My Antonia


Willa Cather

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My Antonia: Allusions 4 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Jesse James:

In Book 1, Chapter 1 of My Ántonia, Cather makes an allusion to the real 19th-century outlaw Jesse James. She does so as part of the visual imagery that describes the frontiersman Otto Fuchs. When they meet, Jim observes Fuchs intently and notes that:

He might have stepped out of the pages of “Jesse James.” He wore a sombrero hat, with a wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his moustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns. He looked lively and ferocious, I thought, and as if he had a history. A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian’s. Surely this was the face of a desperado.

Jesse James was a famous and controversial figure of the American “Wild West.” Born in 1847, James was variously a bank and train robber, a Confederate Civil War “hero,” and a fugitive from the law many times over. By comparing Fuchs to this character, Cather adds another dimension to the novel's, realistic portrayal of early 1900s Nebraska. Even at this point in the book, this figure establishes for the reader that Jim has come to a “wild” frontier state where bandits and outlaws operate. The visual cues in the imagery of Fuchs's “lively and ferocious” appearance—especially his curling mustache, sombrero, and the "bright buckle" on his belt—align him with the cowboys of the “Wild West” and Jim’s journey to Nebraska with that sense of adventure and risk.

Book 1, Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—"Selah!":

In Book 1, Chapter 2 of My Ántonia, Cather alludes to the Hebrew word "Selah" as Jim's grandfather reads aloud from the Bible. This provides context for the novel's periods of reflection, and also implicitly refers to to the frame story the book begins with:

Grandfather put on silver-rimmed spectacles and read several Psalms. His voice was so sympathetic and he read so interestingly that I wished he had chosen one of my favourite chapters in the Book of Kings. I was awed by his intonation of the word “Selah.” “He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom He loved. Selah.” I had no idea what the word meant; perhaps he had not. But, as he uttered it, it became oracular, the most sacred of words.

"Selah" is a Hebrew word used in the biblical Psalms—sacred poems meant to be sung— to indicate a pause or a reflection. In highlighting this word as “oracular” and “the most sacred,” Cather points to the importance of the novel’s own many “pauses” and “reflections.” The book is full of moments where Jim steps aside to consider the consequences of thoughts or actions, or returns to things he has done to mull them over. This allusion also emphasizes the importance of the frame story in the introduction to the book. For the most part, My Ántonia is itself a “reflection” on childhood, love, and loss. The bulk of the novel is made up of the contents of the "recollections" Jim passes on to the book's other narrator after the events of the Introduction. Although Jim doesn’t understand the word "Selah" and it's not commonly used now, it is likely to have been a familiar one to Cather’s primarily American and Christian readers at the time of publication.

Jim, in both the "present" of the frame story and the "past" of the novel's timeline, is more interested in this word that he doesn’t understand than anything else his grandfather says or reads. Even though Jim has “no idea” what the word means, the way his grandfather reads it gives it a sense of especial significance .This highlights the family's religious faith the importance of biblical teachings to their lifestyle, as was the case for many immigrant and settler families living in frontier states like Nebraska at the time.

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Book 1, Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—Eldest Evil:

In Book 1, Chapter 7, Cather uses an allusion to describe the snake that Jim kills as a child, describing it as being like the Devil in the Christian tradition:

He seemed like the ancient, eldest Evil. Certainly his kind have left horrible unconscious memories in all warm-blooded life [...]

The reference to the "Eldest Evil" that Cather makes here is a clear allusion to the Devil, who is often associated with snakes in Christian stories. Jim's description of the snake's "kind" leaving "horrible memories" in all "warm-blooded" creatures highlights the universally recognizable character of this type of fear. Even though he hasn’t run into a rattlesnake quite like this before, he senses that the snake represents an ancient horror, one that seems common to all non-reptiles. The comparison of the snake to the Devil in the Bible emphasizes the horror and disgust that Jim feels when encountering it: as he’s a Christian child, the Devil is among the worst things he could compare anything to.

Ántonia's reaction to the snake reinforces this notion of its potential to terrify, as she freezes and weeps upon encountering it, lagging back and leaving Jim to kill it. Jim's subsequent dispatching of the snake is seen as a heroic act by both children, "saving" Ántonia from the danger it posed. The dynamic between Jim and Ántonia that Cather describes here when the snake has been killed also reinforces traditional gender roles, casting Jim as the protector and Ántonia as the “protected.”

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Book 3, Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Camille:

In Book 3, Chapter 3, Cather alludes to Camille, an 1848 play by Alexandre Dumas. This allusion aligns Jim's heartsickness for Ántonia Shimerda with the storyline of the play, and foreshadows some of the girl’s later difficulties:

Toward the end of April, the billboards, which I watched anxiously in those days, bloomed out one morning with gleaming white posters on which two names were impressively printed in blue Gothic letters: the name of an actress of whom I had often heard, and the name “Camille.”

Cather alludes to this 19th-century French play—which would have been familiar to her readers at the time, as it was widely published and performed—to draw a parallel between Jim's feelings for Ántonia and those of the play’s male lead, Armand Duval. The billboards advertising the play catch the young protagonist’s attention. He is immediately drawn in by the striking, foreign glamour of the signs, much as he was drawn to Ántonia initially. He describes the posters as "gleaming" and "Gothic," highlighting the contrast between the decadent scenes of wealthy French life depicted in the play and the much less affluent life of rural Nebraska.

After the play, Jim is cast down and miserable because of the similarities he sees between his fate and that of Armand:

I tramped through the puddles and under the showery trees [...] sighing with the spirit of 1840, which had sighed so much, and which had reached me only that night, across long years and several languages, through the person of an infirm old actress.

This melodramatic “sighing with the spirit of 1840" suggests that Jim sees parallels between his own situation and that of Armand Duval, the young man who falls in forbidden love with the courtesan Marguerite in the play. This allusion to Dumas's play also foreshadows the struggles that Ántonia Shimerda will face as she grows up into a young woman. These are primarily fought around maintaining her good reputation and the public perception of her purity. In this passage, Cather's allusion connects Ántonia directly with Marguerite, a courtesan who faces public scrutiny for selling sex. In so doing, the author points to the challenges that Ántonia will encounter as a young, attractive woman in the small and restrictive community she lives in.

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