision. Or rather, its sublation into the higher order attained by Oedipus at Colonus, the superior being capable of bridging the visible and invisible worlds. (125-26)
Henceforth the snake has its tail in its mouth. Marcel's narrative quite frankly does not lead to a world outside itself. Jim's may appear to, in his references to planned reunions with the Cuzaks, but action in My Ántonia is essentially complete once Jim has found Ántonia again. Like Marcel's, his narrative leads not to the world outside but always to rereading.
The adultery between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter not only is the act that initiates the narrative but also-because Hawthorne places it outside and before the narrative, rarely alludes to it, and never describes it-comes to seem archetypal and universal, a re-enactment of the Fall, a definitive precondition for experience. Something similar is true of Jim's orphanhood in My Ántonia. Itself unrepresented, it nevertheless exerts a powerful subliminal pressure throughout the novel. Like the adultery in The Scarlet Letter, it precedes and initiates the narrative: newly orphaned, Jim must leave his childhood home in Virginia and travel to his grandparents in Nebraska. But like the adultery, too, its specific events remain shadowy: neither the deaths that orphan Jim nor his reactions to it are ever described. Therefore, Jim's orphanhood suggests a condition beyond its specificity, loss itself as an origin. "A loss of something ever felt I-" (#959, 448), Emily Dickinson writes. Behind the youthful radiance of My Ántonia, Dickinson's bereavement is also Jim's.
Pearl is the visible sign of her parents' transgression in The Scarlet Letter. The sign of Jim's loss, in contrast, is displaced and evanescent. My Ántonia contains only two allusions to his parents. In the second, Jim describes not his grief, not his tears, but only the trace of his grandmother's tears. He has arrived at the burden homestead in the middle of the night and has slept until the following afternoon. He awakens, then, to find his grandmother smiling down on him, but he can see that she has been crying and senses her grief for his father, "her little boy" (9). The other reference to Jim's parents helps to explain his subsequent lack of grief and renders them even more shadowy. His first night on the prairie, Jim must travel hours by wagon from the train station in Black Hawk to his grandparents' farm. Kneeling at the bottom of the wagon, peering out over the side as it jolts and rumbles through the darkness, gazing up at "the complete dome of heaven" (8), he discovers how completely he has left the past behind. Many years later, he writes of this night: "I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me" (8). So powerful is the influence of the new land, not yet even a country but "the material out of which countries"-and selves-"are made" (7), that Jim cannot carry his past identity with him. The rupture is complete: both the parents and the self that claimed them and defined itself accordingly have died.
When Cather herself arrived in Nebraska in 1883, she was part of a large family group that numbered her parents, her brothers Roscoe and Douglass, her sister Jessica, her grandmother Rachel Boak, her mother's niece Bess Seymour, and the family servant Marjorie Anderson (O'Brien 60-61). The effects of orphaning Jim, her alter ego, are complex. Partly, she is following the example set by many other novelists-Brontë, Dickens, Melville, James, Twain, to name a few-of orphaning their protagonists in order to clear the ground of family entanglements and to concentrate on their formative experiences. Partly, too, as Sharon O'Brien points out, orphaning Jim enables Cather to express the loneliness and dislocation of her own move to Nebraska, "Depriving him of parents reflects the emotional, if not the literal, truth of her own uprooting; he is at first the abandoned, the erased, self" (66). Orphaning Jim also permits Cather to affirm the privacy, the subjectivity, of her own childhood. One imagines the Cather family's arrival in Nebraska resembling not Jim's arrival but that of the Shimerdas, as both Jim and the Benda woodcut in the original edition of My Ántonia portray it: a generic scene of adults, children, and baggage in a huddle on the station platform, visually intriguing as a group but with little chance for anyone-least of all a child-to express inwardness or individuality. Traveling only with the equally naÏve (and only marginally more authoritative) farmhand Jake Marpole, Jim is free to become the protagonist of his own Bildungsroman, and he experiences his journey freshness and romance heightened by his vacation from inscription in the family. Everything seems wonderful: the candy, oranges, brass collar buttons, and watch charms that newsboys sell to the credulous Jake, the Life of Jesse James that Jake buys Jim ("one of the most satisfying books I have ever read" ), and most of all the friendly passenger conductor beyond Chicago, who impresses Jim as "an experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant states and cities. He wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged. Even his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk" (4).
Present for only a moment in the novel, humorously and off-handedly described, this passenger conductor serves nonetheless as a resonant example of Cather's craft of the novel démeublé. Like Queequeg in Moby-Dick, whose body is tattooed with the secrets of the universe in the hieroglyphics of his native Kokovoko (a place "not down in any map; true places never are" [Melville 150]), the conductor with his secret fraternal orders and hieroglyphic cufflinks seems a guide, however inscrutable, to realms beyond the self. To the child Jim, he seems manliness and adventure incarnate, the possessor of vast and virile knowledge. Jim's bond with the conductor does not develop; a chance and brief encounter, it is one of those loose ends that unravel ceaselessly. But as an example of what Thomas Mann calls Steigerung, or heightening, it charges an overtly domestic and realistic narrative with mythic overtones and helps to establish the aura of dislocation, initiation, and incipient transformation that pervades the opening of My Ántonia.
