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Willa Cather's My Antonia


 Memory is much more than a recurrent or pervasive theme in Willa Cather's fiction; remembrance is the very essence of Cather's writing--the inexorable principle of her characterizations, the vital foundation of her settings, the impelling force within her novels. Her narratives exemplify, above all else, a certain style of remembrance, a mode of memory that one can neither overlook nor penetrate, that is both extensive and elusive, a fabric spun from unyielding cords and spectral fibers. In response to this complexity and vitality, Cather's readers have interpreted her representations of memory in a variety of insightful and provocative ways. [1] The very breadth and diversity of these critical interpretations suggest that memory has multiple and changing functions in Cather's work--suggest, in fact, that reading Willa Gather is perhaps most of all an act whereby one can both discover and imagine an almost endless number of ways in which memory inspires and terrifies, comforts and haunts, sustains and shocks not simply individuals but also communities, cultures, and nations. [2] For, if it is true that remembrance sketches the details of Gather's characters, draws the settings they inhabit, and colors their actions, fears, and longings, then it is also true that the shades and tinctures of remembrance seep out to Cather's readers as well, making us profoundly aware of how deeply we are inscribed by the past that we have forgotten, as well as by the one we sometimes tenuously remember.

Of all Gather's novels, My Antonia is perhaps her most thorough as well as her most intricate representation of the processes and effects of memory, both personal and collective. [3] As Jim Burden narrates his nostalgic return, Gather is able to portray not only the content of Jim's memories but also their structuring, their methods of articulation. [4] Throughout this novel, Cather is interested not simply in what Jim remembers but also in how and why he does so. Her deliberate, intense focus on the most enigmatic details within the architecture of Jim's remembrances ultimately creates a certain imperative to look beyond Jim's memories of Antonia to more closely examine the memories that surround and intrude upon her. If Jim's representation of Antonia seeks to keep her firmly within his control, as Katrina Irving and others have argued, the memories that surround and permeate that representation are essentially and frighteningly out of his control. Those invasive memories are significant not simply for wha t they mean to Jim but also for what they reveal about collective attempts to silence and subdue the ghosts of a communal past. My Antonia ultimately suggests that, much like Jim's more personal remembrances, cultural or national memory frequently struggles to preserve a sense of identity by excluding or abjecting memories for which it cannot or will not account.

 Most critical studies of this novel emphasize the relationship between Jim and Antonia, seeing Antonia as, in one way or another, the center of the novel. Yet, in the spaces that separate Jim and Antonia, we find a shocking variety of memories that recount disturbing, radical violence, stories of "violent deaths and casual buryings" that give Jim "a painful and peculiar pleasure" (72, 41). [5] His memories of Antonia, and of the various homes that frame her, are thus riven with, even blasted by, his combination of fear and desire with respect to other, less-comforting and less-redeeming, memories. Jim's memory houses--the houses he remembers, and the home he finds in memory-may be constructed with Antonia as their foundation, but they are, nevertheless, haunted by figures infinitely less accountable. Setting Antonia temporarily aside thus clears the ground for a more complete analysis of the ways in which memory works in this novel, an analysis that suggests that Jim is not alone in his ambivalent embrace of the painful and peculiar, and that he is not the only one for whom the halls of memory are haunted. Ultimately, My Antonia insists that there are larger structures at stake: when we hear the insistent clamoring of volatile phantoms, the uncanny whispering of living specters, and the stiff tread of the unburied and unredeemed, we are not just visiting the plagued house of one man's nightmares. We are--as individuals, as cultures, as communities, as nations--unquestionably at home in this sometimes shocking, often painful, and always peculiar embrace of remembrance.

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.


--My Antonia 211


Jim s conviction that "some memories are realities" is infused with a deep, nostalgic longing for a prelapsarian past, a time before disillusionment. His desire to return to a less-tarnished version of himself permeates the narrative, seeping through its pages into the very minds of its readers. Who has not longed, even briefly, for such a homecoming? Yet memory is, at heart, a devilish process, a trickster that doles out not simply comfort and pleasure but also terror and mourning. And Jim Burden's house of memory is certainly haunted. Although he structures his narrative as a return to Antonia and spends much of the early sections recollecting homes, his memory ultimately strays away from its center, abandons its homes, and returns again and again to images of violence, death, and horror--images from which Jim elicits a painful pleasure. If Jim experiences his present life in terms of homelessness--a fact suggested by his estranged marriage and essential transience--then he imagines that his memory can both ground his identity, making him recognizable to himself, and provide him with a more mobile home, one constructed in time rather than in space. What his recollections and returns ultimately demonstrate is that he--that anyone--can never go home again. Rather than stabilizing and locating his identity in the present, Jim's memory, more often than not, disrupts the stories he constructs. Yet the very figures of that disruption, figures who refuse in one way or another to be housed, also frequently appear to Jim as attractive, even seductive, alternatives to domestic enclosures. Both Sharon O'Brien and Laura Winters have noted the ways in which Cather's characters often desire a union that they also fear as a potential engulfment of identity. In My Antonia, these desires and fears are specifically articulated through patterns of domesticity and remembrance.

