BARRON'S BOOK NOTES
^^^^^^^^^^WILLA CATHER: THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES
Willa Cather was born, in 1873, during an exciting period in American
history when the Middle West was settled by courageous pioneers, some
from the East, some from Europe. The eldest of seven children, Cather
spent her first years in the East, living in a lovely Virginia house that
had been in the family for several generations.
When she was nine, Willa Cather's life changed. Relatives had sent
glowing reports of farming opportunities in the central Nebraska region
called "the Divide." The Cathers were susceptible to tuberculosis and
hoped the dry Nebraska climate would be more favorable than that of humid
Virginia. In 1883 Willa Cather and her family journeyed by rail to join
their extended family in the small settlement west of Red Cloud that was
already known as Catherton.
Although there were no longer many covered wagons, buffalo, or Indians in
Nebraska, the huge prairie rippling with reddish grass seemed wild and
foreign to Willa Cather. So did her new neighbors. Homesteading
immigrants from all over Europe, they were farming previously unbroken
prairie land. These people and this land inspired My Antonia and Cather's
other Midwestern novels.
Until she was ten years old, Willa Cather was educated at home, first by
her Virginia grandmother, then by her Nebraska grandmother. They
introduced her to Shakespeare and the Greek and Latin classics, and
encouraged the intelligent and outgoing girl to think for herself at a
Many aspects of my Antonia are autobiographical. The fictional town of
Black Hawk is based on Red Cloud. Just like Jim Burden (the novel's
narrator), young Willa Cather arrived by train and then rode the rest of
the way to her grandparents' house--about fifteen miles--in the straw-
covered bed of a farm wagon. Her grandparents' house was exactly like
Jim's. And, like him, the young Willa made friends with the immigrant
One of these families, the Sadileks from Bohemia, now part of
Czechoslovakia, provided the model for the Shimerda family in My Antonia.
Mr. Sadilek, a musician, was so depressed by the bleak new country that
he shot himself after breaking his violin across his knee. His daughter
Annie was the inspiration for Antonia. She worked in the home of the
Miner family, the model for the Harlings in the book.
A year or so after they arrived on the farm, Willa Cather's parents moved
the family into Red Cloud. She and her mother were both homesick and ill,
and her father didn't like the backbreaking farm work. He went into real
estate loans and insurance, and Willa attended a school for the first
time. In Red Cloud, as she always had, the girl spent much of her time
math adults. An Englishman, who read Latin with her, let her help with
experiments in his laboratory. She decided she wanted to become a doctor
and persuaded two of the town's physicians to let her accompany them on
their rounds. About this time, she began calling herself William Cather,
As you see, Cather not only thought of herself as a doctor, she thought
of herself as a boy. She cut her hair very short (shocking in those
days), dressed boyishly, and was close to her two younger brothers, who
called her "Willie."
Not many girls went to college in those days, but it never occurred to
Cather not to. At the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, the state
capital, she continued to lead an independent and unconventional life.
Among the influential friends she made were two families who owned
newspapers. Coincidentally, during her first year at the university, a
teacher gave one of her essays to the Nebraska State Journal, the largest
of five papers in Lincoln. Once she had seen her initials in print, she
decided to become an author, not a doctor.
For the college literary magazine and the Journal, she described people
and places which would eventually make their way into her books. She
sometimes insulted people by publishing thinly disguised character
sketches of them. As the newspaper's drama and book critic, she expressed
decisive views on art and life.
She was so busy during her senior year writing newspaper articles and
practice-teaching that her other schoolwork suffered. In courses that
interested her, she read far beyond the requirements (sometimes more than
her teachers had read), but she resented "required reading." After she
became famous, she said that she didn't want students to be forced to
read her books, so she wouldn't let her work be printed in school
editions or in anthologies.
As she had as a child, Cather continued to think "like a man." She didn't
accept her generation's idea that women should be passive, domestic, and
uneducated. Instead she actively pursued a literary life and a worldly
perspective which gave her work universal appeal.
After being graduated from college in 1895, Cather moved back home for a
year and wrote short stories as well as newspaper columns. When she was
twenty-three, a publisher invited her to edit a new ladies' magazine in
Pittsburgh. After she left the prairie she began to feel a nostalgia for
the land and people of "the Divide" which lasted all her life. She liked
to say that the years between eight and fifteen are the most important.
Her own vivid memories of those years are recreated for you in My
For the next ten years Willa Cather worked in Pittsburgh at various jobs,
and continued to send columns about the books and culture of the East
back to papers in Lincoln. For scholars today, those columns form a sort
of diary of Cather's thoughts on the arts and artists during her
twenties. Although she practiced journalism for more than half her life,
she knew she would eventually write novels, and she already thought of
herself as a literary artist. When she placed her first short story in a
national magazine in 1900, she decided to devote herself to writing
fiction instead of newspaper articles. To support herself she taught
English in Pittsburgh high schools for five years.
By this time she had been invited to live in the home of Isabelle McClung
and her parents. Isabelle was young, attractive, and a wealthy arts
patron who encouraged Cather in her writing. The two became inseparable.
Although Isabelle later married, their friendship remained so vital to
Cather that one critic called Isabelle "the great love of her life."
(Forty years later when Isabelle died, Cather said she realized that
Isabelle had been the person for whom all her books had been written.)
Cather's early boyishness and her later close friendship with several
women (including her companion of forty years, Edith Lewis) make it
unsurprising that she never married. Although the nature of these
friendships remains a matter of speculation, Cather herself always
claimed that generally art and marriage don't mix because an artist must
become a "human sacrifice" to the god of art.
Eventually, Cather's single-mindedness paid off. Her poetry and short
stories drew the attention of the New York publisher S.S. McClure. In
1906 she moved there to work on the staff of the famous McClure's
magazine. She stayed six years, three of them as managing editor. While
researching articles, hunting for talented contributors in Europe and at
home, and meeting people in the publishing world, she still found time to
write her own stories.
Still, at nearly forty she had not yet written a novel. Some people have
called this journalistic period a "literary detour" which delayed her
career as a novelist until the second half of her life. She herself
called it her "apprenticeship." She evidently learned her trade well,
because in the next thirty years she produced a dozen novels, several of
which have become classics of American literature. My Antonia is probably
the most famous.
A reader must look to the novels for clues about Cather's later life.
When she became well known, she grew intensely private. She avoided
publicity. Burning all the personal letters she could get back from her
friends, she specified that no surviving letters were ever to be
published (though nearly a thousand are now available to scholars in
libraries). Film versions of her works were prohibited. She authorized
only certain of her writings to be collected. Cather wanted to be
remembered for her best work, and she did everything she could to protect
it from being tarnished by her lesser efforts.
Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), was influenced by the works
of Henry James and Edith Wharton, both of whom Cather admired. Then she
met the Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett, who encouraged her to write about
a more familiar geographical region and to develop her own style. She was
ripe for this advice, and later commented that "life began for me when I
ceased to admire and began to remember."
In the next three books, Cather found the subjects and personal style
that made her famous. She drew on her memories of prairie spaces and
pioneer life. Sometimes called her pastoral or Western novels, they
create vibrant portraits of three strong women. O Pioneers! (1913) is
divided into two parts. Experimenting, she abandoned the conventional
plot structure of novels of her day, and found that she could still
create an effective story. (You will note how she carried this experiment
even further in My Antonia.) The next novel, Song of the Lark (1915),
deals with one of Cather's favorite themes: the escape of a gifted person
from unsympathetic surroundings. About Thea, the novel's heroine (and the
most autobiographical of all her characters), she wrote later that she
wanted to show "the way in which commonplace occurrences fell together to
liberate her from commonness."
My Antonia (1918) is a variation on the same theme. Antonia, an immigrant
from Bohemia, has been called a natural earth mother who by the end of
the story fulfills her destiny by taming the wild prairie and making it
fruitful. She creates a kind of paradise of beauty, resourcefulness, and
pure, traditional values. To match this sense of purity, Cather used a
strong, uncluttered language, and a loose, unconventional structure of
which she was now a master. The book is stocked with images and
experiences from her past.
Other American novelists writing in the early twentieth century also
chose to look back and recapture the strenuous, yet inspired, pioneer
life. Among the most well known of these works are: O.E. Rolvaag's
depiction of Norwegians in Minnesota, Giants in the Earth; Conrad
Richter's three-part work, The Awakening Land, about pioneers in
Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley; and the series of frontier memoirs for
young people by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose second volume, Little House
on the Prairie, was the inspiration for a popular television series.
Like many Americans, Cather was disillusioned when World War I brought
not peace but more materialism to the world. "The world broke in two in
1922 or thereabouts," she later wrote. Her next group of novels,
sometimes called her "middle period," reflect this sadness. She turned
away from realism. She tried to create a world of emotions with her
characters, images, and symbols.
The most successful of these novels was A Lost Lady (1923), which many
readers have termed a small masterpiece. A less well-written novel, One
of Ours (1922), had brought her the Pulitzer Prize, securing her literary
Cather withdrew more and more from the modern world in her writing. She
established a comfortable home for herself in New York City where she
lived with her friend, Edith Lewis, and a French housekeeper. She
traveled a great deal--to New Hampshire, New Brunswick (Canada), Europe,
and to the Southwest where she visited her favorite brother.
Her next two novels became bestsellers, although some critics at the time
dismissed them as escapist. One, Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927), is
now considered to be one of Cather's best works. It is based on
historical figures, two French missionaries in New Mexico just after the
Mexican War. Interwoven in the story are local legends, stories of saints
and miracles, and facts about the region and landscape. The other,
Shadows on the Rock (1931) has a similar theme, the spread of French
Catholicism in the wilderness, but this time in fifteenth century Quebec.
Cather published three excellent short stories under the title Obscure
Destinies in 1932. Further recollections of her Nebraska youth, two of
the stories, "Neighbor Rosicky" and "Old Mrs. Harris," may be read as
sequels to My Antonia.
The author lived the last fifteen years of her life quietly, surrounded
by her friends. Many, like the family of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, were
from the world of music. She published two minor novels and a group of
essays during this period and continued to receive honors. By the end of
her life she had accumulated nine honorary degrees and many literary
Cather wrote that her fiction was her "cremated youth." Yet she insisted
that no one had the right to draw connections between her real life and
her fiction. Her fierce privacy during her life has not stopped scholars
from investigating those connections since her death in 1947. Since then,
eight books of her other writings have been published as well as many
studies of her life and evolution as a writer.
When she died at the age of 73, her love of the land was reflected in
these words from My Antonia carved on her tombstone: "...that is
happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: THE PLOT
In the Introduction, the author writes about meeting an old acquaintance,
Jim Burden, a New York-based lawyer for a Western railroad. They are on a
train and the time is around 1915. They discuss their childhood friend
Antonia Shimerda, about whom Jim is writing a memoir. Both feel that
Antonia represents "the whole adventure of our childhood." Later in New
York, Burden brings Cather the novel that you read now.
Book I also opens on a train--this time in the early 1880s. Ten-year-old
Jim has been orphaned and is traveling from Virginia to live with his
grandparents on their Nebraska farm. On the same train are the Shimerdas,
who are emigrating from Bohemia and will be the Burdens' nearest
neighbors. Jim is too shy to meet fourteen-year-old Antonia, the only
member of the family who speaks any English. Later, she will become his
The Shimerdas have come to America at Mrs. Shimerda's insistence so that
their eldest son, Ambrosch, can find success. Like his mother, Ambrosch
is shrewd and greedy. His father is a cultured man, a weaver who enjoyed
playing the violin in the old country.
From the beginning, the unfamiliar prairie landscape deeply affects young
Jim. His descriptions of the land and seasons run through the novel like
a recurring song. Jim's grandfather is religious, hardworking, and a
respected community leader. He and Jim's grandmother have created a
productive farm and a pleasant home. Their farm contrasts sharply with
the one for which the Shimerdas overpaid, which has only an earth dugout
for shelter and no crops, poultry, or cows. The immigrants barely survive
their first winter.
Jim teaches English to Antonia, and they have great adventures roaming
about the prairie. Jim kills a giant rattlesnake at a colony of prairie
dogs. They learn the chilling story of their Russian neighbors, Peter and
Pavel. After the first snowfall, they take a long ride over the
transformed landscape in Jim's new sleigh, pulled by his pony. Jim's
grandparents try to help the Shimerdas through the winter by taking them
supplies. But the hardships are too much for the homesick Mr. Shimerda,
who commits suicide.
Antonia's life is changed by her father's death. She must work in the
fields for her brother Ambrosch instead of getting an education. Jim's
grandfather invites Ambrosch to work for him during the threshing season,
and his grandmother employs Antonia in the kitchen. During these few
weeks the Burdens enjoy Antonia's cheerful personality, and Jim's
grandmother begins to take a protective interest in her.
Weary of farming and wanting the best education for thirteen-year-old
Jim, the Burdens move into the town of Black Hawk at the beginning of
Book II. Grandmother gets Antonia a job with their next door neighbors,
the Harlings. (A number of immigrant girls from nearby farms have come to
town to earn money for their families--they are known as "the hired
girls.") Antonia finds in Mrs. Harling a model for her own life. Jim
frequently spends time with the Harlings and Antonia.
Antonia enjoys a social life that summer that includes attending dances.
Soon she becomes so popular that stern Mr. Harling forces her to choose
between the dances or his employment. She leaves to take a job in the
home of the lecherous Wick Cutter.
Jim doesn't enjoy the company of the young people of the town and is not
encouraged to socialize with the hired girls. As he prepares for college,
he can barely wait to leave Black Hawk. After escaping Cutter's plot to
rape her, Antonia returns to live on her family's farm.
Jim is studying at the university in Lincoln at the opening of Book III.
