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Nostalgia in willa cather’s book "my Ántonia”

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Childhood is a crucial environmental factor that develops many people’s personality, and, as such, when one looks back on it, they become overwhelmed with the emotions of their past. This feeling is known as nostalgia and plays an essential role in Willa Cather’s book, My Ántonia.

Out of the many characters in the book, the main protagonist, James Burden, is the more deeply rooted character in the theme of the past and nostalgia in addition to being displayed as an almost caricature embodiment of said idea. Many of James’s actions are exemplary of the motif of reminiscence and parallel to the symbolization of youth. Via Jim’s development, through his childhood, his inner conflict with himself, and his indisputable connection to the reappearing theme of the battle of nostalgia and the unfamiliarity of the future, many can see the indubitable underlying message.

The first pages of the book plant the beginning seeds of the developing theme when the reader is introduced to Jim and the fact that his parents had recently passed, which, consequently, causes him to move to his grandparents in Nevada. The reader begins to see the beginnings of Jim’s existential dread and distaste for change demonstrated by him believing he “ felt erased [and] blotted out”. However, he does mention that this was not a direct feeling of being “ homesick” but rather leaves the interpretation that it was the amount of change from the death of his paternal family. These feelings slowly begin to develop into a more potent emotion after meeting Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant, who was quick to become his friend and gain emotional ties to him. This relationship is also quick to grow as the reader sees their friendship transform into a one-sided love interest first hinted at in chapter nine of book two when he refers to the regular girls as forgettable and, instead, suggests that the hired girls who work on farms are more “ engaging”. This description matches Ántonia exactly, and, thus, starts his love which later cultivates even more through his attempted kiss, which ultimately fails, and, finally, his resignation to just being her friend.

These developments through childhood may seem like small events, but as Jim progresses through his adulthood, the exact consequences for these quintessential incidences make themselves known. The prior influences during his adolescence lead to an internal conflict later on in life as he matures as evident by the entirety of his actions in the second half of the book. His infatuation with his childhood is first challenged by his role model and scholar, Gaston Cleric when he suggests that he cannot pursue his future while he is “ playing about with this handsome Norwegian” regarding Lena. This moment is the first instance where Jim is consciously aware of his imminent decision between a new life with new implications versus the familiarity of his childhood. After two years later after his choice to seek out Harvard instead of staying with Lena, he decides to reunite with Ántonia once more, and he shows his tendency to overly cherish his old memories as he confesses to her that he thinks of her “ more often than of anyone else in this part of the world”. This single line reveals, at that particular moment, his inability to completely forget the past in all regards, but this quickly changes in the final book. Within book five, the setting jumps to a prolonged twenty years that showcase Jim’s improvement towards trying to stay focused on his future as he has not seen Ántonia during this gap (assumedly to not provoke any temptation of nostalgia).

Once Jim reconnects with Ántonia once more, he is quick to note that she “ has not lost the fire of life”. At the end of his reconcile with Ántonia, he finally accepts his “ incommunicable past” with her and the town eventually becoming an epitome of nostalgia. Another point that alludes to nostalgia and unfamiliarity can be found in the symbolisms and phrases within the book that directly correlates to the themes of the nature of humanity, and, more specifically, the inner desires of human beings that long for the simpler days of their past. One of these representations of the motif of unfamiliarity is shown within the setting of the book, as it is a portrayal of the author’s real childhood experiences she faced during the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act was an event that took place during the years of 1862 and 1934 that gave citizens free acres of land to accelerate the growth of settlement within the United States (“ The Homestead Act of 1862”), which means most of the territory would be unfamiliar to the people taking it up, similar to the main character, Jim. A different scene that displays the fight between the future and past can be found when Jim is studying Latin and finds one Latin phrase that was particularly prominent to him; this phrase was “ optima dies… prima fugit” which roughly translates to “ the best days are the first to flee”, which is comparative to the longing of Jim who wishes to relive his past. This point is further shown in the final chapter when Jim returns to his old town after twenty years. He is quickly disappointed that the town is unfamiliar to him and holds people that have no importance in his life, which reveals his clear overestimation of the reality of his childhood.

Overall, the reader can infer that Jim’s reliance on his nostalgia and his fear of the unpredictability and unfamiliarity of the future is a direct correspondent to the theme of the book. My Ántonia is an accurate representation of the theme of humanity’s desire and the inability to reach this goal. As such with the nature of humanity, his obsession with the perfection of life shows the truth of reality and the fact that the future is unavoidable. The book makes a clear message about the statements of childhood and the transition to being an adult, and Jim is a perfect paragon of this. Through the actions of his youth, his development as an adult, and the underlying motifs, many can see the main idea of the book.

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