In “My Antonia” Willa Cathers seems to target the differences between the western, pioneer, farmer and the eastern, industrial, businessman. This contrasting seems to peak in the span of two paragraphs at the end of book four where Cathers injects a passage wrought with imagery and personification to relay her message. Here, the reader is placed into the mind of Jim Burden, the main character, during a period in his life when he is to choose the person him will grow up to become. Cathers exposes the conflict going on inside him as he struggles between choosing the eastern life expected of him or the western life he has wanted.
Jim Burden is a young man at this point with a Harvard Law education, the promise of a good job, and the implication of financial success. He would settle for nothing less at this point in his life had it not been for the success he had seen around him in people like Lena, Tiny, and Mr. Harling amongst several others. However, in this passage, as his last meeting with Antonia before he leaves to the east comes to an end, he says, “I wish I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.” (251) He reveals that he longs not for his financial success but rather for something else, he tells us that he desires something he once had. Jim also says, “I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall.” (251) In this personification of the land Jim makes the west sound like someone he wants to be with. He describes the land as a magical person pulling to keep the two together. As a child Jim was entrenched in the land in the west no matter what he was doing and now he longed to have that companionship back.
This longing reveals the conflict Jim sparked when he chose to explore a life as a businessman, or more specifically a lawyer, in the east. Cathers uses imagery in the first part of this passage to do an incredible job of capturing this battle inside him. Cathers writes, “As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose color, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon.” (251) Jim sees his two paths in the sky. He sees the golden light of the life, the pioneer spirit he so wants to have in the west while at the same time he sees the ghost-moon’, the less luminescent light, he is expected to follow in the east. The seasonal colors Cathers uses here to describe the scene give us an idea of the emotions Jim is feeling at this point. She calls the sun golden’ like the summer when things are always well, crops are good, and spirits are high in the novel. The moon, on the other hand, is a pale silver color like the winter when times are bad throughout the book. We see here what Jim truly desires. Cathers finished the paragraph by saying “For five, perhaps ten minutes, the luminaries confronted each other” (251) We find that the choice of either one of the lifestyles is of astronomical size for Jim and also that the conflict is brief. Cathers alludes that the choice has already been made; the sun will always set in the west while the moon will continue to rise in the east. Even though the choice is made there is a brief moment where Jim’s longing for the west prolonged the movement of the two giants. Ultimately, however, Cathers tells us that Jim is not strong enough to change of course of the planets.
“As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cartwheel, pale silver and streaked with rose color, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world.
In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.”