A line from his Latin reading sticks in his mind: Optima dies... prima
fugit (the novel's epigraph) which means the best days are the first to
flee. He acknowledges his nostalgia for the places and people of his
In Lincoln, one of Antonia's friends, Lena Lingard, renews her
acquaintance with Jim. He has always found her attractive, and now they
spend so much time together that he neglects his studies. His favorite
teacher persuades Jim to transfer to Harvard to pursue serious academics.
Book IV finds Jim home for the summer after graduation from Harvard. He
hears that Antonia was deserted by Larry Donovan, the train conductor she
planned to marry. Although she had returned home pregnant and disgraced,
she now cherishes her baby daughter and works uncomplainingly for her
older brother. Jim finds Antonia stronger than ever, and they reaffirm
In Book V, Jim is a New York lawyer. Twenty years have elapsed, and he
decides to visit Antonia again. Now married to a kind Bohemian, she has
ten more children and is the mistress of a productive farm. Jim surprises
her, and they have a joyous reunion. Delighted by her children, Jim
rediscovers his own child-like nature. Antonia represents to Jim all that
is nourishing and fruitful about the prairie and its people.
Of the more than fifty characters in My Antonia, only a small number
directly affect the lives of the main figures. However, even the most
minor characters have been sharply portrayed, and reappear often in the
background. Here we will discuss only those who play a significant role
in the story.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: JIM BURDEN
The narrator, Jim Burden, never describes himself. You learn about him
instead through what he says and does, and what other people say about
him. In the Introduction you meet him first as a successful railroad
lawyer. This job allows him to travel often through the land he grew up
in and still loves. You also learn that he has always been a romantic,
even though he has chosen as his wife a cold woman who leads her own
At the beginning of his memoir, Jim is a ten-year-old orphan arriving to
live with his grandparents. He is shy yet independent, and enjoys
spending time alone. He has strong responses to the land and the people
he meets: he feels warmly toward Antonia and her father but is suspicious
of her mother and brother. When Antonia tries to give Jim a silver ring
in gratitude for her first English lesson, he refuses her gift as
"reckless and extravagant." Yet her generous and spontaneous nature
fascinates him all his life, though he himself is either unwilling or
afraid to become directly involved with her. He generally stands back
from life and observes.
Jim is smart. His academic success is partly due to his willingness to
deny the emotional side of his nature. A high point of his life occurs
when the country girls admire his high school graduation speech. Unlike
the other boys his age, his mind is on college, not marriage. Even so,
his friendship with the hired girls is very important to him.
After he becomes a lawyer, Jim's knowledge of the prairie helps him
achieve success with the railroad. Cosmopolitan as he becomes, he often
thinks of Nebraska and his early friends. Over twenty years he gets
occasional news of Antonia but fears meeting her as a middle-aged woman.
Finally one summer, when he pays her an unexpected visit, Jim begins to
break out of his role as observer. He realizes he feels deep emotion for
the Cuzaks, as if he has spontaneously become a member of the family.
Is there significance in Jim Burden's name? Has he felt like a burden on
his grandparents who adopted him? Is he carrying a burden--perhaps the
story of the Nebraska prairie and the pioneer woman who symbolizes it?
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: ANTONIA SHIMERDA CUZAK (TONY)
Cather tells us from the first how to pronounce the name Antonia: An'-
ton-ee-ah, with the stress on the first syllable. That European detail
finally sets the tone for the story of the immigrants from Bohemia.
In contrast to Jim, physical descriptions of Antonia are plentiful in the
novel. Recalling the first time he met the fourteen-year-old girl, Jim
writes that her eyes were "like the sun shining on brown pools in the
wood," and her brown hair "curly and wild-looking." Her fine tanned skin
and cheeks "like... dark red plums" will be noted again and again.
Antonia is healthy and happy, at one with herself and with nature.
Antonia is her father's daughter--bright, sensitive, eager, and quick to
learn. "Tony," as Jim calls her, is spontaneous and generous, eager to
emphasize and admire the best in others. She's sympathetic to all the
members of her family, even the difficult ones. You see her motherly
softheartedness over the dying insect in the garden, Peter and Pavel's
troubles, and her father's homesick hopelessness.
However, like her peasant mother, Antonia is a survivor. After her
father's death, she accepts that life is going to be hard. She gives up
her hopes of going to school in order to work in the fields. Grandmother
Burden later helps her to get a job in town with Mrs. Harling, so she
won't "lose all her nice ways and get rough ones." Mrs. Harling becomes
her spiritual mother, the woman after whom she will model her own life,
family, and well-run home.
Antonia is based on an immigrant woman named Annie Sadilek Pavelka whom
Willa Cather knew and admired in Red Cloud. Annie was the hired girl of
the Cathers' neighbors. Like her model, Antonia is an independent spirit.
As she matures into radiant womanhood she has many admirers but
stubbornly falls in love with an unprincipled man she feels sorry for.
After he leaves her unwed and pregnant, she overcomes her
disillusionment, determined to make a better life.
Though Antonia never appears in Book Ill, Jim and Lena frequently speak
of her good-natured devotion to people. When Jim meets her again in Book
IV, he realizes that Antonia's unhappy love affair has deepened her
strength and understanding. She seems to find comfort in being outdoors
alone and in taking loving care of her baby daughter. This picture of her
prepares you for finding her twenty years later the mother of many happy
and helpful children, the wife of an indulgent husband, and the proud
mistress of a productive farm. Knowing her again in mid-life, Jim thinks,
"It was no wonder her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine
of life, like the founders of early races." Clearly she is the embodiment
of the old pioneer values of family ties, honest work, and love of the
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: GRANDMOTHER BURDEN (EMMALINE)
Jim's grandmother cries as she first looks at him sleeping after his
journey from Virginia. She misses her son, Jim's recently deceased
father. Though somewhat reserved, Grandmother has strong feelings, and
becomes a good mother to her grandson.
Grandmother Burden is a tall, dark, weathered woman, with a slightly
shrill and anxious voice. She unquestioningly supports her pious husband.
Her house and large garden are efficiently organized and pleasant. Born
in Virginia, she retains a Southern politeness that will not permit her
to speak sharply to Mrs. Shimerda even when provoked.
Mrs. Burden is friendly to all living things, from the badgers that
sometimes take a chicken, to the Shimerdas who have untidy and grasping
ways. She talks loudly to the foreign Shimerdas as though they were deaf,
but takes a particular interest in Antonia.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: GRANDFATHER BURDEN (JOSIAH)
Jim's grandfather looks like the popular image of an imposing biblical
patriarch. His long white beard and bright blue eyes add to his natural
dignity. He says very little, and the family learns his thoughts from the
prayers he offers aloud. A Baptist, Grandfather reads the Bible daily.
While strict in his own religion, he demonstrates tolerance, even
acceptance, toward others so long as they believe strongly in their own
faith. Grandfather practices what he preaches; he is generous and fair, a
leader in the community. He pays Jim's way at college, first in Lincoln
and then at Harvard.
The Grandfather lives according to the biblical commandments and expects
others to do the same. He applies these ancient laws to a new world in a
manner typical of nineteenth century Americans. He has a vision of
America's future that he works to make a reality.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: JAKE MARPOLE
Jake, a young farmhand for the Burdens in Virginia, accompanies the
orphaned Jim to Nebraska. There he works for Grandfather Burden and
becomes friends with Otto, the other hired man. Jake is--and probably
always will be--an overgrown kid, with unruly hair, a gullible nature,
and little sense of how to get along in the world. You like him because,
despite his often violent temper, he is good to Jim and devoted to the
Burdens. After he helps them move into Black Hawk, he follows Otto out
West, presumably becoming a drifter.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: OTTO FUCHS
Otto, Grandfather's hired hand, looks like a Western desperado from a
book Jim's been reading. Wiry and brown, he has a long scar on his cheek,
only part of his left ear, and a mustache which he twists up at the ends.
He wears a cowboy hat and boots and keeps fancy chaps and spurs in a
trunk. Originally from Austria, he has worked out West as a cowboy,
miner, and stagecoach driver. We feel there is something dark--violence
or failure--in his past. He is Mr. Burden's righthand man, a loyal and
Although he looks ferocious to Jim at first, he is kind, honest and
friendly. He loves to sing and tell stories. With his carpentry skills he
makes a sleigh for Jim and a coffin for Mr. Shimerda.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: PETER KRAJIEK
A distant relative of the Shimerdas, Krajiek has sold them his wretched
little farm for a high price. He uses the fact that he is the only one
who speaks their language to cheat them at every opportunity. He
continues to live with them on "their" farm, and Jim compares him to a
rattlesnake living in a prairie-dog tunnel, preying on the helpless
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: MRS. SHIMERDA
If Krajiek can be compared to a rattlesnake, you might think of Mrs.
Shimerda as a prairie dog; she has shrewd little eyes and a sharp chin,
lives in a dugout, and darts in and out of her hole. She is by nature
greedy and insensitive to others. Complaining is her habit. She is so
selfish and snobbish that "even her misfortune could not humble her."
Though mostly unpleasant, she sometimes invites sympathy, as when she
falls to her knees and cries over Mrs. Burden's gift of food to her
nearly starved family the first winter. She wanted to come to the new
country so that her eldest son Ambrosch could prosper. This transition
soon costs her husband his happiness and his life. Antonia confides to
Jim that her mother had been a poor hired girl whom her father married
out of a sense of honor. Her upbringing, so different from her husband's,
has accentuated their opposite natures.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: MR. SHIMERDA
While Grandfather Burden represents the best of the New World, Mr.
Shimerda might be considered to represent the best of the Old World. He
is tall and stooped with sad eyes under a pale, craggy brow. Both
dignified and emotional, he seems to have a special bond with Antonia.
In Bohemia Mr. Shimerda was such a learned man that priests came to talk
with him. He was also a skilled artisan, a weaver of expensive fabric. He
played music with friends he'd known since childhood, whom he now misses
terribly. Old, frail, and homesick, he cannot stand the miseries of the
first winter in the cave-like dugout, especially after Peter and Pavel,
who were able to understand his language, are gone. He is so lonely for
their friendship that he visits their abandoned cabin daily until snow
prevents him. A considerate and gentle man, he carefully prepares his
suicide so that it will cause as little trouble as possible afterwards.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: AMBROSCH SHIMERDA
Ambrosch (or Ambroz) is the oldest child of the Shimerdas, and it is
primarily for his future they have come to America. Like his mother, he
is greedy and dishonest, but he is also described as smart and far-
seeing. He is contemptuous of his gentle father, arrogant with his
sisters, but hand-in-glove with his scheming mother. He works hard but
also makes money by hiring out his sister and retarded brother at full
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: YULKA SHIMERDA
Yulka (or Julka) is Antonia's pretty, obedient, little sister. In a
memorable scene, Mrs. Shimerda tries to force Yulka to make the sign of
the cross on her dead father's bandaged head, but Grandmother Burden
speaks up and insists that the frightened child not be forced. Later the
teenaged Yulka helps Antonia take care of her baby.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: MAREK SHIMERDA
Marek is the Shimerda son who is mentally retarded. He cannot speak and
only makes sounds. He craves attention and wants to be friendly and help
with the work. Eventually Marek becomes violent and is placed in an
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: PETER AND PAVEL
Peter and Pavel are Russian bachelors who come to mean a great deal to
Antonia's father. Peter is the short, fat, jolly one. He keeps a tidy,
pleasant house for the two of them, and enjoys tending his garden and his
cow. Always cheerful, he likes company.
Pavel, tall, thin, and excitable, is an unhappy figure with an aura of
tragedy about him. He sometimes works for other farmers as a carpenter.
It is he who caused the scandal that forced him and Peter to leave
Russia. Now his tuberculosis seems a punishment for his sin.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: WICK CUTTER
A Black Hawk money lender, Wick Cutter forces Peter and Pavel into
bankruptcy. He ruthlessly takes advantage whenever he can. When he
employs Antonia after she leaves the Harlings, his lecherous designs on
her are prevented by Grandmother and Jim. He is a pompous, hypocritical
moralizer who delights in being unfaithful to his wife. (Wick Cutter's
name suggests both "wicked" and "cutthroat.")
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: MRS. CUTTER
Mrs. Cutter is a large, frightening looking, hysterical woman with a face
"the very colour and shape of anger." Because her husband won't give her
any money, she decorates china to sell. She is constantly outraged by his
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: THE WIDOW STEAVENS
You first read about this generous neighbor at the time of Mr. Shimerda's
suicide. Later on she rents the Burden farm (after they move to Black
Hawk) and grows extremely fond of Antonia. Mrs. Steavens helps during
Antonia's pregnancy and makes certain the new baby gets tender care in
its first hours. When Jim comes home from college in Book IV, the Widow
tells him the story of Antonia's unhappy affair.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: MRS. HARLING
The Norwegian Harlings live next door to the Burdens in Black Hawk, and
the stout and spirited Mrs. Harling is a bundle of productive energy.
Decisive and enthusiastic, she creates a home which Jim likes to visit as
a change from the sedate life of his grandparents. On Mrs. Burden's
recommendation, Mrs. Harling hires Antonia to work for her, and teaches
her how to manage a bustling household.
Mrs. Harling participates in the children's entertainments, but when her
stern husband is home, she devotes herself to him. She likes to garden,
and is an accomplished amateur pianist.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: MR. HARLING
Jim describes Mr. Harling as "autocratic and imperial in his ways." He
travels a great deal, buying and selling grain and cattle. When he's
home, the children must be quiet, and Jim does not feel free to visit.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: FRANCES HARLING
Like her father, the eldest Harling daughter is tall and dark and has a
good head for business. Frances is chief clerk in her father's office.
