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Threshold Experiences in My Antonia

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Threshold experiences in the novels My Antonia and The Age of Innocence

In any a piece of literature setting is an essential pillar of narrative construction: it not only includes some factual information about time and place or provides the background in which the events take place, but also has the power to shape the habits and attitudes of their users, or characters. Both Willa Cather in My Antonia and Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence create the particular narrative texture that implicates some dynamics, i.e. some shifts and changes – on the one hand, the setting of the novels continually changes, and this invariably entails the changing of the characters. Since the setting doesn’t remain static, each time it changes there should be some “turning point”, from which moment on the further development of events becomes completely different. But what exactly this turning point is, what are those “triggers” that help to create this dynamic picture, how can we trace the changes and the molding and development of characters’ personalities, the changes of their identities? The thing is that the authors of both above-mentioned novels create series of “threshold experiences” taking place at the most significant, climatic points in the lives of the protagonists, acting like triggers, indicating some transformations in the outer world of the characters that entail the changes in their inner world as well. These thresholds operate on all levels: separating the interior and the exterior, the real and the imagery, the free and the determined, the past and the present, the lost and the found, the old and the new. Further on I want to focus on two types of thresholds: the threshold separating the exterior and the interior, and the one separating the real and the imaginary. These two types of thresholds are interconnected in a way that they both are associated with the psychological concept of comfort zone and whenever the characters transgress the border, they either stepping into the comfort zone or stepping out of it. A famous American author Neale Walsh in his book Conversations with God once said that “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” (178), and this is entirely true with respect to our protagonists as well, because once they have stepped out of the comfort zone, they open themselves up to new experiences, the past recedes and within it the self that lived there, therefore indicating further spiritual changes and molding of the personalities. Watching the characters stepping over one threshold after another we see the boundaries of their world broadening or narrowing and the characters themselves being continuously redefined, as if reborn, as they try to adapt or escape from a new reality they face. Generally thresholds are seen as some kind of boundaries or barriers that we have to step over to get from one place to another in space. But these are physical thresholds in a traditional, common sense of the word. But there are also virtual, imaginative thresholds that sometimes play even bigger role as physical ones. As Hein Viljoen, in her article Crossing Borders, Dissolving Boundaries, compels us to see, thresholds, borders, boundaries, frontiers, lines, bridges can function as barriers or points of access, and they can represent opportunities or risks: “Inevitably accompanied by the concept of liminality, they are indispensable in our way of perceiving and categorizing the world” (8) . I agree with the author of the article regarding his assumption that physical thresholds that the characters have to cross are inevitably connected with virtual, imaginative barriers, overcoming which some inner changes, some transformation of our personality should take place, the way of perceiving the world suddenly becomes different. These threshold points seem to mark the most significant points in the lives of the characters, serving as “meaningful determiners” (Viljoen, 14) of one’s life. This is exactly what we see happening in the life of the characters of My Antonia and The Age of Innocence. In the very beginning of both novels we see female and male protagonists crossing the threshold between interior and the exterior, each character in their particular way. This first threshold comes up already on the very first pages of the books. It is the border in the very sense of the word – namely a geographical border between the continents in case of Antonia and Ellen and an “interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America” (Cather, 15) from and mountainous "old country" of Virginia to the unfamiliar, flat "new land" of the Nebraska prairie for Jim. Crossing this geographical border, characters make a plunge into a new world, lingering on the verge of the unknown. Edward Said in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays describes this state as “an unhealable rift forced between a human being and its native place, between the self and its true home” (45) . And here we see how Jim Burden, when he arrives, for the first time experiences this exterior, he is opening himself up, but then it becomes too much for him. He is overwhelmed by the vastness of the Nebraska prairie and he feels cast adrift outside the margins of the known world, he feels “erased, blotted out” (Cather, 36). At the moment we see Jim thrown out of his little world, facing a boundless new world that seems to be impossible to master. This vast Nebraska prairie symbolizes limitless possibilities, unrestricted freedom of movement and choice for the protagonist. Jim is standing “on the threshold”, the future is his to create, there are no limitations, he is ready to step out from “the middle of nowhere” into a new life. For Jim it is like a challenge, accepting which he starts his both special and spiritual journey toward moral perfection, and with crossing every new border in space, we see his personality undergo changes. “I was quite another boy” (Cather, 94), he declares after only a month in the new territory. While immigration to America may open many doors for immigrants, it is equally fraught with obstacles; this is an exterior that is out of “comfort zone”, a space that they have to conquer. And overcoming this first barrier the female protagonist of W. Cather’s novel Antonia