Using a sexually inhibited writing style, Willa Cather only briefly describes the narrator, Jim Burden’s carnal desires in My Antonia, but instead of turning a blind eye to fornicating completely, like many of her contemporaries, she embraces the sensual attractiveness of the hired girls as well as the townsmen’s fawning over the exotic beauties.
My Antonia was written in 1918, so it is of no surprise to Cather’s audience that she speaks of Jim’s lasciviousness in a conservative manner in what ended up being her most memorable novel. Cather lead a rather traditional childhood, even though she grew up as a tomboy, never married, and, in the early 1980s, was accused of having been a lesbian.
Born in Back Creek, Virginia on December 7, 1873, Cather and her family relocated to Catherton, Nebraska ten years later. The following year, the family moved once again, only this time they found themselves in Red Cloud, Nebraska, in which most of My Antonia, and Jim’s adventures, take place. After moving so much in such a short amount of time, she did not adjust well (Ahearn). She spent most of her time playing with her younger brothers, who called her “Willie” because she was such a tomboy. She had even cut her hair very short, a radical thing to do in her conventional farming community.
Cather had always felt connected to foreign immigrants (Ahearn), in fact, in 1890, 43% of the population of Nebraska was immigrants, looking to make their own in a new society. She especially had a soft spot for nonnative women, whom she felt were frequently oppressed.
The hired girls in My Antonia doubtlessly fit into that category. Many of the townsfolk looked down on Lena Lingard, a fair-skinned, violet-eyed temptress who is determined never to marry (Cather 103). Many a man pledges everlasting love to Lena, but the most predominant of her suitors is Jim, who consistently dreams about her. Jim’s sexuality is mainly portrayed in the dreams he has about Lena, although the dream changes as Jim views it in retrospect.
Jim’s first accounts of the fantasy were significantly more visual and fantastic then when he remembers them after he has left the town and becomes a student in Lincoln. When the dream is described for the first time, Lena is topless and kissing Jim, smothering him in her voluptuous femininity.
“One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them. Lean Lingard came across the stubble bare-foot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to me with a soft sigh, and said, ‘Now they are all gone and I can kiss you as much as I like.” (p. 144)
This dream speaks volumes about Jim perspective dealing with copulation. Because of the hired girls, and especially Lena’s reputations, he can only be with her in his fantasies or when he is out of the eyes of the town citizens. Jim also wants to be with Antonia in that lecherous way, but Antonia turns him down as well as tell him to stay away from Lena. He mainly views the physical act of intimacy in an introspective way, but he also seems to be a bit in denial about the significance of the dream later on after he had stopped having the dream and is retrieving his memories. This version is annotated, and much less detailed, as if he has forgotten what the imaginary desire had meant to him.
“As I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the harvest-field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual experience. It floated before me on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line: Optima dies, prima fugit.” (p. 174)
Antonia also has her own battle with sexuality, as well as gender rolls. As a young girl she works on the farm, determined to be better than any of the guys. Though she carries with her the traditional mother roll toward Jim, she is confident that she does not need a man, she can be independent. It is only when Jim sleighs a snake that Antonia gains some respect for him in the sense that she sees him in a more manly light. The fact that Antonia grows up as a tomboy with plenty of masculine pride is ironic, because Jim grows up in a community where some of the townsfolk consider him “queer” and even overly romantic for not being interested in girls his own age, since he frequently is seen around the “hired girls.” (p. 138)
Jim, supposed to be masculine, thinks about poetry and acts on feelings, whereas ï¿½ntonia displays self-satisfaction in her youthful masculinity are made up later on in life as Cuzak’s wife with an “inner glow” after she had lost much of her sensual appeal, as well as her teeth. Her life had been significantly changed by the destructiveness of sex. Her mother was even an instrument of detrimental sex, as ï¿½ntonia’s father gave in to his carnal desires and ended up marrying an arrogant servant girl and ends up being shunned by his community. His lassitude eventually leads to his suicide as he finds himself in a life he never meant to live.
Cather’s characters in My ï¿½ntonia display sexual confusion, oppression, and comically subtle outlooks on carnal knowledge. By either attempting to hide the fantasies or embracing them when they think on one is looking, they reflect the times and setting in which the book was written, as well as entertaining the audience dabbling in taboo.