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Jim begins My Ántonia as a recently orphaned ten-year-old moving from Virginia to Nebraska. Already we see that Jim is just beginning a number of adventures – he's embarking on a trip to a new place, a new home with his grandparents, and a whole new stage of life (i.e., adolescence). The vast plains of the Nebraskan prairie are the perfect setting for Jim's new beginning.
What's interesting about Jim's character is that all these different "adventures" are woven together. Living in this new place is part of growing up, which is wound up with his friendship with Ántonia and his growing understanding of the social issues surrounding immigrants in the American West. And his experiences in the West are in turn mingled with his academic education. We expect, then, that Jim will go through a great number of changes in a great many different areas through the course of the novel.
And his character doesn't disappoint. Jim begins the novel with a fairly naïve view of immigrants. In response to the hardship faced by Ántonia's family, he tells her, "People who don't like this country ought to stay at home. […] We don't make them come here" (1.13.5). But by the end of the novel, he's come to appreciate the will and spirit that make immigrants like Ántonia so successful. "The girls I knew were always helping to pay for ploughs and reapers, brood-sows, or steers to fatten," he explains. "One result of this family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our county were the first to become prosperous" (2.9.7-8). He recognizes the value of a system that is foreign to his own.
We also see Jim grow up in respect to his personal life, particularly when it comes to romance. When he moves to town in high school, the Saturday night dances become the venue for those messy teenage emotions that both develop and complicate the story. This is where Jim's feelings for Ántonia become a central question for the reader: exactly how does Jim feel about her?
Part of the reason My Ántonia is such a lasting classic is that we don't get a clear answer to this question. Is he in love with her? Are they just friends? We have a few facts to consider in trying to hash this out. First, there is the novel's title – "My Ántonia" – the title of Jim's memoir. We remember that Jim isn't just telling the story of his childhood, but is specifically focused on Ántonia and what she meant to him. We also know that Jim claims, as an adult, that he was in love with Ántonia when he was younger. We know that he tries to kiss her by the gate one night, but that she jokingly turns him away. At times she seems like a sexual object – especially when Jim describes her strong, physical sexuality. At other times, she seems like a daughter or a mother to him – as when Jim feels proud of her looks or protective of her against creepy guys in town.
So while we don't know the exact nature of Jim's feelings, we can be certain of their degree. His feelings toward Ántonia – whatever they may be – are incredibly strong. They have a great impact on him and they last throughout his entire life. The line we find most telling is Jim's comment to Ántonia: "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister – anything that a woman can be to a man" (4.4.7). The point is that he loves her – in whatever form – and that doing so changes his life. "The idea of you is a part of my mind," he tells Ántonia. "You influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me" (4.4.7).
It may be that part of the reason Jim never makes a strong move towards Ántonia is that passivity is a hallmark of his character. This is part of the subversion of traditional gender roles we see going on in My Ántonia. The female characters (like Ántonia) are strong and decisive, while Jim is passive and indecisive. Consider the scene with Wick Cutter – Jim runs away and then resents Ántonia for embarrassing him. Or the fact that he doesn't return to visit Ántonia for twenty years, because he's afraid of seeing her aged.
What Jim lacks in decisiveness and action, however, he makes up in sensitivity and emotional understanding. Even as a small boy, Jim has an incredible emotional intelligence when it comes to the Shimerdas. He understands the causes behind Mr. Shimerda's death and is even able to find a sublime beauty in the funeral. As a young man, he is profoundly moved by the play he goes to see with Lena Lingard. And it might be this profound intelligence that allows him to form such a strong relationship with Ántonia.
Let's take a quick look at the historical basis for Jim's character. Cather borrowed the name "Jim Burden" from a grocer who lived in Red Cloud, Nebraska where she spent her childhood. It's likely that there's a good deal of Cather's own personality and life experiences in Jim. Like Jim, Cather also moved from Virginia to Nebraska when she was ten, and ended up going to college at the University of Nebraska. Also like Jim, Cather gave the graduation speech at her high school (source: My Ántonia explanatory notes, Oxford World Classics Edition, 2006). These two have a lot in common.