Shimerda, coming to the vast prairies of Nebraska and claiming this space, makes the first step towards developing a strong character. In a similar way, crossing the border between the continents and coming from Europe to New York, Ellen Olenska, the female protagonist of E. Wharton The Age of Innocence, shows her already developed strong personality and the ability not to “drift alone with the crowd”. Ellen Olenska is a stranger in this world, she doesn’t belong to the New York upper class society, she is unable to read its “hieroglyphics” and “arbitrary signs”. But she doesn’t try to conform; she adheres to her old values and goes her own way, again and again crossing the boundaries of the world of conventional patterns and restrictions. But the border between interior and exterior is not always a geographical one. If we take the example of Newland Archer, the main character of E. Whraton The Age of Innocence, we see that at the first sight, he doesn’t cross any geographical border, his setting remains the same – it is New York city, but he also crosses the border between interior and the exterior, namely the social boundary of the old self. It is symbolically, that the opening scene of the novel takes place in the theatre, it has a double meaning. On the one hand, opera is a common entertainment of the New York upper class society, but on the other hand, this theatrical scene symbolizes the whole set of rules and conventionalities of the society that dominated over the people. They all strictly adhere to the norms and restrictions; their behavior is dictated by the established patterns:“ In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs” (Wharton, 37) So the whole world of upper class New York is a theater, a stage, where everyone plays their roles that are defined by the society and “stepping out” of the stage would arouse total disapproval. Newland Archer is “a victim of the society which had produced him” (Singley, 45) and this society is a comfort zone, where everything goes in a way “it should be”, where everyone has to obey to “invisible deity of “Good Form” (Wharton, 149), and for Archer stepping out of this comfort zone means a plunge into a new world. At this moment we see him brave enough, thinking he is able to overcome. So we see that in the opening chapters, making their characters overcome the boundaries, the authors establish “starting points” for their characters, after that the series of life thresholds begin, and from that moment on the characters never remain static, but continuously undergo changes. Another significant threshold is that separating the two dimensions – reality and imagination: crossing this virtual border enables characters to switch between two different worlds – that of the reality and that of their imagination. We see the sights of it already in the very first scenes of the novel. This is a very important boundary in the worlds of both Jim Burden and Newland Archer, as long as crossing this threshold they can go back to their comfort zone. Sometimes this threshold coincides with stepping over some physical boundary as well, for instance, we see it in the scene of The Age of Innocence, when Archer “…had come up to his library and shut himself in” (Wharton, 273). For Archer, his library has always been his refuge. So the whole house is exterior, whereas the library is interior, felicitous space, comfort zone, and coming to his library he also crosses this boundary between real and imaginary, and it happens through the books that he reads. His books offer him a fantasy world – a glimpse at “the beautiful things that could not possibly happen in real life” (Wharton, 113). And his greatest desire is to make this border between teal and imaginary world as thin as possible up to removing it at all. When Archer is planning how he will arrange his library in a new house he want to have there “bookcases without glass doors” (Wharton, 59), and it symbolizes an open access to the world of imagination. Further on in path of the novels we see women personalities developing only forwards, “linearly”, their strong traits become even stronger, and once they stepped over the threshold, they never double back, what we can’t say about the male protagonists, that always seem to wait for some “push from outside” to help them overcome. And in both novels it is female characters that help male characters to cross the borders, to overcome boundaries, to enter into the new world of the unknown. In the book Edith Wharton. Matters of mind and spirit Carol J. Singley argues that it is Ellen who helps Archer to transcend boundaries, to free from cultural restriction of his class, to set aside from the weakness and repression of the social order, to throw off the bonds of “conventionality and hubris” (28). The author compares Ellen to “a beacon of light for Newland Archer, who is trapped on a closed, petty world” (Singley, 34). She is the woman who is not restricted by the conventionalities and traditions of the New York society, and she attempts to lead the Archer beyond these narrow limits. And as we watch Newland struggling to reach that “beacon of light”, we see the boundaries of his closed world broadening, him seeing himself, his society, the world he is living in, from another perspective. In the very beginning of the novel we see Newland adhering to the established patterns, “and what was or was not “the thing” played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers of years ago…” (Wharton, 5). But then we see him letting the women into his life, and by doing this, he opens himself up to the new unexplored world, setting himself apart from the ordinary reality. He makes the first step toward crossing those bounds of society, established traditions, patterns and conventionalities. In chapter 9 of the novel, sitting in Ellen’s room, Archer says to Ellen: “It’s you who are telling me; opening my eyes to things I’d looked at so long that I’d ceased to see them” (Wharton, 61). From that moment on his established views begin to shatter; step by step he comes to understanding the absurdity of the established societal norms. He gets a new perception of the world from a different prospective, he is no more satisfied with his life, and making all the visits he and May as newly engaged were supposed to make he felt that “he had been shown off like a wild animal cunningly trapped” (Wharton, 63). Further on, in Chapter 32 