Monday, June 21, 2010

Many a rose-lipt maiden

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: 137 - 222 (end)

Shockingly, nothing too terrible comes of Antonia's working at the Cutters. Jim's grandmother finds out about his reputation for being something of a bad boy, and, as a result, he promises not to go to any more dances. Instead, he devotes himself to his studies, and, in the fall, heads off to college in Lincoln. He works hard for a year or so, but in the fall, Lena Lingard, one of the farm girls who's become a successful dressmaker in Lincoln, comes to see him. For the next two terms, he is distracted by Lena and her charms, though they never actually have a romantic relationship. In the end, after Jim learns that Lena never intends to get married, he follows one of his professors to Harvard and gets his degree there, away from Lincoln's distractions. Returning to Nebraska before law school, Jim learns that Antonia has had a child out of wedlock and is slaving away on Ambrosch's farm, though she clearly loves the baby and is, therefore, not entirely unhappy. Moving things right along, we jump forward twenty years, and Jim returns once again to find Antonia married, with at least ten children. Her husband is nice enough, though nothing special, and she seems happy with her farm and her family.

And that's all. It's hard to tell what the message here is. The last chapter hits us hard with a sense of destiny and, perhaps, fatalism, as it says that both Jim's and Antonia's futures were laid out for them, unchangeable, by their coming to Nebraska. What does that mean, then? Is it because Antonia is a woman and Jim is a man that he was able to become educated and successful? It can't be, because Lena Lingard stands in stark contrast to Antonia, as a successful and independent businesswoman. Is it because she is Bohemian? Is it because she has a wild spirit that won't bow to the strictures of everyday life? I have no good answers to these questions. I dislike the idea of fatalism, and I don't think it would have been impossible for Antonia to change her fate if she'd so desired. But, unlike Lena, Antonia never really wanted to be independent and rich; she wanted to work outside, on a farm, and have a family whom she could love.

It's tempting to read the story of Antonia as one of tragedy, of a life wasted, but I don't think that's the point. It's told, as is Cather's wont, to show us the story of a life, without judgment on its merits and flaws, but simply as picture of something that's complete. What does Cather want us to take away? It's hard to say. She is a realist in the absolute sense of the word. There is no intended lesson; there is only that which you make of it. It's very rare to find literature that is so completely non-didactic. I think it's worthy of the list for that reason, if nothing else, but I also found the characters compelling. It's hard to say why, but, as I mentioned before, the land of Nebraska itself seemed almost like a character, and that's a unique experience in literature, and worthy of remarking upon. I also think it's better than Death Comes for the Archbishop, for the record, which lacked plot elements enough to keep it moving.

More American women tomorrow, with Kate Chopin! That one I've read before, and I'm looking forward to reading it again and reflecting on it.

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