Jim Burden, the narrator of Cather’s novel, is a man, who is described as “legal counsel for one of the great Western railways and is often away from his office for weeks together” (Cather, p.1), giving the indication that our narrator is an educated, well-respected man who though settled with a wife and home of his own, is continually unsettled and finds himself at home with the unceasing forward motion of progress and change. This concept of a man on the move is echoed throughout the narration of his life, starting with the introduction of the railway being intimately connected to his adult livelihood as well as with his first experience on the railway upon coming to Nebraska and thus creates a picture of how the Nebraska country came to form this identity of both freedom, happiness and connection to change.
The book opens with Jim’s description of his migration from Virginia to Nebraska as one of annihilation and transformation from one identity to another. He states “I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it” (Cather, p.8). Ultimately, Jim did not find himself homesick for Virginia and his Virginia memories did not play prominently in his existence on the prairie. Instead, Jim’s uprooting through tragedy to the prairies of Nebraska ends up bringing about a sense of freedom from attachment and a transformation in his identity. He describes this concept in his grandmother’s garden when he said “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great” (Cather, p.14).
For Jim, the prairie represents a land full of motion and inspiration. In Nebraska he finds limitless possibilities in a landscape ruled by change, both within the natural cycle of seasons but also in the motion of the land itself stating, “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running” (Cather, p.12). This limitless possibility of life influences Jim in such a way that he never truly settles permanently at one place from that point forward. In fact, once he moves to Black Hawk, he finds himself restricted and discontented with the limitations of small-town life and eventually moves to Lincoln and later to New York to pursue his own development which only inevitably brings him back to the railway as his life truly is that of a migrant on a road that represents progress and possibility.
The relationship between the costs of social acceptance and fulfillment of desire
Cather explores the concept of the costs of social acceptance and fulfilment of desire largely in Part 2 as this is where Jim’s family moves into town and where the concepts of social status and fulfillment of desire come more prominently on display. Cather gives the distinct impression that there is a divide in social status between the immigrant girls and the townspeople. Most obviously, as Part 2 is titled “Hired Girls,” we can immediately see that the immigrant girls are hired on in positions where they can cultivate skills within merchant households. This is considered an increase in social status from the manly work of ploughing the fields and herding cattle that the girls have been doing on the farm especially as it is more in line with acceptable gender roles. For example, when Antonia comes to Black Hawk to work for the Harlings, she looks about the house and states, ‘Maybe I be the kind of girl you like better; now I come to town” (Cather, p.98), giving the indication that she is aware that her social value is dependent on her status within the community.
This clearly drawn line can be seen in many ways throughout Part 2 ranging from the work the immigrant girls do in the merchant households to the separation of the dances at Fireman’s Hall as opposed to the dances held in town. It can even be seen in the way the town boys sexualize the hired girls. Jim talks alludes to this fact when he refers to the four Danish girls stating, “His girls never looked so pretty at the dances as they did standing by the ironing-board, or over the tubs, washing the fine pieces, their white arms and throats bare, their cheeks bright as the brightest wild roses, their gold hair moist with the steam or the heat and curling in little damp spirals about their ears” (Cather, p.139). It can also be seen to some degree in Donovan’s treatment of Antonia as he promises to marry her but instead eventually abandons her to social ruin. While Jim and Donovan’s treatment of the immigrant girls is widely different, their attraction springs from the fact that these girls are ultimately forbidden fruit; both beneath them and yet having a freedom and vitality that the merchant girls of their class don’t have. In fact, sex plays a large part in the role of social acceptance in Black Hawk as the immigrant girls with poor reputations are discussed in negative terms and looked down upon.
This idea that social acceptance is highly dependent on whether the girls “behave” based on approved social standards is highlighted in the events surrounding Antonia leaving the Harling’s and going to work for Mr. Cutter. After Antonia was caught with “Young Harry Paine” one evening, Mr. Harling forbid her to continue going to the dances because “You’ve been going with girls who have a reputation for being free and easy, and now you’ve got the same reputation” (Cather, p.130). In response, Antonia tells them “I guess I want to have my fling, like the other girls’” (Cather, p.131). While working for the Cutter’s would not only pay more but allow Antonia to keep going to the dances and have her “fling,” the decision causes her to be ostracized from the Harlings and the social acceptance of her position. These events show how social acceptance and the fulfillment of personal desire rarely go hand in hand and that one usually must be sacrificed for the other and implies that perhaps the vitality and freedom of spirit these hired girls possess that makes them so alluring is intimately connected to the fulfillment of their desires and not their fulfillment of social requirements.
The land reflection stages of human and culture development
The land, like the story, represents both growth and development and the concept of identity as it links closely to the landscape of the character’s lives. At the beginning of the novel, the country represents change as an unfamiliar new beginning for both Antonia and Jim. Jim, for example, first encounters the landscape in the wake of tragedy and his perceptions of the land represent the change he is confronting. He states “Between the earth and the sky I felt erased, blotted out” (Cather, p.8) and describes “the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction” (Cather, p.8).