She knows all about the farm people in the area, both financially and
personally, "as if they were characters in a book or play." Like her
mother, Frances is sociable and musical. She is Jim's friend and
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: LENA LINGARD
Pretty young Lena Lingard has yellow hair, violet eyes, and pale skin,
"which somehow made her seem more undressed than other girls." She and
Antonia are friends in the country and later in town. Men find Lena
attractive, and Antonia tries to keep her away from Jim, who plans to go
away to school. Nevertheless, when Jim goes to the university in Lincoln,
Lena looks him up and they spend a great deal of time together. Nearly
all the men who know her, including Jim, claim to be in love with her,
but she is true to her intention never to marry. Lena's character
contrasts strongly with Antonia's. She wants independence and a city
life, while Antonia wants marriage, children, and a farm. Eventually Lena
settles in San Francisco where she earns her own living as a dressmaker.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: LARRY DONOVAN
Larry Donovan, an arrogant young train conductor, thinks of himself as
irresistible to women. He takes Antonia to the dances, and she falls for
him. Prepared to marry him, she follows Larry to Denver, where he stays
with her as long as her dowry lasts. Then he disappears, leaving Antonia
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: ANTON CUZAK
Antonia's husband is Bohemian like her, and shares her ruddy coloring.
Short, with curly black hair, he "looked like a humorous philosopher who
had hitched up one shoulder under the burdens of life." Trained as a
furrier, he is not used to farming, and would have become discouraged
without Antonia's strength. He is gentle and accepting, and somewhat
amused to be the father of ten children. Even though he misses city life,
he's devoted to Antonia. Jim finds him "a most companionable fellow."
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: SETTING
My Antonia is set in southern Nebraska, on a strip of land between the
Republican and Little Blue Rivers called the Divide. Willa Cather grew up
here and based the fictional Black Hawk on the actual town of Red Cloud.
Most of the town's buildings and streets and the surrounding countryside
are drawn from her memory and still exist. When the novel opens, farmers
in the surrounding countryside are breaking the sod for the first time.
Many even live in sod houses or dugouts scooped out of the earth. The
seasons rule people's lives, and winter and summer bring extreme
Images of the vast land and its sense of limitless possibilities fill
this book. There are no fences, no surveyed roads, no built-up
civilization. "There was nothing but land," says Jim Burden, "not a
country at all but the material out of which countries are made.... I had
the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge
of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction."
The land is described in detail by Willa Cather. As a child with a
scientific bent, she had learned the specific names of the local plants
and animals. Her accurate descriptions lend richness to our vision of the
The Nebraska of the book is both a place and a state of mind. The
immigrant pioneers of the 1880s view it as an opportunity to start a new
life. For Jim Burden, it is a magical locale for which he feels a
nostalgia the rest of his life.
The novel opens nearly twenty miles outside of Black Hawk. New settlers--
both from the eastern states and from overseas--are clearing the land
which the previous generation in their covered wagons had claimed from
the Indian and the buffalo. The farmers must make almost everything they
need, and survival is a daily struggle.
In Book II, the setting changes when Jim Burden and his grandparents move
from their farm into town. In Book III, Jim goes to Lincoln to attend the
state university. After two years he goes East to Harvard, and then
becomes a successful lawyer in New York City. For the next twenty-two
years we only see Jim on his return visits to Nebraska.
My Antonia covers about thirty years. As a ten-year-old Jim arrives in
Nebraska from Virginia about 1882, and his visit in Book V takes place
around 1914. Interestingly, Willa Cather and her family also moved to
Nebraska when she was about Jim's age. Like the Burdens they lived first
out on the prairie and then in the town. Like Jim, Cather went to school
in Lincoln, lived for a while in Boston, and spent most of her adult life
in New York. And about the age Jim returns to see Antonia, Cather also
returned to Nebraska and conceived the idea for this book.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: THEMES
The following are themes of My Antonia.
1. THE PAST
My Antonia has been called nostalgic and elegiac because it celebrates
the past. (An elegy is a melancholic poem lamenting a death.) Some
readers have claimed this theme was Cather's escape from the
materialistic present, while others have said it was her way of showing
what values should be carried into the future.
The inscription on the title page of My Antonia is a quote from Virgil
(the Roman author best known for the epic poem The Aeneid): Optima
dies... prima fugit, which means the best days are the first to flee. The
childhood days were best for Jim Burden, as he discovers when he leaves
home. Certainly Cather felt a conflict between the past and the present.
She uses her narrator to view the events of childhood through long years
of memory. Each scene seems immediate and vivid, as if time has been
suspended. The scenes become a "retouched mythic landscape" as one critic
After he's become successful professionally, but personally disappointed,
Jim returns to Black Hawk to try to regain some of the warm feelings of
the past. He finds Antonia with her own family, continuing a kind of life
he himself has lost. He feels he can become a child again by playing with
Jim's emotions about the past can be seen either as regret or
affirmation. Despite the familiar maxim, "you can't go home again," Willa
Cather did it in My Antonia. She said, "A book is made with one's own
flesh and blood of years. It is cremated youth. It is all yours--no one
gave it to you."
2. PIONEER VALUES
Many of Cather's stories are about pioneers or artists. These two groups
of people seemed to her to symbolize the best human qualities: energy,
freshness, intensity, nobility. Cather admired beautiful, talented,
dedicated people, and she recreated them in her books. She based the
character of Antonia on Annie Sadilek, the hired girl who worked for her
neighbors. She was "one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness
and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her
willingness to take pains." My Antonia is a story of the personal
strength, creative force, and essential goodness of this pioneer woman.
Her values were family life, harmony with the land, and hard work.
Totally confident about her interpretation of goodness, Cather was bold
in making value judgments. Some readers called this dogmatism and others
idealism. Cather and her family belonged to the same American tradition
of homespun aristocracy as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and
Abraham Lincoln. Though they were farmers, they studied the classics,
read and obeyed the Bible, and stood by their unswerving principles.
3. THE LANDSCAPE
My Antonia and O Pioneers! are called Cather's pastoral, or Western,
novels. The land is more important than just a setting. You will see that
Cather views the Nebraskan landscape in two ways.
First, the prairie makes her think of the forces of nature--immense,
cyclical, and unpredictable. When Jim Burden arrives on his grandparents'
farm, he is awed by the sight of "nothing but land." His parents are both
recently dead, and he's starting life over again. The huge, impersonal
land makes him feel that he's left behind all that's familiar. The
boundless setting gives him a new perspective on his own identity.
"Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out." He adopts
the attitude that life will take its own course here on the prairie.
Attracted to this idea of the vast universe absorbing him, he feels at
one with the landscape.
Second, Cather views the land as a natural resource. Like the pioneers,
she sees its development as valuable progress for mankind. Nebraskan
cornfields will supply the world, and farming families like Antonia's
will become the backbone of middle America. The image of the plough
magnified against the sun, at the end of Book II, symbolizes the ultimate
domination of the uncultivated land through the toil of people like
Antonia and her husband. During the course of the novel, trees, fences,
surveyed roads, growing towns, and neatly ploughed fields all begin to
spread over the wild prairie. To Jim Burden, these changes, brought about
by the efforts of the pioneers, seem "beautiful and harmonious... like
watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea."
In Book I Cather describes one full year--Jim's first in Nebraska. Book I
is the longest in the novel, because what happens there has the most
importance for Jim. It is filled with rich descriptions of the seasons
and how they affect the prairie and its people. Jim's carefree childhood
is flavored by the land. He'll carry that flavor with him wherever he
goes as an adult. He will always associate his time in the country with
happiness and with Antonia, his playmate.
Playing off the theme of the impersonal vastness of the land is the
freedom it represents. There are no fences. The unpaved road winds around
the hills and across the gullies "like a wild thing." It seems to Jim the
road to freedom. Another clear symbol of freedom is the river Jim can see
from his window when he moves into the town of Black Hawk. Also note the
greater freedom of the hired girls as compared to the proper girls of the
town. An even broader freedom is that which the immigrants encounter in
the New World: the freedom to establish a new life.
Two groups of people travel west to settle the prairie. The first group
are the Americans from already established areas of the country, like Jim
Burden's grandparents from Virginia. The second group are the newer
immigrants from Europe who arrive with little money or experience in
farming--like Antonia's family. There is some tension between the two
groups. When the immigrant daughters come to town as hired girls they are
looked down on by some of the town families. While he is from a town
family, Jim resents this, and feels that the immigrants will someday
"come into their own." He is right; most of the hired girls end up
running successful farms and providing the strong American stock of the
From her early life onward, close friendships meant as much to Cather as
family. That human bond runs throughout My Antonia. Jim is befriended by
Jake and Otto; Grandfather Burden befriends the Shimerdas; Lena and Tiny
remain close friends all their lives and good friends to Antonia and Jim.
There is no better way to describe Jim and Antonia's complex relationship
than as deep friendship. Friendship is seen as the human tie that
transcends and outlasts all others.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: STYLE
Willa Cather's use of language in My Antonia is evocative and powerful.
No study guide can give you the full flavor of the book. Notice how
expertly she creates pictures through her carefully chosen words.
One way she creates images is by appealing to the five senses. Cather
makes you see bright colors, recognize familiar objects, hear sounds, and
smell and taste things (one of Jim's first impressions of his
grandparents' farmhouse is the smell of gingerbread).
Another way to make word pictures is to use analogies such as metaphors
and similes. These literary devices compare two unlike things for an
unexpected effect. (Metaphors just substitute one thing for the other;
similes add the words "like" or "as" to the comparison.) Cather
frequently uses both in My Antonia.
A good example of her use of metaphor is the description of a plough as
"a picture writing on the sun." Another is the image of sunflowers as "a
gold ribbon across the prairie."
Some of Cather's effective similes are: "the road ran about like a wild
thing," and "the air was clear and heady as wine."
A third technique of creating vivid images is her use of personification,
attributing human qualities to an object. Examples are: "the nimble air"
and "the clemency of the soft earth roads."
Cather had learned the ancient classics in Greek and Latin, first as a
child and then as a university student. In her fiction she refined her
style until it resembled the understated language of the classics. (You
can see her direct tribute to the classics in the section where Jim
Burden is reading the Roman writer Virgil.)
Cather clearly stated her literary intention in this famous comment:
"Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there--
that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the
thing not named." Throughout My Antonia you become aware of feelings
which are evoked without being spelled out. That is what makes it moving-
-and also hard to write about, or describe.
Sometimes the author lets her meanings become clear through symbols
rather than direct explanations. For instance, the red prairie grass
symbolizes freedom, the children's shadows represent the passing of
childhood, the plough against the sunset symbolizes cultivation and
civilization, and Antonia herself symbolizes the hard work and
fruitfulness of the pioneers.
My Antonia has been called poetic, passionate, and heroic. Readers notice
the vivid descriptions and the author's intense affection for the land
and characters. The main characters seem larger than life. They are
people who stand for strong values and who fulfill themselves
triumphantly. This heroic or epic quality adds a distinctive note to
Cather herself recognized that her personal style, or voice, was her
strong point. Any great literature, she wrote, should "leave in the mind
of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a
quality of voice that is exclusively the author's own, individual,
unique." It is significant that she used the word cadence, a musical
term, because she was a music lover and knew that writing and music both
use sound and rhythm to achieve a compelling effect. It is also
significant that she spoke of creating a lasting sense of pleasure,
because My Antonia is a book that has endured in American literature.
After Cather parted with her first publisher in 1920, she adopted English
spellings for many words--for instance, colour, practise, and grey. While
these spellings did not occur in the early editions of My Antonia, later
printings made the change.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: POINT OF VIEW
My Antonia is told from the point of view of Willa Cather's fictional
friend, Jim Burden. He writes in the first person, and his use of the
pronoun "I" makes you feel his personal involvement. The point of view is
immediate and subjective. Looking back on his memories, he knows what is
eventually going to happen to the characters. He persuades you to
sympathize with all of them. His perception is broad and persuasive, and
sets the tone for the whole book.
In the Introduction, Cather herself appears very briefly, as Jim Burden's
fellow passenger and childhood friend. In their conversation Jim reveals
that he has seen Antonia Shimerda recently and is writing a memoir about
her, which he later delivers to Cather, The three-page Introduction thus
explains the circumstances supposedly leading to the writing of Jim's
manuscript. Cather melts into the role of "Jim Burden," drawing on her
memories of Annie Sadilek, the model for Antonia.
When Cather has Jim Burden write down "My" in front of the word Antonia
on the portfolio holding his manuscript, you have the point of view in
one bold stroke. Antonia is both the object of the story and its most
memorable character. But Jim is the narrator--the one whose sensibility
shapes the characters and events. In other words, the qualities of the
portrait are determined by the painter.
What is the purpose of having the story told by Jim Burden thirty years
later? From that perspective he can present with great clarity and
tenderness the highlights of his memories. A man of the world, he is
reinvestigating his values. Antonia represents to him the most
fundamental, traditional way to lead one's life. In her, you can find the
virtues of hard work, charity, love, optimism, pride in one's
accomplishments, and sympathy with nature--qualities of the American
character that Cather revered in her life and dramatized in her novels.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: FORM AND STRUCTURE
The form of My Antonia was startling, and perhaps somewhat puzzling, when
the novel first appeared. Readers in the early part of this century had
quite definite ideas about literary forms, and My Antonia broke the
rules. "It is hard, now, to realize," wrote Cather's companion, Edith
Lewis, "how revolutionary in form [this novel was]." It has no apparent
plot, but is a series of vignettes or episodes that allow you to view the
time, place, and characters from many angles.
Another Cather friend, Elizabeth Sergeant, described an incident that
reveals Cather's idea of the form she wanted. The author had set an old
Sicilian jar in the middle of a bare, round table. "I want my new heroine
to be like this--like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one
may examine from all sides," she explained. Shining a lamp on the glazed
jar's orange and blue design, she continued, "I want her to stand out--
like this--like this--because she is the story."