 Sharon O'Brien notes the importance of finding and making homes in Cather's fiction: "The rituals of domesticity--preserving, cooking, gardening, housekeeping--are the bearers of culture in her fiction, where establishing a home signifies the human ability to transform an empty world into an inhabited one" (74). Metaphorically, Jim's memory is a way for him to make a home for himself in the present--"to transform an empty world into an inhabited one." The novel's frame clearly indicates that Jim is himself homeless, that, although he is married and has an ostensible home in New York, he is estranged from both wife and home and spends most of his time traveling for and along the railroad. [6] The work of memory is, for Jim, not only a process of providing a frame and pattern for the past but also of actually housing and domesticating that past. Beginning with his distant marriage, an image of Jim's being unhoused, the novel then shows Jim as a child leaving one lost home in Virginia and going to an unknown ne w one in Nebraska. He is, moreover, an orphan. Predicated in this way on a radical loss of home and immediate family, the novel continues to search for--and find-alternative homes for memory. In an important sense, Jim's memory work is the attempt to provide Antonia with a home so that she can then house him. Jim's earliest memories invoke domestic scenes that are the haven of remembrance: the Burden kitchen and the Harling home, in particular. His account as a whole, however, gives more examples of the failure of domesticity than of its success. Certain characters never will be domesticated: Otto and Jake, for example. They are continually outside of the domestic, with no wives or children of their own, temporary inhabitants of other people's houses. Wick Cutter, through his seduction and rape of his hired girls, is a threat to every home as he turns housekeeping into whore keeping (135). Even more significant, perhaps, is the fact that the Harling home--the novel's example of home as Heaven--is internally riven, divided from itself. Mr. Harling is the "autocratic," "arrogant," and "imperial" figure who casts a shadow-literally and figuratively-over the ideal domestic scene (101-02). Although Mrs. Harling has, in a way, stepped in for Jim's lost mother, and the Harling children have been his brothers and sisters , Jim is excluded from this home whenever he sees Mr. Harling's "shadow on the blind" (101). His earliest memories thus trace out a variety--a shocking variety-of ways to lose one's mother and one's home. While both the Burden and the Harling homes should stand in stark contrast to the Shimerda's grey bread and dirty holes, Jim finds himself displaced, misplaced, and out of place in almost every home that his memory has to offer. Finally, just before he leaves Black Hawk, he experiences home and domesticity not as a comfort but as an oppression and "tyranny" (140).

Ultimately, the processes of memory that work as a homecoming, a grounding of the self in its past, also pose a certain threat of fragmentation, violation, and engulfment. Jim's construction of childhood domesticity as an extremely fragile shelter has already prepared the way for a vision of memory as a dangerous return. In My Antonia, Cather deftly shows how memory's structuring of identity is always cleft by an otherness that cannot be patterned or framed. Memory is then both an inscription and an eruption, leaving the remembering self both more and less accountable than before. The problem with memory, a problem that is inherent but unspoken in Jim's account, is that memory never stops returning. Jim's snake, his encounter with Wick Cutter, Pavel's story of the wolves, Antonia's story of the tramp's suicide, even Mr. Shimerda's suicide, are all fragments of memory that return, along with Blind d'Arnault's racialized history and the enduring marks of Native Americans on the Nebraska plains, to haunt the ho me and hearth not simply of Jim's story but also of his culture's sense of its own identity and history. In these episodes, Gather's construction of memory is particularly, if peculiarly, Gothic.


Susan J. Rosowski has interpreted Cather's novels in terms of both positive and negative romanticism and has suggested that the Gothicism within Cather's novels works to create moments where "irresolution" dominates tone and content and where "the irrational" can, and usually does, "break through the ordinary world we depend upon" (207, 238). Rosowski writes that, in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, "Stories within stories present a past that disrupts an apparently serene present" (238). This interpretation also helps clarify the processes of remembrance in My Antonia, where memories of home are vitiated by memories of alienation, exclusion, and violence. Gothic literature often articulates, in the same gesture, two incompatible desires, like a longing for shelter and a fear of enclosure. David Punter argues, in fact, that the Gothic is a specific "mode of memory," one that emphasizes the complex interpenetrations of desire and fear (409). In My Antonia, the Gothic is a mode of memory that exposes Jim's fear of being essentially homeless and his simultaneous but conflicting desire to escape domestic regulation. [7]


Eugenia DeLamotte and Judith Halberstam have recently and persuasively argued that the Gothic is a literature of edges, of borders that are tenuous, precarious, and inevitably crumbling. Kate Ferguson Ellis shows the ways in which the Gothic's exclusions from and transgression of home space were inextricable from the development and propagation of middle-class domesticity. In My Antonia, memory is Gothic in both of these senses: it occurs across unstable boundaries and in a dubious and ambivalent relationship to domesticity. Furthermore, as Martin Tropp and David Punter have noted, the Gothic is an eruption of chaos, a haunting within the heart of realism and order, and a certain failure to bury one's dead. Gothicism thus questions the stable definitions and clear categories that often form the basis of both individual and collective identities. All of these Gothic attributes can be found in Gather's My Antonia, yet what is perhaps most Gothic in the novel is its ability, especially but not exclusively in th e moments when it ruptures, to sustain a proliferation of divergent meanings. Halberstam cogently argues that a primary feature of the Gothic is that its horrors emerge, in part, from our failure to categorize signs and events: part of the experience of horror comes from the realization that meaning itself runs riot. Gothic novels produce a symbol for this interpretive mayhem in the body of the monster. The monster always becomes a primary focus of interpretation and its monstrosity seems available for any number of meanings (2)

 Jim's monstrous snake is the first in a series of such figures in Gather's My Antonia. [8]

Jim initially frames his adventure with the snake as the moment when Antonia returns to her proper place as a girl. Her pride at being able to work in the fields was, for Jim, a threatening elision of gender difference, and the snake episode works to subdue that pride. Yet what ultimately sticks in this story, what disturbs, are the points when Jim cannot tell what happened to him, when his account trips over itself in attempting to avoid the coils of his very Gothic monster. What Jim sees is "not merely a big snake... he was a circus monstrosity. His abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion, somehow made me sick" (31). The snake's "monstrosity" includes a "disgusting vitality" and a "hideous little head" (31). Outside the limits of the natural, the snake repels because of its literal and metaphoric fluidity. It simply won't stay put: it "was all about my feet in wavy loops.... Even after I had pounded his ugly head flat, his body kept on coiling and winding, doubling and falling back on itself. I walked away and turned my back. I felt seasick" (32). Even after it is truly dead, the snake's body continues to writhe as its poison leaks out onto the ground (32). Defying not only the category of the "natural" but also blurring the boundary between life and death, this snake truly is too much.


