Study Guide

My Ántonia Memory and the Past

By Willa Cather

Memory and the Past

I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. (1.1.1)

Because Jim has just been orphaned, an entirely new phase of his life begins as he heads out to live with his grandparents. Moving West to Nebraska represents a "journey" for him in more ways than one.

There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. (1.1.10)

The land is, like Jim, raw material out of which something must form. We see how appropriate the empty Nebraskan landscape is for a coming-of-age story. The country – or at least this part of the country – is coming of age along with Jim.

Once, while [Peter] was looking at Ántonia, he sighed and told us that if he had stayed at home in Russia perhaps by this time he would have had a pretty daughter of his own to cook and keep house for him. (1.5.9)

Jim isn't the only one hung up on nostalgia for the past. The other characters, too, share his idealistic, romanticized view of days and places gone by.

Beyond the pond, on the slope that climbed to the cornfield, there was, faintly marked in the grass, a great circle where the Indians used to ride. Jake and Otto were sure that when they galloped round that ring the Indians tortured prisoners, bound to a stake in the centre; but grandfather thought they merely ran races or trained horses there. […] The old figure stirred me as it had never done before. (1.9.2)

While narrator-Jim is nostalgic for his childhood past, the character-Jim harbors a similarly romanticized view of the past belonging to the natural landscape. Days gone by always seem better than the present.

"I don't know, something has." Ántonia tossed her head and set her jaw. "A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can. Maybe there won't be any tent next year." (2.10.5)

Ántonia, like Jim, has grasped the central conflict summed up in the novel's epigraph – "the best days are the first to flee." There is a constant sense of transience possessed by all the young people in this novel, a sense that these good days simply will not last.

I knew that I should never be a scholar. I could never lose myself for long among impersonal things. Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it. […] I suddenly found myself thinking of the places and people of my own infinitesimal past. They stood out strengthened and simplified now, like the image of the plough against the sun. […] All those early friends […] were so much alive in me that I scarcely stopped to wonder whether they were alive anywhere else, or how. (3.1.8)

Jim gives hints during the course of the novel as to why he is writing this memoir in the first place. The act of composing the memoir is in itself a process of recovering the past, which, interestingly, Jim claims is incommunicable.

As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass. (4.4.7)

Jim's decision to visit Ántonia isn't just about checking up on an old friend – it's part of the process of recovering the past. That's why he attributes such importance to it and is scared to do it for twenty years.

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)

What do you think made Jim choose to face his fears and return to see Ántonia again?

The boy was so restless that I had not had a chance to look at his face before. My first impression was right; he really was faun-like. He hadn't much head behind his ears, and his tawny fleece grew down thick to the back of his neck. His eyes were not frank and wide apart like those of the other boys, but were deep-set, gold-green in colour, and seemed sensitive to the light. (5.1.87)

Jim's past vision of Ántonia is alive and kicking in the form of her son. He embodies the same spiritual closeness to nature that Ántonia once did in Jim's eyes.

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. (last paragraph)

It's interesting that Jim chooses to call the past "incommunicable," given that he's just written a memoir – a act of communicating the past. What do you think he's getting at in this final line?