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“My Antonia” by Willa Cather contains many themes of travel, but perhaps the most important of these is that of escape through nostalgia. Humankind’s relationship with the past is beautifully portrayed in this book where, through the overall tone of the narration, the past is depicted as a physical place that humans go to escape to. The book is a study in how nostalgia often makes us think of the past as better than it really was, and how humans often prefer to travel to the past as a means of escape and live there, preferring it to the present. The book is narrated by present-day Jim Burden to a friend of his whom he had known in childhood. Present-day Jim is a lawyer for the Western Railways in New York. (Cather, 39) But, most of the book talks about the past: his childhood, the great prairie lands where he grew up, and his friends and family, in particular, a young Bohemian girl called Antonia. The narration of this book is rooted in nostalgia. We get the sense that for Jim- and for the other characters that feature in this book- the past is a physical place they escape to, rather than just a fond memory they cherish. For Jim, the past and the nostalgia it brings are intertwined with Antonia; one cannot exist without the other. As his friend points out in the beginning of the book, “More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” (40) So, in a way, the memory of Antoniawashis escape. The story begins when Jim is ten years old. Having lost both his
parents, he is sent to live with his grandparents who stay in Nebraska. That is where he first meets Antonia, during his “journey across the great midland plain of North America.” (Cather, 44) Antonia Shimerda and her family, Jim’s to-be neighbours, are Bohemian immigrants who have come here chasing the American dream. But they have had a rough start- they live in a cave, and the language- barrier makes it hard for them to communicate well with others. Antonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda, is the first character we come across who tries hard to escape the present. The tone Jim uses to talk about Mr.
Shimerda is always melancholic, giving us the sense that he was sad. “His eyes were melancholy, and were set back deep under his brow. His face was ruggedly formed, but it looked like ashes—like something from which all the warmth and light had died out.” (Cather, 56) Mr. Shimerda is sad because he has left his home behind. Back in Bohemia, he used to be a musician and had many friends. Here, he feels lonely, and the foreign language prevents him from making many friends. Antonia tells Jim that her father never wanted to come here, and her mother was the one who made him come. She says, “My papa sad for the old country. He not look good. He never make music any more. At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never. When I beg him for play, he shake his head no. Some days he take his violin out of his box and make with his fingers on the strings, like this, but never he make the music. He don’t like this kawntree.” (Cather, 96)
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I think that Mr. Shimerda was constantly thinking of happier times in Bohemia. He did not like the new country, and thus, those valuable memories were all he had left. He tried to live in the past. I think that when he sat with the violin in his hand, he felt like the past which he longed to go back to, was close enough for him to touch. And yet, he did not want to play his music here, because he associated his music with another time and he did not want to taint those memories. Mr. Shimerda used his memories as a means of escape. But, no matter how close the past happiness might have seemed to him, it was never close enough to touch. And in the end, he could not live with the present and ended up shooting himself. I think this is a good lesson on how the past can be a good place to visit for a while, but it can never be a country to permanently make your home in. To quote J.K. Rowling, “It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live.” Two other characters who depict the theme of escape into the past are the Russians, Peter and Pavel. They had had to flee from their country due to a “bad incident”. Jim says that they were “strange and aloof” (Cather, 61) and kept to themselves till they found a friend in Mr. Shimerda, and consequently, in Jim and Antonia. When they both visit the Russians, they constantly talk about their home country in a wistful tone. “Once, while he (Peter) was looking at Antonia, 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.” (Cather, 63) Jim says that he would entertain them by playing the Harmonica, and would give them
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