While Jim himself may be unfamiliar with the land, he comes into a well-established farmstead not facing the same hardships and uncertainty that Antonia and her family face with the uprooting of their own lives. In fact, in this stage of the novel, the Nebraska landscape is seeing an influx of newcomers, immigrants like the Shimerdas family, who, by the end of the novel, settle and become the backbone of Nebraska. In a way, Jim’s statement “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made” (Cather, p.8) speaks of the infancy of Nebraska, of new beginnings and unfamiliar changes, and foreshadows the progress that will be born from the raw material of these new beginnings.
While Jim’s landscape ultimately changes many times throughout the novel, moving from childhood, to adolescence to adulthood in the form of Nebraska prairies, to small town life, and then eventually bigger horizons, bigger cities, and the industrial progress of the railroad, his inner identity essentially remains that of the Nebraska prairie. As such, Jim embraces the changes that take place in the land of his youth, describing the land and the inevitable progress of the immigrants as interchangeable. With the land broken up into fields of wheat and corn and the sod dwellings replaced by wooden houses and barns, he describes a country that was ultimately moving into its adolescence. A place where the immigrants of his childhood found “their lives coming to a fortunate issue.” He states “The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long sweeping lines of fertility…it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea” (Cather, p.190).
The idea that these changes were viewed by Jim as “beautiful and harmonious” shows an appreciation for the naturalness of this development, a naturalness born of the connection, endurance, and forward motion inherent in both the land and its people. Thus, from Jim’s assessment, the land reflects and reveals the change inherent in the struggles and values of the people connected to them.
While narrated from the perspective of Jim, Cather’s novel is essentially a story about the immigrants who founded the land as pioneers and the endurance and fortitude it took to shape such an unforgiving country. Focusing on the Shimerdas as an example of the immigrant plight, we see the constant struggle for both survival and security in an environment that can be both fickle and cruel.
In an abrupt transition from financial and economic stability to extreme poverty and the rugged life of farmers, the Shimerda’s undergo a time of great struggle and dependence in their quest for survival. Having uprooted themselves to move to Nebraska at the behest of Mrs. Shimerda who believed that “America big country; much money. Much land for my boys, much husband for my girls” (Cather, p.58), the family finds that they are largely unprepared for the world that awaits them in America. In doing so, the Shimerdas must resolve and acclimate their Bohemian identities with their pioneer identities. Instead of a multitude of opportunities and easy acclimation with new cultures, environments, and old ways of defining themselves, the Shimerdas meet with the bitter truth that their new life on the prairie offered little but poverty and back breaking labor and a reestablishment of personal identity defined by the limitations of their status.
As America was a difficult countryside for any settler, it was especially hard on the immigrants as it required a restructuring of preestablished identities and established ways of doing things. Mr. Shimerda, for example, shows the difficulty inherent in the immigrant transplantation that results in a state of shock. Unable to assimilate his prior status as an educated, cultured, and highly respected man with the lower-class status the title immigrant conveys, he finds himself misaligned with his environment. For example, when first meeting the Shimerdas, Jim describes the patriarch’s dress as “a knitted gray vest under his coat, and a dark bronze-green silk scarf, crossed and held together carefully by a red coral pin” (Cather, p.18). His dress and manner are incongruous with the frontier life of heavy labor, harsh weather, and raw material of the frontier life. Eventually, unable to adapt to this new world and the loss of his homeland, he commits suicide and leaves his family to acclimate without him. This obliteration of Mr. Shimerda in conjunction with the reverence for his memory suggests both the eventual obliteration of old-world values under the strong influence of America and the memory of the people who helped build the country.
The nature of community
The story of Pavel and Peter reveals how necessary social acceptance is in terms of the community for survival. After the wedding event, Peter and Pavel were banished and ostracized. While the stigmata from their actions was not clearly visible to the naked eye, it followed them from town to town in the form of their own guilt and the move to America did not lessen their guilt. In fact, having been deemed unfit for society, the shared burden of this experience and this guilt ties them together in a community of their own. After Pavel unburdens his guilt, Peter alone, must once again move forward as the sole agent of this guilt. Compelled to find new horizons unassociated with his past but tied to community “Peter sold off everything, and left the country – went to be a cook in the railway construction camp where gangs of Russians were employed” (Cather, p.39).
Peter and Pavel’s story essentially acts as a cautionary tale in relation to community and the frontier. Unconcerned with the fact that the wolves had been bad that year and “more or less the worse for merry-making” (Catheter, p.37), the wedding party gambled with the forces of nature fully unprepared for the consequences of losing. This is similar to the immigrants being unprepared to transplant their sense of identity and livelihood into unforgiving economic and physical hardships. The implications of failing to adequately prepare for or survive the unforgiving wilderness can be seen in the events surrounding Mr. Shimerda’s suicide. Mr. Shimerda was the last little insect of summer who “of the palest, frailest green hopped painfully out of the buffalo grass and tried to leap into a bunch of bluestem” but who having missed it “fell back, and sat with his head sunk between his long legs, his antennae quivering, as if he were waiting for something to come and finish him.”
In fact, overall the Shimerda’s plight highlight the importance of community for survival and the implications of the consequences of being ill-prepared as they come to Nebraska and attempt to pass the winter without the supplies necessary for survival. It is largely by the compassion and graceful nature of their neighbors that they make it through the winter especially after the death of their patriarch. Overall, the story of Peter, Pavel, and the wolves show how the land is a force onto itself, one that must be civilized and subdued through preparation, community, and fortitude.