Cather creates a fictional friendship with a man she supposedly has known
since childhood--Jim Burden. She presents the story as his memoir of a
woman they have both admired and remembered all their lives. You are
asked to accept the book as the work of an amateur writer. This frees her
from following rules for the novel form. Jim Burden sets down everything
the name of Antonia brings back to him. (He is looking at the object of
his story from different angles, as Cather looked at the jar.) Therefore,
the two central characters are Jim and Antonia. As he tells her story,
his gaze may sometimes be drawn away from her--Antonia disappears for
long sections--but he comes back to her with a richer sense of what she
means to him.
My Antonia is called one of Cather's pastoral novels. A pastoral work
retreats to an ideal rural setting. Jim Burden not only goes back to the
prairie, but more importantly, he retreats to the innocent days of his
very first memories. This pastoral becomes a psychological journey of
Jim's, or, as one writer put it, "a withdrawal into himself and into the
imaginative realm of memory."
Like memory, the structure is made up of separate episodes. In the
connection between one episode and another, a larger pattern or meaning
may become apparent. My Antonia proceeds in this episodic way. There is
no plot, in the sense of a beginning, climax, and resolution.
The novel is divided into five sections--or Books--that correspond to
five stages in Jim's life, beginning thirty years before the time of his
writing, when both Antonia and he were children.
The first two Books make up nearly two-thirds of the novel. They involve
Jim's memories of Antonia while he was growing up on the farm and then in
the town of Black Hawk. Each of the last three Books is relatively short:
forty pages set in his early college days (during which Antonia is not
present); thirty pages when he returns after college to visit Black Hawk;
and fifty pages when he sees Antonia again after twenty years.
You will also note that Cather often breaks the flow of her main story
with a short tale or anecdote. In life, we tell each other vivid little
stories that we've heard or experienced, and Cather borrows this
conversational technique adding both realism and variety to the novel as
a whole. Like a parable, which tells a story to illustrate a point, the
anecdotes refer to broader ideas in the book. An example is the tale of
why the two Russians had to leave their homeland. Their throwing the
bride to the wolves foreshadows the way men will treat Antonia. Other
anecdotes which have broad meanings include the story of Otto arriving
with the triplets, the story of the tramp committing suicide, and the
strange story of the blind musician d'Arnault.
Both the episodic quality of the story and the addition of these
apparently out-of-context anecdotes caused controversy when the book came
out. Some viewed the novel as flawed, while others called it an inspired
new art form. Here's what Cather herself said about it in 1925:
My Antonia, for instance, is just the other side of the rug, the pattern
that is supposed not to count in the story. In it there is no love
affair, no broken heart, no struggle for success. I knew I'd ruin my
material if I put it in the usual fictional pattern. I just used it the
way I thought absolutely true.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: INTRODUCTION
NOTE: IMPORTANCE OF THE INTRODUCTION The Introduction is set apart by
the use of italic type. In it the author explains how this book
supposedly came to be written by Jim Burden. In reality, of course,
Cather wrote both the Introduction and the novel, creating Jim Burden as
a narrator. The Introduction gives us important information about the
novel, such as clues about Jim's adult life and his feelings about
It is the early part of the century, before airplanes, or even cars, are
commonplace. Two people, a man and a woman, who live in New York but grew
up in Nebraska find themselves on a train together crossing the country.
They begin discussing memories of their hometown. It is summer and, as
they sit high up in the train's open observation car, the dust and the
hot wind remind them of the prairie. They describe its extreme climate
and the beauty of its growing season.
NOTE: DESCRIPTION This is your first taste of Cather's descriptive
powers. Watch for literary devices she will be using throughout the
exaggeration: "buried in wheat and corn"
alliteration (repeated initial sounds): "heavy harvests"
appeal to the senses: "the colour and smell of strong weeds"
modifiers: "billowy," "blustery," "stripped," "stifled"
The travelers agree that people who come from that region have a special
understanding with each other. They call it "a kind of freemasonry,"
which means membership in a secret club or lodge. (The Freemasons are a
worldwide secret society that emphasizes charity and brotherhood.)
Jim Burden is a lawyer for a railway, and his work often brings him West.
He knows his territory well and has made the railway a great success. He
and his wife seem to have little in common. Though she is attractive, she
is "incapable of enthusiasm." This is the opposite of "romantic" Jim
Burden (and of Antonia). Mrs. Burden is rich, has no children, and spends
her time collecting young artists as proteges. Or at least that's the way
she seems from Cather's point of view.
The travelers refer to a Bohemian girl they had both known, Antonia. Jim
has recently seen her again after about twenty years. As they talk about
her, they realize that she symbolizes for both of them their childhood on
the Midwestern prairie. Since seeing Antonia, Jim has been writing down
his memories of her. He has a lot of free time on his train trips, so he
spends some of it writing.
Several months later, Cather tells us, Jim brings his manuscript to her
in New York City. He explains that because he simply wrote down
everything he remembered, the account has no particular form. (This is
Cather's way of alerting you that you are about to read an unusual book.)
Jim hasn't given it a title yet, either. He writes "Antonia" on the
portfolio containing his manuscript, but that doesn't seem to be enough.
After a moment he adds "My" before her name. The title My Antonia gives
just the flavor he's looking for, personal memory and its effect on his
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER I
Book I also opens on a train. It is more than thirty years earlier, about
1882. Ten-year-old Jim Burden's mother and father have both died in the
past year. He is on his way from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his
grandparents. Jim is in the care of a slightly older boy, Jake Marpole.
Jake has been his father's farm hand and is now going to work for Jim's
It's September. The trip takes several days, and the boys consider it an
adventure. After Chicago they meet a friendly off-duty conductor who
tells them about all the places he's visited. The car ahead of theirs on
the train is an immigrant car in which families can sleep and cook as
they travel toward their new home. The conductor says that a European
family, going to the same destination as the boys, has a pretty daughter
just four years older than Jim. (You will later learn that this is
NOTE: VERNACULAR SPEECH The conductor describes the girl as "bright as a
new dollar." (Silver dollars were more common than paper ones in those
days.) Cather was expert at capturing the authentic sound of American
speech. From the way he talks, can you form a picture of the conductor?
Here and elsewhere in My Antonia, colloquial expressions like this one
reflect the characters' small-town background.
It takes the train all day to cross Nebraska. That night, when Jim and
Jake finally step onto the platform in the town of Black Hawk, they get a
glimpse of the immigrant family, and Jim hears a foreign language for the
first time in his life.
Jim and Jake are met by Otto Fuchs, who works for Jim's grandfather. On
the train Jim has been reading about the life of Jesse James, the famous
Western outlaw. Otto looks to Jim like a character from that story.
Otto leads them to a horse-drawn wagon. Jake rides on the seat with Otto,
and Jim rides behind on a bed of straw in the wagon-box, covered up with
a buffalo skin. As Jim tries to peer out into the darkness he can see
very little, even after his eyes grow accustomed to the starlight. The
land has none of the features he was used to back home: houses, trees,
roads. He can feel from the wagon ride that it is slightly hilly, but the
sky comes right down to the edges on all sides, instead of meeting
mountain ranges, as at home.
NOTE: THE LANDSCAPE The new geography seems to match Jim's feelings
about his new life. He feels that "the world was left behind, that we...
were outside man's jurisdiction." What do you think he means by this? The
life he has known is over, his parents are dead, he's left his familiar
home behind, and he is entering a new life without any rules. He even
feels that the spirits of his dead parents have been left behind in
Virginia. Although he has no mental picture of his destination, he is
calm. The huge scale of the land makes his little life seem "erased,
blotted out," as if the only reality is the earth and sky, and the past
and the future don't exist. Have you ever been in a landscape that made
you feel that way? Watch for the way the land develops from a setting
into a major theme.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER II
It takes almost all night for the work horses to go nearly twenty miles.
Asleep, Jim is put to bed, and wakes up the next afternoon. His
grandmother is looking down at him. She's been watching him sleep, and
crying because he reminds her of Jim's dead father, her son. She is tall,
with suntanned, wrinkled skin, black hair, and a brisk, high voice with
which she tries to hide her emotion.
Later, while she is getting supper ready, they talk about Jim's trip. She
has learned that the foreign family from his train is going to move onto
a homestead several miles away--their nearest neighbors. The family is
from Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia).
The men--Jake, Otto and Grandfather--come in from working outdoors. They
wash and sit down to supper. Jim's grandfather is imposing. He has a bald
head, a full white beard, and sparkling blue eyes. Dignified and quiet,
he inspires awe in Jim.
Otto, too, is impressive, but in quite a different way. Grandmother has
already privately told Jim his history: he came from Austria as a
youngster and grew up quickly out West in the rough company of miners and
cowboys. A year ago poor health had made him come back temporarily to
To Jim, Otto is a romantic, worldly figure. They eye each other with
interest at supper, and make friends immediately afterwards. Otto tells
him there's a new pony for him in the barn. He tells about having been a
cowboy and a stagecoach driver. Once he was caught in a winter snowstorm,
and his ear was frozen off. He shows off his cowboy equipment including
his special boots with pictures stitched on them of roses and naked
women--"angels," he tells the boy.
The entire household, including the hired men, go upstairs to the living
room for family prayers before bedtime. Grandfather reads from the Bible
in a stirring and sacred voice.
NOTE: THE BIBLE The Burdens, like many Christian families in the last
century, pray together morning and evening, go to church when there's a
preacher in the neighborhood, and are thoroughly familiar with the Bible.
Jim doesn't understand some of the words his grandfather reads, but they
seem "oracular"--as if they have secret meaning for the future. Jim feels
the promise of his new life is symbolized by the psalm Grandfather reads:
"The Lord shall choose our inheritance for us."
The next day Jim explores his new surroundings. The Burdens have a wooden
house painted white. Some houses on the prairie are built out of pieces
of sod--bricks cut from the grassy topsoil and stacked up, much as igloos
are made from bricks of ice. Others, called dugouts, are tunneled out of
a slope or the bank of a creek or gully (small ravine). But the Burdens'
farm is already well established. Grain is stored in granaries and
corncribs. A windmill pumps water from a well. There are barns, a chicken
house made of sod, pig-yards, a cattle corral, a patch of sorghum (a
grain used to make animal feed and a syrup similar to molasses), and the
biggest cornfield Jim has ever seen.
Surrounding the farm is tall reddish grass rippling in the wind. Jim is
fascinated by the "motion in it; the whole country seems, somehow, to be
running." This is the same theme Jim stated on his first night in
Nebraska: the vast, impersonal, free land makes a human seem small and
unimportant by comparison.
Jim's grandmother is going to the garden a quarter mile away to dig some
potatoes for the hired men's dinner (the big noon meal is called dinner,
and supper is the evening meal). Accompanying her, Jim is enchanted by
the countryside. He feels "as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose
hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping,
galloping...." Other images of freedom occur to him: the air seems light,
as if the world ended nearby. He feels he could float off the edge of it,
like one of the hawks overhead.
He asks if he can stay alone for a while in the garden. He leans against
a big yellow pumpkin (an image he will remember thirty years later).
While the gophers, grasshoppers and beetles go about their business, he
sits very still, a part of the landscape. He is having a strange
experience--almost as if he is no longer a human being, but an inanimate
part of the universe. He thinks this blissful oneness with nature may be
how people feel after they die.
NOTE: THE GARDEN Why is Jim's experience in the garden important? Like
the biblical Garden of Eden before man's expulsion, this one stands for
goodness, innocence, and fruitfulness: some of the pioneer values that
are a theme in this novel, and are later symbolized by Antonia. Also, Jim
feels a harmony with nature in the warm autumn garden. The joy of being
at one with nature was so significant for Cather that Jim's words were
carved on her tombstone: "...that is happiness; to be dissolved into
something complete and great."
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER III
Several days later the Burdens visit their new neighbors. They take them
potatoes, pork, bread and butter, and pies. The Shimerdas have bought
their land from a distant relative, Peter Krajiek. They are living with
him on the prairie in his small dugout and barn until they can build
their own house in the spring. He has overcharged them for inferior land,
worn-out work animals, and poor quality household items. They speak no
English, and Krajiek is the only one in the region who speaks Bohemian.
The Shimerdas' land is rough, with Squaw Creek cutting through the
western half of it. It is scored with eroded gullies where rain has
carried the topsoil toward the creek. In one of the gullies is a shed and
next to it a window and door cut into the earth. Out of this crude house
step the Shimerdas. The mother, her head covered, European-fashion, with
an embroidered shawl, has "shrewd little eyes." A nineteen-year-old boy
named Ambrosch has the same eyes, only more crafty and suspicious. Yulka
is a pretty little girl, and her older sister Antonia is fourteen and
even prettier. The other boy, Marek, has birth defects; he has webbed
fingers and is mentally retarded. Instead of talking, he makes strange
noises. The father is a dignified, sad-looking old man. His thick grey
hair is brushed back in an old-fashioned way that reminds Jim of
portraits of his ancestors. He is tall and thin with eyes deep-set in his
pale face. He was a skilled tapestry weaver and used to play the violin,
and his shapely hands are white and calm.
NOTE: MR. SHIMERDA As he takes Grandmother's hand, we notice the
difference between the two. Her sunburned, care-worn hands, described
when Jim first meets her, are those of a hard-working farm woman. Mr.
Shimerda's hands are those of an artisan and a musician, unused to rough
manual labor. How do you think he will adjust to the drudgery the family
must endure in order to make a living on the wild prairie? Notice how the
author has subtly introduced a comparison which will prove to be crucial
Jim's grandparents talk with the Shimerdas, with Krajiek as interpreter.
The family has had nothing to eat for three days except corncakes and
molasses made from sorghum (a grain). Mrs. Shimerda touches the bread
eagerly, and even smells it, which seems odd to Jim.
Antonia takes Jim's hand and they run with Yulka up the hillside to the
windy edge of the ravine, overlooking the tops of the cottonwood trees.
