Oppression and shame - an analysis of sexuality in Willa Cather’s "My Antonia" and Toni Morrison’s "Beloved"

Term Paper 2005 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Sexuality in My Ántonia

3. Sexuality in Beloved

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

Sexuality is an important issue in Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia and in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This may appear quite normal, as sexuality is a substantial part of adult life and both books are to a large extent concerned with the description of adults’ lives. Therefore, we might not wonder why the authors of these novels do depict sexuality in their books, as it does not seem to support any statements. This is the more true the less explicit sexuality is tackled. We might assume that sexuality occurs in these books because it exists, in a kind of l’art pour l’art manner. However, I want to show that the depiction of sexuality in Beloved and in My Ántonia is not at all a coincidence, but is an important means to show power relationships in society and, as a final consequence, to express social criticism in both novels.

2. Sexuality in My Ántonia

First of all, it is important to mention that no sexuality in the sense of physical interaction is depicted anywhere in the book. Therefore, it might seem a strange idea to analyse sexuality in this novel. However, the fact that Willa Cather does not display sexual intercourse in her novel goes along well with the attitude of 19th century society towards sexuality, especially that of minority groups. It was an issue nobody openly talked about, highly loaded with moralistic ideas. But how can Willa Cather express social criticism via sexuality without presenting it? She can do so by displaying the false moral attitude of society towards minorities who did not live to the standard set by society: women who had premarital sex and homosexual men.

To begin with, Ántonia, the female main character, becomes a victim of the biased sexual moral present in the 19th century. The common attitude of society towards women becomes obvious in the second book, “The Hired Girls” (Cather, p. 95 – 163). Even this title Willa Cather chooses, referring to the immigrant girls who went to the dances in a tent, shows the common attitude: the girls are treated like objects which you can hire, or even worse, like prostitutes. They are considered to be easy to seduce, just because they like to have fun; this derives from the fact that those dances in the book provide the perfect opportunity for young men to find “willing” girls. Of course, the boys who attend the dances are not condemned for going there; this is an attitude which still exists today: girls normally were and still are treated in a much stricter way, perhaps because they have to deal with the consequences if they become pregnant. The boys might only have to pay for their illegitimate children, whereas the girls have to suffer from their mistakes their whole life long: They have to deal with their ruined reputation and they often do not have the chance to finish their education.

This is also the attitude Ántonia has to face when she spends her evenings at the dances. Due to the fact that some of the “good” boys try to take their chance and seduce the girls there, this relatively harmless distraction becomes her fate when her employer, Mr. Harling, forbids her to go to the tent any more, telling her that she “can quit going to these dances” or that she could “hunt another place” (Cather, p.136). He is afraid that Ántonia’s reputation – and his own along with it - will suffer from this, as the girls who go there have the reputation of being “free and easy” (Cather, p. 136). Both words nowadays have quite a positive connotation, but in this context mean that girls who go to the dances to have fun are not much better than prostitutes. But Ántonia prefers having to leave her employer to surrendering to his moral ideas.

The circumstance that Mr. Harling wants to forbid her to go to the dances is the more astonishing as he witnesses Ántonia successfully defending herself against one boy who tries to kiss her. But obviously, in Mr Harling’s opinion not the boy is to blame, but Ántonia. This is the typical attitude towards women in a male-dominated world, and by showing that Ántonia has to take the consequences for the behaviour of the boy who walked her home Willa Cather shows one aspect of the false morality of society.

The motif of Ántonia being punished for the wrong behaviour of men reoccurs more than once in the course of the novel. Another example is the almost-rape by her new employer, Mr. Cutter, who is so fascinated by her that he arranges it for Ántonia to guard his house alone during his absence - in order to be able to sneak in on her at night and rape her. Although the rape does not take place as Jim sleeps in her bed – which will be discussed in a different context later on - she again has to give up her job. Her employer is not punished, but even accuses her of letting other men sleep with her: “So this is what she’s up to when I’m away” (Cather, p. 160) Thereby, he can keep the impression of himself being an honourable man upright and blame Ántonia for what happened. Ántonia, who does neither lose her virginity nor her virtuousness, but even more defends both by having Jim sleep in her bed, has to break into the house like a thief in order to get her belongings back.

The last and most significant example of this strange morality is depicted when Ántonia gives birth to an illegitimate child. But instead of being ashamed and hiding her child from society – and thereby fulfilling the expectations of society and her family towards an unmarried mother - she keeps her head high and even displays her daughter openly by having her picture displayed in the photographer’s shop. The photographer expresses his feelings towards Ántonia’s behaviour, which can be seen as representative for the attitude of society, as “Too bad! She seems proud of the baby, though”.(Cather, p.197) Thereby he shows that he and most likely everybody else thinks this is a strange behaviour; by saying that she only “seems” to be proud of her child he implies that this can not be Ántonia’s genuine attitude. However, she does not hide or abandon her child, which would ironically have let her regain part of her reputation in public. From today’s point of view, her behaviour was the more moral one.



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University of Trier
Oppression Willa Cather’s Antonia Toni Morrison’s Beloved



Title: Oppression and shame - an analysis of sexuality in Willa Cather’s "My Antonia" and Toni Morrison’s "Beloved"