IN MY ANTONIA, WILLA CATHER'S PORTRAYAL OF THE LAND is blurred by its intercourse with character. Not only can the land be place, but it can also be soul, an emotional center for more than one character. For narrator Jim Burden, both Antonia and the Nebraskan landscape become a place of returning, equal with the past, yet most essentially a place known as home.
The land is part of Jim Burden from his earliest memories, ones that indeed he returns to. When Jim first travels to Nebraska, his young mind is captured by the vast land, “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Once he arrives at his grandparents’ farm and begins to explore the property and gardens, Jim realizes a peace and comfort there—“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire.”
More importantly, as Jim’s friendship with Antonia develops, their mutual experiences across the prairie tie them together, whether exploring for gophers and earth-owls or gathering insects. “How many an afternoon Antonia and I have trailed along the prairie under that magnificence!” Yet as seasons pass and they grow older, Jim pulls away from the land as he attends university while Antonia detaches herself for a short time as a hired girl.
Their similarity ends there though. Jim’s distance from the land becomes permanent whereas a disgraced Antonia returns to the land to raise her daughter after the fiasco of a promised marriage. Though she could have abandoned her childhood foundation, she chooses a limited life. In a sense, the land becomes both a rescue and a jail, for though she has a livelihood, she has chosen a life without freedom where people gossip and judge and the land feels removed.
"the old pull of the earth"
Yet as she explains her choice to Jim, Antonia declares, “I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here.” Here, Jim relates how he wishes he were a boy again where he “felt the old pull of the earth” and “that my [his] way could end here,” so that he could be part of both the land and Antonia’s life. Jim knows that he could have chosen to remain even though he doesn’t. For some reason, he sees the land as part of a past sense, not his present life. In a reassuring farewell, Antonia most clearly reveals the land’s ties, that Jim will always be with her just like her dead father because of what they experienced on this enigmatic parcel of earth. Her sentiments even echo Jim’s from long ago, the day he confessed to Antonia that he felt her father’s spirit “among the woods and fields that were so dear to him.”
In their final reunion, we see how Jim’s return home is a return to the land and to Antonia. Through the final chapter, Jim vividly depicts Antonia as full of the “fire of life” and a “rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.” She is the one he could tell anything to, the soul mate, the “closest, realest face,” that sees him for who he is. Antonia has become an ideal for Jim, one that is reminiscent of not just the pioneers, but of something more ancient. She is a tie to a nourishing land, a place that through time has brought healing and life to Antonia, her progeny, and finally, Jim. Jim Burden in fact launched his narrative with this same conclusion—“this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.”