Fittingly, then, it is the conductor who first makes Jim aware of his fellow travelers, the Shimerdas, and in particular the girl with the "pretty brown eyes" (5), Ántonia. Jim shrinks from meeting her at first, as he will later shrink from claiming her, out of a disinclination to become involved with foreigners ("you were likely to get diseases from foreigners," Jake opines ) or with females. In retrospect, however, Ántonia's presence on the train seems to Jim premonitory, nearly uncanny: the figure who is to become central to his life was present (like a mother, like a twin) at the beginning. Separately, together, Jim and Ántonia move forward into Nebraska, the uncreated realm or "creation state" of radical beginning (Thorpe 212). At the novel's start, Jim focuses on his arrival; his narrative sends Ántonia among her family and their bundles rumbling off into the darkness in Krajiek's wagon and describes his nighttime ride. At the novel's end, however, a subtle change in Jim's account of this first night occurs: so important has Ántonia proved to the linguistic shaping of his experience that he writes as if the two of them had ridden in the wagons together, parallel and doubled: "This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness" (371). Like twins they emerge together in the swaddling, preoedipal darkness and begin their journey down the "road of Destiny" (372). Orphanhood releases Jim into this pattern of surrogacy in which one's true kin are not defined biologically, but emotionally or spiritually. Though, of course, Jim soon resumes sonship in his biological family, the figures who become his true surrogate family are not his grandparents but his wistfully imagined mother-sister-sweetheart-wife, Ántonia, and the elegant, exhausted man who gazes into his eyes and sees "far ahead into the future for me, down the road I would have to travel" (87), Mr. Shimerda. Jim thereby becomes a poetic autobiographer, as does Cather herself, who writes the myth of her own arrival in Nebraska. In Jim's understanding, he is as if reborn his first night on the prairie, and just behind that first night lingers the figure of the conductor-path to Ántonia, hieroglyphic guide.
Psychoanalytically, orphanhood would seem to have a potential double significance. Loss of the mother through her death would repeat and intensify the separation from her suffered in the Oedipal crisis with the child's "fall" out of preoedipality into the symbolic order. Loss of the parents through both their deaths would represent a further fall, for, orphaned, the child would be shaken loose from an assured and clearly defined place within the symbolic order and would become an exile, cast out from the original structure of relations that signified home. But Jim is only an incipient Ishmael, who does not have the desperation or energy or courage to remain outside. Conventionality undoes him; he never becomes an inquisitor of structures, a vagabond, or an isolato. Within a day of his arrival on the prairie, his genuinely liberating voyage-which begins on the train with his excitement, his fascination with the conductor, and his first fragmentary impressions of Ántonia, and which culminates in his experiences of lapsing out both in the wagon under the night sky and the following afternoon in his grandmother's garden-closes over like water behind him. Once he rejoins his family, he soon steps into the path of their expectations and is molded and repressed to the shape of success in modern society. Seen in one light, his life reveals the emptiness of being a good boy: he is permitted no dancing, no beer and sausages at Anton Jelinek's saloon, no passionate sexuality, no children, no fruit cave, no garden. Seen in another, more sublime, it exemplifies the "human sacrifices" demanded of the artist. But however one finally judges it, the pattern is the same: Jim never attains his early felicity again, and the rest of his narrative traces the arc of jouissance and separation, possession and loss, which constitutes his experience.
In one sense, then, Jim does not get very far, metaphorically speaking,
following his guide. But looked at otherwise, as Jim eventually shapes
his story, all of it opens out from that first train ride. Perhaps then,
as with Ishmael, felicity and its passing are the secret of the guide.
The Virgilian roundedness of Jim's narrative is far different from the
ragged, pyrotechnic grandeur of Ishmael's, but a longing like Ishmael's
in his great soliloquy in "The Gilder" seems to haunt My Ántonia as part of "the thing not named . . . the
overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the
emotional aura" (Not Under Forty 50). "Oh grassy
glades," muses Ishmael, staring into a sea that briefly resembles a
calm, sun-dappled prairie:
Oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,-though long
parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,-in ye, men yet may
roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few
fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them.
Would to God these blessed calms would last. . . . Where lies the
final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the
world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the
foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose
unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity
lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it. (Melville
Oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye,-though long parched by the dead drought of the earthy life,-in ye, men yet may roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last. . . . Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it. (Melville 602)
We remember Jim's words, "I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there." But, as Ishmael says, "Once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally" (602). Within time, there is only the endless tracing of what Jim calls the "little circle" of man's experience, only the restless retelling of the story.
