This article attempts to explore human happiness in nature’s proximity in Cather’s My Antonia by applying eco-critical perspective and a few romantic ideals.Thenovel depicts symbiotic bonding between land and human life and this article explores the consequential outcome of such bonding and finds nature’s proximity as the cornerstone for the completeness of human life leading towards happiness. The characters move towards the land with motivation, and their underlying psychology is not only triggered but also driven by the land itself. In a sense, human beings’ existence is largely co-related to the existence of nature: both are living organisms having individual spirits. And happiness is that moment when their spirits sense a connection. The characters’ sense of happiness is largely, if not solely, connected to their land. This sentiment towards their belongingness gives them a sense of completeness. Human self is the biological, social, psychological and cultural byproduct of environmental setting. The construct of Antonia’s personality is the net byproduct of her attachment with the land she belongs to. This bonding shapes her identity and gives her a true sense of happiness. On the other hand, Jim’s separation from his land and natural country life leaves him alienated and unhappy. On this backdrop, this research comes to the conclusion that nature should be regarded as the guide, the guardian and the soul, to bring harmony and blessedness, in human life.
Key Words: Happiness, ecocriticism, nature’s proximity, symbiotic bonding, harmony, and so on.
This article tries to probe nature’s proximity as an extremely bountiful supplier of resources and an infallible prerequisite for gaining happiness and shaping human identity, with the back-upof ecocritical paradigm and romantic philosophy. Prior to exploring the issue of symbiotic bonding between land and human life, recognizing the animating principle that human beings are not the lord of nature, is a must. In fact, the research analyzes Cather’s My Antonia to disclose this fact, and attempts to articulate that nature is the real source of human identity, human dignity and human happiness. To be specific,human identity is directly commensurable to the identity of the land. Regarding the adhesion of human identity to land, it is the very land that determines human beings’ happiness, pride and sense of placedness. As Cather points out, Antonia Shimerda, the major protagonist of the novel, is in indispensable and integral relationship with the land of Nebraska, where she grows up despite many hardships in her life. She remains vitally alive and never loses hope forfuture. Cather demonstrates Antonia’s deep association with her rural life and native land, which is evident from her expression: “I like to be where I know every stalk and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here (320).” This expression shows that Antonia is in life-long attachment with the land to which she belongs. Human beings are only genuinely happy where their heart is pacified. Therefore, I claim that the rootedness of human identification, human beings’ treatment of land as an organism, an acute sense of belongingness and attachment to their land fabricate the symbiotic bonding between the land and human beings, and such bonding breeds happiness in human life.
This article analyzes Cather’s My Antoniato see how the lives of characters are connected to their land and how the bonding between them functions as a repository of human thought, human action and human happiness.
My Antonia revolves around the connection between characters and the country. Basically, My Antonia is a story of Antonia, who struggles hard throughout her life and ultimately finds contentment with the land. As adults, Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda are reminded of their childhood days while walking about the prairie. Jim immediately connects Antonia to the land. Jim Burden, the narrator, recounts his life with Antonia in a portfolio. In the novel, the sight of the wide, rolling prairie scares Jim much. Although the prairie frightens him at first, Jim soon enjoys playing in it after he spends time in his grandmother’s garden. The garden, to Jim, is a heaven; he experiences feelings of happiness and content in the garden that he had never felt before. For the first time, Jim feels connected to the land which he had abhorred so much. The well-preserved garden full of flowers and vegetables, assures him that human beings become a part of nature on their death.
Similarly, for Antonia too, nature means a lot. The summer lifts Antonia’s depressed and saddened spirits. After the death of her father in winter, Antonia is cheered by the land reworking itself for the threshing of crops and harvesting. Antonia is connected to the land; she is happy when she is outside, in the country. Jim and his grandmother are happy to see a joyful and blissful Antonia enjoying herself on the prairie after the winter she had just survived and after sorrow of her father’s death she has just overcome.
Jim and Antonia remember how much her father missed his old country, and Antonia declares that she can never forget her native country or her father, no matter how much she changes. Antonia and her father are connected to the land, which they loved so much.
Eventually, Jim returns to Black Hawk, the place where he spent his precious childhood. The familiar landscape again draws him to remember his childhood spent on prairie. He knows that the land will always connect him to Antonia, even though they lead different lives and are miles apart. The land had brought him and Antonia together, and it will continue to bring them together in the future. Characters’ sense of happiness is largely, if not solely, connected with their land. This sentiment towards their belonging to that land gives them a sense of completeness. Thus, the land fabricates the bonding between characters, shapes identity and gives happiness.
