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Analysis of Oral Storytelling in "My Antonia"

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According to Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller,” storytellers are a dying breed, and the novel only contributes to the death of storytelling. If that is true, then Willa Cather’s My Antonia is a fan fueling flames on the somber coals of storytelling. Cather uses various instances of narrative that mirror oral storytelling. These instances attempt to “keep [the] story free from explanation” and leave the reader to “interpret things the way he understands them” (Benjamin 89).

When Jim Burden kills the large snake in the prairie-dog town, the major source of pride for him is not just personal satisfaction. His contentment stems from the ability to show off his kill, the ability to tell that story. As a storyteller, he takes pride in his narrative, and enjoys the ability of his tale to inspire admiration in his listeners. Antonia is a witness to his account, and “Her exultation was contagious” (Cather 33) for Jim. That is because he is receiving contentment and pleasure from sharing his narrative. Antonia then also receives satisfaction from standing “in the middle of the floor, telling the story with a great deal of colour” (Cather 34). The story continues to pass on; instead of discarding the snake after the kill, they drag it home, and then leave it hanging up on the fence so that all the neighbors can witness their story. This shows Jim’s innate desire to receive and give “the most extraordinary things, marvelous things, [that] are not forced on the [listener]” (Benjamin 89).

The next instance of oral storytelling jumps out of Jim and Antonia’s visit to Pavel on his deathbed. Pavel’s story is first heard by Mr. Shimerda and Antonia’s ears, and then related to Jim by Antonia. That furthering of the story gives pleasure to all parties. Pavel relieves himself of the story as a deathbed confession. The narrative echoes in Jim and Antonia’s mind throughout the novel, although they choose not to share the story. Pavel’s deathbed admission gives Jimmy and Antonia “a painful and peculiar pleasure” that they “guarded…jealously” (Cather 41). Jim and Antonia seem to understand that the story in itself is “the securest among [humanity’s] possessions” (Benjamin 83). To Jim and Antonia, this story gives them access to a foreign hidden land. Jim spends his night imagining himself in that sledge of Pavel’s story, with the setting “look[ing] something like Nebraska and something like Virginia” (Cather 41). The mixed setting reflects how the move and loss of parents displaced Jim.

The death of Mr. Shimerda causes the spurring of various short oral tales from other characters in the novel. Jelinek’s story about his time as an altar boy during a cholera break helps the Shimerdas relate to another culture. Jimmy admits that they “had listened attentively. It was impossible not to admire his frank, manly faith” (Cather 70). This outpouring of an oral tale not only helps the characters to relate to one another and connect, but also causes the Burdens to connect to another culture. Otto tells the Burdens how he learned to make a coffin, a story that also elicits a reaction from the listeners. The passing of all these stories through the community strengthens them; “It is left up to [them] to interpret things the way [they] understand them” (Benjamin 89). It causes the other characters to react, to think. Mr. Shimerda’s death continues his stories as well, as Antonia passes them on to Jimmy. She does not want her father to be forgotten, and the passing of these stories gives her that satisfaction. When Jim does his commencement speech Antonia wishes that her father could have heard it, and Jim states, “I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony…I dedicated it to him” (Cather 147). Antonia tells more of Mr. Shimerda’s stories when they all go swimming at the river. It was “beautiful talk, like what I never hear in this country” (Cather 150). The tradition, the story of Mr. Shimerda continues.

Oral stories also create connections between the characters within the novel. During Jim’s first winter in Nebraska, Otto and Jake sit and tell stories about animals and outlaws. These oral tales provide not only entertainment on the individual level, but as a group, these stories created a bond between the listeners and the speaker. Otto’s story of his arrival in America “makes it the experience of those listening to the tale” (Benjamin 87). The stories serve to bring the family together, and to forge connections within the family. When Antonia works for the Harlings, Nina Harling begs Antonia to tell them stories. “Everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart” (Cather 113), says Jim. Her oral stories bring the children together. The anecdote of the tramp’s suicide also elicits reactions from the characters. They take pleasure in their connections with Antonia through her stories.

The oral story echoes in Jim and serves a more fulfilling purpose than that of the novels in Jim’s life. My Antonia begins with Jim reading Life of Jesse James. He uses the novel and books to hide from reality, rather than to identify and relate to his surroundings. When Jim meets Otto Fuchs, he places him as a character in Jesse James, but in Pavel’s oral story Jim identifies with Pavel and Russian Peter; he imagines himself in that sledge, running from those wolves. His own story of the snake gives him a sense of himself, and the reflections from telling the story to others fulfill him. The novels Jimmy reads in My Antonia never give him the connection oral storytelling does. They never resonate with him, and often give him just a place to hide from his surroundings, rather than to connect with them. When Jim promises his grandmother not to attend dances at the Fireman’s Hall, he turns to his schoolbooks to help sever his ties with the community. Books serve to isolate Jim, and he uses them in order to distinguish himself from negative oral traditions. A major moment in which Jim defines himself within the community is his commencement speech. Mrs. Harling states, “You didn’t get that speech out of books” (Cather 146), showing that for Jim his true connection with people is not through books, but through stories.

Gossip as a form of oral storytelling also has a major effect on the community. Gossip is used mostly to negative effect, yet is the town’s most significant form of oral storytelling. One example of gossip’s effect on the characters and community is the way in which it shapes people’s understanding of Lena Linguard. Another is the way the “hired girls” are thought of once they begin attending the tent dances. When Jim meets up with them in the ice cream shop and the high-school principal comes in, they have to stop their laughter:

Anna knew the whisper was going about that I was a sly one. People said there must be something queer about a boy who showed no interest in girls of his own age, but who could be lively enough when he was with Tony and Lena or the three Marys. (Cather 138)

The effect of gossip on the community’s opinion of the subjects hits the youth. For the first time, Jim becomes the subject of negative oral stories. When one person, the principal in this instance, overhears something in a negative context, the subject of the gossip, Jim, becomes part of a story that will reverberate throughout the community. Jim also finds himself told by Jelinek to leave his bar because of what “church people think about saloons” (Cather 139). Because of gossip, Jim has to stop attending the dances at the Firemen’s Hall. “People say you are growing up to be a bad boy, and that ain’t just to us” (Cather 145), Grandmother tells Jim.

My Antonia in itself is a composition of a novelist trying to recreate a novelist trying to capture the connections provided by oral storytelling. Jim attempts to reconnect with the oral storytelling of his youth by recalling and writing his accounts with Antonia. However, according to Benjamin, he is only furthering his state:

The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. (Benjamin 87)

Jim fits this profile of the novelist perfectly. Jim is grasping at the connection he once had with a community of his youth. However, as readers, we understand that Jim never really gets back those times. He lacks children to orally tell his stories to, and the only way he can attempt to relate these tales is by writing them down. Jim’s novel is an attempt to connect again, but this attempt only makes his situation worse.

Cather’s point of making Jim the novelist struggling for a connection serves to reverse the belief that novels do not connect with readers. Her use of oral storytelling throughout My Antonia gives the reader of the modern novel a glimpse of our “wish to hear a story” (Benjamin 83). At times, My Antonia has almost a stream-of-consciousness feeling, emulating the processes of a story that is told orally. Some instances in the novel not only validate the importance of the oral storyteller, but also recreate that sense that information alone fails to give us. Willa Cather’s My Antonia proves that novels can create the essence of the oral story and conveys to readers the importance of oral storytelling.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” 1955. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken, 1968.

Cather, Willa. My Antonia. 1918. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.

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