In Felicitous Space, Judith Fryer discusses the nature of American pastoral narrative along the lines of argument set forth by Annette Kolodny in Lay of the Land. Fryer proposes that "in America . . . there has been a male need to experience the land as maternal because of the threatening, alien and potentially emasculating terror of the unknown" (229). Quoting Kolodny, she writes, "Our 'most American' writers . . . embrace the myth of the eternal return, made possible by the discovery of a land unblemished and fertile upon which is projected 'a residue of infantile experience in which all needs-physical, erotic, spiritual, and emotional-[can be] . . . met by an entity imagined as quintessentially female'" (230, Kolodny 153-56). According to Fryer, traditional American pastoral-the work of Cooper, Thoreau, Melville, Faulkner, Frost, and Hemingway, for instance-traces the movement of its protagonist "back into the realm of the Mother, and then . . . out of that containment in order to experience the self as independent, assertive, and sexually active"; she also points out that such success experience in American pastoral is always fraught with "violence and guilt" (230).
Fryer goes on to question the applicability of this conception of pastoral to women writers, and specifically to Willa Cather: "This conception of the American pastoral narrative as a 'deeply romantic' promise held out by the beckoning, compliant, supportive 'deeply feminine' landscape, the unsettled wilderness that in America offers to the male individual 'the medium on which he may inscribe, unhindered, his own destiny and his own nature'-just how useful an approach is it to Willa Cather's 'novels of the soil'?" (231). We are asked to conclude: very little. In Fryer's words, "References to a prescriptive patriarchal tradition . . . has [sic] little to do with Willa Cather's perceptions of the land and her descriptions of the people who are of the land" (232). There is truth in what she says in the cases of O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. And yet, contrary to Fryer's conclusions, her remarks regarding the American pastoral tradition just exactly describe Jim Burden's narrative in My Ántonia. His is the narrative par excelence that traces the movement "back into the realm of the Mother, and then . . . out of that containment in order to experience the self as independent, assertive, and sexually active"; his quest, further more, is certainly fraught with guilt, though only indirectly with violence.
It has been argued that Cather herself stands elsewhere, that she
deliberately creates Jim as an untrustworthy narrator and so exposes and
criticizes the tradition he represents. Intention has come to be a
thorny issue in Cather studies, because in so many ways Cather is
subtle, elusive, impossible to pin down, and because so many different
readers have interpreted Cather's fiction according to their own
agendas. With regard to My Ántonia,
however, I believe that Cather's distance from Jim is much less than has
sometimes-wishfully-been imagined. Far from separating herself from Jim
in order in order to point out his shortcomings or the failures of the
patriarchal pastoral tradition, Cather is intensely invested in his
narrative. Jim is her fictive autobiographical persona; admitting the
difference in gender, his perceptions, values, choices, and limitations
are largely Cather's own. Furthermore, she wholeheartedly participates
in his feelings for Ántonia. Certainly there is evidence to
support this interpretation, for instance, in the anecdote Elizabeth
Shepley Sergeant tells of a memorable conversation with Cather. "In the
spring of 1916, I had the first inkling that Willa had a new story in
mind." The two women were drinking tea together in Sergeant's New York
apartment, discussing Henry James and his notion of the
incommensurability between reporters and "originators," or artists, when
leaned over-and this is something I remembered clearly when My Ántonia came into my hands, at
last, in 1918-and set an old Sicilian apothecary jar of mine, filled
with orange-brown flowers of scented stock, in the middle of a bare,
round, antique table.
"I want my new heroine to be like this-like a rare object in the
middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides."
She moved the lamp so that light streamed brightly down on my
Taormina jar, with its glazed orange and blue design.
"I want her to stand out-like this-like this-because she is the story."
Saying this her fervent, enthusiastic voice faltered and her eyes
filled with tears.
Someone you knew in your childhood, I ventured. She nodded, but did not say more. (139-40)
leaned over-and this is something I remembered clearly when My Ántonia came into my hands, at last, in 1918-and set an old Sicilian apothecary jar of mine, filled with orange-brown flowers of scented stock, in the middle of a bare, round, antique table.
"I want my new heroine to be like this-like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides."
She moved the lamp so that light streamed brightly down on my Taormina jar, with its glazed orange and blue design.
"I want her to stand out-like this-like this-because she is the story."
Saying this her fervent, enthusiastic voice faltered and her eyes filled with tears.
Someone you knew in your childhood, I ventured.
She nodded, but did not say more. (139-40)
Or there is Cather's letter to Carrie Miner of 27 January 1934, in which she writes of the emotion and excitement that went into her creation of Ántonia, the other early immigrants, and her own first experiences on the prairie. Unfortunately, I am not permitted to quote from this letter, which would seem to lay rest to the claim that Cather's relation to Jim is detached or ironic. Briefly, though, to paraphrase: Cather has just received a medal for My Ántonia from the International Mark Twain Society, but she does not want Carrie Miner to advertise the fact around Red Cloud because she does not want people pestering Annie Pavelka, driving out to her farm to look her over, and concluding that Cather has lied. She defends herself against readers' charges of idealization or exaggeration by insisting that she wrote from real feeling, which can never be falsified. In portraying Annie, she says, she was not limning body parts but attempting to capture this feeling; she did not exaggerate but instead meant just what she said.