Cather’s My Antonia asserts that the land is a richly complex symbol representing great hardships and great rewards. It serves as a natural and vital force that begins and sustains all living things in rich abundance if one works hard enough cultivating it. Yet, the land is also the source of back-breaking labour, sacrifice, and deprivation during bad years. However, human beings enjoy their rigorous struggle with the land of their attachment.
Willa Cather’s portrayal of the great presence of the prairie, which is converted during Antonia’s lifetime from open expanse to productive farmland, serves as a powerful background to Antonia’s struggles, her will-power and also her personality. Although Antonia faces severe hardship, she remains strong, responding openheartedly to her simple life, which centers on child rearing and family concerns. At the close of the novel, Jim Burden visits her after a twenty-year absence, and he discovers her happily married to a local farmer and caring for her large family. Her courage has enabled her to become a mature woman of dignity and strength.
Related to the novel’s nostalgic feeling for the past is its in-depth exploration of humankind’s relationship to its environment. What the characters in My Antonia miss about the past is not simply lost time but a lost setting, a vanished world of people, places, and things, especially natural surroundings. The characters in My Antonia respond powerfully to their environments- especially Jim, who develops a strong attachment to the Nebraska landscape that never really leaves him even after two decades in New York. Jim’s mind is occupied with rooted feelings for his native land.
As Cather portrays it, one’s environment comes to symbolize one’s psychology, one may even shape one’s emotional state by giving thoughts and feelings a physical form. The river, for example, makes Jim feel free, and he comes to prize freedom; the setting sun captures his introspective loneliness, and the wide-open melancholy of Nebraska’s plains may play a role in forming his reflective, romantic personality. If it does not create Jim’s personality, it at least comes to embody it physically. Thus, the characters in My Antonia often develop an extremely intense rapport with their surroundings, and it is the sense of loss engendered by moving beyond one’s surroundings that occasions the novel’s exploration of the past and its true meaning.
Showing the integral bonding of human beings with nature and the sense of real happiness that comes out of it, Cather writes:
I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I didn’t want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and we a part of something entire, whether it is sun or air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep. (18)
Cather advocates for the point that human beings are incomplete without their oneness with the land. It is the landscape or nature that in its purest form helps human beings become complete beings; or give them a sense of wholeness.
The advancement made by literary scholars and critics’ to approach My Antoniais praiseworthy, however, the most indispensable issue of symbiotic bonding between land and human life and its contribution to human happiness has been put under the shadow of airy odyssey. Thus, the researcher has explored the issue of reciprocity between land and human life, and human happiness gained out of such reciprocity.
Ecologists view that the relationship between man and nature is indistinguishable. Human has to depend on nature, indeed. Literary eco-scholars started writing about nature and the environment around. Nature is represented in literature as Virgin land, Eden, Arcadia, and Howling wilderness in classic English Writings. One can understand Willa Silbert Cather as a lover of nature. Cather talks about joy, mirth, defeat, failure and success through her novels. She uses her characters as mouthpiece for expressing her feelings for nature. No living being is an island. Every living being interacts with other living beings and physical surroundings. All living beings in the world are interdependent. Human beings, for instance, depend on nature for good air, water, food and shelter. Similarly, nature depends on human beings in several respects, particularly for its own protection from man-made hazards. Thus, there is a symbiotic nexus between human beings and nature.
The interconnection between human beings and natural world is equally important as human to human nexus is. Aldous Huxley in Literature and Science elucidates the significance of interconnection in the following words:
In the light of what we now know about the relationship of living things to one another and to their inorganic environment-and also of what, to our cost, we know about overpopulation, ruinous farming, senseless forestry and destructive grazing, about water pollution, air pollution and the sterilization or total loss of once productive soils, it has now become abundantly clear that the Golden Rule applies not only to the dealings of human individuals and human societies with one another, but also to their dealings with other living creatures and the planet upon which we are all travelling through space and time. (108-9)
Huxley’s idea demonstrates that harmony is essential not only in societal nexus between human beings, but also in bonding between biotic and abiotic communities. This idea of Huxley can be understood in terms of the ideals of Antonia’s life. Antonia maintains very sound harmony with the land throughout her life. She values the land as if it were her own integral part.