Jim's "subsequent" knowledge that the snake was old and without "much fight in him" ostensibly undercuts his heroism, and Jim seems to take a modest bow to his audience, admitting candidly that he was simply lucky (34). It is curious, however, to see that a "circus monstrosity," a Gothic abomination that defies all attempts to define it, can become, through time, simply an old, out-of-shape snake. While Jim's later realizations seem to deconstruct myths of the hero's omnipotence, they really work to dismantle the monster's omnipotence. In other words, Jim can only contain the nausea that threatens to overcome both his identity and his narrative memory by reconfiguring his battle as "a mock adventure" (34). If the snake remained as unrepresentable and monstrous as it first seemed, where would--where could--Jim put it?


The primordial danger represented in this episode is not a physical but an ontological one, and Jim's real battle is not with a snake but with myth, metaphor, and memory. And that battle is epic, though not for the reasons young Jim imagines. His battle is epic because it defies his own attempts to contain it, because it is a story of communal, and not simply individual, memory. Communal memory struggles, like Jim, to translate the monsters and metaphors that it finds unaccountable into events and images that it can simply discount. Finally, the snake's appearance in the narrative in both guises--as horror and as mockery--testifies to Cather's sense that those translations are always incomplete, allowing the discounted to continue "coiling and winding, doubling and falling back on itself," while the community that attempted the translation can only turn its back, like Jim, with a nausea that never quite fades (32).

 The snake is just the first of many stories that are only marginally and uncomfortably contained in Jim's narrative as a whole. Pavel's story of the wolves is another moment in which the Gothic erupts in Jim's narrative, bringing the dead back to blast the careful architecture of his remembrances. [9] Guests at a wedding party in Russia, Pavel and Peter are driving the bride and groom home late at night after long revelry when a large pack of wolves overtakes the party. Like Jim's snake, the wolves are remarkable for their failure to correspond to anything that the human mind can understand as natural (38). Completely without individuality, the horde of wolves erases personal identity--by graphically devouring it. Followed by the "shrieks" of dying people and dying horses, Pavel and Peter find themselves, at last, on the only remaining sledge of the party; all of the wedding guests, including the families of bride and groom, have been eaten (39). And there are still "enough" wolves to go around (39). To save himself and Peter, Pavel throws both the bride and the groom to the wolves:

He said he never remembered exactly how he did it, or what happened afterward. Peter, crouching in the front seat, saw nothing.... Pavel and Peter drove into the village alone, and they had been alone ever since. They were run out of their village. Pavel's own mother would not look at him.... Wherever they went, the story followed them. (40)

 Although he is perpetually unable to reconstruct the details of his actions-- "how he did it"--Pavel is nevertheless pursued, endlessly, by these wolves. They are the horror that he cannot forget. And even though Peter "saw nothing," he too must continue to "crouch" under the weight of that horror. The story not only "follows" these men; it makes them, wherever they are, "unfortunate" (40). Severed even from his mother, Pavel is the prototypical Gothic wanderer, the human who has, through a single act, excluded himself from full participation in humanity. In the story of Peter and Pavel's wolves, Western cultural definitions of the humane and human are decimated beneath the weight of brutal exigency. That Peter and Pavel acted out of self-preservation intensifies rather than mitigates the terror, because it suggests that it is merely circumstance and chance that separates the human and civilized from the inhuman and barbaric. Their story implies that the categories and rituals through which communities define themselves are only thinly divided from their apparently categorical others.

Strangely enough, while Jim tamed the horror of his snake by translating its monstrosity into near banality, he does not attempt the same translation with Peter and Pavel's nightmare. Instead, he repeats the story of the wolves almost obsessively:


For Antonia and me, the story of the wedding party was never at an end. We did not tell Pavel's secret to anyone, but guarded it jealously--as if the wolves of the Ukraine had gathered that night long ago, and the wedding party been sacrificed, to give us a painful and peculiar pleasure. (41)


The "painful and peculiar pleasure" of this repetition is a particularly Gothic combination of fear and desire, repulsion from and attraction to the transgressions that the story embodies (Halberstam 2, 13) .Jim's pleasurable pain emerges, more specifically, from his ability to temporarily--and thus safely-- put himself in the place of Peter and Pavel: "At night, before I went to sleep, I often found myself in a sledge drawn by three horses, dashing through a country that looked something like Nebraska and something like Virginia" (41). Unlike the true exiles of the story, Jim can wake up, safe and tucked in, fully at home. And, while Jim believes that the wedding party had been sacrificed for his pleasure, it is truly Peter and Pavel who are sacrificed for the dubious pleasure of a community that can neither acknowledge nor forget a certain affinity between itself and its exiles. In repeating the story of abject exile, that community ultimately finds itself pursued, like Peter and Pavel, by the story it woul d paradoxically repeat in order to forget.