She wants to know Jim's name and the word for blue. Soon they have sat
down in the tall grass for what will turn out to be their first English
lesson. She quickly learns twenty words--a score--and is so excited she
wants to give Jim her silver ring, which he will not accept. If these
people are so generous and trusting with strangers, he thinks, it's not
surprising their dishonest relative, Krajiek, "got the better of them."
NOTE: THE SHIMERDAS Everything about the Shimerdas is strange and
exciting to Jim. Notice the similes (comparisons using "like" or "as")
which Cather uses in this vividly descriptive section of the book.
Antonia has unusual eyes: "like the sun shining on brown pools in the
wood." The girls seem to have the quick, natural manner of wild animals:
Yulka "curled up like a baby rabbit," and Antonia "sprang up like a
hare." The Shimerdas' language sounds faster than English to Jim. Unlike
his own grandparents, these people are demonstrative: they express their
emotions freely. Antonia and her father seem close, and Jim feels drawn
to both of them.
The first meeting between Jim and Antonia will set the tone for the rest
of the book. Cather emphasizes the differences in their personalities,
using the following words to help bring out Antonia's fiery nature:
blazing quick extravagant
impulsive wonderfully mournful
wrung coaxed searchingly
violently insisted entreatingly
snuggled reckless earnestness
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER IV
Jim learns to ride his new pony. Soon he is running errands, including
riding six miles to the post office. He roams over the prairie admiring
the sunflowers along the dirt roads.
NOTE: SUNFLOWER LEGEND You will see that Cather includes a number of
stories and legends she heard in her childhood. One is that the Mormons
who traveled West to find religious freedom scattered sunflower seeds
behind them. Those who joined them the next summer had the sunflower
trail to follow. This legend may not be true, but it adds to Jim's
feeling that these are "the roads to freedom."
To the east is the town of Black Hawk. To the south live some Germans who
have a grove of catalpa trees, unusual for that area. To the west is a
Norwegian settlement. And to the north is a colony of prairie dogs--
burrowing rodents related to marmots and rats. The prairie-dog town has
hundreds of holes leading to tunnels. Earth-owls also make their nests in
the holes with the prairie dogs, and Jim and Antonia like to go and watch
them entering their underground nests. Rattlesnakes are always around
there because they can prey on the owl eggs and prairie-dog puppies.
Antonia is rapidly learning English. She is quick-witted and opinionated.
She helps Grandmother Burden work in the house, and eagerly learns by
watching. Housekeeping is not very easy for her own mother in the dugout.
The sourdough bread they eat seems disgusting to Jim's family. The
Shimerdas never go into Black Hawk, because Krajiek has convinced them
they will be cheated there. (The truth is, he knows if they go there they
may find out they are being cheated by him.) They don't like him, but
like the prairie dogs, they can't get rid of the "rattlesnake."
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER V
Up north near the dog-town live two Russian bachelors named Peter and
Pavel. When Mr. Shimerda discovers that they can understand Bohemian, he
visits them almost every evening. (We realize that he is very lonely in
this new country.) Antonia says it is the first time she's seen him laugh
since they left home. The two Russians have been lonely, too. Pavel is
tall and gaunt, with a wild, excitable appearance. His constant cough and
thin body suggest that he may have tuberculosis. Peter is short and fat
with white-blond hair and beard. He has a wonderful sense of humor.
These two men live in a neat, log house. They have a cow and a garden
filled with ripe vegetables. Jim and Antonia visit Peter one late summer
afternoon when Pavel is away working for someone. He cuts watermelons for
them to eat and consumes a huge quantity himself. Back home, he says,
people eat practically nothing but melons at this season. Obviously
homesick, he hints that he left because of a 'great trouble.'
He doesn't want the children to leave, so he entertains them by playing
his brightly painted harmonica. He finally sends them home with fresh
cucumbers and a pail of milk.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER VI
Jim and Antonia spend the autumn afternoons outdoors together. Can you
sense that autumn was Cather's favorite time of year? The land is at its
most beautiful and bountiful then. But this season of heat and harvest
will soon be over. Winter is coming. Antonia's dress is thin, and so they
nestle against the sun-warmed ground. In the pass they find one last
insect, barely able to move. Antonia, or Tony as Jim now calls her, cups
it in her hand and speaks to it in Bohemian. The warmth of her hand and
her breath make it start to chirp a little song. This reminds her of Old
Hata, a village beggar who would sing the old traditional songs if you
let her sit by the fire for a while. As she tells this, Antonia is
homesick and there are tears in her eyes.
They carefully set the delicate green bug in Tony's curly hair, covered
lightly with her handkerchief. Jim walks her part way home. The prairie
is lighted with the reddish glow of sunset--like the Biblical "bush that
burned with fire and was not consumed."
They see Mr. Shimerda walking along dejectedly. As they run to him, Tony
says she's worried because he's sick and unhappy. They show him the green
bug in her hair, and he shows them the three rabbits he has shot. They'll
eat the meat and then he will make Antonia a little fur hat. Mr. Shimerda
promises someday to give Jim his old-fashioned gun, a present from a
nobleman at whose wedding he had played the violin. As the sun sets they
part and Jim runs homeward. You will see that vivid descriptions of
autumn sunsets will recur at three other significant points in the novel.
NOTE: FORESHADOWING Several clues tell you something bad is going to
happen. It's late in the year, and also late in the day (both times of
darkness and ending). Jim and Antonia see their black shadows on the
grass. Then they see her father, who has become a shadow of the man he
was in Bohemia. Why do you think he is "walking slowly, dragging his
feet"? Antonia is the only person he seems to care about, and he gives
her "wintry flicker of a smile." When she tells him the story of the last
insect of autumn reminding her of Old Hata, why is he so moved? Is he
thinking of the homeland? Is he pleased at his daughter's kind-hearted
imagination? Is he cheered by the insect's last song in the face of
death? What do you think is going through his mind?
In My Antonia, the weather reflects events and emotions. "As the sun sank
there came a sudden coolness and the strong smell of earth...." What does
the smell of earth make you think of? Could Cather be preparing you for a
death? All these references to autumn's end foreshadow, or warn the
reader of, events in the future: the starvation and hardship the
Shimerdas will encounter and the tragedy that will befall Antonia's
father when winter comes.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER VII
Antonia, being four years older, sometimes acts superior to Jim. This
annoys him. One day they have an adventure which tips the scales in his
favor. They have gone on his pony to borrow a spade for her brother
Ambrosch from Russian Peter up near the prairie-dog town. On the way home
Antonia wants to dig with the spade to find out about the tunnels. They
look into one and they can see it connects with another tunnel. Jim is
moving backwards to see it from a different angle when Tony screams
something in Bohemian. Turning around Jim sees a rattlesnake, thick as
his leg and nearly six feet long. Any rattlesnake is frightening, but
this one is a "circus monstrosity." It doesn't occur to Jim to flee--
instead he runs up and hits the snake's head with the edge of the spade,
just as it is about to strike. He keeps hitting, and soon the head is
flattened, though the muscular coils of the long body keep writhing
around his ankles.
Antonia is extremely impressed. They tie the snake to a piece of string
(don't all boys happen to have string in their pockets?) and drag it
home. She praises him all the way, until he feels like a hero. Jim knows
quite a bit of folklore about rattlesnakes--that they have the same
number of rattles as their age, that they "spring their length," and that
a dead snake's mate is likely to appear. He also realizes later that
although it was huge, this rattler was too old and fat to have given him
much of a fight. So "the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably
was for many a dragon-slayer." Still, he enjoys the praise of his family,
Otto, the neighbors, and especially Antonia. In a way it is a rite of
passage, an event which shows that you have grown up. Can you identify
with Jim's moment of triumph? Have you experienced a similarly important
event in your life?
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER VIII
The autumn brings bad luck for the two Russians. Peter owes money to the
ruthless moneylender, Wick Cutter, and can't pay it back on time, so he
has to borrow more and mortgage his belongings. Pavel is sick. He
strained himself while helping to build a barn, and his lungs bled. Since
then he's been ill in bed.
One evening Pavel is very sick and wants to see Mr. Shimerda. Peter comes
to get him, and Antonia and Jim go along in the wagon. The wind builds up
and starts moaning. Peter on the wagon seat is groaning in Russian. The
bright stars seem to Jim to have an "influence upon what is and what is
not to be." He's referring to the ancient superstitions of astrology,
which he associates with exotic places like Russia.
When they arrive, Pavel, too, is moaning. His body is wasted by disease,
probably tuberculosis. Outside, wind rattles the windows, and coyotes
(related to wolves) are howling. You see how the stage is set for
something dramatic. Pavel, his mind raving, begins to talk hoarsely to
Mr. Shimerda in Russian about wolves. Antonia grips Jim's hand and
listens in horror. It is a long story. Finally Pavel starts coughing
blood and can't talk anymore. Then he lies quietly, until he sleeps, and
the Shimerdas go home. On the way, Antonia tells Jim the story:
A friend of Peter's and Pavel's was getting married to a girl in the next
village. Afterwards, the drunken wedding party of seven sleighs came home
at midnight across the snow. Suddenly they were surrounded by a pack of
hundreds of howling wolves. The last sleigh lost control and tipped over.
The starving wolves attacked it; the horses screamed even more terribly
than the people. Panic-stricken, the drivers of the other sleighs tried
to go faster, but each was loaded with nearly a dozen wedding guests. One
by one the sleighs were wrecked and wolves devoured the passengers and
horses. Peter and Pavel were driving the first sleigh with the bride and
groom. Theirs was the only one left. When one of their horses started to
tire, Pavel realized the only way to save themselves was to lighten the
load by throwing the bride and groom out, which he did after a struggle.
They arrived safely in their own village, but they were outcasts from
then on. Wherever they went they had bad luck, even after they finally
came to the United States.
Jim and Antonia discuss this terrible story endlessly. Several days
later, Pavel dies, and Peter sells off his mortgaged possessions and
leaves the area. Before he leaves, he eats all the melons he had stored
for the winter. Mr. Shimerda is heartbroken to lose his only two friends,
and visits their empty cabin until the winter snow prevents him from
NOTE: ANECDOTES Why do you think Cather includes the story of the
wolves, so different in tone and location from the material before and
after it? Though it could be viewed as a digression, this extended
anecdote adds to the novel the flavor of European legends and of stories
told out loud. In addition to adding excitement, anecdotes like these may
contain a broader message. Could Peter and Pavel's sacrifice of the bride
and groom to the wolves foreshadow the way men will treat Antonia? Later
in the novel you will learn that her father abandons her by committing
suicide, her brother stands in the way of her education by using her as a
hired hand, and her fiance deserts her.
Another interpretation of this anecdote might be the contrast between the
Old World and the New: in Russia Peter and Pavel were ostracized for what
they felt they had to do, but in America they had a chance to start over.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER IX
This chapter is a good description of the Burdens' family life. In
December, Jim takes Antonia and Yulka for a ride in the sled Otto has
made him. Happy to get out of doors, they go such a long way that on the
way home they get chilled. The next day Jim comes down with "an attack of
quinsy" (a severe sore throat) and has to stay inside for a couple weeks.
Jim spends his time in the comfortable house reading to Grandmother as
she cooks or sews for the hired men. Otto and Jake are simple,
hardworking fellows. Jake is dull-witted and has a temper, but is
generous. Otto sings cowboy songs and tells stories of the strange
characters he has known. One day he tells about his trip to America. He'd
been asked to take care of a pregnant woman with two children who was
going to her husband in Chicago. On the ship she had triplets. Since Otto
was traveling with her, he had to assume responsibility for the family as
if he were the father. The first-class passengers took up a collection
for the mother, and kept asking Otto how she was. When the husband saw
his huge family, he, too, seemed to blame poor Otto. The image of Otto
holding three babies makes Grandmother laugh until she cries. This tale
is another example of the extended anecdotes Cather inserts in her story.
It seems to illustrate Otto's failure to be recognized even when he does
good, but to show that virtue is its own reward.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER X
One night the Burdens are discussing their neighbors the Shimerdas. Jake
reports that Ambrosch shot some prairie dogs and asked Jake whether they
were good to eat. Is it possible the Shimerdas are starving? Grandfather
tells Grandmother she had better go and see the family the next day. They
regard it their Christian duty to love and help their neighbors.
NOTE: TWO FAMILIES The last chapter described the comfortable, well-fed
Burden family. They are the perfect pioneers: industrious, resourceful,
pious. In contrast, the Shimerdas' homelife seems especially pathetic.
They have no chicken coop and no root cellar in which to store
vegetables. They are living on rotten potatoes. The girls sleep in a
small hole dug into the wall. The house is cramped, dark, and smoky. Now
that winter has set in, they face the depressing prospect of six hungry
people confined to the dugout day and night for several months.
The next day Grandmother packs a hamper full of food and they drive over
to the Shimerdas. Jake says he will bring the food in when he has put
blankets on the horses to keep them warm. The minute Jim and Grandmother
go inside, Mrs. Shimerda begins to cry and complain about their terrible
conditions. She seems to be blaming Grandmother. When Jake finally brings
in the basket of food, her crying turns from accusation into bitter self-
pity. Antonia, embarrassed and depressed, is not her usual cheerful self.
Her mother is sad, she says, and her father is ashamed of their
circumstances. Mr. Shimerda asks Antonia to tell Grandmother in English
that "they were not beggars in the old country." Obviously he is
uncomfortable accepting her gift of food. Before the Burdens leave, Mrs.
Shimerda makes a point of giving them a handful of the most precious
thing she has, some strong-smelling little chips to cook with. When she
gets home, Grandmother throws them away in the stove. She mistrusts the
foreign substance, which she associates with the Shimerdas' strange and
dubious ways of doing things. Years later Jim learns that the chips were
dried mushrooms from the Bohemian forest.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XI
Just before Christmas it snows so much that the Burdens can't go to Black
Hawk to shop for the holiday. They decide to celebrate Christmas simply,
with homemade gifts and ornaments. Jake takes presents on horseback to
the Shimerdas, and returns with a Christmas tree he has cut by the creek.
