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The Use of Symbolism in "My Ántonia" by Willa Cather

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In Chapter VII of My Antonia, Cather uses a rattlesnake to symbolize one of the most important moments in the book. At the beginning of this passage, it is well known that Antonia is not only older, but also more traveled than Jim. Because of this Antonia begins to treat Jim as if he is her younger brother rather than her equal, which leads to Jim feeling resentful towards the superior tone she would sometimes take with him. Jim killing the rattlesnake may not seem significant at first, but throughout this story we learn that it holds a much deeper meaning of a transition from childhood to adulthood. Jim was trying to assert his masculinity and by showing both courage and strength while killing the snake he ultimately becomes a real man when he succeeds in winning the fight. Jim is proud of himself, but the fact that the snake is the biggest he has ever seen shows how terrified he was and how important and intense this adventure was.

Later in the book in Chapter XVI we come across a second use of symbolism during Mr. Shimerda’s funeral. Mr. Shimerda was laid to rest in a small plot in a large prairie which years later would become a crossroads. One possible form of symbolism could be that being at a crossroads represents being at an incomplete place in a person’s journey through life. This would then relate to the way that Mr. Shimerda died and how he was feeling at that specific time in his life. The gravesite of Mr. Shimerda is a reminder of what the prairie once was in its purest form. It symbolizes Jim’s longing for the past. One other way that symbolism was used is shown through an older Jims words. He states, “in all that country it was the spot most dear to me” because when all of the land had been cleared for other uses, this plot of land where two roads would meet is the only place where the tall grass still grows and stands in its natural state. The grave is a way of symbolizing something from the old world surviving to see the new world. It is a connection between the two places.

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The third form of symbolism is found in Book II, Chapter XIV in the plough. The plough can most simply symbolize farming as a whole and it is used to depict Man’s attempt to live off the land. This is translated through a quote given on page 118, “There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.” The word heroic could also be used to describe the farmers who attempted to make their living off the Nebraska prairies and farmlands. Relating to this analysis is another quote that state, “and that forgotten plough had sunk back to his own littleness somewhere on the prairie.” This reminds us that however heroic man’s attempts to farm the land may be, he is still considered small in the bigger picture of the natural world and its beauty.

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