Talking about the eternal value of land, Patrick K. Dooley in his critical essay, “Bio-centric, Homocentric, and Theo-centric Environmentalism in O Pioneers!, My Antonia and The Death of Archbishop states: “[O]nce the key is found and the puzzle solved, the land submits to the human hand that develops, tames, subdues, orders, masters, controls, and improves (all Cather’s terms) it”(Dooley 71). ‘Gaia’ hypothesis is truly explained in Cather’s terms related to the land and landscape.
Similarly, ecologists insist, we do not create the land itself or its other inhabitants. “The land retains an identity of its own,” Lopez reminds us, “Still deeper and more subtle than we can know”(204). The identity of land is the fountain of human civilization which endows human society with the quality of life. Similarly, Anderson, Slovic and O’Grady describe the correlation between place and human holistic personality in the following words, “[P]lace determines not only our external lives but also our inner selves our patterns of thought” (164). The personality of human beings results from the process of interconnections and interdependence between human and nature.
In his famous essay “The Land Ethic”, Leopold argues that land use cannot be based on economic expediency alone, but most involve ethical and aesthetic considerations: “A thing is right when it tend to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the bio-centric community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise(40).” One should use land with love, care and respect to establish harmony in symbiotic bonding.
The article discusses about the eco-critical notions viz. the land identity, reciprocity between land and human beings, the land as the source of physical, psychological, moral and economic strength and happiness and sense of attachment based on Cheryll Glotfelty’s “Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis”(xv-xxxvii), A,N. Whitehead’s “Nature as Organism”(398-407), Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic”(38-46) and some others to justify the raised issues in this project.
A good number of theoretical perspectives are there in the field of literary research apart from ecocriticism that the research is applying in this project. The ecologically minded scholars had published works of eco-theory and criticism since the explosion of environmentalism in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, there was no organized movement to study the ecological aspect of literature. The term ecocriticism was coined by William Rueckert in 1978 in an essay entitled “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism”. According to Greg Garrad, the notion of ecocriticism has proceeded from the belief systems derived from Eastern religions such as Taoism and Buddhism, from heterodox figures in Christianity such as St. Francis of Assisi and Telihard de Chardin, and modern reconstruction of American Indian, pre-Christian Wiccan, Shamanistic and other ‘primal’ religions.
Cheryll Glotfelty, in his introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), an anthology of American ecocriticism, definesecocriticism and distinguishes it from other theoretical perspectives. She states:
Despite the broad scope of inquiry and disparate levels of sophistication, all ecological criticism shares the fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it. Ecocricism takes its subject from the interconnections between nature and culture, specially the cultural artifacts of language and literature. As a critical stance, it has one foot in literature and the other on land; as a theoretical discourse, it negotiates between human and non-human.(xix)
This remark made by Glotfelty is about the perennial relationship between nature and culture, language and landscapes, words and woods and further explicates the silent contract between human and non-human. Ecocritics tieup their cultural analyses to a ‘green’ moral and political agenda in order to synthesize environmental and social concerns.
Focusing on the theoretical stance of ecocriticism, Ammaraj Joshi views:
Since the emergence of ecological thinking, literary writers and critics have started realizing the importance, intrinsic worth and meaning of the body, earth or other physical material realities as the site of literary imaginings; the need of humanity to defend and protect earth as a shield for self-protection; the essence of internalizing the world as an organism for one’s own good; and the necessity to discuss earth’s doom to avert the doom.(5)
Joshi’s comment on ecocritical notion highlights the essence of internalizing natural world as an organism for human beings’ welfare. He believes that nature should be defended in order to defend humanity.
Highlighting the distinction between ecocritism and other perspectives, Jiblal Sapkota writes:
Ecocriticism is a literary and cultural criticism which analyzes, judges, evaluates literary texts from an environmentalist viewpoint. Beliefs and ideologies are assessed for their environmental implications. As feminist criticism examines language and literature from gender-conscious perspective, Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centered approach to literary scholars.(41)
Sapkota tries to define the scope of ecocriticism in literary studies. Sapkota shows that ecocritical notion does not bother about the issues of gender, class and modes of production rather it focuses on earth-centered approaches.
Similarly, in order to highlight the ecocritical perspectives, Wendell Berry believes, “If you do not know where you are, you do not know who you are”(qtd. in Anderson, Slovic and O’ Grady 163). The view excavates the real value of ecocritical perspective to understand any piece of literature in comparison to other perspectives.
