Study Guide

My Ántonia Memory and the Past

By Willa Cather

Memory and the Past

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My Ántonia takes the form of a fictional memoir, told by adult Jim Burden looking back on his youth in the American West around the turn of the 19th century. In this case, the form (memoir) is the perfect instrument for the novel's attitude toward the past – an attitude of nostalgia. Jim's attitude towards his own past is matched by the attitude of the memoir's characters toward their own respective pasts. The immigrants, for example, look back longingly at the days "back home" in their old countries. The past is presented as something to be longed for, but never regained. The novel's epigraph – "the best days are the first to flee" – perhaps reflects this feeling best.

Questions About Memory and the Past

  1. At what points in the novel can you see a divide between narrator-Jim and Jim-the-character-in-the-story?
  2. Given what you know about narrator-Jim's present life (from the Introduction), why do you think the past is so important to him?
  3. How well does narrator-Jim understand what happened in the past? What kind of perspective has he gained?
  4. It's easy to argue that Jim lives in the past. In contrast, which characters live in the present?

Chew on This

Jim's tendency to live in the past is an example of his passivity; it is presented as a negative character trait.

Jim's tendency to live in the past represents his appreciation for beauty and love; it is presented as a positive character trait.