by Willa Cather
Tools of Characterization
The names used in My Ántonia often hint at something important about the characters. Then again, sometimes Cather just took names from the people in her own childhood, and so it's sometimes hard to tell which names are meaningful to the novel and which are just meaningful to Cather. For example, Jim Burden was actually the name of a grocer in the town of Red Cloud. It could just be that Cather liked this name. It could also be the case that Jim carries around a sort of "burden" throughout the course of the novel – the burden, say, of his inexpressible feelings for Ántonia? Or the burden that the narrator bears in trying to communicate the "incommunicable past"? Then there's Cutter, who goes by Wick but is actually named Wycliffe after the English religious reformer John Wycliffe – the first man to translate the Bible to English from Latin. Your guess is as good as ours as to why such a villainous character is tied so strongly to religious history. There's also Gaston Cleric, whose last name refers to a type of priest with strong ties to learning – fitting for the man responsible for Jim's education.
Physical descriptions of Ántonia strongly tie her character to the natural landscape of Nebraska. We learn that her eyes are "big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood," that "in her cheeks she ha[s] a glow of rich, dark colour," and that "her brown hair [is] curly and wild-looking" (2.3.14). When she grows up and starts working in the fields, we hear descriptions of her muscles and tanned skin – she's becoming less feminine, and her body reflects that.
And of course the description of Wick Cutter leaves little confusion as to the nature of his villainous character:
I detested his pink, bald head, and his yellow whiskers, always soft and glistening. It was said he brushed them every night, as a woman does her hair. His white teeth looked factory-made. His skin was red and rough, as if from perpetual sunburn; he often went away to hot springs to take mud baths. (3.11.3)
It's significant that the immigrant girls who come to town are known primarily as "the hired girls" – their social status is marked by their occupation, by the fact that they have to work to support their families back on the farms. (The daughters of the wealthier merchant families aren't in this position.) Whether a given character is a farmer or a more urban merchant is an important division as well. An important part of Jim's character is his occupation of the moment. When he is a student, for example, much of the text is devoted to describing his studies. Remember that in the introduction we learned that Jim is a lawyer for one of the railroad companies. It's significant that Jim moved on from his farm hand days in one sense, to become a lawyer, but maintained a loyalty to his roots in another sense (by working for an industry that played such a large role in westward expansion).
Farm vs. City
As we discuss in "Setting," the two locations of farm and town are compared in My Ántonia. Jim and Ántonia both begin their lives on the farm and then later get to try out living in town, which constitutes a different life. Many of the characters end up either as farm people or as city people. For example, Ántonia tells Jim that she is much happier on a farm than she was when she lived in Black Hawk. Her husband, Cuzak, is the opposite, and would prefer to live in a city. Other characters like Lena and Tiny clearly like the hustle and bustle of society life.
Where a character prefers to live is a tool of characterization because it provides insight into their character. Characters who prefer town life are more into clothes, society, and dances, while characters who prefer the country life like the quiet of nature and the hard, and the steady work of running a farm. Jim is a tough case to decide, because he has chosen at the end of the novel to live in New York City, but he clearly harbors a romanticized love for the natural landscapes of the prairie.