Jim believes that he can lessen the horrors of barbarism and exile by voyeuristically participating in them, yet he discovers that projecting himself into the place of another can bring terrors from which he cannot awake. When Jim spends the night at Wick Cutter's house, he does so in order to protect Antonia from having to stay there: Cutter's strange actions before leaving town with his wife make both Antonia and grandmother Burden suspect that Cutter is "up to some of his tricks again" (157). Since the novel has been explicitly clear about what types of "tricks" Cutter plays on his hired girls, it is truly bizarre that anyone in this story is surprised to find Cutter groping for Antonia in the dark. Although Jim stayed in place of Antonia, he is somewhat unaccountably shocked to find Cutter's hands on him. What unsettles in this story is precisely its predictability: while the snake and the wolves disrupt his narrative through their deviations from known categories, there is nothing in Jim's encounter wit h Cutter that could not be foreseen from Cutter's past behavior. Why, then, does this story have such a shocking effect on its hero? And why does he express rage, not principally at Cutter but at Antonia?


As Antonia cries outside his door, Jim thinks that I hated her almost as much as I hated Cutter. She had let me in for all this disgustingness. Grandmother kept saying how thankful we ought to be that I had been there instead of Antonia. But I lay with my disfigured face to the wall and felt no particular gratitude. My one concern was that grandmother should keep everyone away from me. If the story once got abroad, I would never hear the last of it. (159)

 For Jim, Antonia is the body, the vulnerable body, that "let [him] in" to this dream of transgression from which he cannot awake. Keeping the story contained is Jim's primary motivation: since it is written across his face, he must keep that very literal materialization of narrative quite hidden. Like Jim's other eruptions of memory, this one is, moreover, both over- and underdetermined: the marks on his face tell too much of his adventure with Cutter, while leaving the ultimate question of whether or not he was actually raped unanswered. The Cutter episode, while it might have been both easily predicted and avoided, threatens to become for Jim the equivalent of Pavel's wolves--to pursue him so that he will "never hear the last of it." The disfigurement of memory occurs, then, as a story that has the potential to exceed its subject's control, to return an endless number of times, in unaccountable and unpredictable ways. And such disfigurement is not confined to individual memory; the scars wrought by the untold are deeply etched across the surface and within the core of collective memory as well. As does Jim Burden, a community, a culture, or a nation may struggle to contain and control the stories that make up its history, attempting to exclude any memories--like those of sexual and racial violence--that allow too much to be read. Yet Cather insists that such memories can be neither contained nor erased. In My Antonia, moreover, the individual or community that finds either pleasure or relief in stories of the transgressive other may wake from those illicit dreams to find itself the victim of transgressive hands. The remembrance of things past forms no gentle reflections; instead, it is the plaguing return of the disquieted. For Cather, memory is always disfigured and disfiguring--a relentless prying at the sutures of cosmetic designs.

Nevertheless, Jim is often able to partially repossess his memories by controlling the structure and dissemination of his tales. For example, Mr. Shimerda's suicide initially offers Jim the same promise as Pavel's wolves: a story that seems likely "to give us a painful and peculiar pleasure" (41). Yet Cather makes sure that her readers fathom the violence and the horror of Mr. Shimerda's death by providing explicit details of the way in which he blew a hole in his face (63-64). In a strangely matter-of-fact tone, she informs her readers that, before the funeral, "Jake and Jelinek went ahead on horseback to cut the body loose from the pool of blood in which it was frozen fast to the ground" (74). The ultimate pleasure for Jim, however, is that this suicide opens up the narrative to a proliferation of other tales of violent death: "That afternoon Fuchs told me story after story: about Black Tiger Mine, and about violent deaths and casual buryings, and the queer fancies of dying men" (72). Violent deaths and ca sual buryings give Jim the same type of pleasure that he found in Pavel's wolves. Since these deaths are not only unrelated to him but also mediated through someone else's memories, they figure as eruptions that he can, quite easily, recontain.


He incorporates the violent death and casual burying of Mr. Shimerda by rehousing the man's soul within the heart of the Burden home. Left alone while everyone else is at the Shimerdas',Jim becomes convinced that Mr. Shimerda's soul is in the kitchen with him. While the rest of the community debates about where to house Mr. Shimerda's body--the dangerous body of the suicide--Jim quite comfortably imagines his soul heading back to his old country: "I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wondered whether his released spirit would not eventually find its way back to his own country" (66). Since homesickness killed the man and since his suicide threatens to cast doubt on the security of any domestic enclosure, Jim propels the soul on a journey homeward. To help the soul on its way, Jim reviews the stories that Antonia told him about her father and his life in the old country: "Such vivid pictures came to me they might have been Mr. Shimerda's memories, not yet faded out from the air in wh ich they had haunted him" (66--67). These memories take on an almost material presence; however, their very materiality becomes a source of horror for Jim when he learns that, according to Catholic doctrine, Mr. Shimerda's soul is not headed toward home but is trapped in the terrors of purgatory. Finally, he can only hope that Mr. Shimerda's poverty and unhappiness will spare him from the flames (67). That this ultimate "homecoming" is a hope and not a surety reveals Jim's persistent anxiety over what to do with violent death and with the souls and memories thus released and not-so-casually buried.


