Frame Story

My Antonia


Willa Cather

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My Antonia: Frame Story 2 key examples

Explanation and Analysis—Framing Ántonia:

In the introduction to My Ántonia, the author establishes a frame story that provides context for the second, much longer section of the book. An unnamed narrator and their friend Jim Burden reminisce about a shared childhood together, with particular attention to the figure of a mutual friend:

[O]ur 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.

This frame story, which is set in modern-day New York, serves as a contrasting backdrop to rural Nebraska, where most of the  novel takes place. Jim's interaction with this unnamed narrator helps to explain why Ántonia is the "central figure" of the book. Everything is later shown to be "framed" around her, even though the novel is mostly told from Jim's first-person perspective. Jim's devotion to her is further emphasized in the title he gives the manuscript that the narrator "provides" for the reader. He calls it first "Ántonia" and then "My Ántonia":

Months afterward Jim Burden arrived at my apartment one stormy winter afternoon, with a bulging legal portfolio sheltered under his fur overcoat [...] “I didn’t arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Ántonia’s name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn’t any form. It hasn’t any title, either.” He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the pinkish face of the portfolio the word, “Ántonia.” He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it “My Ántonia.” That seemed to satisfy him.

The addition of the word “my” in front of Ántonia’s name reveals the depth of Jim's lingering feelings for that character. Because he makes this change, it becomes clear that even though the “legal portfolio” is supposed to contain Ántonia’s story, its title cannot only be her name but must reflect Jim’s bond with her. The “my” here is also an echo back to the first chapter of the book, in which a member of the Shimerda family calls her “my Ántonia” when Jim first becomes acquainted with her.

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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