Cather herself, then, embraces in My Ántonia the "myth of the eternal return" to which Fryer alludes and the myth of the land and its human embodiment as "quintessentially female." I cannot agree either with Fryer's conclusion regarding Cather's distance from the male pastoral tradition or with Sharon O'Brien's conclusion in The Emerging Voice that Cather discovers a strong, sure woman's authorial voice with O Pioneers!; that having resolved the gender conflicts that troubled her early life, she writes from this assurance hereafter. (I should mention that O'Brien now also questions this conclusion.) In My Ántonia, Cather is primarily a male-identified writer, both in that she writes within the tradition of patriarchal pastoral as defined by Kolodny and Fryer and it that she renders herself via a male persona. What Ántonia, as woman, represents for Willa Cather, as woman, is expressed by Jim Burden, who speaks for Willa Cather, as writer. Cather's adoption of a male persona argues that she participates in what Margaret Homans calls the constitutive "myths of our culture" (4), which suggest that women, as Woman, embody the literal-the realm of nature or matter-and therefore need not, indeed cannot, write, that women do not have the distance necessary from the worldbody, the motherbody, to seek to close that distance in language. As Homans writes, "The literal is ambiguous for women writers because women's potentially more positive view of it collides with its devaluation by our culture" (5). Cather's affection for Annie Pavelka and creation of Ántonia evince her honoring-even her near-enshrining-of the literal; Cather's creation of Jim and identification with him suggest that she shares the ambivalence.
Jim's experiences in nature, during his childhood, reveal just how
closely Cather patterns his narrative along the lines of American
patriarchal pastoral, as Kolodny and Fryer describe it. In this regard,
it is fruitful to look at the differences between two versions of a
child's arrival in Nebraska: the first, Cather's account in a 1913
newspaper interview of her own first trip across the prairie; the
second, her reworking of this account about four years later for Jim. In
the first, Cather stresses the harshness of the land and her own
I shall never forget my introduction to [the land]. We drove out from
Red Cloud to my grandfather's homestead one day in April. I was
sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on
to the side of the wagon box to steady myself-the roads were mostly
faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open
range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and
further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come
to the end of everything-it was a kind of erasure of personality.
I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and
hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all
these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet
iron. (Kingdom of Art 448; quoted in O'Brien
I shall never forget my introduction to [the land]. We drove out from Red Cloud to my grandfather's homestead one day in April. I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon box to steady myself-the roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything-it was a kind of erasure of personality.
I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron. (Kingdom of Art 448; quoted in O'Brien 63)
O'Brien contrasts this passage with Cather's descriptions of her first family home at Willow Shade, in Virginia, as presented in the "Epilogue" to Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940). The Virginia passages from which O'Brien quotes emphasize the gentleness and beauty of the land, the soft rolling hills of the Blue Ridge, and the convivial domesticity of the big family kitchen. In her view, Cather's descriptions of Virginia and Nebraska "reveal the psychological and emotional dynamics of the mother-daughter bond." The gentle, pastoral Virginia world is maternal; consequently "the abrupt change in landscape signifies both the separation of self and other, and the loss of maternal protection and nurturance: the child is rudely 'jerked away' and 'thrown out' into a forbidding, sterile country 'as bare as a piece of sheet iron.'" As Cather presents the move to Nebraska, it re-enacts the original separation from the mother; and though, in life, this separation generally bears good results as well as bad, "Cather's early memory is more negative than ambivalent, stressing loss rather than birth or rebirth; indeed, the barren land both causes and reflects the death of the self" (63-64).
This reading is acute, though to argue from texts written at two such
disparate times as 1913 and 1940 creates an either/or symmetry that the
intervention of history renders problematic. What is striking to me, as
well, is the nature of the changes made when Cather comes to rewrite her
own first memories for Jim:
Cautiously I stepped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees
and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to
see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was
a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was
nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of
which countries are made. . . . I had the feeling that the world was
left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside
man's jurisdiction. . . . The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew
not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived
anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt
erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I
felt, what would be would be. (7-8)
Cautiously I stepped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. . . . I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. . . . The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be. (7-8)
There is a vast difference between the two passages. Both describe an erasure of personality caused by the child's exposure to the vast, flat land, but in the first instance the tone is entirely negative. Cather describes a loss of home and a desolating sense of deprivation; she goes on to say in the interview that she was so homesick that she could not eat for weeks. Jim, in contrast, is not homesick, because he is coming home, rediscovering home; he experiences a mythically charged regression back through the symbolic order-he has left "man's jurisdiction"-into the realm of the mother, the "material out of which countries are made." What has been and will again become a self is cradled "between that earth and that sky," fetally surrounded, and, though it is possible to read the statement, "I did not say my prayers that night; here I felt that what would be would be," as expressing a stunned fatalism, even a sense of terror, it is also possible to read it as expressing a surrender to being carried through existence in amniotic peace. There is no need to pray, no one to pray to, no one to pray. O'Brien calls this a "mythic descent into the underworld of nothingness, and nonbeing" (67), and Hermione Lee speaks of "this dark negative space, like chaos before the Word" (140). It is also profoundly fruitful, a kind of quiet jouissance; carried through the vast, all-encircling darkness, Jim rediscovers his oneness in and with the mother's body.