Mr. Shimerda's suicide is paralleled by Antonia's story of the tramp who killed himself by "jump[ing] head-first right into the threshing machine" (114-15). Strangely enough, Antonia tells this story to Jim and the Harling children as they are "picking out kernels for walnut taffy" (113). In the heart of the Harling home, the tramp's suicide is a bedtime story. Mirroring the threat of infection that always, to one degree or another, accompanies the novel's "violent deaths and casual buryings," the tramp arrives with "red and wild [eyes], like he had some sickness" (114). He complains that there is not enough water in the ponds to drown himself, then says he is "tired of trampin'. I won't go no farther" (114). Rather than a decision to domesticate himself, to settle down and plant roots, the tramp's immobility is a rejection of houses and homes. Yet the only mark of identification found on his body is a copy of Samuel Woodworth's poem "The Old Oaken Bucket," a poem that nostalgically celebrates the scenes of home, hearth, and childhood (115). Perhaps like Pavel who is eaten by his past, this tramp carries a nostalgia that eventually kills him. Furthermore, both the tramp and Mr. Shimerda are, like Peter and Pavel, homeless, exiles wandering along the edges of communities that remain carefully blinded to their presence. As exiles, they reiterate the boundaries of the communities from which they are excluded. From the deaths of such homeless men, Jim weaves only a tenuous shelter for himself, a memory home predicated on his alternate suppression and embrace of monstrous snakes, violent deaths, and groping hands.

 In the end, Jim's memories fail to house the majority of the bodies in his account. As two final examples of this failure and of the way in which memory can, with Gothic force, vitiate our faith in subjective coherence, the Indian circle and Blind d'Arnault's story are moments when Jim's memory encounters bodies that he cannot contain either in personal accounts or in national ones. History thus interferes like Pavel's wolves and refuses to go home. On the Burden farm there is

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. (42)


Jake and Otto Gothicize this marking, imagining that the circle is an inscription of savagery, a sign of torture. Grandfather Burden, the pragmatist, punches a hole in their Gothic tale and makes the circle practical, mundane. Yet the narrative as a whole remains at least partially suspended between these two accounts. While we are, throughout, encouraged to believe Grandfather Burden's pragmatism over the wild speculations of Jake and Otto, Jim's "romantic disposition" is strongly attracted to the Gothic image (2). The horrors of someone else's past--those imagined victims of Indian savagery--provide Jim with a deferral and a partial containment of his own horrors. Jim can get a "painful and peculiar pleasure" from these memories precisely because they keep the doors of his identity slightly ajar (41). The same process works, on a larger scale, for the community that would "remember" the supposed barbarity of snakes, wolves, and Indians in order to discount its own stories of sexual and racial violence, memo ries that it can neither quite forget nor fully recount.

 For Blind d'Arnault, the story of excluded, abject otherness is written on his body. The direct presentation of his story--one of the few inset stories that is not in any way mediated through a series of tellers--would seem to suggest that everything about Blind d'Arnault is clear, that, in fact, the piano player can be seen and read so clearly precisely because he is blind. The initial description of Blind d'Arnault is patently racist in its stereotypical construction of "the Negro." Blind d'Arnault has

the soft, amiable Negro voice, like those I remembered from early childhood, with the note of docile subservience in it. He had the Negro head, too; almost no head at all; nothing behind the ears but folds of neck under close-clipped wool. He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy. It was the happiest face I had seen since I left Virginia. (118)

 With his "docile subservience" and "no head at all," Blind d'Arnault enters the text as an unthreatening presence, a memory that Jim locates in his Virginia childhood. While he is not quite "repulsive," Jim imagines that he would be horrific without his face, his "kindly and happy" face. The absence of familiarity, of an identifiable face, was exactly what terrified Jim in the snake and the wolves. He keeps Blind d'Arnault from posing the same threat by containing his otherness within a stereotypical construction of "the Negro." Quite bluntly, Jim keeps Blind d'Arnault from being "repulsive" by providing him with a face, but a face that comes only at the price of having "almost no head at all."

Jim's description of Blind d'Arnault and his music continues to exploit the racist stereotypes with which it begins. Blind d'Arnault, as a small child, plays the piano without any instruction. He sounds out "passages that were already his, that lay under the bone of his pinched, conical little skull, definite as animal desires" (121). This passage both speaks and refutes its racism: while Blind d'Arnault has a "pinched, conical little skull" and "animal desires," he also has the talent and instinct of a prodigy. His head is thus both missing and uncannily present. Consequently, he becomes a piano player who is both within and outside of white America's cultural longings:

 He could never learn like other people, never acquired any finish. He was always a Negro prodigy who played barbarously and wonderfully.... To hear him, to watch him, was to see a Negro enjoying himself as only a Negro can. (121)

His music, both barbarous and wonderful, is highly desired by the same people to whom he is "only a Negro." His audience sees in him "some glistening African god of pleasure, full of strong, savage blood" (123). This "savage blood" is the mark of his otherness, his blackness, his threat of becoming "repulsive": it is the abjection that links him to the Indian circle, to Jim's snake, Pavel's wolves, to violent deaths and casual buryings. "Savagery" names the implicit threat of his presence in a society determined to see him as somewhat monstrous. [10] The danger he poses is tenuously contained by his blindness, his docility, and his attention to music. The only way that Jim can even partially house him is by subsuming his race in his talent, comforted by the thought that this talent is also blind.

 Jim imperils this house, however, when he moves from Blind d'Arnault's piano playing--"head thrown back, his yellow face lifted, his shriveled eyelids never fluttering"--to his story (119): "He was born in the Far South, on the d'Arnault plantation, where the spirit if not the fact of slavery persisted" (119). Crippled from infancy by both blindness and a "nervous motion of his body," Blind d'Arnault is also crippled by the spirit of slavery that endures, in true Gothic fashion, beyond its ostensible death (119). On the plantation he is called "yellow Martha's simple child," and the novel calls him Blind d'Arnault, but his mother named him Samson (119). In Judges 16, Samson, blinded by the Philistines, brings down the temple of his oppressors, crushing them beneath its weight: the name does not, therefore, simply evoke blindness, but a blindness invested with subversive and enormous power. Although "ashamed" of his appearance, Samson's mother "loved him devotedly," brought him "dainties...from the Big House" and kept the other children from abusing him (119). Samson thus possesses what neither Jim nor Antonia ever have: a fierce maternal devotion. In a novel that traces out so many ways to lose one's mother--Jim's mother dies, Antonia's is singularly ineffective, Pavel's mother cannot even look at him--it cannot be incidental that Samson's mother not only endures but also names her child with authority.

