Monday, 25 July 2022

Imagery in My Antonia

Let’s start with some personal news. Those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter or Facebook may have been wondering where I’ve been the past few weeks. Guess what, I’ve moved to London for work. 

Now let’s talk about My Antonia

My Antonia has a frame story in which “the author” and a guy named Jim Burden want to write a book about Antonia (stress on the first syllable). Jim Burden jots down some notes, which turn into a memoir, and that is the book we read. Jim Burden at the age of 10 moved to Nebraska to live with his grandparents, after his parents’ deaths, and there he met Antonia and her family from Bohemia. The title is slightly misleading—it is about her, but it’s also about Jim Burden’s life and about other people in Nebraska, especially in Black Hawk.

Willa Cather’s novel is a novel about people. As I assume people generally write about characters, I’ll write about something else. 

“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.” (B.1, ch.1) 

I like that. 

“Perhaps the glide of long railway travel was still with me, for more than anything else I felt 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 …” (B.1, ch.2) 

Is that not good? 

“All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines.” (ibid.) 

See how Willa Cather writes about the seasons: 

“There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere; in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted.” (B.1, ch.17) 

That’s spring, here’s winter: 

“Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. […] in Black Hawk the scene of human life was spread out shrunken and pinched, frozen down to the bare stalk.” (B.2, ch.7) 

I also love the way she describes the weather. 

“The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.” (B.2, ch.9) 

This is a particularly striking image of the sun: 

“Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disc; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.” (ibid.) 

The sun and the moon:

“As we walked homeward across the fields, 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 cartwheel, pale silver and streaked with rose color, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon.” (B.4, ch.4) 

The evening star: 

“On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing in it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star hung like a lamp suspended by silver chains—like the lamp engraved upon the title-page of old Latin texts, which is always appearing in new heavens, and waking new desires in men.” (B.3, ch.2) 

The writing is so good. 

“Misfortune seemed to settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and to flap its wings there, warning human beings away.” (B.1, ch.8) 

The book is full of fascinating metaphors and similes. 

“Now there was a place where the girls could wear their new dresses, and where one could laugh aloud without being reproved by the ensuing silence. That silence seemed to ooze out of the ground, to hang under the foliage of the black maple trees with the bats and shadows.” (B.2, ch.8) 


“Now it was broken by light-hearted sounds. First the deep purring of Mr. Vanni’s harp came in silvery ripples through the blackness of the dusty-smelling night…” (ibid.) 

Silence “[oozes] out of the ground and sound comes “in silvery ripples”. 

The way Willa Cather describes people is also interesting. For example, this is Mr Shimerda, Antonia’s father: 

“He took the bag from his belt and showed us three rabbits he had shot, looked at Ántonia with a wintry flicker of a smile and began to tell her something.” (B.1, ch.6) 

This is Pavel, one of the two Russians (note the crazy story of the wolves): 

“He must once have been a very strong man, but now his great frame, with big, knotty joints, had a wasted look, and the skin was drawn tight over his high cheek-bones.” (B.1, ch.5) 

This is the black prodigy pianist: 

“When he was sitting, or standing still, he swayed back and forth incessantly, like a rocking toy. At the piano, he swayed in time to the music, and when he was not playing, his body kept up this motion, like an empty mill grinding on.” (B.2, ch.7) 

Gross, but this is also an interesting comparison: 

“The dead man was frozen through, “just as stiff as a dressed turkey you hang out to freeze,”…” (B.1, ch.9) 

My Antonia is a very good book. 


  1. I read this book in middle school, more than 30 years ago. I remember very little about the plot and characters, but some of these images have never left me.

  2. The one that is clearest in my memory is the one with the sun and moon in the sky together. Images involving the sun and other celestial objects seem to have left more of an impression than other images--I don't remember the passages here involving individual people, which probably says something about what I was focused on as a 13 year old kid.

  3. "The long fingers of the sun" also seems familiar, but I can't be completely sure that my memory hasn't been infected by the rosy fingers of dawn in Homer.

  4. Cather was certainly infected by Homer.

    The plow against the sun is especially striking, in part because it is presented as a curiosity, not a bit of beauty perceived by an artful writer but more like a strange natural phenomenon.

    1. Like a strange natural phenomenon--yes, that's well put. It jibes with my memories of these images. I remember them seeming like just things the narrator noticed.

  5. Oh yeah, good point.
    Perhaps I should write a bit about the characters, or some stories, in the book but I'm very busy at the moment.
    Does either of you remember the Cutters?
    I suspect I will remember some image, including the wolves, but not the characters.

  6. Yes, the Cutters, the novel's most melodramatic turn.

  7. These are all great excerpts, and really give the atmosphere of the book. "not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made" is almost the theme of the novel, that from which countries are made. It strikes me, seeing all these images, that Antonia herself is a metaphor for the territory, and maybe vice versa.

    It's been a few years since I read the book. I can't remember anything about the plot, but if I close my eyes, I can see the farm, the roads, the big tree location, and middle-aged Antonia. The narrator, as I recall, is like Emerson's "invisible, roving eye," not really present in the book except as a witness.

    1. Yeah.
      I thought the title was a bit misleading, as it's not only about her. The narrator also writes a lot about Lena Lingrad, for example.

    2. Oh yes, Lena, the temptress. I'd forgotten her. I agree with Tom's comment about Cather and Homer. The whole story exists almost on the level of mythology; the narrator--I cannot remember his name--is sort of an Odysseus character, making his way from one place to the next, seeking home, whatever that is.

    3. I thought the Antonia-Lena contrast was interesting. I'm too busy to blog, I'm afraid that later on I'm gonna forget all the characters and have no idea what I was talking about.

  8. I want to object a bit. For a witness narrator, which he certainly is, he does quite a few things. He slays the Python, he saves Ántonia from the rapist, he, uh, learns Latin, and probably does some other things.

    Still: he slays the dragon.

    1. I don’t remember that at all but there you go: myths and legends. People call Cather a “realist”.

    2. The narrator kills a big rattlesnake, after which, he says, Antonia no longer looks down on him like he's a child (well he is a child, but yeah).

    3. Child Herakles, sort of. I should read the book again and just look for mythological references. I'd probably push the idea too far, but it would be a fun exercise.

    4. I myself didn't catch anything as I didn't know anything about mythology or classical literature hahaha.

    5. There's a buncha twitter folks reading A Lost Lady, coordinated by a podcast that I have no doubt would be good, if I ever listened to it. I urged them, gently, I hope, towards Hippolytus, but I guess I will never know if I was successful.

      What I am saying is I am not sure one can push the idea too far. Most readers don't push it nearly far enough, anyway.

    6. Which podcast is this?
      "Gently" hahaha.

    7. The podcase Mookse and Paul Wilson do. The Cather episode should be up in a week. They are probably editing it down to a trim hour and forty minutes right now.

      Someone else will have to tell me if there is anything about Ovid in it. There is no room in my life for podcasts.

    8. I doubt it.
      I don't listen to podcasts either.

  9. I really enjoyed all the wonderful quotes. I read this book 45 years ago and now I remember why I count it among my favorites.


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