My Antonia is a modernist novel that recounts and celebrates the past through the relationship of man and the natural world. Cather incorporates an epigraph at the start of the novel from Virgil’s Georgics that means “The best days…are the first to flee,” which is integrated by many elements throughout the story as it is the epicenter in which the themes of the novel revolve. For those who aren’t familiar Georgics consists of 4 books and is seen as“…Virgil’s praise of inherent value, despite great hardship of humankind’s labor” (Krstovic, 200).
Cather includes pastoral imagery and sprinkles many biographical undertones, such as the setting, throughout to keep the connection to the epigraph at the start of the novel intact. “My Antonia particularly, with its close relationship to Willa Cather’s own life, is an accurate and realistic picture of life on the prairie, but like Virgil’s poem it transcends mere local color by emphasizing the eternal beauty of creative life on the rich earth” (Dahl, 45). For instance, Curtis Dahl states “the first of these inextricably fused themes is Cather’s desire to celebrate in her novels her own Nebraskan patria” (45).
We see this detail vividly in the way she describes the land and can almost feel the connection she has through the images she portrays in the novel. Take how she describes machinery sitting off in the distance, for example: 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 disk; the handles, the tongue, the share¬¬¬¬¬—black against the molten red.
There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun. (Cather, 193-194) We get the symbolic importance of the plough by the portrayal and description she colorfully provides the reader. “She emphasizes the fact that in the Georgics he consciously turns away from trite mythological subjects to find a truer poetry in the creative vitality of life on the land” (Dahl, 45). It is evident that Cather does much the same in her own novel where ever there is heavy emphasis on the landscape that surrounds them. “It is this conception of literature that moulds My Antonia.
Like Virgil in his Georgics, Cather avoids grand and spectacular subjects in order to depict with depth of sympathy and understanding the life in her homeland” (Dahl, 45). Virgil discusses in Georgics the assets of living the farm life and how to live off the farm land in the best way plausible. Cather “…wishes to understand Nebraska in the light of the past, and she stresses the depth and variety of cultural traditions that can be found in the apparently callow land” (Dahl 46). This is mirrored in Cather’s own work through Jim Burden’s admiration for the land in his recalling of his childhood past.
Cather depicts her Nebraskan land as beautiful, vast, open spaces which provide a great setting for the protagonist, Jim Burden, to live the farm life, and what we can deduce as his best days. “Around the farmers of Nebraska, as around those of Latium, lie memories of the past…Thus, when Jim Burden studies his Virgil, he finds little that is new” (Dahl, 46). “Cather interprets Virgil primarily in terms of human values. The Roman poet, she implies, is saying that the ageless struggle of man with the earth is the most fully satisfying way of life.
In My Antonia only those characters who keep close touch with the land truly fulfill themselves” (Dahl, 46). Jim loses that reality when he goes East to try and achieve what he can’t from the land, but realizes his loss of the fundamental perspective when he returns to Nebraska and the land that he is connected to. He sees: …Antonia…who by returning to the land, marrying a farmer, and rearing strong sons, has truly realized herself and gained a quiet happiness. In her natural creativeness, in her closeness to the basic fertility of nature, Cather sees the essential meaning of life.
Out of women like Antonia and Lena as she had been in her youth grow the beauty and poetry of life. This is the “inestimably precious” revelation that Jim Burden perceives as he reads his Virgil. (Dahl, 46-47) When this realization comes over Jim he goes back to what he knows, and that is the land he grew up on and the friend he grew up with, Antonia. “At the end of the novel he determines to keep coming back to enjoy taking a role as…one of her boys” (Witalec, 133). This is his way of staying connected to those days of his youth where bliss ran freely among them.
The novel as a whole also relates to the epigraph in that the characters’ days of their youth were the best and also the first ones to be forgotten in moments of crisis. For instance, the introduction is from the point of view of an anonymous narrator who pushes Jim to recall his childhood friend, Antonia. We know from the narrator that Jim is not in the happiest place in his life but after being prodded “Jim Burden looks back to the days of his boyhood on the prairie as the most satisfying of his life” (Dahl, 47), which were clearly the first to flee considering his state of mind in the introduction of the novel.
Jim lights up after the mention of Antonia; it brings him back to his early days, much like Antonia does when she returns to the farm life from when she was a child. “Our earliest, most natural days, Cather seems to be saying, are our best days. And what is true of individuals is also true of nations. Cather is much attracted by the golden ages of the past…In My Antonia she finds the greatest value in simple farm life that reproduces in the present many of the conditions of pioneer days” (Dahl, 47). “Like Virgil, Cather seems to hint a Golden Age that can be restored by a return to agricultural or pastoral life.
Virgil’s Georgics are for her a lasting symbol of the need for such a return” (Dahl, 47). To renew ourselves or our country we must return to the golden days of youth. But in truth we cannot return, we cannot regain those best days that fly first. For, though we may eventually find our way back to the bosom of the earth that nourished our childhood, we come back beaten and scarred by our experiences. (Dahl, 47) For instance, Jim returns to his childhood land but only after enduring a failed marriage and years of wasted time trying to achieve success. ntonia does so as well but only after suffering deceit and bearing a bastard child; ultimately, in their own ways, both end up back where they started in attempt to renew the days of their youth. “To Cather, then, Virgil’s message in the Georgics is basically a melancholy one. Of this view of life Antonia is the symbol” (Dahl, 47). In conclusion, it would not be too bold to state that Cather’s use of an epigraph excerpted from Virgil’s Georgics can be seen as homage to Virgil, or even to her own native Nebraskan land, just as “Vergil’s…constitutes an homage to previous writers on agricultural subjects…” (Krstovic, 200).
We can see how, much like “Virgil’s subject matter was a metaphor for life itself” (Krstovic, 200), Cather’s closely related subject matter is as well with the emphasis of the characters and how their lives are intimately entwined with the land. When separated from the land they were once connected to the further they venture from the joy that was brought from their youth, which ultimately leads to unhappiness in times of distress.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. New York: Bantam Books, 1994
Dahl, Curtis. “An American Georgic: Willa Cather’s My Antonia.” Comparative Literature 7.1 (1955): 43-51. JSTOR. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.
Krstovic, Jelena. “Georgics by Vergil.” Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. (2008): 200-358. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 15 Feb 2012.
Witalec, Janet. “Willa Cather (1873-1947).” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. (2003): 110-157. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 15 Feb 2012.