This sense of nurturant space carries over into the whole of "The Shimerdas." Hermione Lee writes: "From the moment Jim emerges from the train, and sees Ántonia and her huddled, 'encumbered' family also emerging, the shape of his narrative replicates the process of growth from infancy to adulthood. Like a child's book, the first section has simple, coloured, apprehensible things standing out on every page-food, clothes, animals, plants-in a primary environment of smells, warmth, light, space, snow, sky" (140). The aura of childhood is intensified subliminally, poetically, by the powerful creation of a maternally infused world. Book I is the book of the mother; its central gesture-one writ large in the circular shape of the novel itself-is one of projecting, encircling, enfolding. From the "complete dome of heaven" (8), to the great circle where the Indians used to ride that stands out "when the first light spray of snow lay over it . . . like strokes of Chinese white on canvas" (62), to Mr. Shimerda's homely grave with its uncut shaggy grasses, like a shrine or "little island" (119) between two roads that curve protectively around it, to the pumpkins and ground-cherries that nestle against the fields, book I reinscribes the shape of completeness and enclosure, the circle. Even when terror, danger, or sorrow rears its head-as in Jake's and Otto's belief that the great circle marks the site where Indians tortured their prisoners or in Mr. Shimerda's suicide-it is lulled by being encircled. In their essence, memory, autobiographical narrative, and storytelling all strongly tend toward containment and enclosure; more specifically, these particular stories, with the calligraphic "great circle" and the "little island," seek their own resolution in lingering images of circularity.
The best example of this encircling process occurs in the famous story of Pavel and Peter and the bride who was thrown to the wolves. Genuinely terrifying, this is one story every reader remembers: the troikas flee across the snow, the bodies shriek and tumble to the marauding wolves, the church bells ring at dawn, and Pavel and Peter set forth on their guilty wanderings. But the story just barely does not overturn the novel, for it is distanced and contained, so that we see it as if through the wrong end of a telescope. It comes to us doubly translated and at four removes: Pavel tells it in Russian to Mr. Shimerda; Ántonia overhears it, translates it for herself into Bohemian, and then tells it in English to Jim; Jim gives it as part of his manuscript to the "I" persona of the introduction; and this persona finally publishes the manuscript as a novel. It happened, besides, long ago and far away, in the fabular Ukraine, on the other side of the world from Jim's Nebraska. The story seeps into Jim's fantasies-"At night, before I went to sleep, I often found myself in a sledge drawn by three horses, dashing through a country that looked something like Nebraska and something like Virginia" (61)-and as critics have pointed out, its implications regarding misogyny and violence are somewhat unsettling. Interestingly, however, both Jim and Ántonia derive "a painful and peculiar pleasure" (61) from the story; theirs seems to be a mutual sadomasochistic gratification in which traditional male and female roles are not clearly defined. Then too, Jim's wording regarding his fantasies makes it impossible to tell what part he plays in the scenario: is he ruthless murderer, hapless witness, struggling bridegroom, or powerless bride? His involvement in the story is characterized not so much by misogyny or aggression as by polymorphous perversity; he plays all parts in his imagination, in the same way as he will later in the Wick Cutter episode. Snuggled down in the wagon with Ántonia, scared blissfully half to death as he listens to her tell him Pavel's story, Jim experiments with the boundaries of identity and safety. Here, the boundaries hold; repetition and complicity bring pleasure out of terror, and the children's safe journey home provides a reassuring counterpart to that other, tragic ride.
Like the other violent passages of My Ántonia-Ántonia's story of the tramp and the threshing machine, or the Wick Cutter episode, or the bloody details of Mr. Shimerda's suicide-the story of Pavel and Peter is essential to the novel. It helps to keep the novel from going soft, establishing a stress of recalcitrant materials against the Virgilian roundedness that seeks to finish and polish experience. It provides an analogue for the predatory ferocity, rage, and masochistic frisson in the face of danger that run deep and strong in children, no matter how well behaved. The way it flares out, temporarily possesses its audience, then gradually diminishes, to be subsumed (in the following chapter) in a return to daylight, resembles the irruption of dream or other unconscious energies against the ordinarily well-defended ego. Susan Rosowski points out how, in Cather's handling of Pavel's story, Russia and Nebraska seem to merge: the steppes blend with the prairie, the howl of wolves becomes the cry of coyotes, and "different voices combine to tell a truth so profound all of nature speaks of it, the tragedy of life in a wilderness" (81). Also, however, the juxtaposition of Pavel's story with the chapter that follows, in which Jim, Ántonia, and Yulka ride out through the winter sunlight on Jim's new sleigh as far across the prairie as "Russian Peter's house" (64), permits Jim to master the unpleasant stimuli of Pavel's story and bring them under the dominance of the pleasure principle by means of modulated repetition; it is what Freud calls one of the "ways and means . . . of making what is in itself unpleasurable into a subject to be recollected and worked over in the mind" (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 37). Both desire and danger repeat in diminuendo: instead of an adult marriage, Yulka fantasizes about settling down with Jim and her sister to "live in Russian Peter's house" (64), and instead of ravenous wolves, the children are threatened by cold and howling wind, which leaves Jim with a bad attack of quinsy. But Pavel and Peter are outcast; after his terrible deed, "even Pavel's own mother would not look at him" (60). Jim, in contrast, is welcomed back into his grandmother's loving embrace and finds comfort in her basement kitchen, which "seemed heavenly safe and warm in those days-like a tight little boat in a winter sea" (65). How poignant it is, then, that Pavel's and Peter's fate proves to be prophetic for Jim, who for different reasons from theirs becomes in essence like them, an exile and a wanderer.