While the racist descriptions of Samson say that he is "only a Negro," a man without a head, Samson's music and his memory enter the temple of American history and threaten to pull it down. The subversive strength of this Samson is the power of absolute and absolutely literal memory: "He began to talk early, remembered everything he heard" (119). He learns to play the piano by listening to Miss Nellie d'Arnault practice, and he remembers, by rote, whatever he hears: "Several teachers experimented with him. They found he had absolute pitch, and a remarkable memory" (121). He has as well, an uncanny connection to and understanding of the piano, even during his first encounter with it: "He approached this highly artificial instrument through a mere instinct, and coupled himself to it, as if he knew it was to piece him out and make a whole creature of him" (120). My Antonia is inhabited by incomplete, wounded, and scarred people, yet Blind d'Arnault finds a way to make himself whole, even in a society that prese rves "the spirit if not the fact of slavery" (119). This black man is not only one of the few characters able to complete himself but also the only character with a perfect and inviolable memory. Blind d'Arnault--the hidden Samson--thus becomes the principal figure for the haunting of American national and cultural memory houses. An African American in postslavery America, he remains excluded from the Big House of the plantation and from the bigger house of national memory. Yet he himself will remember, and so he poses, not the promise of domestication, but the threat that memory will turn Gothic to its core and return with "strong, savage blood" (123) to erase the faces of those who refuse to bear witness to or stand accountable for the violent deaths and casual buryings of slavery.

 Blind d'Arnault, Pavel's wolves, and the violent deaths in the novel represent one end of Jim's memory spectrum, the point at which he is vulnerable to being unsheltered and unredeemed. At the other end are the conventional and stifling houses of Black Hawk, a domesticity that Jim is still trying to evade. His memory work is then a process of balancing between these two alternatives--absolute exclusion and absolute enclosure. If his memory is often strikingly Gothic--intruding, engulfing, and fragmenting where it should simply confirm his identity--Jim responds by patterning his account so that his Gothic monsters will not simply terrify but also give him pleasure. In this way, he can keep himself just on the edge of the accountable. His primary tool for mediating this exchange is his romanticization of the hired girls, and especially of Antonia.

The hired girls must be outside of the domesticity represented by the Harling and Burden homes--a domesticity that Jim comes to experience as violation--yet not so far outside that they come to resemble Blind d'Arnault's more radical exclusion. Metaphorically, this position is represented by the "three Bohemian Marys": "The three Marys were considered as dangerous as high explosives to have about the kitchen, yet they were such good cooks and such admirable housekeepers that they never had to look for a place" (130). One could also figure this liminal position as a point midway between dancing with Lena and dancing with Antonia. Jim says that Lena "danced every dance like a waltz, and it was always the same waltz--the waltz of coming home to something, of inevitable, fated return" (142). In contrast, "When you spun out into the floor with Tony, you didn't return to anything. You set out every time upon a new adventure" (142). Between the fated return and the endless adventure lies the ideal memory, one capab le of innumerable surprises, yet always finally making a pattern, offering the excitement of "high explosives," while still keeping one's house in "admirable" order.

 It is for their position both in and out of Black Hawk homes that Jim comes to believe in the hired girls as a certain possibility of redemption: It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. I understood that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish. (173; emphasis added) Jim's "revelation" is predicated on defacing Lena, Tiny, and Antonia, making them into a general figure of "girls like those." Just as Blind d'Arnault's inviolable memory is contained within the limits of racist assumptions about "the Negro," the unconventional femininity of the hired girls is made proper by incorporating them into the nationalistic cadences of Virgil's poetry. Within the immeasurable tapestry of communal memory, stories that relate the birth of the nation simply tie up--or snip off--the threads that dangle. Jim's "girls like those" perform for him a similar function, loosely tying together his memories. But the "girls like those" who establish this containment for him are all women who step Out of traditional molds of femininity: Tiny goes on a dangerous expedition to Alaska, Lena refuses to submit her own will to the confines of marriage, and Antonia gives herself away too cheaply to Larry Donovan and comes home in disgrace. In other words, underpinning Jim's fortress of memory and, by exte nsion, his cultural and historical narratives, are "girls like those" who are, quite strikingly, not the girls their culture would claim. Poetic memory, in Jim's construction of it, is therefore born out of the wrong women. It is funded by a femininity that breaks the rules. "Girls like those," framed by nationalistic narratives, become an acceptable haunting of Jim's home, the promise of fear mingled with pleasure.

The face that underwrites Jim's entire home in and of memory is, of course, Antonia's. She is the only one of the "girls like those" who will become sufficiently domestic to fully inhabit Jim's memory. Although she transgresses his definitions of femininity again and again, from her early disagreements with Jim, to her pride in being able to do men's work, and then to her catastrophic relationship with Larry Donovan, Antonia ultimately builds Jim's dream house, one from which he can come and go at will. Antonia offers him images of domesticity and motherhood that are, for him at least, safely contained as possibilities and not actualities. Before he leaves her for 20 years, Jim tells Antonia that I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister--anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me. (206)


As Rosowski has noted, "There is strikingly little of Antonia in this meeting" (86). [11] In imagining that she could have been wife or sweetheart, mother or sister, Jim, in effect, makes her stand in for all of those roles--and none of them. She becomes a pure ideality, a safe refuge to which Jim can return again and again, where he will never stumble up against the inevitable disappointments and absences of a real, substantial sweetheart, wife, mother, or sister. As simply an "idea," Antonia has an influence that Jim can safely incorporate and carry with him, making his home sufficiently mobile.