Since its publication in 1918,My Antonia has received widespread criticism and wide ranging responses. Several critics such as Dorothy Van Ghent, William Thorp, Sharon O’ Brien, Carl Rollyson and many others have analyzed this novel from different perspectives.Dorothy Van Ghent, commenting on My Antonia, takes this novel as an autobiographical writing. Ghent says, “In Miss Cather’s next book, My Antonia(1918), there occurs a majestic, mysterious image that suggests, in another way, the timeless aspect of the subject matter which seems most naturally her own (21).” Ghent’s comment upon this novel is that in different ways Cather presents her own autobiography and this novel is also an outcome like other novels.
Regarding My AntoniaWilliam Thorp presents the view in a different way. Thorp’s criticism throws the clear light:My Antonia is the story of an affectionate protagonist who struggles her whole life to achieve her goal. Thorp compares My Antonia with Cather’s another O Pioneers! Thorp says:
Fortunately My Antonia(1918) took the road of O Pioneers! It is the most masterly of her novels and one of the classics of our literature. The story is told by Jim Burden who as a boy arrived in Black Hawk on the train which brought the Shimerdas, the first Bohemian family to come to that country. Though Jim is the narrator(and we follow him farm to the village, into the university, and the world beyond). The story belongs to Antonia, the affectionate Shimerda girl who becomes in the end a strong, the most completely realized of Willa Cather’s true Pioneers.(58)
Thorp remarks that My Antonia has a heroine Antonia Shimerda who lingers her whole life to be strong and great-hearted woman.
Since Willa Cather is an unmarried writer, there has been a tendency to view her works with the theme of unsuccessful marriage. Carl Rollyson in Encyclopaedia ofAmerican Literaure: The Modern and Postmodern Period from 1915, surveys:
My Antonia(1918), regarded as Cather’s masterpiece, is set in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda marry and mired in an unproductive farm. After several humiliating experiences, including marriage, Antonia’s remarriage, asserts her rugged pioneer strength, and becomes the core of a new family.(390)
This comment made by Carl Rollyson takes this novel just as a woman’s marriage, remarriage and a struggle in Black Hawk of Nebraska.
Sharon O’ Brien analyzes Antonia’s character in the blurb of this text and accepts Cather’s Antonia Shimerda, the protagonist as a ‘heroic woman’:
Antonia Shimerda of My Antonia(1918) is another of Cather’s heroic woman. Arriving on the Nebraska frontier as part of a family of Bohemian emigrants, she survives her father’s suicide and her own desertion by the father of her child. An unselfish nature allows her to undergo years of drudgery and still affirm and enduring passion for life and motherhood.(par.1)
As Antonia Shimerda is from a Bohemian immigrant family, some critics, even survey this novel as a hardship and difficulty felt by the Bohemian immigrants.
However, the present research has raised a new issue of Land and Human Bonding: Exploring Human Happiness in Nature’s Proximity in Cather’s My Antoniain the light of ecocritical paradigm. So far as the previous researches are concerned, the researcher has not found any other research on the issue that has been raised in this project. This research explores that contentment is happiness, and the characters in My Antonia seem to be gravitated to their only sense of contentment that is gained out of belongingness their land.
The plot carries the characters away towards their land with a mission to fulfill the characters’ desire for wholeness, characters too are motivated by the land itself. The underlying psychology of the characters is triggered and driven by the natural surroundings. The bonding between land and human being gives human life a true sense of happiness and protection because the land stands as the shield to protect the essence of human existence from cosmic hazards. The central female protagonist Antonia is only a medium to carry the characters of the novel to a state of nostalgia caused by the land. Similarly, Antonia’s desire to go outside like Jim shows that she loves the landscape. They build a pure friendship based on their love of the land. Jim’s love for the prairie landscape is profound (He considers the prairie a sacred place). In watching the owls, Jim and Antonia show their connection to the land, which forms the basis of their friendship.
In the eyes of romanticists, human beings’ existence is largely co-related to the existence of nature. In a sense, both are living organisms having individual spirits. And happiness is that moment when their spirits sense a connection. Wordsworth realizes that unlike human beings, nature will never betray ‘the heart that loved her.’ Hence, if human beings safeguard nature from all man-made dangers and all environmental hazards, it will in return guard, nurse and guide them, and endow humankind with eternal peace and happiness. Nature is a force that provides characters in My Antonia with a moral connection to humanity and to some spiritual essence greater than humanity. Very often, romanticists encounter with nature, which then leads to reflection on the relationship among the self, imagination, and nature. Furthermore, romanticists explore the possibility of nature as a resource for combating depression and for escaping human life.