Generally, however, experience at this stage of Jim's life is presented as benign. Book I of My Ántonia offers an extraordinary mixture of delight and safety, through its return to the magical, maternal shapes of childhood. Lee remarks that action in book I is characterized by the child's "pull between earth and space, near and far, solidity and dissolution"; Jim and Ántonia "are always coming out from underground (Jim from his secure kitchen, Ántonia from her dark constricting cave) into infinite space" (141), in a replication of birth that will be echoed at the end, when Ántonia's children burst forth into the sunlight from the fruit cave. What strikes me, similarly, is Jim's recurrent creation of womblike shapes that promise safety, as if to write the body of the mother into the vast, obliterating terrain. The Burdens' underground kitchen smelling of gingerbread, with its little half-windows laden with geraniums and looking right onto the ground; the tunnel dug through the snow to the barn; the badger hole near the garden with its "friendly" badger; the labyrinthine prairie dog town; even the Shimerdas' sod house, which seems wonderful and cozy as well as grim to children; and the hole in its wall, where Ántonia and Yulka sleep, keeping warm in the earth like the badger-all of these images help to ground the child in an unfamiliar and potentially overwhelming landscape and intensify the reader's sense that, though Jim is actually ten years old, he is also symbolically newborn and reliving the preoedipal state through his creation of these surrogates for the mother.
The climax and quintessence of these images, however, is Jim's interlude in his grandmother's garden, the first full day after he arrives. Taking a copper-tipped cane to guard against snakes, Jim and his grandmother set off to the garden, a quarter mile from the house; the way Jim describes the scene, it seems to flow directly from his midnight ride, as chaos leads to Eden, or the dismantlings of darkness lead to the re-created morning. The world he enters is animistic, Indian, with "motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping" (16). Reaching the garden, he helps his grandmother dig potatoes-another grounding image: the warmth, the earthly roundness-and, after she Ieaves, he settles down alone with his back against a pumpkin "in the middle of the garden" (17). Down in this sheltered draw bottom, he listens to the wind hum and sing along the level ground above him and watches the grasses wave. As O'Brien points out, he experiences what Gaston Bachelard calls "intimate immemsity," a combination of "deep intimacy and infinite extent" (70, Bachelard 202; Fryer uses the phrase as well, 310), in this landscape that circles and shelters him yet opens right on to "only sun and sky," into which one could float "like the tawny hawks which sailed [overhead] making slow shadows on the grass" (16). He is at the omphalos, the mystically charged center of creation; around him, existence radiates, and the musical hum of the wind resounds: the spirit blowing where it listeth, or the resonant Om! that in Buddhist thought expresses the music of existence. As he sits as still as possible in the garden, he lapses out into a state of recaptured preoedipal completeness, the "oceanic feeling" of oneness with the universe that, Freud theorizes, may provide the "physiological basis" for "much of the wisdom of mysticism" and that remains as a trace of the infant's experienced nondifferentiation from the mother (Civilization and Its Discontents 11-21). "Nothing happened," Jim writes. "I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep" (18).
Where Jim sits in the garden, "snakes could scarcely approach unseen" (17). It is not long, however, before he must do battle with the "circus monstrosity" (45) of a rattler who inhabits the prairie dog town. Actually, in life, it was Annie Sadilek who killed the snake, not Willa. Cather, however, transfers the battle and its victory from Ántonia to Jim, with results that are psychologically revealing. But the meaning of the revelation is ambiguous. Jim has been chafing against the four years' age difference between him and Ántonia, resenting her "protecting manner" and "superior tone"; she has been acting like his mother. His masculinity is threatened-"I was a boy and she was a girl"-and he wants her not only to treat him "more like an equal" but also to "defer to me in other things than reading lessons" (43). Given this scenario, what Jim does is clearly Oedipally symbolic: killing the snake, he makes a successful stab at asserting his own virility and earns the right to consider himself Ántonia's protector. He appears to resolve the Oedipal conflict triumphantly, defeating the boychild's "ancient, eldest Evil" (47), the rival, belittling phallus. Ántonia praises him wildly, dancing around him and calling him "big mans" (46). Of course, as Jim eventually admits, his triumph is moderated by the fact that he has not fought much of a rattler; his old, fat, sluggish adversary is less full of fight than full of prairie dog. Still, the most important victory is won; henceforth, Jim is a "big fellow" (50).
