Role of Women in My Antonia
The role of the women in My Antonia as the showcased laborers and workers in the new community does not, certainly, alleviate the questions of patriarchal influence offered in the discussions of gender. Certainly, the fact that Ántonia is deprived of the education she longs for and yet cannot have, because it is she who is responsible for her family's success--"'School is all right for little boys. I help make this land one good farm'" (94)--cannot be seen as entirely good, if we agree that "the value of education is among the greatest of all human values" (Woolf 45); and in spite of her protests to the contrary, the bitter recognition of exclusion brings Ántonia to tears. However, recognizing the women's relationship to the development of national culture does suggest some alternative readings to the conclusions often reached, even as Ántonia's sacrifice of her own education does not exclude the contribution she makes to American culture, as we shall see.
Recognition of nation-construction effects our reading of the play of gender in the text. One such instance is in the case of narrative authority, which has frequently been cited as Jim's patriarchal subsuming of Ántonia, as we have seen. While Jim appends the "my" to his transcription of Ántonia's history, however, it is worth reiterating that Ántonia is never, in fact, Jim's; rather, his possessive "My" reflects a failed attempt at possession, as his amorous advances were firmly rebuffed and as the adult Ántonia never seeks his assistance or support. At the same time, that the tale is proffered via an anonymous female narrator further undermines Jim's narrative authority, for his masculine presumption to speak for Ántonia undergoes a feminine revision itself: "the following narrative is Jim's manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me" (6, my emphasis). Since we cannot know what changes the mysterious female editor effected nor which emendations or clarifications are hers, Jim's possessive claim to Ántonia is undermined and a feminine voice is again given the dominant place.
At the same time, the readings of the women's masculinity and androgyny must be similarly reconsidered. While Irving reads Lena as one who "conforms more readily than Ántonia" and assimilates in a manner "too complete" in that "she, like Jim, is lethargic" (100), I would argue that Lena's refusal to marry and her achievement of the independent, successful life she sought belie any ready categorization of reinforced hegemony, undermining standard patriarchal demands; and her success can be contrasted with Jim's loveless marriage and the vague reference to the "disappointments" that have failed to quell his "naturally romantic and ardent disposition" (4). Similarly, as Gilbert and Gubar highlight, the happiness of the "masculine" hired girls stands in stark contrast with the emotional restriction to which town wives are subjected: "Energetic and jolly, Mrs....