by Willa Cather
Analysis: What's Up With the Ending?
Book 4 ends with Jim promising to come back and visit Ántonia soon. Then twenty years pass without him doing so. He justifies this by explaining that he was scared: "I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again" (5.1.1).
Just as the narrator explains in the introduction, Jim has made Ántonia into a symbol, of the beautiful American West and of the beautiful past which can never be recovered. As long as she exists in his mind, she can remain under that romanticized sheen of memory. But to see her in person again is to come face to face with Ántonia as an individual, rather than as a symbol. It's a big deal for Jim who, as we've seen, prefers to live passively in the past than actively in the present.
But fortunately for our conclusion, Jim gets over it. He goes to see Ántonia, finally, and is not disappointed with what he finds. "She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl," he says of Ántonia, "but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" (5.1.104-5).
Jim and Ántonia proceed to reminisce – together they rediscover their past. Interestingly, for the first time in the novel, Jim verbalizes his feelings for Ántonia. "You see I was very much in love with your mother once," he tells Ántonia's children, "and I know there's nobody like her" (5.1.81). Jim has not only come to face with Ántonia, but with his own feelings for her.
The very last paragraph of the novel brings together several of the themes we've looked at so far. Let's take a closer look at the concluding paragraph:
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. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
By rediscovering Ántonia, Jim has also rediscovered the past. He knows it is gone forever – as so eloquently summed up in the epigraph – but he can still find beauty and solace in looking back. In fact, that's what this memoir is: looking back at the past, finding beauty in it once again. It's interesting that the final phrase of the memoir is "the incommunicable past." What is a memoir, after all, but an attempt to communicate the past? Does this mean that Jim has failed, in this memoir, to express all that the past (and that Ántonia, accordingly) meant to him? Or has he, in writing the memoir, disproved this final thought?
If you didn't know what a memior was, check it out.