But Cather's own role in this episode seems to be more complex. My interpretation here is frankly conjectural, based on Cather's description of the snake. Powerfully phallic, he is a creature of "abominable muscularity" and "loathsome, fluid motion"; he makes Jim sick and looks "as if millstones couldn't crush the disgusting vitality out of him" (45). He is, furthermore, the only snake I can think of who takes the shape not of an S but of a W. I believe that this W derives from "Willa," or the masculine "Willie," as Cather conceived of herself in her youth. Furthermore, her initials, "W. C." are also the initials of Wick Cutter, the moneylender in My Ántonia who embodies everything loathsome about sexual desire, combining a distasteful effeminacy with a ruthless phallic urgency. Killing the snake, in this context, seems to be not a step forward toward the successful resolution of the Oedipal crisis but a profoundly regressive gesture, in which Jim's deed symbolically enacts Cather's repression of her own sexual self and her retreat to an imagined state in which bonding between self and beloved other (Annie/Ántonia, both dear companion and stand-in for the mother) could be complete and unconflicted. Through Jim, Cather clears the maternal labyrinth of the prairie dog town from the presence of the "ancient, eldest Evil," the usurping, phallic father whose intrusion spells the child's loss of the mother and fall from preoedipal wholeness; the roles are internalized, however, so that the father function becomes an aspect of the desirous self. Finally, therefore, the killing of the snake suggests not only Cather's longing to reclaim preoedipality but also her desire to get rid of the named self, the conflicted "Willa/Willie," the self represented by a W. For if, as Lacan suggests, the fall into language accompanies and signifies the fall into separation, then to know oneself as named is to know oneself as hopelessly embroiled in desire and absence. "That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great" (18); that these words are inscribed on Cather's tombstone in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, reveals how deeply she shares Jim's longing, finally appeasable only in death. Identity as conscious of itself, named unto itself, knows itself apart from the mother and therefore desolate in the body of the world, as Adam and Eve stood desolate once Eve succumbed to the serpent and they knew themselves in the Garden.
In Alice Doesn't, Teresa de Lauretis discusses the work on plot typology of the Soviet semiotician Jurij Lotman in ways that correspond closely to my reading of My Ántonia. According to Lotman, plot originates in what de Lauretis calls a "text-generating mechanism" that is "coextensive with the origin of culture itself" (116); elsewhere, de Lauretis quotes Barthes's similar remark that narrative "is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself" (79, in de Lauretis 103). The myths or texts generated by this mechanism are cyclical, not linear, in their temporality and are synchronized with the cycles of nature-the movement of the heavens, the hours of the day, the seasons. In this type of text, human life itself is not seen in terms of linear temporality, "but as a recurrent, self-repeating cycle which can be told starting at any point" (116-117); beginning and end, birth and death are simply events that are "inherent to a certain position in the cycle, and repeating themselves from time immemorial" (Lotman 163, in de Lauretis 117).
Along with this type of text-generating mechanism, which establishes laws, continuities, and connections between remote and discrete phenomena, Lotman posits another text-generating mechanism, which establishes anomalies rather than laws and which gives rise to linear, oral narratives that deal with, in de Lauretis's phrase, "incidences, calamities, crimes, chance occurrences-in short, anything contravening, or in excess of, the mythically established order of things" (117). Lotman argues that modern fictional narrative derives from the reciprocal interaction of these two typologically older types of texts: the mythical and the historical, the cyclical and the linear, the universal and the specific.
