Sexuality and the Male Perspective in Willa Cather's My Antonia
The theme of sexuality is inherent in Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Cather originally published this novel under the pseudonym, William Cather, MD, which illustrates that she was insecure about her own identity. This essay examines the source of her insecurity and suggests that it is because she was writing from the perspective of a man. It will explore how the scholar, Deborah G. Lambert’s theory that Cather’s identity as a lesbian woman in the early twentieth century caused Cather to write a novel that is in defense of her sexuality.
This study will also use the views of Blanche F. Gelfant to understand the broad themes of sexuality within My Antonia. Finally, this essay will show that Cather did not attempt to hide nor defend her identity as a lesbian woman as Lambert suggests; but rather, she wrote from the male perspective for other reasons based on her experiences and relationships as a child in Nebraska.
Lambert’s essay, “The Defeat of a Hero: Autonomy and Sexuality in My Antonia,” describes the various themes of sexuality in Cather’s work and contrasts it with Cather’s own life and identity. She argues that the narrator of the novel, a man named Jim Burden, is the protagonist of the novel and clearly embodies a fictional version of Cather herself. Like Burden, Cather lived in a small Nebraska town and left after high school to attend the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The similarities between Jim and Cather are obvious when reading her biography, yet, there are important differences that this author will explore in the following pages.
- Willa Cather originally published this novel under the pseudonym, William Cather, MD, which illustrates that she was insecure about her own identity.
- Lambert argues that Cather felt the need to illustrate a heterosexual relationship in the novel due to her own insecurities about being a lesbian.
- Cather replaces herself in the novel with Jim, a man, to illustrate a common desire for love and sexual relations.
- She used "Jim" instead of "Jane" in order to make the novel relatable to the common, American reader.
- Cather’s choices to narrate from a male perspective and originally publish this novel under a male pseudonym are a choice that illustrates her insecurity as a woman—not a lesbian.
- Cather was writing as a “detached observer.” Although she is masculine in many ways, as her biographer Woodress suggests, Cather was simply taking that perspective for this novel—not pushing lesbian themes of forbidden love through the novel.
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My Antonia Part 1
As noted before, My Antonia was originally published under the author name, “William Cather, MD.” Lambert illustrates this detail’s importance when discussing Cather’s choice to write as a male narrator:
Willa Cather faced the difficulties that confronted, and still do confront, accomplished and ambitious women. As a professional writer, Cather began, after a certain point in her career, to see the world and other women, including her own female characters, from a male point of view. Further, Cather was a lesbian who could not, or did not, acknowledge her homosexuality and who, in her fiction, transformed her emotional life and experiences into acceptable, heterosexual forms and guises. (Lambert 676)
Lambert argues that Cather felt the need to illustrate a heterosexual relationship in the novel due to her own insecurities about being a lesbian. However, this essay’s author argues that it is in fact because of society that she made the main character male; she chose to use Jim instead of Jane in order to make the novel relatable to the common, American reader.
Interestingly, Gelfant argues that Jim Burden is an unreliable narrator. Because of his insecurities about sex, he leads the reader to believe that he is not a male:
In My Antonia, Jim Burden grows up with an intuitive fear of sex, never acknowledged, and in fact, denied: yet it is a determining force in his story. By deflecting attention from himself to Antonia, of whom he can speak with utter assurance, he manages to conceal his muddied sexual attitudes. His narrative voice, reinforced by Caher's, emerges firm and certain; and it convinces. We tend to believe with Jim that his authoritative recitation of childhood memories validates the past and gives meaning to the present even though his mature years stream before him emptied of love, intimacy, and purpose. (Gelfant 62)
Gelfant’s argument does not necessarily contradict the ideas of Lambert. As Lambert attempts to show that Jim represents the mind of Cather, Gelfant shows that while Jim “conceals his muddied sexual attitudes,” he is representing Cather’s internal conflict of her identity as a lesbian. However, is Jim Burden’s resistance to sex due to the fact that he is insecure about his sexuality?
This essay attempts to show that his reluctance to engage in sexual acts towards Antonia stems from the fact that Antonia is a connection to his childhood, which shows his desire to remain innocent and pure. Jim does, however, attempt to kiss Antonia after one of the dances and thinks of his strength as a boy: “I looked with contempt at the dark, silent little houses about me as I walked home, and thought of the stupid young men who were asleep in some of them. I knew where the real women were, though I was only a boy; and I would not be afraid of them, either” (Cather 171). If Jim were truly afraid of his sexuality, he would be afraid of these women and wouldn’t show his confidence in contrast to the men who stayed at home.
Furthermore, Jim has a dream about Lena—one that portrays her very sexually: “Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to me with a soft sigh and said, ‘Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like’” (Cather 172). This dream shows Jim’s conflict between his innocent affection for Antonia and his growing desire for adult, sexual encounters. Lena says, “Now they are all gone,” meaning Antonia. She is no longer a sexual option for Jim, so he dreams about Lena, a woman who does not have a solid attachment to his innocent youth. Gelfant argues, “This collaged figure of Lena advances against an ordinary but ominous landscape. Background and fore figure first contrast and then coalesce in meaning” (Gelfant 66). With a reaping hook, Lena resembles the grim reaper, a symbol of death. This image promotes the transition from child-to-adult, and Jim’s transition from innocent to sexual being.