In the absence of the sense of belongingness, no human being can feel and enjoy independent identity, freedom and happiness. Ramchandra Guha holds the opinion that the right to land is considered as the cornerstone of human and natural right(3307). In reality, attachment and right to the land makes human beings enfranchised. Enfranchisement provides the people with identity and a true sense of dignity. And identity and dignity ultimately shape the human life and lead towards contentment. The role of land as a ‘trancendental force’ in human life is truly applaudable.
The characters in My Antonia have the ability through their imaginations and their experiences in a natural setting to transcend their everyday life and troubles and to connect with a spiritual essence or something divine that then allows them to re-conceive of their life, enabling them to overcome the deadening of life they have confronted.
Nature becomes the source of a mystical experience of oneness with the world and sometimes with humanity. To show Antonia’s comfort with nature, Cather writes, “Tony was barefooted, and she shivered in her cotton dress and was comfortable only when we were tucked down on the baked earth, in the full blaze of the sun. She could talk to me anything by this time”(38). The central female protagonist Antonia gets warmth, care, generosity and life on the land. Thus, nature plays pivotal role to nurture human life in its purest sense. Going against nature is not in the welfare of humankind.
In another sense, nature potentially becomes yet another illusory dream of happiness, reconnection and revitalization. Many a time, working with the land functions as the coping mechanism in human life. Afer all, earth-mother accepts all kinds of human deeds on her bosom. The land is the real ground, where life completes the cycle from birth to death. Human beings are born on the land, play on the ground as children and satisfy them. Similarly, adolescents try to prove their vigour on the land. Eventually, in the old age, human beings assimilate the land and goes towards the completion of life. To take an example, Antonia Shimerda lives her life with the rhythm of the land. Her oneness with the land is the notable example of the land ethic and consciousness. In this backdrop, researcher believes that land and life should be understood as the indispensable parts of ecology to maintain harmony in nature.
Conservation of nature has become a primary task of every person in the contemporary world. The natural disasters in the recent years have not only enforced the human society to think of the importance of nature for human survival and the need for a harmonius relation with it, but also have cautioned everyone that any human action against nature will yield destruction of the humanity at large. Consequently, today, the study of nature has formed an integral part of various academic domains. The focus given to nature in literature is perceivable in the literary theory known as ecocriticism.
In the same line, Paul W. Taylor in his essay entitled “The Ethics of Respect for Nature” focusing on the interdependence of all sorts of beings in the community, recommends the following four salient building blocks of biocentric outlook on nature:
- Human are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms to apply to all non-human members, (2) the Earth’s natural ecosystems as totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected elements, with the sound biological functioning of the others….(3) Each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological centre of life, pursuing its own good in its own way. (4)… the claim that human by their very nature are superior to other species is groundless claim….(76)
Taylor vehemently rejects the notion of human superiority over other organisms in the planet, rather he suggests that all the beings should enjoy the reciprocal harmony in order to bring peace, stability and integrity in nature.
The attachment, the belongingness and the right to land give human beings everything they need in order to be happy and dignified. This assertion can be seen in the lines of Cather inMy Antonia, where she writes:
No, I never got down-hearted. Anton’s a good man, and I loved my children and always believed they would turn out well. I belong on a farm. I’m never lonesome here like I used to be in town. You remember what sad spells I used to have, when I didn’t know what was the matter with me? I’ve never had them out here. And I don’t mind work a bit, if I don’t have to put up with sadness. (343)
Every human being struggles to find a place to ground the self physically, emotionally and intellectually. Humans need to know where they are so that they may dwell in their place with a full heart holding their heads high without any kinds of fears.
The researcher believes that Antonia’s sense of rootedness to the land of Nebraska makes her happy and vitally alive while being in the same land whereas the same sense of rootedness cause the feeling of alienation while being in any other land except Nebraska. Jim’s admiration of Antonia’s resilient manner, Antonia’s invincible pioneer strength, generosity, earthiness and her acute sense of land as organism are some values expressed in the novel, and they are consistent with the land ethic and worship of nature. Similarly, characters in the novel lack identity and dignity while being disjuncted from their land because identity and dignity of human being is reciprocal to the identity and dignity of the land.