It is Christmas Eve, and after supper Otto, Jake, Jim, and his
grandparents decorate the tree with popcorn strings, gingerbread, and
candles. The finishing touch is a set of Nativity figures (representing
the birth of Jesus) which Otto brings out of his trunk.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XII
Christmas is like Sunday. Grandfather is dressed up and holds longer
morning prayers than usual before breakfast. As he reads the Christmas
story from the Bible, it seems fresh and meaningful, as though it had
just happened in their own neighborhood. Grandfather, who doesn't talk a
lot at other times, often shows his thoughts in his prayers. It's a quiet
day. In the late afternoon, Mr. Shimerda arrives to thank them for their
gifts. He has never been to the Burdens' home before. It is obviously a
great change from the dugout, and, though he speaks little English, he
feels completely content here.
Mr. Shimerda stays for dinner, eagerly drinking in the feeling of
companionship around the table. He seems to have a special fondness for
Jim, and looks into his eyes "as if he were looking far ahead into the
future for me, down the road I would have to travel." Finally at nine,
Mr. Shimerda sets off on his long homeward walk.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XIII
After Christmas the weather turns warmer. During this thaw, Mrs. Shimerda
and Antonia come over to visit. Mrs. Shimerda jealously examines all the
household objects. When she accusingly says that they have no pots to
cook in, Grandmother gives her one. After the noon dinner Mrs. Shimerda
Jim's annoyance with Mrs. Shimerda carries over to Antonia. When she
tells him her papa is depressed by this country, Jim angrily says he
should have stayed in his own. It turns out Mr. Shimerda was not the one
who wanted to come. Mrs. Shimerda pushed the family to come so that her
older son, Ambrosch, could get rich. It has broken Mr. Shimerda's heart
to leave his dear friends with whom he used to play music. But Mrs.
Shimerda and her son "had everything their own way" in the family.
NOTE: MR. SHIMERDA AND MRS. SHIMERDA In the last chapter we saw Mr.
Shimerda as a refined, intelligent man. Jim views him as a symbol of a
cultured past and also of his own future, since Mr. Shimerda seems to
take a fatherly interest in him. The contrast in this chapter is
startling: Mrs. Shimerda is "a conceited, boastful old thing, and even
misfortune could not humble her." Her crude greediness triumphs over his
quiet sensitivity. We feel that one person's good qualities are trampled
by another person's bad ones. This is something that Cather hated in her
society. Where do we still see it happening today?
The weather is nice for several weeks, and then on January 20, Jim's
eleventh birthday, it starts snowing again. The blizzard is the worst the
Burdens have seen in the decade they've lived on the prairie.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XIV
Mr. Shimerda kills himself with his old shotgun on the second day of the
blizzard. Ambrosch discovers his body in the barn, and comes to tell the
Burdens. Otto and Jake visit the Shimerdas and return before Jim wakes
up. At breakfast they tell how, after his noon meal, the old man bathed
and put on clean clothes, went to the barn, lay down on a bunk, put the
barrel of his gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger with his big toe.
Otto takes the best horse and rides nearly twenty miles to Black Hawk to
get the coroner and the priest. Jim's grandparents ride to the Shimerdas
on a black workhorse, looking "very Biblical," Jim thinks. Alone in the
house, Jim feels important. Always a lover of solitude, he sits quietly
in the kitchen and thinks about Mr. Shimerda's death. Since the man died
of homesickness, Jim reasons, his soul will try to return to Bohemia. But
it's such a long way that perhaps it will stop to rest up for the journey
in this house, where it had found peace on Christmas Day.
Jim has a kind of mystical experience that afternoon. He feels a deep
communication with Mr. Shimerda's spirit. In contemplating all Antonia
has ever told him about her father's life, "such vivid pictures came to
me that they might have been Mr. Shimerda's memories." He has the
distinct feeling that the old man's soul is there with him in the house.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XV
Otto returns the next day from Black Hawk with a young Bohemian named
Anton Jelinek who wants to help the Shimerdas. Warm, friendly, and
direct, he explains that for Catholics it is a grave sin to die without a
priest's blessing. The Shimerdas believe they will have to pray a long
time before Mr. Shimerda's soul can leave Purgatory.
NOTE: CATHOLICS AND PROTESTANTS Jelinek's Catholic faith is strong. He
tells the Burdens a story about helping a priest carry the Holy Sacrament
to soldiers dying of cholera in a military camp. The blessed wafer, wine,
and incense they carried protected them from getting sick, he asserts.
Grandfather, who rarely opens up to strangers, likes Jelinek's strong
faith, but, as a Protestant, argues that "Mr. Shimerda's soul I will come
to its Creator as well off without a priest." What does young Jim think
of all this? You have seen from the boy's views on the vast land and his
sense of communion with Mr. Shimerda's soul that his religious feelings
are personal and don't really have anything to do with the church.
Perhaps he is beginning to equate the divine spirit with the forces of
the universe? At any rate, he finds Catholicism just one more strange and
intriguing aspect of his foreign neighbors. Like their languages and
their customs, religion sets the immigrants apart from the other
settlers. This cultural difference is a strong theme in My Antonia.
While Jelinek ploughs a road to the Shimerdas, Otto makes a coffin.
Cheerfully he tells the story of making a coffin in Colorado for an
Italian miner who fell to his death. The pleasant sound and smell of his
carpentry seems wasted on dead people, thinks Jim. Visitors start
arriving on their way to the Shimerdas. They are a wondering where the
dead man will be buried, since Black Hawk is too far in bad weather. The
Norwegians to the west don't want him in their cemetery. The suicide
seems to have made everybody more talkative and energetic than usual, a
treat for Jim, who is the only child in a community of usually reserved
Grandfather has accompanied the coroner to the Shimerdas' and back.
Though Mr. Shimerda obviously killed himself, the case is mysterious
because Krajiek's axe seems to fit a head wound on the dead man, and
Krajiek is acting guilty. This mystery is never resolved.
The neighbors are shocked to find out that Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch
want to bury the old man on their own land, at the southwest corner where
two roads will eventually cross. A suicide, according to Bohemian custom,
must be buried at a crossroads. Grandfather decides that Mrs. Shimerda's
wish must be obeyed, but he also predicts that no roads will ever pass
over the grave. (We'll later learn that he was right.)
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XVI
The funeral takes place on the fifth day after the suicide. Antonia is
obviously heartbroken. The Burdens and all the neighbors gather, and make
a procession to the grave which Jelinek and Ambrosch have chopped in the
frozen ground. It is snowing as Grandfather makes a beautiful prayer. He
asks forgiveness for "the sleeper," and also mentions that if anyone has
done wrong toward him, "God would forgive him and soften his heart." Why
do you think he says this? Could he be referring to Krajiek? Grandfather
thinks that Krajiek, although he did not directly kill Mr. Shimerda,
feels guilty knowing that his dirty dealings were as responsible for the
death as any other factor. Hopefully this tragedy will teach him a
Otto leads in singing a hymn that will always remind Jim in years
afterward of the burial on that little corner of snowy wasteland. And
when the roads were surveyed, they never did pass over Mr. Shimerda's
head, but bent a little out of their way in respect for and kindness to
the troubled pioneer.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XVII
Spring finally arrives. The new leaves and blossoms of a Virginia spring
are not here, but to Jim the warm, windy air seems to be "spring itself;
the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it."
(Notice the personal effect the weather and the land have on Jim, as
He often goes to see the Shimerdas in the new log house the neighbors
have helped them build. He gives reading lessons to Yulka and visits
Antonia in the fields. Grandmother thinks Tony ought to go to school, Jim
tells her. Tony boasts that school is all right for little boys, meaning
Jim, but she's too busy ploughing. This annoys Jim until he sees that she
NOTE: ANTONIA'S PROSPECTS Turning her tearstained face from Jim, Antonia
"looked off at the red streak of dying light." You see that once again
Cather uses description to communicate emotion. Antonia's hope for the
future, like the sunset, is a "dying light." Her well-educated papa would
have wanted his favorite child to go to school. instead, she has to do
farm chores like a man.
Jim stays for supper. Now the Shimerdas' ways irritate him. Ambrosch
grumbles and Antonia looks like a sunburned peasant. Mrs. Shimerda thinks
that people try to cheat her, and yet she cheats them. For example, Mr.
Burden sold her a cow for ten dollars down, plus fifteen to be paid
later, but Mrs. Shimerda tries to get out of the second payment by saying
the cow doesn't give enough milk.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XVIII
Jim goes to the one-room school without Antonia. He feels ignored by her,
now that she's so busy. To make matters worse, hot-headed Jake knocks
Ambrosch down in a dispute over a borrowed harness. The feud with the
Shimerdas goes on until Grandfather resolves it by inviting Ambrosch to
work for him in the wheat and oats harvest in early July. He also hires
Antonia to work in the kitchen.
Grandfather and Jim ride over to make arrangements with Ambrosch. Seeing
them coming, Mrs. Shimerda dashes off to try to hide the cow for which
she owes Mr. Burden money. In the spirit of generosity and reconciliation
he tells her to keep the cow. Her defensiveness changes to gratitude; she
kneels and kisses his hand, as if he were a nobleman and she a poor
NOTE: CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS Grandfather is extremely embarrassed by Mrs.
Shimerda's show of Old World respect. He disapproves of class
distinctions, just as he would frown on slavery, dishonesty, ungodliness,
or prejudice. But he has such natural dignity that Mrs. Shimerda, who
used to steal firewood from a nobleman's forest in Bohemia, instinctively
looks up to him. What do you think of the attitudes of the other
characters towards the foreign Shimerdas? Jake, who isn't very smart,
thinks all foreigners are peasants. Otto, from Austria, she carries his
Old World prejudices against Bohemians. What does Jim think? When he's
angry with Antonia, he's tempted to believe Jake's and Otto's prejudices.
But usually he seems to agree with his grandparents that a person should
be judged by his character rather than nationality or social standing.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XIX
July is hot. While the men are reaping and threshing the wheat, the corn
is growing by leaps and bounds in the fields. Nebraska is perfect corn
country, and Grandfather predicts rightly that it will soon supply the
world with corn, just as Russia at that time supplies it with wheat.
Antonia is a cheerful influence on the Burden household. Jim loves
spending time with her. One night they watch a dramatic thunderstorm
together. She treats him like a friend and equal these days. He asks her
why she can't be gentle and natural like this more often, instead of
copying Ambrosch's boastful ways. Tony answers that she is happy here
because life is easy in the Burden household, much easier than life can
ever be for the Shimerdas.
NOTE: JIM'S FIRST YEAR By the end of Book 1, Jim has been living in
Nebraska one full year: he arrived in early September and now it is late
summer. His bond with the land and the rhythm of its seasons has been
established for us in rich language. Note throughout this first book the
descriptions of the seasons as the year progresses. During this year
Jim's bond with Antonia has also become strong. Their childhood days on
the farm will set the tone for their lifelong friendship.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER I
After two more years on the farm, the Burdens move to Black Hawk. Jim is
thirteen and ought to be going regularly to school, and his grandparents
feel too old to enjoy farming. The farm hands will have to find other
work, so Otto decides to go back out West, and Jake goes with him. They
have been like brothers to Jim, but he will never see them again.
From his bedroom, Jim can see the bluffs of the Republican River two
miles south. When he misses the countryside (a constant theme for him),
the river view comforts him.
The Burdens live on the outskirts of Black Hawk, a neat little town where
the newer buildings are made of brick. For the first time Jim has
children his own age to play with. Although Antonia never comes to town,
her doings are reported to the Burdens by the Widow Steavens, who has
rented their old farm. Grandfather is concerned about Antonia, whose
brother is hiring her out as a farmhand.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER II
To save Antonia from this masculine work, which her father would never
have allowed, Grandmother recommends Antonia for a domestic position with
the neighbors, the Harlings.
The Harlings are a Norwegian family with five children. The husband buys
and sells grain and cattle, and is often away on business. The wife rules
the house with enthusiasm and decisiveness. Their eldest child is tall,
dark Frances, old enough to be a partner in her father's successful
business. Next are Charley, 16, musical Julia, 14, tomboy Sally, 13, and
sensitive little Nina.
NOTE: THE HARLINGS Cather based the Harling family on her neighbors, the
Miners, in Red Cloud, Nebraska. She claimed the portrait of Mrs. Harling
was the only one she ever took wholly from real life. You may have noted
that the novel is dedicated to Carrie and Irene Miner, the models for
Frances and her littlest sister, Nina.
When their cook leaves the household, Mrs. Harling and Frances drive the
long way out to the Shimerdas to negotiate with Antonia and Mrs.
Shimerda. After an argument with Ambrosch and Mrs. Shimerda, it is agreed
that Mrs. Harling will pay them the generous sum of $3 a week, and keep
$50 a year out for Antonia to spend as she wishes. Mrs. Harling reports
to Grandmother that 17-year-old Antonia, though barefooted and sunburned,
seemed beautiful, and will learn quickly to be helpful.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER III
Jim loves having Antonia nearby again. She is so good with the Harling
children that she sometimes neglects her work to play with them. It is a
jolly, noisy household, except when Mr. Harling is at home. "Autocratic
and imperial," he "not only demanded a quiet house, he demanded all his
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER IV
One day a Norwegian farm girl named Lena Lingard comes to the door. At
first Antonia doesn't recognize her because she is all dressed up. Then
she doesn't seem very glad to see Lena. Frances and Mrs. Harling invite
her to sit down and talk. She has come to town to work for Mrs. Thomas,
the dressmaker. She says she's glad to get off the farm and excited about
living in town. Mrs. Harling cautions her to remember her obligations to
her family, and not to get caught up in dances and dubious social life.
