Study Guide

My Ántonia Passivity

By Willa Cather


As for Jim, no disappointments have been severe enough to chill his naturally romantic and ardent disposition. This disposition, though it often made him seem very funny when he was a boy, has been one of the strongest elements in his success. He loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches. […] Jim is still able to lose himself in those big Western dreams. Though he is over forty now, he meets new people and new enterprises with the impulsiveness by which his boyhood friends remember him. He never seems to me to grow older. (Introduction.4)

How does the narrator's initial description of Jim fit the character we see in the memoir? Does Jim see himself in the same light in which the narrator sees him?

I looked up with interest at the new face in the lantern-light. He might have stepped out of the pages of "Jesse James." He wore a sombrero hat, with a wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his moustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns. He looked lively and ferocious, I thought, and as if he had a history. A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian's. Surely this was the face of a desperado. (1.1.5)

Jim's admiration for Otto seems a product of his own passivity. He admires Otto's traditionally masculine qualities because he himself lacks these traits.

I was not frightened, but I made no noise. I did not wish to disturb him. I went softly down to the kitchen which, tucked away so snugly underground, always seemed to me the heart and centre of the house. There, on the bench behind the stove, I thought and thought about Mr. Shimerda. (1.14.27)

Jim makes up in sensitivity what he lacks in decisiveness and action. He understands emotions and is able to deal with difficult situations in a way that a characters more prone to action would not.

That snake hung on our corral fence for several days; some of the neighbours came to see it and agreed that it was the biggest rattler ever killed in those parts. This was enough for Ántonia. She liked me better from that time on, and she never took a supercilious air with me again. I had killed a big snake -- I was now a big fellow. (1.7.9)

This is the only place in the novel where Jim steps up to fill stereotypically masculine shoes – and it is the moment where Ántonia begins to admire him. Does this mean that Ántonia wants Jim to be more typically "masculine"? How can she expect these things from him when she herself is not typically "feminine"?

I told her I didn't know what they believed, and didn't care, and that I certainly wasn't going to be a preacher. (2.12.8)

We see that, as he grows up, Jim begins to move away from the sphere of influence exerted by his grandparents. To some degree, he is learning to think for himself.

I got hold of his thumb and bent it back, until he let go with a yell. In a bound, I was on my feet, and easily sent him sprawling to the floor. Then I made a dive for the open window, struck the wire screen, knocked it out, and tumbled after it in the yard. (2.15.10)

Think of this as an adult version of the snake incident from Jim's childhood – except this time he runs away instead of fighting. Why?

I was jealous of Tony's admiration for Charley Harling. Because he was always first in his classes at school, and could mend the water-pipes or the doorbell and take the clock to pieces, she seemed to think him a sort of prince. Nothing that Charley wanted was too much trouble for her. She loved to put up lunches for him when he went hunting, to mend his ball-gloves and sew buttons on his shooting-coat, baked the kind of nut-cake he liked, and fed his setter dog when he was away on trips with his father. Ántonia had made herself cloth working-slippers out of Mr. Harling's old coats, and in these she went padding about after Charley, fairly panting with eagerness to please him. (2.3.5)

Jim seems to recognize in others the positive masculine traits he lacks himself – but his own shortcomings seem only to be an issue when it comes to Ántonia. That he's not worried about being typically "male" for himself – he only wants to please Ántonia.

Her voice had a peculiarly engaging quality; it was deep, a little husky, and one always heard the breath vibrating behind it. Everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart. (2.6.7)

Ántonia's character possesses all the vitality and energy that seems to be missing in Jim's more passive character. Perhaps this has something to do with the reason he is so drawn to her? Jim seems to admire in others what he lacks in himself. (A similar thing happens with Otto Fuchs earlier in the novel.)

"Baptists don't believe in christening babies, do they, Jim?"

The curtain rose on the bedroom scene. By this time there wasn't a nerve in me that hadn't been twisted. Nanine alone could have made me cry. I loved Nanine tenderly; and Gaston, how one clung to that good fellow! The New Year's presents were not too much; nothing could be too much now. I wept unrestrainedly. Even the handkerchief in my breast-pocket, worn for elegance and not at all for use, was wet through by the time that moribund woman sank for the last time into the arms of her lover. (3.3.10)

It's fitting that Jim is so enamored of the theatre. Because of his passive character, he enjoys being able to watch a drama unfold where the characters take action.

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)

The fact that it takes Jim twenty years to return to visit Ántonia again is another example of his passivity. He allows himself to be paralyzed by (ultimately ill-founded) fears.