of The Age of Innocence we see the opera scene again, and by introducing this scene into a book for the second time, Edith Wharton gives us an opportunity to see how much Newland Archer has change: “But he had become suddenly unconscious of the club box, of Mr. van der Luyden, of all that had so long enclosed him in the warm shelter of habit. He…..opened the door of Mrs. van der Luyden's box as if it had been a gate into the unknown” (Wharton, 261). We see him crossing one border after another and eventually, in Chapter 33, when he decides to make a journey to India or Japan, we see him ready to set himself free, to break the bondages of the old world he was living in and cross that last border that separated him from freedom. If only he had been able to break that crucial boundary, to do away with his previous self, with the society he belonged to. It would mean breaking geographical border as well, escaping from New York… but for him it also would mean breaking the bondages of marriage, and it was in a way too much for Archer and he decided to double back and from that moment on we see him enclosed in the imaginary world. Stepping over this threshold, separating reality and imagination, Newlands creates his world that is of much of a difference from that of the real dimension, where he has the freedom to move spatially, to broaden and shorten the distances and where he can easily cross the “abyss” separating him from Ellen. In My Antonia we can see the similar situation. It is Antonia, who encourages Jim to cross the borders, to go beyond the narrow limits, to broaden his perspectives. In the novel there is one scene when Jim’s grandfather said about Antonia that “She will help some fellow get ahead in the world” (Сather, 87), and she literally did. In the beginning of the novel we see Jim and Antonia always being together, two children making their first steps in life, conquering vast Nebraska space “hand in hand”. And although further they have to separate, Antonia has always been a guiding line in the life of Jim and it is because of her that he dared to explore new spaces and to strive for success. After the episode of fighting with the snake Jim felt himself being a real man, and mostly because “he had Antonia beside him, to appreciate and admire” (Сather, 37), In the moment of hesitation, she encourages him to move to the town to get a better education and she always has more faith in Jim than he himself. She always encourages Jim to further develop and to succeed in life: “You're not going to sit around here and whittle store-boxes and tell stories all your life. You are going away to school and make something of yourself. I'm just awful proud of you” (Сather, 85). Because of Antonia Jim dares to go beyond the restrictions and norms of the society. Traditionally, “young man of position was like the son of a royal house” (Сather, 137) and was not suggested to mix with country girls or to participate in the lower class entertainments. But Jims makes “a bold resolve to go to the Saturday night dances” (Cather, 147), thereby breaking the bonds of “what is approved in the society”, crossing another border. Its first of all Antonia that makes him think back, to return to the past in his memories of Nebraska prarie, to cross the border between the real and the imagery. The memories of the childhood are invariably connected with Antonia, so it is again female character that pushes male character to overcome that border between the reality and imagination, to make a plunge into his memories. So, once Jim is physically distant from Antonia, she crosses over the line dividing imaginary (memories) from reality and takes her place in Jim’s mind. In the book Willa Cather and the Myth of American migration Joseph R. Urgo describes how through imagination Jim Burden through his whole life stays connected to the Nebraska Prairie, to his home, to Antonia, emphasizing that he thinks “not historically, but spatially’’ (59), and that memories “do not destroy him, however, but animate him throughout his life, contextualized as they will be his special imagination” (61). He also emphasizes that the world of imagination how “through our imagination we can cross the boundaries that separate us” (Urgo, 72). And this is exactly the case of the male protagonist novels Jim Burden has a vivid imagination that opens for him the door into a new world of multiple possibilities. For Jim Burden it is an opportunity to always stay connected to the places and people most dearest to his heart, no matter wherever he goes and what he does, we see him “thinking of the places and people of (his) own infinitesimal past” (Cather, 168). It’s very fascinating to compare how male protagonists behave at the end of the novels, when they stay before the choice of crossing or not the border between imagination and reality for the last time. Twenty years after Jim tells Antonia that the “idea” of her has become “a part of his mind” (Cather, 206), he makes the trip back to her in Nebraska, both the physical journey back to a cherished landscape and the journey in memory to childhood. He dares to cross this boundary between the memories and the reality and though he is trying to reclaim am identity that he forfeited years earlier, it is clear that the new identity supersedes his old self. And it is the moment when, comparing himself to Antonia, he recognizes his spiritual emptiness. Perhaps this is the reason why the protagonist of the second novel, Newland Archer, does not dare to overcome that threshold between real and imaginary, he is afraid of being disillusioned, reality can become too much for him. In the last scene of the novel Archer is faced with the rather bewildering prospect of seeing Ellen once again. Standing on the street below her apartment, he is as close to the crossing that boundary between the world of imagination and the real world as possible – the only thing he has to do it to go up the stairs to Ellen’s room. But in all the years that he didn’t see Ellen imaginary world has become so real to him, that it has even outshone the real world. “It’s more real to me here than if I went up” (Wharton, 293), says Archer and chooses to be left with the memory of Ellen and not Ellen herself. Not seeing the real—and now significantly older—person allows him, in certain respects, to maintain her as a symbolic presence, an emblem of the wistfulness and regrets of his youth.