 Antonia is, as well, "a natural-born mother" (204), and, in a novel that has concerned itself so extensively with ways to lose one's mother, this is no small gift. A "natural-born mother" is, perhaps, what Jim has sought all along. Certainly, she displaces not only his own mother's face but also his grandmother's and, in fact, the faces of all the women he has ever known. Antonia's face is, for Jim, "the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women's faces, at the very bottom of my memory" (207). While Jim identifies this face as the "closest" and "realest," he is able to do so only at the cost of keeping it out of his sight for 20 years. Antonia, as the "very bottom" of Jim's memory, is the groundwork that cannot, under any circumstances, fall through. While he can play around with the terrors of facelessness, the Gothic horrors of violence and exclusion, Jim cannot displace this cornerstone without entirely collapsing the architecture of his memories. Unlike Jim's snake and Pavel's wolves, Antonia cannot bite: significantly, she has lost all of her teeth by the time Jim returns to her.

When Jim finally revisits Antonia, he finds a perfect maternal and domestic sanctuary, one that he can visit, borrow from, and yet not be engulfed by--a fantasy that also characterizes a range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American cultural imaginations of individualism and domesticity. [12]


Antonia's home and farm are an Eden without the serpent. [13] At the center of that paradise, Jim imagines his new Eve, his redemptive Antonia: "She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true" (226). Yet the "attitudes" to which Antonia lends herself, like the poetry funded by "girls like those," are not "universal" but specifically valuable to Jim for their ability to ground him without immobilizing him--to grant him a flexible foundation of memory, a transparent home. Jim's feeling that Antonia can "stop one's breath for a moment by a look or a gesture that somehow revealed the meaning of common things" is funded precisely by his equivalent sense that she is Eve in the garden, "a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" (226-27). In both images, there is less of Antonia--or of any human woman--than there is of Jim's attempts to find a ground on which to stabilize his otherwise unruly memory.


Antonia's children, like her body and her home, become a source of potential replenishment for weary pilgrim Jim. Up until this point, the novel has elaborated on dangerous homes, lost mothers, and horrific consumption--on memories that return in threatening, engulfing, and violating ways. Yet Antonia's home and children represent a fruitful and nurturing domesticity and motherhood, a home that neither swallows nor spits up its inhabitants. The food there is abundant and good, as the visit to the fruit cave demonstrates (217). In leaving the cave, Jim becomes Cather's subtle parody of Plato's enlightened man:


We turned to leave the cave; Antonia and I went up the stairs first, and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight. It made me dizzy for a moment. (218)


As Katrina Irving has observed, this explosion of life stands in stark contrast to Jim's sterile marriage with an estranged wife in a home that he rarely visits (100). Antonia is "embarrassed" to learn that Jim has no children of his own (216). Yet we should not be surprised: while Jim has, throughout, laid claim to and comforted himself with "girls like those," the woman he chose to marry bears a much stronger resemblance to the lifeless and rigid Black Hawk girls. She is "unimpressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm" (1). She is certainly not Jim's Antonia. Perhaps, in the end, he can only preserve his Antonia--with her house, her garden, and her explosion of life--precisely by keeping her at a distance, "at the very bottom of [his] memory," an ideal on which he can speculate without risk (207).


Cuzak's boys--Antonia's boys--finally come to take the place of "girls like those," girls who have become older and less adaptable to Jim's imagination: Lena refused to marry, Tiny is now "someone in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out," and even Antonia is "grizzled" (194, 214). When Jim goes out into the fields with Cuzak's boys, he becomes, once more, "like a boy in their company, and all manner of forgotten interests revived in me" (222). Cuzak's boys mediate a return of memory that is safely located in the fields, along the perimeter of the home, but not exactly within its walls. Still cagey to the end, Jim Burden is more at home out of any home, in the fields where he can revive his own lost youth, and with boys who can reflect that youth back to him. Quite simply, then, he plans to take these boys with him: "There were enough Cuzaks to play with for a long while yet. Even after the boys grew up, there would always be Cuzak himself!" (237). Unable to reproduce himself safely--either thr ough children or through memories--Jim finds his talisman in Antonia's sons, boys he can borrow and then return.


Jim ends his visit, and his account of his Antonia, by returning to the road that brought them both into the Nebraska fields. In this circling back toward his origins, Jim believes that he meets himself, face to face, and that he finds in his own backward gaze the home he has repeatedly lost:


I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Antonia 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. (238)


Constructing his past and his memories as a closed circle cannot, however, account for the innumerable places where that figure exploded or imploded, expelling him from his comfortable sense of "Destiny." While Jim names his account My Antonia, figuratively giving it her face, the narrative continually strays away from that mark, haunting even the bottom of his memory, and stridently testifying that remembrance will always elude our control, escape from our homes, and return the violently dead and casually buried. The Destiny that Jim then finds on the road from and to his past is a tenuous story, assembled from fragments and riven with the unaccountable, the monstrous, the things on the other side of Eden. And so, Jim's past, like any other, remains essentially "incommunicable," despite several hundred pages to the contrary. Such incommunicable pasts, such fragile homes for memory, bear witness to the irony of destiny, showing it to be a story formed after the fact, a "predetermined" road with an endless abi lity to change its very face. Jim's inscriptions of destiny, to escape that frightening irony, wear a mask named Antonia, a face he thinks he knows, but one that his narrative merely circles. And--My Antonia asks each reader and age--what of our own haunted inscriptions, our own disfigured memories? What masks have we imposed and what circles do we tread?


