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Role Of Past In My Antonia Novel

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The Past is Passed

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.

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Beryl Markham, West with the Night

A person’s past situation and actions are not as important as their current ones. One of the most important things for any human to be able to do is the ability to discount anothers’ past mistakes and situation in order to be able to accept them without any prejudices. Immigrants often come to America to escape from their troubled backgrounds, but they experience new difficulties when facing prejudices in the new land. When people refuse to let go of their preconceived notions, it hurts the person they are trying to judge. This is especially true when a person learns something about their friend’s past that changes their perception of them. It is in these moments that someone’s values are truly tested; many less virtuous people would push their friend away after learning something undesirable about them, or they may refuse to become acquainted with someone in the first place because of their prejudices against that person’s minority. Many of the characters in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia are involved in similar or related situations. Emmaline Shimerda, Jim’s grandmother, initially is very loving and caring to the Shimerda family but it later becomes clear that she still harbors prejudices against immigrants like them. In contrast, Mr. Shimerda, Ántonia’s father, shows the depth of his compassion when the two Russians, Peter and Pavel, tell Mr. Shimerda about a dark part of their past but Mr. Shimerda forgives them for their actions and continues to treat them with kindness. It later becomes evident that, although Mr. Shimerda disregarded Peter and Pavel’s pasts, he dwelled on his own far too much, which lead to his eventual death. It’s clear that, though the future seems formidable, it is better to approach it the “fastest way [a person] can” and to keep one’s “yesteryears…buried deep” (Markham, 2010).

Emmaline Shimerda is one of the non-immigrants living in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Though she does have a lot of maternal concern not only for her grandson Jim but also for the Shimerda family, she still has prejudices about immigrants like the Shimerdas. While she tries her best to suppress these preconceived notions, she begins to show her prejudices when she is presented with a gift from the Shimerdas. Neither Jim nor Emmaline know what the gift is and none of the Shimerdas have the English skill to accurately describe what it is, only that it something “for cook” (Cather, 1954, 78) that “[the Burdens] no have in [America]” and that Ántonia thinks that it is “very good” (ibid). Emmaline’s response is very dry and almost sarcastic in a way. She appears doubtful that anything the Shimerdas could give the Burdens could be as good as Ántonia describes, or that “all things for eat better in [Ántonia’s] country” (ibid). Even though the Shimerdas give the Burdens a gift, Emmaline still remarks that they are “wanting in everything” (ibid). Once the Burdens investigate the strange present, Emmaline becomes “afraid of [the gift]” because she doesn’t know what it is (ibid). She doesn’t “want to eat anything that had been shut up for months” in the Shimerdas’ house, implying that she thinks the Shimerda’s living quarters were dirty (ibid). Instead of trying to cook and eat the present like the Shimerdas had intended for her to, “she threw the package into the stove” without even attempting to learn about the Shimerdas’ cultural food. By letting her xenophobia get the best of her, she demonstrates that, no matter how outwardly kind or caring a person is, they can still be very judgemental about other peoples’ cultures or lives.

Not all compassionate people secretly harbor prejudices against people who are different from them. The Russian dialect that Peter and Pavel spoke “was not very different from Bohemian[, the language of the Shimerdas]” (ibid, 35), so Mr. Shimerda soon takes to visiting the Russians often. He even occasionally allows Jim and Ántonia to sit in on his conversations with them. Mr. Shimerda soon learns about a dark part of the two Russians’ past; they had been driving a sledge for a newlywed bride and groom and many other people from their village when they began to be surrounded by wolves. Eventually, Peter and Pavel had abandoned the couple and the rest of the wedding party to be eaten by wolves and had instead escaped with their own lives. As Peter and Pavel tell the story, Mr. Shimerda never once interrupts or questions them about their story; he simply listens and allows the two men to “unburden [their minds] to Mr. Shimerda” (ibid, 60). After Pavel dies, Peter leaves, and “the loss of his two friends [has] a depressing effect upon old Mr. Shimerda” (ibid, 61). Even though Mr. Shimerda knew that the two men were, essentially, manslaughterers, he still forgave them and considered them both to be his friends. This was likely because, although the Russians did some questionable things in the past, they were still good people at heart. Peter “always seemed pleased when he met people on the road, smiled and took off his cap to everyone” (ibid, 34). Mr. Shimerda’s capacity for emotion allowed him to help comfort the two men and gives him the ability to judge them not for their past actions but for their personalities.

It’s this same emotional capacity that eventually led to Mr. Shimerda’s demise. He is unable to let go of the good life he had in Bohemia and falls into a deep depression. His sadness is visible from the moment Jim meets him; his face looked “like something from which all the warmth and light had died out” (ibid, 24). He “seemed to believe that peace and order…existed only in the old world he had left so far behind” (ibid, 86). He is “sad for the old country” (ibid, 89) and his wife had pressured him into agreeing to immigrate to America. His longing to return to Bohemia, and the hopelessness he inevitably felt when he knew he could not, were likely the main factors in his suicide. Though “he was always considerate and un-wishful to give trouble” (ibid, 96), he only lived in the past and was unwilling to let go of his old life. Even the kindest and the most compassionate of people can still fall victim to the past, and in Mr. Shimerda’s case, his dwelling on the past was what killed him in the end.

One of the worst human vices is the tendency for people to dwell too heavily on the past or to rely too much on the things they learned in the past. It is best that a person approach all situations and people with a sense of childlike innocence and love. The ability to forgive or forget is one of the hardest for anyone to master, even caring and considerate people like Emmaline Burden, many of whom seem to be the most likely to have done so. Yet, the lack of this virtue could lead to serious consequences, such as in Mr. Shimerda’s situation. This can also be seen in the classic modern novel The Giver by Lois Lowry. In The Giver, a dystopian society is run by a government that has decided to make all their citizens forget about everything in the past. The only person with any knowledge of history in this society is the “Giver”, who retains all the memories from the entirety of human history. A young boy is chosen by the Giver to inherit these memories, and though he initially enjoys the pleasant ones, such as sledding down a hill, he eventually discovers that the past is actually quite painful and he begins to regret his decision to accept the memories, which have become a heavy burden to him. The Giver is representative of how memories and the past are pleasant in moderation, but are harmful when relied on too heavily. This can not only be applied to the characters in Cather’s My Ántonia, but also to all of humanity.

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