Friday, April 27, 2012
Soime horrifying scenes in My Antonia
Don't be fooled by the apparently easy-going tone of the narrator, Jim Burden, in Willa Cather's "My Antonia" - although his voice is jaunty and reminiscent, it's a very dark book with lots of disconcerting, even eerie scenes and moments: the most striking and probably the most famous is the suicide of Antonia's father, but what about that strange interlude in which Antonia describes a day when she worked at a thresher and a tramp or vagabond showed up, asked for some beer, then agreed to work binding the sheaves, works for a few minutes, stands up, waves good-bye, and dives headfirst into the thresher! Antonia dryly explains that he was indeed dead, and that the men had to work really hard to get his body out of the machine, and after that the thresher never worked right again. Life on the prairie. The 2nd part of the novel - The Hired Girls - in which the Burden family lives in town, and a # of the immigrant "girls," including Antonia, come to town for better wages and a better life - but still send $ back to the dirt-poor families working the farms - is about, largely, how the town changes when a group of musicians and dance instructors come to town and begin holding Saturday night dances under a tent (this reminds moe of another novel and I can't think which one - Hundred Years of Solitude?): suddenly, there's some life in the prairie town, and Cather explores, tentatively, the sexual drive of the characters: part of the theme is how the respectable boys from the town are interested in pursuing the sexy and more venturesome "hired girls" - Jim himself makes his first pass at Antonia, four years older than he is, and is more or less rebuffed - we'll see what develops. Antonia has been sneaking out for the dances (as has Jim) and when her boss, the seemingly benign Mr Harling, learns of this he forbids her from going to dances again - some strange sexual jealousy here? - and her job is on the line and she quits - good for her, they don't own her body and soul. But she goes to work for a horrible man, the town loan shark, and he makes a pass at her - he's already gotten at least one hired girl pregnant, and sent her off in shame - but things go awry - it's actually Jim sleeping in her bed, which everyone misinterprets. Life is open in all its possibilities for Jim - we know from the preface to the novel that he becomes a successful man in his adulthood - but the possibilities for Antonia are narrow, and scary.