For Mahatma Gandhi, happiness is something that evolves out of harmony. He defines that happiness is when what human beings think, what they say, and what they do are in harmony. Gandhi feels that human life is a life of contentment, happiness and progress (146). The practicality of Gandhi’s idea of happiness is applicable in Cather’s My Antonia too, where the characters find themselves happy, satisfied and vitally alive when they are in attachment with the landscape they desire. Thus, happiness of characters is largely rested upon the harmony between them and the land they desire, they belong and they love.
Nature’s proximity is the finest source of human happiness and eternal bliss. The lovers of nature have found it really awesome cornerstone of human bliss. In this regard, Cather writes in My Antonia:
She clapped her hands and murmered, ‘Blue sky, blue eyes,’ as if it amused her. While we snuggled down there out of the wind, she learned a score of words. She was quick,and very eager.We were so deep in the grass that we could see nothing but the blue sky over us and the gold tree in front of us. It was wonderfully pleasant.(26)
In the novel, Jim and Antonia fulfill their desire of peace and bliss out of the harmony with the nature, the land, and the earth. It shows that nature has the caliber to protect, heal, nurture, and bless the humankind in its fullest sense.
Eco-critics such as Aldo Leopold, A.N. Whitehead and Ruckert, who believe that rootedness of human identification, can shape the emotional aspect of human life, the characters’ psychology and emotionality can be examined. To demonstrate Jim Burden’s sense of rootedness to the land, Cather writes:
I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence- the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper. (119)
Nature and human sentiment have a strong nexus- affecting it and affected by it. As place is most dear to Jim, all the human beings tend to feel special about the places of their bonding, love and memory.
The harmony and the oneness with nature gives people a true sense of happiness. In My Antonia, Jim Burden narrates Antonia’s love for nature and insects as:
I offered my pockets, but Tony shook her head and carefully put the green insect in her hair, tying her big handkerchief down loosely over her curls. I said I would go with her until we could see Squaw Creek, and then turn and run home. We drifted along very lazily, very happy, through the magical light of the late afternoon. (40)
Antonia’s act of keeping the palest, frailest green insect with her symbolizes her love for nature and her wish to hold on summer as long as possible or to hold on her memory of Bohemia as long as possible. Thus, it is felt that wherever people go, they keep the memory of their land along with them.Human heart gets moved by the alluring beauty of nature. Nature adds rhythm in human life. Cather writes:
It was a beautiful blue morning. The buffalo-peas were blooming in pink and purple masses along the roadside, and the larks, perched on last year’s dried sunflower stalks, were singing straight at the sun, their heads thrown back and their yellow breasts a-quiver. The wind blew about us in warm, sweet gusts. We rode slowly, with a pleasant sense of Sunday indolence. (128)
This statement indicates how nature dwells in the heart of Antonia and Jim Burden in My Antonia. For them, the beauty of nature is really alluring and enchanting. In the lap of nature, human beings tend to forget every hardship, complexity and bitter experience of life. Thus, the nature becomes the source of solace, peace and happiness to a greater extent. In the novel too, nature gives opportunities for personal development and artistic inspiration to the characters.
In My Antonia, Cather once remarks that the city robs man of his roots, heritage and continuity of feeling with the earth and mankind. The land of the Nebraskan country symbolized permanence, freedom of spirit, timelessness, and a sense of endurance. She views earth and nature as the personal, primeval force that enriches and sustains life and creativity. The pioneers pass on their old customs, culture and ways of life that enrich the land and the new way of life. The frontier gives the immigrants and pioneers creative individualism, a free will and an opportunity to develop the pioneer spirit. This shows that nature is the ultimate fountain of human creation, development, wholeness, and happiness. Practical ideals of Antonia’s life show that people are a living part of natural world. We all human beings are brothers and sisters to other beings in the cosmos. This association with nature marks the interconnection of ‘beings’ in the world and their symbiosis. Actually, this consciousness is based on the awareness of the environment. In fact, human happiness is not the net byproduct of human minds but is more a consequential outcome of reciprocity between land and human life in the lap of nature.
Different scholars have talked much about happiness in their own words. However, nobody has denied the vital role of nature to keep human beings active, alive and happy in the truest sense. Key thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Gandhi, Francis Wilshire, Alexander Pope, Thomas Jefferson and many others have given their thoughts on happiness.
For Bertrand Russell, a happy life must be, to a great extent, a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live (104). InMy Antonia, characterswho are in harmony with nature, are happy and satisfied. Similarly, Francis Wilshire in the blurb of The Healing Water views that happiness is really a profound harmonius inner satisfaction and approval (par.1). Therefore, people are always in search of harmony with the things around them. The characters in My Antonia are seeking pleasure in the depth of nature where lies harmony, peace and tranquility.
