My Antonia


Willa Cather

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My Antonia: Flashbacks 2 key examples

Explanation and Analysis—A Central Figure:

In the introduction to My Ántonia, the unnamed narrator and Jim Burden (the book's other narrator) discuss a central figure from their childhood, a Bohemian girl whom they both admired and loved. This takes the form of a flashback, in which the two figures in their train carriage are transported back to 1900s Nebraska:

During that burning day when we were crossing Iowa, our talk kept returning to a central figure, a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom both of us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood. To speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one’s brain.

In this passage, the narrator flashes back to their own childhood with Jim. This series of common “remembrances” frames the importance of Ántonia Shimerda in the story as the "central figure." The narrator explains that “to speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places and to set a quiet drama going in one's brain,” meaning that even mentioning her sets off a vivid chain of memories and emotions for both the narrator and Jim.

Cather's use of flashback is part of the Modernist writing style of My Ántonia. By discussing the past and the present in this intermingled way, Cather evokes the real experience of experiencing and recalling important memories. In using a nonlinear narrative like this, Cather is able to convey the way that memories and emotions are interconnected and can resurface unexpectedly and shockingly. 

Book 1, Chapter 8
Explanation and Analysis—Pavel and Peter:

In Book 1, Chapter 8, Cather uses a flashback full of frightening visual and auditory imagery to describe an event from Pavel and Peter's past in Russia. The narrator recounts a dramatic scene (translated for him later by Ántonia) where Pavel describes to Mr. Shimerda how he and his brother were the only survivors of a wedding party eaten by wolves:

The wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it [...] The first howls were taken up and echoed and with quickening repetitions. The wolves were coming together. There was no moon, but the starlight was clear on the snow. A black drove came up over the hill behind the wedding party. The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but there were hundreds of them.

The intensity of this scene is heightened by Cather's vivid description of the black wolves running like “streaks of shadow” against the winter tundra. The reader gets a graphic sense of the horror of the racing mass of dark, ravenous bodies approaching against the white snow. She also provides auditory imagery for the reader that builds the tension of the scene as she describes the “howls” of the wolves “quickening” as they converge on the group. The scene is oppressive and scary, which explains the desperate action Peter and Pavel were forced to take.

The flashback gives the reader a glimpse into the danger and harshness of life in the tundra of Russia, which Cather places in direct contrast to the life Jim, Ántonia, and their companions live on the Nebraska prairie. Living in either place contains similar risks, such as harsh winters, unpredictable weather, and wild animal attacks. The scene also provides context for the close bond between Pavel and Peter and complicates their characters. At the end of the flashback, Pavel reveals that he and Peter threw the bride and groom to the wolves in order to survive the onslaught. Later in the same passage, Cather describes this incident as the trigger for the men leaving Russia:

They went away to strange towns, but when people learned where they came from, they were always asked if they knew the two men who had fed the bride to the wolves.

Because the two men are remembered as "the men who had fed the bride to the wolves," they are forced to leave their own community. When they aren’t welcome even in “strange towns,” they migrate to the United States. This flashback describes a brutal and shocking act that paints these otherwise kind and charming characters in a new light for the reader. The scene also underscores the novel's theme of chosen community within immigrant settlements: Pavel and Peter managed to find a life of belonging and safety in Black Hawk despite their troubled past.

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