During the shutdown last spring, one of the unexpected blessings of quarantine was reconnecting with college friends on Zoom. We all had nowhere to be, so a group of us would meet about once a week to catch up. All of us were English or Classics graduates, so literature naturally came up as a topic of conversation.
On one particular night, there were four of us on Zoom, and someone brought up this question: who is the best mother in literature? The four of us (all of whom have graduate degrees) were completely stumped. Even with our Great Books education, we were struggling to come up with a concrete answer.
A smattering of answers were put forward, and the conversation meandered. Many of the mothers in Jane Austen novels were dead, and we were not going to put Mrs. Bennet up as a paragon of motherhood. I suggested Lucie Manette from A Tale of Two Cities, but that suggestion did not take off. (The counter-argument was that you see Lucie more as a devoted wife than a mother in the novel.) Sonya from Crime and Punishment was suggested, but she didn’t have any of her own children. Marmie from Little Women was a strong contender for a while. Finally, my dear friend (and a mother of three girls) suggested Antonia, the titular character of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. We all came to a half-way agreement that the suggestion seemed logical, and the conversation turned to Cather’s Shadows on the Rock.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity and occasion to reread My Antonia, and I kept my friend’s working thesis in the back of my mind. As soon as I finished it, I wrote a hurried email to one of my friends who had participated in the infamous Zoom call that night. I excitedly wrote that Antonia was the best mother in literature! But how? What constitutes a good mother?
In our conversation on the Zoom call, we bantered around two defining characteristics of a good mother: nurturing and sacrificial. Even though Antonia does not start off as a physical mother, she manifests and radiates these characteristics from the beginning. My Antonia is told from the perspective of Jim Burden. When he was ten years old, Jim’s parents died, and he moved out to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. Soon after his arrival, he meets Antonia Shimerda, a fourteen-year-old Bohemian immigrant who knows barely a lick of English. Antonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda, commissions Jim to teach Antonia the language. They grow up together and become friends.
As he recalls the past, Jim remembers snippets and fragments of his childhood. He remembers an occasion after their reading lesson when they watch “a little insect of the palest, frailest green [hop] painfully out of the buffalo grass and [try] to leap into a bunch of bluestem.” The bug falls to the ground, and Antonia makes “a warm nest for him in her hands” and speaks to the bug in Bohemian. She demonstrates compassion not only to the frailest of creatures but also her father, who suffers from homesickness for his mother country, Bohemia:
“My papa sick all the time,” Tony [Antonia] panted as we flew. “He not look good, Jim.”
As we neared Mr. Shimerda she shouted, and he lifted his head and peered about. Tony ran up to him, caught his hand and pressed it against her cheek. She was the only one of his family who could rouse the old man from the torpor in which he seemed to live.
Soon thereafter, Mr. Shimerda dies under mysterious circumstances, and it is unclear if he committed suicide due to his homesickness or was murdered. (This question is a subject of great debate among my students who read My Antonia as ninth graders.) After the death of her father, Antonia tries to find ways to support her mother and siblings. She sacrifices her education and her time to work on the farm.
Antonia displays these nurturing and sacrificial instincts as a young girl, but she also possesses an intangible, almost ineffable quality that illuminates the nature of motherhood. After her father dies, Jim Burden and his grandparents help Antonia get a job with the Harlings, a family in need of a hired girl. At the Harlings, Antonia continues to mother the children in her care and to create a home with Mrs. Harling. They play games, race to the orchard, participate in hay fights in the barn, play music, dance, make taffy and cookies, and tell stories. Jim compares Mrs. Harling and Antonia and tries to articulate this indefinable quality that the women share: “Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not overdelicate, but very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I was distinctly conscious of it.”
Intimately tied to her nurturing and sacrificial instincts is a love of life that radiates to those around her. Antonia becomes a magnetic and dynamic central point.
However, as life carries on, Antonia and Jim naturally drift apart and lose touch. Jim goes to college and settles in New York City. After a failed first attempt at marriage, Antonia settles down in Nebraska, marries a Bohemian boy named Cusak, and gives birth to several children. At the end of the novel, after nearly twenty years, Jim reconnects with Antonia and visits her on her farm where he sees her in the full stature of her motherhood.
Again, Antonia is someone who has sacrificed herself again and again for her family. She has lost her youthful beauty, but she possesses a dynamism and love of life, which Jim observes:
She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still sop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things [emphasis added]. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
Antonia’s love of life makes that which is ordinary into something extraordinary. Antonia can unveil the beautiful in the ordinary things of life.
There seem to be two levels of motherhood present in Antonia: the natural and something else. In her masterful work on femininity, The Eternal Woman: The Timeless Meaning of the Feminine, Gertrud von Le Fort names these two planes of existence as the life of nature and the life of grace:
[T]he theological tenet [is] that nature constitutes the basis for grace, that grace functions everywhere not in contradiction, but in correspondence with and as a continuation of the ascending plane of nature…Life in itself, the unending recurrence of conception and birth, is not a final value. Ultimate value and meaning arise only from out of a higher life…The mother, in giving earthly life to the child, gives with it the prerequisite of redemption. Again, nature is the basis for grace.
Antonia’s nurturing and sacrificial proclivities are only the bedrock to a higher life. Gertrud von Le Fort continues to describe how the Church steps in at Baptism as the beginning of the life of grace and how the mother also must take a significant role in the religious upbringing of her child. While we do not see Antonia step in as a religious instructor for her children, Antonia steps into the void of nature to point her children (and those around her) to a higher and more fruitful way of life.
If Antonia pointed to a higher way of life, the life of grace, before she was married and with children, then motherhood cannot be limited to physical mothers. If that is the case, Lucie Manette could be considered an ideal mother in her nurturing and recalling her father back to life and Sonya in her piety gently leading Raskolnikov to a life of grace and redemption. Motherhood is not only bound to giving life but also the unveiling of the supernatural and hidden realms of a life of grace.
So, is Antonia the best mother in literature? After working through this argument, I cannot say, and I have to temper my initial enthusiastic response. But My Antonia hints at the universal call to motherhood for all women—married or single. And, of course, a clear way to enter into this new reality is for women to model themselves after Mary, the Mother of God, the one who is full of grace.
[Image Credit: Dover Publications]