To give the definition of happy man, Alexander Pope in “Ode on Solitude” writes as:
Happy the man whose wish and care,
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire. (1-8)
This ideal thought of Pope is exactly applicable in the lives of Antonia and other characters in the work of Willa Cather. It is truly accepted that life remains happy, united and jolly while being in attachment with the native land. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson, the author of Declaration of Independence says that it is neither wealth nor splendor but tranquility and occupation which give happiness (143). Jefferson too, favours the natural and peaceful life and occupation in order to earn happiness in human life that Antonia chooses to do in the novel. Antonia is entirely submitting her ‘self’ into nature and she dedicates her whole life on her occupation- farming.
While looking back to the thoughts of different theorists who wrote on happiness, it can be concluded that happiness is something that comes out of harmony, a true bonding, and natural and tranquil life. Tranquility is something that is found merely on the lap of nature. Nature’s contribution for human happiness is evident from the lives of characters in My Antonia, where characters find themselves happy while being in the lap of natural life while they find themselves alienated, frustrated and unhappy as they go far from naturality.
To make an observation of human happiness in nature’s proximity in My Antonia, researcher finds that the characters, who are residing in harmony with nature, are happy and satisfied. Jim Burden, in My Antonia, adores nature. He finds himself overjoyed and rejoices with “the goodness of planting and tending and harvestings(353).”Lying in his grandmother’s garden under a warm autumn sun, Jim listens to the wind, feels the warm earth under him and watches the insects. Jim surrenders to nature. With the ripe pumpkins in his garden, he has a feeling of immersion and appreciation for the prairie in a personal way. In My Antonia, seasons in the prairie are described as, “All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autumn(28).”Jim celebrates the prairie’s splendor in the late afternoon hour.
As a fond lover of nature, Jim is all the time praising for the prairie. Sunlight ripens the prairie. The Spring season with its light delights Jim:
if I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was Spring. July brings the “breathless, brilliant heat which makes the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska the best Corn Country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odored cornfields where the feathered stalk stood so juicy and green. (137)
Antonia tells Jim about her love for the trees. The characters, like Antonia and Jim, derive the strength and the happiness from the nature; the land.
Willa Cather in My Antonia expresses the immense potentiality of land as:
There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land – slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind. That we had got over the edge of it, and we were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. (7-8)
Cather shows the richness of land in settling human life and society. She narrates the mystic and powerful imprint of nature on human mind, which has lasting impressions.
Cather is of the opinion that nature is the source of human right, human life, and human freedom when she writes as:
The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution when they left Missouri and Struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seeds as they went. (111)
Cather remarks that people who are capable to feel the rhythm of nature can feel ecstasy in life. They see life in every stalks and trees. Illustrating the symbolism of sunflower trails in nature, she further writes as:
The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had a sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm Jake’s story but, insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom. (111)
Nature endows man with several symbolic lessons. Nature is a friend, a mother, a teacher, and a source of inspiration to human happiness. Nature teaches human beings to be free and happy, like sunflowers, rivers and mountains etc. For example, Antonia learns endurance, resilience and generosity from land, Jim learns about freedom and mobility from the rivers. Despite of extreme poverty, Shimerda family keeps on giving their things to others in the society without any hesitation and meagerness.
Like My Antonia, Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom also talks about one’s love for country childhood and sweet recollections as:
I spent most of free time in the veld playing and fighting with the other boys of the village. A boy who remained at home tied to his mother’s apron strings was regarded as a sissy. At night, I shared my food and blanket with these same boys. I was no more than five when I became a herd-boy looking after sheep and calves in the fields. I discovered the almost mystical attachment that the Xhosa have for cattle, not only as a source of food and wealth, but as a blessing from God and a source of happiness. (11)
Mandela’s intense feelings for African Veld are exactly comparable to Antonia’s feelings for American prairie in My Antonia. Similarly, Mandela’s enjoyment with his fellow friends can be assimilated with Antonia and Jim Burden’s childhood recollections. Both books derive the idea that childhood spent in the lap of nature is powerful source of one’s enjoyment, bliss, and inspiration. In totality, it is the cornerstone of one’s personality. InMy Antonia, Antonia’s personality is largely the byproduct of her childhood experiences in the prairie.