Frances, who knows all the country folk and their news, asks about the
boy who had been planning to marry her. She answers that his father
refused to give him any land unless he married someone else instead. Lena
doesn't care; he was "awful sullen," and anyway she doesn't ever want to
After Lena goes, Frances asks why Antonia wasn't friendlier to her. Tony
answers that Lena had a bad reputation out in the country, and Mrs.
Harling might not like her visiting the house. Jim remembers that Lena,
the eldest of many children, used to herd cattle on the prairie for her
father. Though she was poor and ragged, her yellow hair, pale white skin,
and soft, violet-colored eyes made her attractive. Also she had a gentle,
Someone else was impressed with Lena; this person is Ole Benson, a fat,
unlucky Norwegian farmer who used to love to come and sit with her. This
was a scandal to the neighborhood, and Ole's insane wife threatened to
kill Lena for "making eyes at the men." But Lena only laughed in her
innocent, sleepy way and said, "I never made anything to him with my
eyes. I can't help it if he hangs around, and I can't order him off. It
ain't my prairie."
NOTE: LENA LINGARD Lena is an interesting character who will become more
important as the story goes on. Is she aware of the effect her good looks
have on men? Is she deliberately sexy? Although she and Antonia are
friends, they are very different. Tony wants to make money so her
family's farm will prosper. You will see later that having a family and
running a farm is her goal. She forms passionate attachments to people.
Lena, though, is disillusioned about family life, and never wants to
return to the farm. She is a more easygoing, detached person, who wants
to be left alone to have a good time.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER V
Lena's friend, another farm girl named Tiny Soderball, has also come to
town. She works as a waitress at Mrs. Gardener's Boys' Home Hotel, the
best one for miles around. On Saturday nights when all the traveling
salesmen are singing and telling stories in the parlor, Lena and Tiny
listen from behind the closed double doors. It's the most romantic life
the girls can imagine, and Lena often tells Jim, whom she likes, that he
ought to be a "traveling man" when he grows up. (Of course, you know from
the Introduction that in a way he does become one as a lawyer for a
railroad.) Lena enjoys town life, and Tiny even shares with her some of
the gifts the salesmen are always giving her. But when Lena's little
brother comes to town just before Christmas to buy some Christmas
presents, she realizes she misses her family despite her dislike of the
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER VI
When winter comes, it is bitterly windy and cold in town. On the bleak,
gray days, any color, such as the stained glass church window, is
welcome. The Harlings' house attracts Jim, who finds life too quiet with
his elderly grandparents. Antonia, too, finds the house "like Heaven."
They act out charades or listen to Mrs. Harling play operas on the piano
as she tells the stories. Frances teaches them to dance, and predicts
that Antonia will be the best of them all. In the evenings Tony
cheerfully builds another fire in the stove to bake treats for the
children, and tells tales in her wonderful deep voice about old Bohemia
or life on the prairie. Once she tells of a tramp who came to a Norwegian
farm one very hot day where she was helping thresh wheat. He offered to
operate the threshing machine for a while, and then jumped into it
headfirst, killing himself.
NOTE: THE TRAMP Nobody knew where he came from. He had nothing in his
pockets but a penknife, a wishbone, and a popular poem cut out of a
newspaper. When Antonia commented to him that it was so hot they might
have to pump water for the cattle, he seemed to find it ironic that
cattle will always be taken care of--even before a person like him. What
do you think of this tramp? Why did Willa Cather tell us his story? Do
you see a connection between him and Mr. Shimerda? This is another of
Cather's unexpected anecdotes which seem to carry a deeper message.
Antonia has a strong effect on the Harlings, Jim, and everyone around
her. As she matures, she adapts naturally to domestic routines. She finds
a role model in Mrs. Harling. (Grandmother was right to suggest she come
to the Harlings while still at an impressionable age.) In many ways Tony
and Mrs. Harling share the same pioneer values: a love of children, the
earth, domestic comforts, independence, honesty, and generosity. Jim is
deeply attracted to their "hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-
delicate, but very invigorating."
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER VII
The winter drags by, but in March a musician comes to town to give a
concert. He is a black pianist named d'Arnault (pronounced Dar-no'), who
is blind. As a slave child on the d'Arnault plantation in the Deep South
before the Civil War, he had been drawn to the main house whenever he
heard the piano being played by Miss Nellie, the owner's daughter. One
day when she had left the room, he crept in through the window, even
though his mother had threatened that the master would feed him to his
dog if he found him near the big house. Instinctively, he touched the
keys of the piano, and began to play things he'd heard Miss Nellie play.
Overhearing this child prodigy, Nellie arranged music lessons for him.
NOTE: BLIND D'ARNAULT The description of the slave child's wonderful
talent is typical of the extended anecdotes that Cather's characters
relate. This one introduces a taste of the South where Jim--and Willa
Cather--were originally from. You will notice that d'Arnault's story is a
complete break in setting and mood from what precedes it. Why did Cather
insert this anecdote? The two groups of people she admired most were
pioneers and artists. Here, in the midst of a novel about pioneers, is
the life story of a natural musician. Perhaps this anecdote also has a
broader meaning. In spite of being blind and born a slave, d'Arnault
becomes a well-known artist. And in spite of her early hardships, Antonia
eventually triumphs as a pioneer mother and farmer.
The night Blind d'Arnault is staying at the hotel, Jim goes there to hear
the informal music-making. Mrs. Gardener, the hotel's well-dressed,
strict manager, is out of town. Her pleasant, wishy-washy husband Johnnie
can't object when d'Arnault begins to play plantation songs, spirituals,
and waltzes. The pianist senses that behind the doors the hired girls are
dancing. The men throw open the doors and draw the fleeing girls into the
parlor, despite Johnnie's protests that his wife wouldn't approve.
Antonia and Lena and Tiny are there, and also Mary Dusak, another
Bohemian girl, pretty and bold.
Excited by the dancing, Jim and Antonia walk home together, and linger
talking a long time. Their first big taste of adult town society has made
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER VIII
Spring brings its usual quickening of activity. The Harlings' garden is
planted and the children play outdoors. In June some Italians arrive in
Black Hawk and set up a dancing pavilion. Mr. and Mrs. Vanni will give
lessons and hold dances in an open tent under the cottonwood trees across
from the Danish laundry. This gives the young people something to do
besides walk up and down the wooden sidewalks. The harp and violin music
entices everyone to the tent where, for a small price, they can dance
until 10 P.M. On Saturdays, the tent is open until midnight, and all the
farm hands and hired girls are there.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER IX
A tension exists between the immigrant farm girls and the young people
who've been brought up in Black Hawk. You might view this as the theme of
the conflict between the immigrants and their American neighbors. Pretty
and capable, but unschooled, the immigrant girls still remember the old
country. They grew up early through the hard work of helping their
families dig up the prairie sod to make the first fields. Now about
twenty of them are working in town in order to help their parents get
established and send their younger siblings to school. They are proud,
jolly, free, and physically strong.
In contrast, the town girls would never consider working as domestic
servants in someone else's home. They think of themselves as refined.
Their parents, whether farmers or merchants, are just as poor as the
immigrants, but have come from the Eastern states, rather than directly
from Europe. They are snobbish toward the "ignorant" foreigners, not
realizing or caring that Lena's grandfather was a well-known clergyman
back in Norway, or Antonia's father had been so respected in Bohemia that
priests would come to talk with him.
Jim is annoyed by the prejudice of the townspeople against the hired
girls. He knows that eventually these girls will be prosperous because
they are so hard-working. The Black Hawk town boys look longingly at the
fresh, free country girls, but they will doubtless marry town girls. Why
do you think this irritates Jim so much? Is he justified in criticizing
the other boys when he himself seems to have no intention of marrying one
of the hired girls?
Some of the hired girls are fond of a good time, perhaps eager to make up
for their lost youth. Their bad reputations are in some cases deserved
(at least according to the morals of that day): of the three Bohemian
girls named Mary, two become pregnant out of wedlock. Though the
conservative townspeople consider them all "as dangerous as high
explosives," they are excellent cooks and can always get work.
At the dancing tent the town boys and the hired girls meet. A banker's
son falls in love with Lena, even though he feels she would not be a
suitable wife. He marries someone else in order to drown his feelings
about Lena. Jim is disgusted at the boy's lack of courage.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER X
Antonia loves to dance, and at the tent she has lots of admirers. Her
personality has changed: she has outgrown the Harlings' little world, and
has become inattentive to her work. Mr. Harling is increasingly annoyed
about the male callers who linger around the back door. One Saturday
night on the back porch after a dance, a boy tries to kiss Tony. She
slaps him "because he is going to be married on Monday," as she explains
to the angry Mr. Harling, who heard the slap. She's been associating with
girls with bad reputations, Mr. Harling says, and now she'll either have
to quit going to the dances or quit working for him.
This is a crisis. Tony has loved being at the Harlings', but nothing can
make her give up the dances. In spite of Mrs. Harling's pleas, she
resolves to take a place closer to her friend Lena, at the house of the
notorious moneylender and womanizer, Wick Cutter. Mrs. Harling is
heartbroken and warns that the unscrupulous Cutter will ruin her.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XI
Wick Cutter is the man who cheated Russian Peter in Book I. He is a
hypocrite who preaches "moral maxims" while practicing usury (charging
overly high interest rates) and extortion. He plays poker, races horses,
and visits prostitutes. He's fussy about his appearance (he carefully
brushes his yellow moustache) and about his house (he gets boys to cut
his lawn and then won't pay them because he claims their work isn't neat
He is married to a huge, ugly, high-strung woman. Cutter and his wife
fight constantly about everything from his immoral habits to money. In
fact, they both seem to get some needed excitement from their warlike
relationship. Later in his life Jim will meet other fanatical women who
remind him of Mrs. Cutter--some are mental patients and others are
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XII
When Tony leaves the Harlings, she devotes herself entirely to having a
good time. She's very pretty and popular. With Lena's help she has
learned to copy the new dresses of the town's leading ladies, much to
their annoyance. Jim is now a senior in high school and feeling restless.
He's not interested in town girls but likes to chat with Tony and the
hired girls. They tease him about what he's going to be when he grows up.
Everyone, including Jim, believes he will go into some profession because
he's so smart at school.
But Jim is restless all winter. Because he still sees Antonia, Mrs.
Harling is not very friendly to him. As a result, he can't spend any more
warm evenings at her house. Instead he walks and walks. He starts going
to the saloon that the respectable Anton Jelinek runs, but then Jelinek
asks him not to, since it would upset Grandfather Burden. He haunts the
drugstore, the tobacco factory, and the train depot, but meets only other
dissatisfied, restless people, mostly old men. In this mood, he finds the
town ugly and the people repressed. He doesn't want to join the Owl Club
with its respectable young people. So on Saturday nights he slips out his
ground floor bedroom window to dances at the Firemen's Hall. There he
meets the country folks such as the simple, pretty girls who work at the
Danish laundry. He dances with Lena, who always seems dreamy and
detached. When he dances with Antonia, though, he is more impressed by
her enthusiasm and talent for dancing than by anyone else's.
NOTE: ANTONIA'S POTENTIAL Jim realizes that Antonia has a natural
greatness. She is musical, energetic and creative. If the Shimerdas had
stayed in New York and become involved in the music world, for instance,
instead of coming to Nebraska, her life might have been different. You
should keep in mind this observation of Jim's about Tony's potential. In
the very next paragraph a character appears who will have a tragic effect
Antonia looks beautiful at the dances with her black velveteen dress,
bright eyes, and deeply colored cheeks. She is often with a young man
named Larry Donovan, a railroad conductor who is "a kind of professional
ladies' man." Naturally, because all the boys admire Antonia, Larry wants
to make a conquest of her.
One night Jim walks Tony home. When his goodnight kiss is romantic
instead of brotherly, she is shocked. She's even more shocked to hear
that Lena lets him kiss her that way. She cautions him against seeing too
much of Lena or of getting involved with anyone who would keep him from
going away to college. He replies that she is the only one he likes, but
that she treats him like a younger brother. (Tony is nineteen and he's
fifteen.) She admits that he's a kid, "but you're a kid I'm awful fond
of, anyhow!" she adds, hugging him. Later Jim keeps having a dream about
Lena walking across a field toward him in a short skirt, but when he
dreams about Tony, they are always children together.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XIII
Grandmother Burden hears the upsetting rumor that Jim has been going to
the Firemen's dances, and so he promises not to go anymore. More lonely
than ever, Jim throws himself into extra academic work to prepare for
college. One of his only friends is Frances Harling, who tells him her
mother isn't as angry with him as he thinks. This proves true when Mrs.
Harling comes to Jim's high school graduation and is very impressed by
his commencement oration.
After the speech, Tony and her friends are waiting down the street to
congratulate him. When Antonia says the speech reminded her of her
father, Jim confesses that he dedicated it to the memory of Mr. Shimerda.
As they hug each other, she is crying. Why do you think he feels it is
the most triumphant moment in his whole life?
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XIV
All summer Jim works hard on trigonometry and Latin. Only one July day
breaks the monotony, when he secretly meets Tony and her friends for a
picnic at the river. The girls are going to collect elderflowers to make
NOTE: THE RIVER PICNIC Though this novel cannot really be said to have a
formal plot or traditional climax, this chapter is centrally important
for several reasons. This will prove to be the last shared afternoon of
Jim and Antonia's youth. He will soon be going away, so the future looms
near. The past also seems near: when Antonia invites him along, she says,
"It would be like old times," and the day does remind us of Book I.
