Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 000-000
In one of the most frequently noted incidents in Willa Cather's My Antonia, Russian immigrant Pavel reveals on his deathbed that, when driving his friend's wedding party sledge, he saved his own life and companion Peter's by throwing the bride and groom to the attacking wolves. Antonia and Jim are fascinated by this story, and readers are haunted and intrigued by it. The tale holds the obvious appeal (both for the children and Cather's reader) of the drama of the incident, the color of its remote foreign setting, and the morbid satisfaction of learning the mysterious past of the Russian neighbors. But beyond these appeals, the story also resonates with important motifs, such as gender politics, marriage, and movement that are woven throughout the novel. It sheds light on Cather's sources and inspirations as well as on the nature of the Great Plains immigrant population. At the same time, it transcends regional concerns, addressing mythic themes that recur across cultural boundaries. Thus, though frequently noted, this incident supports further exploration.
The story of the wedding party and the wolves has sometimes been considered a loosely interpolated tale with little relevance to the novel as a whole. For example, in Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, published in 1951, David Daiches writes that the incident is "a remarkable little inset story, but its relation to the novel as a whole is somewhat uncertain." But more recent critics such as Blanche Gelfant and Judith Fetterley have seen a very strong relationship between the story and the novel as a whole. Gelfant describes the scene as a "grisly acting out of male aversion" to women. Fetterley credits Gelfant with "first according this scene the attention it deserves," but rightly notes that Gelfant "overlooks the fact that the groom as well as the bride gets eaten."