After describing this dream, Jim writes, “I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Antonia, but I never did” (Cather 172). He shows a desire to engage in sexual acts with Antonia, yet, he does not simply because she is a representation of his childhood. Lambert argues, “Thus the fantasy of homosexuality, and the fear of it, are encapsulated and controlled, only slightly distorting the narrative structure…Cather’s fear is pervasive and dominates the development of My Antonia, so that the narrative structure itself becomes a defense against erotic expression” (Lambert 682). This author does not agree with the statement that Cather is fearful of her identity as a homosexual. Rather, Cather replaces herself in the novel with Jim, a man, to illustrate a common desire for love and sexual relations. Jim’s fear and inability to dream about Antonia in a sexual way is not a result of Cather’s insecurity, but rather, a common conflict that occurs when young people begin to have sexual desires. If Antonia represents Jim’s childhood, then this conflict could not illustrate Cather’s distorted sexuality.
In the introduction to My Antonia, an anonymous narrator meets Jim Burden. This narrator describes that Jim “went to the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the pinkish face of the portfolio the word, ‘Antonia.’ He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it ‘My Antonia.’ That seemed to satisfy him” (Cather 6). By adding “My” to the title of his memoir, Jim is illustrating that his work is not a biography of Antonia, but rather, something more. “My” does not mean that he is in possession of Antonia either; in fact, I argue that by placing “My” in front of her name, he is illustrating that this memoir is about his experience of his childhood as represented by Antonia. Therefore, his inability to dream of Antonia in a sexual way like he was able to do with Lena shows his fleeting adolescence in the novel.
In Lambert’s article, she includes a quote from Cather herself after she had published My Antonia:
Of the people who interested me most as a child was the Bohemian hired girl of one of our neighbors, who was so good to me. . . . Annie fascinated me and I always had it in mind to write a story about her...Finally, I concluded that I would write from the point of view of the detached observer, because that was what I had always been. Then I noticed that much of what I knew about Annie came from the talks I had with young men. She had a fascination for them, and they used to be with her whenever they could. They had to manage it on the sly, because she was only a hired girl. But they respected her, and she meant a good deal to some of them. So I decided to make my observer a young man. (Lambert 683).
Lambert defends her argument despite the quote above by saying that Cather’s forbidden sexual desires toward Annie are similar to Jim’s forbidden desires toward Antonia. However, this essay’s author argues that although there are numerous similarities between Cather and Jim Burden, Cather chose to write about Annie from the view of a “detached observer” because that’s what she had always been. She was not a man; the men that Annie associated with were not “detached observers.” She wrote from the perspective of a male for other reasons—not, as Lambert argues, to show her forbidden desires toward Annie.
60 Minutes: Willa Cather
Lambert writes, “James Woodress, Cather’s biographer, speaks of a ‘strong masculine element’ in her personality, a phrase that may obscure what she saw clearly from childhood: that womanhood prohibited the achievement she passionately sought” (Lambert 678). Cather’s choices to narrate from a male perspective and originally publish this novel under a male pseudonym are a choice that illustrates her insecurity as a woman—not a lesbian. Lambert continues her argument by saying that “Joanna Russ points out that these disguised relationships are characterized by an irrational, hopeless quality and by the fact that the male member of the couple, who is also the central consciousness of the novel, is convincingly male—is, in fact, female and lesbian” (Lambert 682). This essay’s author disagrees with the idea that Jim is meant to represent the mind of a female lesbian. By making Jim a male, Cather limits the reasons why he is forbidden to engage in sexual acts with Antonia. Unlike Cather, these acts would not be forbidden for gendered reasons. Antonia represents Jim’s innocent childhood and that is why they never engage in these acts—that’s why he doesn’t dream about her the way he does with Lena.
Although this essay’s author does not generally agree with Lambert’s idea of sexuality in My Antonia, some of Lamberts points about women and Cather’s choice to publish the novel as a man are interesting and worth literary analysis: “Although such woman is, and knows she is sexually female, in her professional life she is neither female nor male. Finding herself in no-woman’s land, she avoids additional anxiety by not identifying herself professionally as a woman or with other women” (Lambert 677). While Cather published My Antonia as a man, this choice was not simply to be seen as respectable. Cather’s work may have not been accepted as a prestigious novel if she published it as a lesbian woman writing from a man’s point of view. This essay explored some reasons why she would do this and concludes that her intention was to appeal to the masses: “It is natural to see the world, and women, from the dominant perspective, when that is what the world reflects and literature records” (Lambert 680). Lambert has a strong argument in this assertion. Cather’s attempt to write a novel with common American structures allows her novel to be more relatable than if she wrote it from her perspective, a female homosexual.
In conclusion, My Antonia is a novel that may have underlying tones and images that allude to Cather’s sexuality as Lambert and Gelfant suggest, but when one looks closely, they realize that Cather was writing as a “detached observer.” Although she is masculine in many ways, as her biographer Woodress suggests, Cather was simply taking that perspective for this novel—not pushing lesbian themes of forbidden love through the novel. Overall, Cather’s unique choices add to the novel’s element of nostalgia, disillusion and childhood memories.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1996.
Lambert, Deborah G. "The Defeat of a Hero: Autonomy and Sexuality in My Antonia."American Literature 53.4 (1982): 676-90.
Gelfant, Blache. "The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex and My Antonia." American Literature 43.1 (1971): 60-82.
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