He goes on to specify two different types of characters in narrative:
"those who are mobile, who enjoy freedom with regard to plot-space, who
can change their place in the structure of the artistic world and cross
the frontier, the basic topological feature of this space, and those who
are immobile, who represent, in fact, a function of this space" (167, in
de Lauretis 118). He specifies, further, two functions, both open-ended
and therefore endlessly repeatable, which comprise elementary narrative
sequence: "entry into a closed space, and emergence from it." He
continues, "Inasmuch as closed space can be interpreted as 'a cave',
'the grave', 'a house', 'woman', . . . entry into it is interpreted on
various levels as 'death', 'conception', 'return home' and so on;
moreover all these acts are thought of as mutually identical" (168, de
Lauretis 118). It remains for de Lauretis to spell out the implications
of such a system for the gendering of narrative:
the hero must be male, regardless of the gender of the text-image,
because the obstacle, whatever its personification, is
morphologically female and indeed, simply, the womb. The implication
here is not inconsequential. For if the work of the mythical
structuration is to establish distinctions, the primary distinction
on which all others depend is not, say, life and death, but rather
sexual difference. . . . [The] hero, the mythical subject, is
constructed as sexual being and as male; he is the active principle
of culture, the establisher of distinction, the creator of
differences. Female is what is not susceptible to transformation, to
life or death; she (it) is an element of plot-space, a topos, a
resistance, matrix and matter. (118-19)
the hero must be male, regardless of the gender of the text-image, because the obstacle, whatever its personification, is morphologically female and indeed, simply, the womb. The implication here is not inconsequential. For if the work of the mythical structuration is to establish distinctions, the primary distinction on which all others depend is not, say, life and death, but rather sexual difference. . . . [The] hero, the mythical subject, is constructed as sexual being and as male; he is the active principle of culture, the establisher of distinction, the creator of differences. Female is what is not susceptible to transformation, to life or death; she (it) is an element of plot-space, a topos, a resistance, matrix and matter. (118-19)
This formulation has obvious and far-reaching implications for My Ántonia, regarding both the shape of the narrative and the dual nature of Jim's story—its mythicality, its Oedipal universality, and yet its historical and personal specificity. As Hermione Lee points out (and I have already mentioned), the novel is characterized by a repeated fluctuation between enclosure and emergence. Near the beginning, naturally, the emphasis is recurrently upon images that suggest preoedipal fusion with the mother, encirclement, and the act of birth: these images are echoed cyclically, generationally, near the end of the novel, when the children burst forth from the fruit cave. As Jim's narrative proceeds into his adolescence, the fluctuation between enclosure and emergence continues, but the emphasis falls upon his eager yet reluctant going forth-an increasingly attenuated process that ends in a twenty years' narrative silence, a kind of death or enclosure, the spell of which is broken only with his return to Nebraska and symbolic rebirth. In this and other ways, circularity is everywhere inscribed in the novel. In O Pioneers!, Cather refers to the "two or three human stories" that "go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years" (119). My Ántonia shares this sense of mythical recurrence, in which any given birth, life, and death-even any given rise of a civilization-is merely a position in the circle that repeats itself "from time immemorial." Ántonia is "a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" (353); "Cuzak's boys" are like Aeneas, or like Romulus and Remus; the Nebraska cornfields will "enlarge and multiply until they [will] be, not the Shimerdas' cornfields, or Mr. Bushy's, but the world's cornfields; . . . their yield [will] be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war" (137). Yet against this, what poignancy of the specific Cather is able to create. "Optima dies . . . prima fugit": Jim, Ántonia, before them Mr. Shimerda, their moment in American history, while the prairie still bears the trace of the galloping buffalo, all flare forth as vividly and briefly against their setting sun as the little grasshopper or the famous plough, heroic and mortal, desire's "picture writing" (245).
Lotman's and de Lauretis's formulations pertain especially, however, to the narrative functions of Jim and Ántonia. At the beginning of the novel, Jim and Ántonia are both its heroes. Inseparable companions, by and large sexually undifferentiated, they share equally in adventures, even though the narrative voice is Jim's. But gradually they draw apart and begin to fulfill their gender-ascribed plot functions. Jim, increasingly mobile, comes restlessly to traverse both narrative frontiers and the American frontier; Ántonia, increasingly immobile, comes finally to represent not only a human agent but also the function of space: to Jim and the I-persona, the voyaging pair of the novel's introduction, she "seemed to mean . . . the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood" (n.p.). The division between Jim and Ántonia has many stages, all of them marked by sexual difference. Two of the earliest are revealing, in that they suggest the patterns that will pertain thereafter. I have already discussed Jim's battle with the snake as re-enacting the archetypal male confrontation with the "ancient, eldest Evil," in Oedipal terms the rival phallus. The episode becomes even more suggestive once one notices that it follows directly upon the episode of the grasshopper, in which Ántonia is presented in her archetypal gestures: first, huddled down against the earth in her thin cotton dress to catch the last blaze of summer, and then reciprocating the gift when she shelters the frail, defenseless grasshopper in her hair. So it will always be. It is not that Ántonia does not have her adventure, for she does; as narrated by Jim, however, even her adventure—her rebellion, her love for Larry Donovan, her illegitimate daughter—serves to tie her more closely to her female biology, to center and ground her in the topography of cave, grave, house that, Lotman argues, is identical with the womb. Her "special mission" (367), Jim concludes, is to create and sustain the "deep-founded sheltering" (Stevens 381), which is her body writ large.
No wonder Jim cannot marry Ántonia. Finally, regardless of the affection and the history between them, they come to inhabit such different realms of being—or to fulfill such different plot functions—that to see them reunited, standing in the "triple enclosure" (341) of Ántonia's orchard, is simply to realize their incommensurability. In the gendered myth that informs My Ántonia, Ántonia represents the body of the world. The narrative of Jim's life describes his fall away from union with the worldbody, into the Law of the Father. But his act of narrative itself constitutes a perpetual desirous return toward the lost motherbody from which his life necessarily departed. That the world lost to experience may be recreated and repossessed in art is one great theme of Modernist fiction. In My Ántonia, the gendered pattern informing this theme is especially apparent. Like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, My Ántonia offers a particularly explicit version of the myth that all symbolic language is a series of substitutions for that lost body.