WORKS CITED

Cather, Willa. My Antonia. New York: Bantam Books, 2005.
Espín, Oliva M. Women Crossing Boundaries: A Psychology of Immigration and Transformations of Sexuality. Routledge, 1999, 194 pp.
Singley, Carol J. Edith Wharton. Matters of mind and spirit. Cambridge University Press, 1995, 261 pp.
Said, Edward W. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002
Urgo, Joseph R. Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration. University of Illinois Press 1995, 215 pp.
Viljoen, Hein. Crossing Borders, Dissolving Boundaries. Cross/Cultures: Readings in Post/Colonial Literatures and Cultures in English 157. Amsterdam and New York, NY: Rodopi, 2013, 332 pp.
Walsch, Neale D. The Complete Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue. Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2005
Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. London: HarperCollins, 2010

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Premium Essay

Mass Media

...Media History Contents 1 Introduction 1.1 Mass media . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.1.1 1.1.2 1.1.3 1.1.4 1.1.5 1.1.6 1.1.7 1.1.8 1.1.9 Issues with definition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Forms of mass media . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Purposes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Professions involving mass media . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Influence and sociology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ethical issues and criticism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Future . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . See also . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 1 1 2 6 6 7 8 10 10 10 10 11 11 12 12 12 12 16 16 17 17 17 17 17 17 18 19 20 21 21 21 1.1.10 Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.1.11 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.1.12 Further reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.1.13 External links . . . . . . . . ....

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