LISA MARIE LUCENTI has a PhD in English literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo. In her dissertation, she compared selected works by Willa Gather, Isak Dinesen, and Virginia Woolf, focusing in particular on questions of subjectivity, memory, and narrative. She is currently teaching English at Gushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts.




(1.) O'Brien writes, in fact, that "memory and imagination" are the "sources" of Cather's art (366). Fryer also notes the vital connections between memory and imagination in Cather's work and further argues that the "little phrase" that evokes memory is as important for Cather as it was for Proust (223). Carlin takes a different approach and suggests that Cather's fiction creates specific parallels between memory and the act of reading. In a somewhat similar argument, Murphy writes that Cather "filtered her memories through art prototypes" (xxii). Questions of history, the past, and remembrance are also important to critical studies of Cather by Nealon, Rosowski, Winters, and Michaels.


(2.) I am grateful to Rosowski for suggesting ways in which I might expand my argument on Cather's representations of Jim Burden's memory to apply as well to collective acts of remembrance.

 (3.) Cather's multivalenced depiction of Jim's writing of Antonia has, through its very complexity, generated a variety of critical responses. Rosowski writes, in fact, that My Antonia is "the continuously changing work," one that presents something new to each reader (75). Some critics--including Kaye, O'Brien, Fetterley, and Irving--have proposed readings of My Antonia that highlight its autobiographical content. For example, both Fetterley and Irving suggest that Cather's central project in My Antonia is a guarded and masked exploration of her own identity as a lesbian writer in a patriarchal and heterosexual society. (For similar readings see Nealon or Stout.) In contrast, critics like Carlin and Murphy suggest that the novel's emphasis on memory is not primarily autobiographical in nature. After a careful and thorough accounting of the parallels between Cather's life and her novel, Murphy goes on to argue that "Sifting through Jim's memoir merely to understand Willa Cather discredits her accomplishment and reduces My Antonia to psychoallegory" (xvi). (For a similar argument in relation to Cather's work as a whole see Carlin or Rule.) Still other critics set aside the question of autobiography in order to examine other aspects of the novel. Fryer, for example, reads the novel as Jim's journey back toward the land and a "community of storytellers" where he can "place" or ground himself (287). Levy interprets the novel as Cather's revaluation of traditional definitions of "male" and "female" values. Rosowski reads the novel in terms of romanticism, emphasizing Gather's complex use of symbolism and her questioning of cultural myths about gender differences.


(4.) Murphy makes a similar point, although he concentrates on the ways in which Cather and Jim Burden show memory as filtered through art.


(5.) Fryer makes the important observation that "violence and death stalk through Cather's stories with the regularity of historical necessity" (249).


(6.) Although he does not focus on the literal and metaphoric homes of the novel, Murphy writes, in this context, that "Jim's task in mid-life, which should in no way occasion blame, is to celebrate his past and make it meaningful enough to fill a somewhat unsatisfying present" (xvi-xvii).


(7.) Gothic memory is, perhaps, also a means through which Jim's culture can express its own simultaneous fear of and desire for domesticity. As critics like Brown and Felski have cogently argued, "the domestic" has, in many ways, become an amorphous and spectral presence against which modern identities, both personal and cultural, can position themselves.


(8.) Butler notes the excessive figuration of this snake as well, but not in terms of the Gothic. For Butler, the snake is a way for Cather to complicate gender identifications.


(9.) In distinction from my reading here, several critics have interpreted this story as a rejection of conventional marriage and/or heterosexuality. See Irving, Fetterley.


(10.) My argument, here and throughout, owes much to Halberstam's study of the production and "technology" of monstrosity within cultural imaginations.


(11.) Rosowski broadens this point to argue that the other characters in My Antonia "just as consistently belie the myths Jim attempts to impose upon them" (89).


(12.) See Brown.


(13.) Jim's construction of the land--particularly of Antonia's land--as an Eden, follows the patterns of reading the landscape that Kolodny attributes specifically to male pioneers. Fryer also observes this connection.




Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

 Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Carlin, Deborah. Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. Amherst: Massachusetts UP, 1992.

 Gather, Willa. My Antonia. Boston: Houghton, 1977.

DeLamotte, Eugenia C. Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.


 Dyck, Reginald. "The Feminist Critique of Willa Cather's Fiction: A Review Essay." Women's Studies 22:3 (1993): 263-79. Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989. Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989. -----. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Fetterley, Judith. "My Antonia, Jim Burden, and the Dilemma of the Lesbian Writer." Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Ed. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow. New York: New York UP, 1990. 145--63. Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. Irving, Katrina. "Displacing Homosexuality: The Use of Ethnicity in Willa Cather's My Antonia." Modern Fiction Studies 36:1 (Spring 1990): 90-102. Kaye, Frances. Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women. New York: Lang, 1993. Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984. Levy, Helen Fiddyment. Fiction of the Home Place: Jewett, Cather, Glasgow, Porter, Welty, and Naylor. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 1992. Michaels, Walter Benn. "The Vanishing American." American Literary History 2.2 (Summer 1990): 220-41. Murphy, John J. Introduction. My Antonia. New York: Penguin, 1994. Nealon, Christopher. "Affect-Genealogy: Feeling and Affiliation in Willa Cather." American Literature 69.1 (Mar. 1997): 5-37. O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. London: Longman, 1980. Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. Rule, Jane. "Willa Cather, 1876-1947." Lesbian Images. New York: Doubleday, 1975. 74-87. Stout, Janis. P. Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990. Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818--1918). London: McFarland, 1990.

Winters, Laura. Willa Cather: Landscape and Exile. Selinsgrove: Susquehana UP, 1993.


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