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Memories that Define Identity

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The novel My Antonia by Willa Cather is based on the pastoral life of Antonia Shimerda, accompanied by Jim Burden and their long lasting friendship. At the beginning of the novel, there is an epigraph saying “ The best days are the first to flee.” This proves to be a moment of foreshadowing because throughout the novel Jim seems to live through his childhood memories with Antonia, rather than simply acknowledging and appreciating them. As a result of this, Jim’s best days hold him back from forming normal relationships with others thus resulting in him constantly living in past instances.

Jim’s happy vivid childhood memories evoke in him a reminiscent feeling, that he is unable to let go of, therefore allowing him to live through his past, rather than branch out to the present. Even in the beginning of the novel, Jim expresses his fondness for Antonia. Jim begins the novel by saying “ More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood” (Cather 2). This allows the reader to begin the novel with some insight into Jim and Antonia’s relationship and how much she truly means to him. Another noteworthy example is in book four, when Jim returns home to visit his friends, family and most importantly Antonia. When Jim is walking with Antonia he thinks to himself “ I could almost believe that a boy and a girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass”(Cather 153). This illuminates how much Jim’s childhood memories haunt him and how much they have engulfed his life. There are numerous occasions in the novel where Jim finds himself lonely and living through his “best days” or childhood memories. This strengthens the epigraph’s truth and proves that in Jim’s case, the best days really are the first to flee. As a result of Jim’s love for Antonia, Jim allows himself to live through Antonia and lets his appreciation for her control and shape his life choices. Therefore, resulting in a depressingly meaningless personal life, and a constant longing to go back in time.

In addition to living in the past, Jim is unable to form healthy relationships with adults, other than Antonia. For instance, when Jim returns home in Book 5 and visits Antonia, she is extremely overwhelmed by her many children and jokingly offers to give Jim one of them. She then asks how many children he has and from Jim’s narrative he says “ When I told her I had no children she seemed embarrassed” (Cather 159). At times, Jim can make Antonia feel awkward and even ostracized because of the different paths their lives have taken, they can no longer relate to each other in the way they once could. Also, in the introduction of the novel the anonymous person Jim is speaking with mentions that they have lost touch with Jim because they do not like his wife. This allows the reader to begin the novel with some idea of Jim’s current personal life and the emptiness that it holds. In addition to Antonia, Jim spends a lot of time with Lena Lingard. The basis for Jim and Lena’s romantic relationship is Antonia. At one point in the novel, Antonia says that she does not want Lena to date Jim. However, for the flirtacious rule breaking Lena Lingard, this only made Jim all the more attractive, thus beginning a deeper relationship between the two of them. However, even though they date for quite some time, their relationship caves and they decide not to get married. This is because Jim has always loved Antonia, and the basis for Jim and Lena’s relationship has and always will be Antonia. This especially reveals that the result of Jim idolizing and borderline worshiping Antonia, is a large contributing factor in his inability to build relationships with others. The reason behind Jim so often living in the past is that he doesn’t want to face the reality of adulthood, therefore subconsciously creating an unhappy life for himself.

Starting at a young age, the fundamental differences in Jim and Antonia’s personalities illuminate why Jim is unsuccessful in his attempts to have relationships with others. The impact Antonia’s willful personality has on Jim is why he has a relationship with her, and no one else. One of the first examples of this is when Jim first meets Antonia and agrees to teach her english, Antonia excitedly tries to give Jim her ring as a sign of her gratitude. Jim says “ When she coaxed and insisted, I repulsed her quite sternly… I felt there was something reckless and extravagant about her wishing to give it away to a boy she had never seen before”(Cather 16). This not only accentuates Antonia and Jim’s fundamental differences, but it also emphasizes Antonia’s expressive strong willed personality at heart. Another example is in Book 1 when Jim is experiencing conflicts between him and Antonia, the root of the conflict being the fundamental differences between the two of them. Jim expresses his problems with her by saying “Much as I liked Antonia, I hated the superior tone that she sometimes took with me…I resented her protecting manner”(Cather 24). This shows how from an early age Antonia is the dominant one in their relationship because of her overbearing personality, while Jim just lets her push him around, due to his passive following nature. Finally in book 5, when Jim visits Antonia, the differences in the two of them are portrayed through the paths their lives have taken. While Jim is living a lonely life in the past, Antonia is living a hard life, but she is happy and never loses her rebellious personality. This is because Antonia is able to let her memories be a part of her, but not cross a fine line, and let her memories define her, as Jim so often does. Even when Jim and Antonia were children, Antonia was always outgoing, whereas Jim played more of a passive following role in their relationship, therefore making it easier for Antonia to strive as an adult and for Jim to live his life through Antonia.

The epigraph begins as a positive eulogy to Jim’s childhood but later proves to be a negative foreshadowing of an unhappy life to come. This is because Jim cannot escape his past memories and has nothing to live for in the present. Reflecting back upon Jim’s childhood, there are vivid happy eccentric memories of him and Antonia. While looking at his current life, he only wants to go back in time and fall into those childhood memories, which are the cause of him living in the past and being unable to move forward in the present. In addition to that, Antonia is also the reason for Jim’s unhappy life because he idolizes her as a result of the impact she has had on him, is the source of his childhood happiness, and Jim has never again met anyone else like her. To put it bluntly, Jim can’t let go of Antonia and move on with his life. In the epigraph, Antonia represents Jim’s “best days,” while the fleeting nature of their relationship represents the reasoning behind Jim’s unhappiness and the melancholy essence of the epigraph. As a result of Antonia’s impact on Jim, Jim is constantly idolizing Antonia, and Jim’s view of Antonia, therefore by the end of the novel, the epigraph proves to be true.

In beginning of the novel My Antonia, Jim Burden has a wonderful childhood with Antonia Shimerda, his sassy outgoing neighbor. However, as Jim grows older he is unable to allow his memories to simply be a part of him, his memories define him. As a result of this, Jim lives his life through past memories with Antonia and is unable to have healthy normal relationships with other adults. Therefore, the epigraph in the beginning of the novel, “Optima dies…prima fugit”, or “The best days are the first to flee” proves to be a depressingly truthful conclusion to Jim Burden’s story. Jim’s life as an adult portrays the power of memories, unrealistic expectations and defines the epigraph in relation to Antonia.

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GradesFixer. (2018). Memories that Define Identity. Retrived from
GradesFixer. "Memories that Define Identity." GradesFixer, 11 Apr. 2018,
GradesFixer, 2018. Memories that Define Identity. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21 September 2020].
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