In order to illustrate the land and human bonding, Cather writes about Antonia’s feelings for her motherland:
‘Jim,’ she said earnestly, ‘if I was put down there in the middle of the night, I could find my way all over that little town; and along the river to the next town, where my grandmother lived. My feet remember all the little paths through the woods, and where the big roots stick out to trip you. I ain’t never forget my own country. (237-38)
Cather highlights the feeling of oneness and close association with the land of birth and childhood, by using Antonia as mouthpiece character. Native land draws every heart with reverence, love and memory. More or less, people are gravitated to their land all the time.
Similarly, Jim Burden , the narrator of My Antonia, narrates his rooted feelings to his land as:
The changes seemed beautiful and harmonius to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and the rugged draw. I found that I remembered the confrontation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces. (306)
Jim Burden, the narrator of the novel, has expressed his rooted feelings, familiarity and attachment with the land through these lines. Burden accepts the profound kinship between the land and human life.
Jim Burden sees the beauty, truth and essence of life in nature and in the lives of the people, who spend their life in anatural way. He finds Antonia “battered but not diminished,” she was and still, is, the symbol of life. Her happiness bursts out from the dark areas of her life just as the children rush upward-like explosion of life-from the dark cave (353). The cave reminds of the dugout where the Shimerdas live when they first arrive in Nebraska. It symbolizes the darkness and all the hardships of Antonia’s life, which she has made fruitful. Thus, it can be derived that despite the hardships of country life, there is no any alternative of country life to be happy and blissful, at all. Therefore, ‘east or west, country life is the best’, has become a slogan of environmentalists and supporter of natural life, who seek for solace, beauty and happiness in Nature’s proximity.
In this way, the present article examines My Antonia, early nineteenth century American novel, which exemplifies the symbiotic bonding between land and human life in order to show that people should remain in harmony with nature to gain happiness in life, in terms of a few romantic ideals and eco-critical paradigm. After a meticulous study on the novel in the light of various ecocritics on land and human bonding, it becomes clear that human beings’ existence is largely co-related to the existence of the nature; the land. In the sense, both are living organisms having individual spirits. And happiness is that moment when their spirits sense a connection. The placeness, rootedness, and belongingness to the land are cornerstone of human identity. Identity of human beings makes them enfranchised, and such enfranchisement gives freedom to humanity. Ultimately, freedom is the gateway to human happiness.
The nexus between nature and human life is unavoidable. Human life gets inspired, developed and rich in nature’s proximity. Otherwise, human life, is dry, and it holds dearth of happiness. The central female protagonist, Antonia Shimerda, who decides to live country life struggling with the land of Nebraska gets happiness in the nature’s proximity whereas other mobile characters feel dehumanized, fragmented, disjuncted, alienated, disenfranchised and frustrated.
In order to get profound protection, security, safety for surety, people should live in attachment with the land; the nature. The rhythm of human life should follow the rhythm of nature. In My Antonia as well, the land of Nebraska country symbolizes permanence, freedom of spirit, timelessness, happiness, and a sense of endurance. Cather has viewed earth as the personal and primeval force that enriches and sustains life and creativity. Nature is taken as the fountain of human identity, human dignity and human happiness.
I believe that people should always be in harmony with nature to lead a happy and satisfied life. In My Antonia, Antonia Shimerda lovingly cares for the land as if it is her child. In turn, the land rewards her with all that it can. Antonia knows she can never be as happy anywhere outside of the country. Human beings are only genuinely happy where their hearts are.
The land and human bonding is inevitable. The identity, dignity and destiny of land is directly associated with the identity, dignity and destiny of human beings. In the same way, the quality of land determines the quality of human life. In My Antonia, Jim is genuinely happy about the positive change in the land since he left. To him, an orderly, healthy land means happy people, happy life and happy society.
The integration of human beings into natural life is highly recommended for the betterment, upliftment and happiness of human civilization. Human beings are in close connection with the nature from time immemorial. As nature is the source of happiness in human life, it should be defended in order to defend humanity. In My Antonia, Cather’s mouthpiece character and the central female protagonist, Antonia Shimerda treats nature with love and care. In doing so, she finds the organicity of life, bliss and content. Thus, the novel, My Antonia, is a typical ecocritical work which strives to promote a relationship between nature and human beings. It also indirectly recommends every reader to look back and see how human beings have behaved towards nature in the past, and what the consequences of their anthropocentric attitude towards nature are. It also insists on the need to take proper measures to establish harmony with nature.
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