Everything in the chapter contributes to a sense of nostalgia, from the
beautifully described countryside to Tony's homesickness for Bohemia when
she smells the elderflowers. The relationship we've been watching between
Jim and Tony is more defined now. Though she thinks of him as a child,
they're extremely fond of each other, a bond which is celebrated and
confirmed in this chapter. The theme of the land representing freedom
returns here like a musical refrain, as it will again in Book V.
Early in the morning, Jim walks the two miles to the river. The road is
bordered with richly colored wildflowers. At the riverbank he takes a
swim and realizes that when he leaves Black Hawk to go to school he'll
miss this river, which he knows so well from fishing, playing, and
The girls arrive, and begin gathering elderflowers. When Jim is dressed,
he goes in search of them and finds Antonia sitting alone, crying under
the overhanging elder bushes. They remind her of Bohemia, where her
father used to talk about music and philosophy with his friends. They
both feel that her father's spirit returned to his beloved country when
he died. Tony confides that her mother had been a young servant in her
father's parents' household. When she became pregnant by Tony's father,
he married her out of kindness, even though his brothers and parents
thought he should just give her money. (Now perhaps we can understand Mr.
Shimerda's suicide more clearly. In addition to homesickness and the
hardships in the pioneer dugout, his marriage was not a happy one.) As
Tony tells Jim this personal story, she seems to him as full of trust and
love as she used to be when they were children.
Lena Lingard breaks into their private conversation. Jim and the girls
eat their picnic on a bluff overlooking the farmland. The four country
girls talk about their families. Lena starts to stroke Jim's hair, but
Tony puts a stop to it. Lena tells of her grandfather rebelliously
marrying a Lapland woman. Lapp girls were considered dangerously
attractive to the men in Norway. "I guess that's what's the matter with
me; they say Lapp blood will out," says Lena, referring to her weakness
In the hot afternoon, Jim tells the story of the Spanish explorer
Francisco Coronado (1510?-1554). In the New World he was looking for the
mythical Seven Golden Cities and was known to have come north as far as
today's Kansas. But Jim thinks he actually came even farther, to this
river, because in a field nearby a farmer once found a Spanish stirrup
and sword. Coronado didn't return to Spain, according to the schoolbooks,
because he "died in the wilderness of a broken heart." Antonia added,
"More than him has done that," referring to her father.
They think sadly about the disillusioned Coronado and Mr. Shimerda, and
the struggles of the first generation of pioneers. The sun is setting.
The prairie almost seems to catch on fire. (Remember the earlier
description of the prairie "like the bush that burned with fire and was
not consumed.") As the sun meets the earth, it suddenly magnifies a lone
plough silhouetted on the horizon. The plough against the fiery red
circle looks "heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun."
NOTE: THE PLOUGH What is the significance of this image? You can view it
as a symbol of several different themes. First, it stands for the
farmers' toil and triumph over the unbroken prairie. The efforts of the
pioneers to tame the land are rewarded, despite the disillusioned deaths
of people like Coronado and Mr. Shimerda. Second, when the plough has
"sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie" it stands for
the vastness of the land, which makes all man's activities seem
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER XV
The slow, nostalgic, philosophical mood of the last chapter contrasts
sharply with this one. Antonia's employer, Wick Cutter, acts strangely
before going out of town with his wife. He tells Antonia to stay home at
night and not have any girlfriend stay with her. Suspecting something,
she asks Grandmother Burden what to do. Jim arranges to sleep at the
Cutters' house until they return. One night Cutter returns and sneaks
into Antonia's bedroom where he finds not her but Jim. They have a
terrible fistfight in the dark, and both are badly beaten up before Jim
knocks Cutter down and escapes through the window. Jim runs home in his
nightshirt, disgusted by the whole sordid experience. He makes
Grandmother promise not to tell anyone the story, for fear he would be
laughed about all over town.
It turns out that Cutter has fled town, with his face bandaged and his
arm in a sling, but not before trampling and tearing both the clothes
from Tony's closet and the ones Jim had taken off before going to bed.
While Tony and Grandmother Burden are back at the Cutters' empty house
packing up her things, Mrs. Cutter arrives, furious. Her husband had
tricked her by putting her on the wrong train so he could get home
without her. it was an elaborate scheme designed to make her as angry as
possible. Mr. Cutter surely enjoyed the ensuing quarrel with his wife as
much or more than the lust which started it.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER I
Jim goes to Lincoln to the university. He passes the tough entrance exams
on the condition that he study Greek the following summer. One of his
favorite people at university is his Latin teacher, Gaston Cleric, a
brilliant but frail young scholar who opens Jim's eyes to an intellectual
world. Cleric (whose name means clergyman and scholar) often visits Jim
in the room he rents and talks movingly about poetry, the classics, or
his stay in Italy. Charmed and excited as he is by Cleric's fascination
with the classics, Jim realizes that his own interest is not in history,
but in the people of his particular past, who seem to live on in his mind
even though he's away from home.
One balmy spring night during his sophomore year, Jim is trying to keep
his mind on his Latin homework. He is reading the Georgics by Virgil (70-
19 B.C.), the ancient Roman author who died before he could finish his
masterpiece, The Aeneid. The first line Jim sees is: Optima dies... prima
fugit, meaning the best days are the first to flee. They seem to strike a
nostalgic chord for him--and in fact they sum up such an important theme
in the novel (the importance of the past) that they appear on the title
page as an inscription.
Jim turns back to another interesting passage: Primus ego in patriam
mecum... deducam Musas. It means, I will be the first to bring the Muse
into my own country. By "country" (patriam or patria), Virgil meant the
local neighborhood of his father's fields, and by "Muse" he meant
literature. The great literary tradition of ancient Greece was beginning
to trickle into the Roman empire through the influence of such writers as
NOTE: PATRIA Why is Jim moved by this idea? Virgil had brought the Muse
home. Perhaps Gaston Cleric is also bringing the Muse into his own region
by making classical literature come to life for his students. Or perhaps
Cleric's patria is the rocky New England coast of his birth. Jim, by
writing an account of his youth in Nebraska, will also bring the Muse of
literature home. Do you think Cather was also speaking of herself? She
was one of the first writers to depict Nebraska in books that would be
hailed as great regional (as well as American) literature.
As he is reflecting on these thoughts about the past, Jim hears a knock
at his door. He opens it to find his hometown friend Lena Lingard. Now
working as a dressmaker in a successful shop, she has been in Lincoln all
winter, though Grandmother did not write that news to Jim. Lena is saving
money for the new house she'll build for her mother next summer.
Lena reports that Antonia is now managing Mrs. Gardener's hotel, has made
peace with the Harlings, and appears to be engaged to the conductor Larry
Donovan. Though no one likes Larry, Tony is crazy about him and won't
hear him criticized.
When Lena has gone, her soft laugh seems to remain, reminding Jim of all
the country girls. He decides that the feeling he has about these girls
is what inspires poetry. (Can he be giving himself an excuse to see more
of Lena and read less Latin?)
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER III
That spring Jim and Lena see several plays together, including Camille by
Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the famous author of The Count of Monte
Cristo). This French tragedy dazzles them with its portrayal of
sophisticated society and doomed love. The actress playing Marguerite
(known as Camille) is past her prime, but delivers a forceful performance
which has both Lena and Jim in tears.
NOTE: CAMILLE In the story of Camille, a young nobleman named Armand
Duval falls in love with an older woman of the world. She has
tuberculosis, and they go to live in the country in hopes that she may
get well. Of all her affairs, he is the first person she has truly loved.
His father persuades Camille to give up Armand rather than spoil his
future. So Camille pretends she loves someone else. Armand cruelly
rebukes her. Her health worsens, and, finally learning the truth, Armand
visits Camille to apologize. She dies, happy, in his arms.
Why do you think Cather uses the play Camille? Like Camille, Lena is
older, and has a good heart but a reputation for being easy with men.
Jim, like Armand, is intense but inexperienced. Do you think Jim will
fall in love with Lena? If so, will she marry him? Or will she--like
Camille--renounce Jim in order not to spoil his chances for the future?
Certainly Cather intends a parallel between the play and Jim and Lena's
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER IV
Lena has grown from a barefoot farm girl into a well-groomed,
accomplished young woman. Her customers know that although the dresses
will take longer to make and will cost more than estimated, they will
have a special flair.
Jim enjoys occasional dinners and leisurely Sunday breakfasts at Lena's
place. They play with her dog and laugh at her stories. He finds her very
pretty and sees now why the Norwegian Ole Benson used to hang around her.
She claims that there was never anything to that: she was lonely, and he
loved being with women. He was too generous to be sensible, she says, and
she still feels sorry for him.
Across the hall from Lena lives an emotional Polish violinist who is
jealous of Jim's attentions to her. The violinist is also jealous of the
landlord, a widower who has a soft spot for Lena. Jim declares that all
three of them are in love with Lena. One night the violinist is going to
play a concert. He hasn't worn his evening coat in so long it has split
down the back where it was folded. He knocks on the door and asks Lena
for some pins. Jim is there for supper. While Lena goes to mend the coat,
the rivals glower at each other. The violinist makes insinuating remarks
about Jim's interest in Lena. Jim responds gently that he's known Lena
for years and "I think I appreciate her kindness." The violinist
apologizes, and from then on treats Jim like a special friend in a world
of enemies. Berating the citizens of Lincoln for their lack of musical
appreciation, he writes a letter to the newspaper calling them "coarse
barbarians." He sees everything in terms of chivalry and sentiment, and
provides Lena and Jim with unintentional entertainment.
Jim realizes that ever since he started seeing Lena he has paid less
attention to his studies. Gaston Cleric observes, "You won't recover
yourself while you are playing about with this handsome Norwegian." Since
Cleric has been offered a job teaching at Harvard, he wants Jim to come
East, too. So Cleric writes Grandfather Burden for permission. Jim never
expects Grandfather to agree, but he does. (Do you think Cleric could
have mentioned Lena in the letter?)
Jim's feelings are mixed about leaving. He longs to escape the stifling
small-town atmosphere of Lincoln, but he hates to leave Lena. He goes to
see her to discuss it. Lena informs him she's planning never to get
married. She has seen too much poverty and hard work in her family
brought on by too many babies. She'd slept three to a bed till she left
home at nineteen. Now she's determined to keep her independence and not
be "under somebody's thumb."
It isn't hard for her to guess that something's on Jim's mind. Confessing
that he's distracted and captivated by her, he tells her he's moving to
Boston. She replies that she's always liked him. Though she probably
shouldn't have looked him up, it seemed natural to spend time together in
Lincoln. (Compare this with Antonia's earlier warning to Jim about Lena's
fondness for men.)
When they part for the evening, Lena kisses Jim as usual: "She always
kissed one as if she were sadly and wisely sending one away forever."
NOTE: LENA AND JIM Jim is clearly attracted to Lena, but we're never
told whether they have had an affair. Jim, who probably would not lie,
assures the violinist his intentions are honorable. Still, much has been
made so far in the novel about Lena's sexy manner and lenient morals, and
Jim is certainly infatuated and distracted from his work. But does it
seem to you that either has any intention of getting seriously involved?
We remember that Jim once said to Antonia: "I'm not half as fond of
[Lena] as I am of you." And although she likes kissing Jim, Lena's kisses
seem to send him away, or renounce him, rather than encouraging him. In
his heart, Jim has already decided to go.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER I
Between graduating from Harvard and entering its law school, Jim comes
home for the summer. Little has changed, except Antonia, whom Frances
Harling, now married, calls "poor Antonia." Unmarried and a mother, she
lives on her family's farm and works in the fields for Ambrosch.
While Antonia suffers, her friends do better, which seems unfair, since
Antonia had so much potential. Lena is now Lincoln's best dressmaker, and
Tiny has set up a residence hotel for sailors in Seattle. Black Hawk
gossip to the contrary, Jim thinks she'll run a respectable place. In a
flash forward, Jim narrates Tiny's success story. Hearing of gold in
Alaska, she crossed snowfields and shot river rapids to help found Dawson
City near the soon-to-be-famous Klondike Creek. She started a hotel, then
made a fortune in real estate and by developing a gold claim. Part of the
price she paid was the loss of three toes to exposure. She limps a bit.
Years later, Jim has met her again. She is a hard-driving business woman
but has always stayed close to Lena, whom she's persuaded to set up a
dressmaking shop in San Francisco. Jim finds Tiny a bit weary with all
her success. She isn't interested in life anymore, unlike Antonia.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER II
At the town photographer's shop, Jim sees a picture of Antonia's baby on
display in an expensive frame. How like Tony, Jim thinks, to be proud of
her baby even though it is illegitimate.
NOTE: JIM AND ANTONIA Why do you think Jim has felt so possessive about
Tony, ever since they were children? Possible reasons are that they were
close neighbors for three years; that, though younger, Jim, as a boy,
felt like her protector; that he was her tutor in English and in
softening her foreign ways; and that they had a kind of personal or
spiritual kinship which kept them close. Perhaps that is why he uses the
word my in the title. A result of this possessiveness is that Jim is
bitterly disappointed when Tony does something he disapproves of. He is
crushed that she has let herself be deceived and publicly shamed (and to
a middle class person at the turn of the century, a child out of wedlock
was considered a terrible shame). "I could not forgive her for becoming
an object of pity," he says, but after seeing the photo of her baby, he
begins to weaken: "I could forgive her... if she hadn't thrown herself
away on such a cheap sort of fellow." Though he is very critical of
Antonia, Jim can never stay angry with her for long.
Larry Donovan had been an arrogant train conductor who felt himself above
such lowly tasks as making the passengers comfortable. He was fond of
women, whom he liked to impress with stories of "his unappreciated
worth." How had Antonia been so thoroughly fooled by him? Jim asks Mrs.
Harling. She tells him to go talk to the Widow Steavens, the only person
who has kept in touch with Tony.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER III
Jim drives a horse and cart out into the country to his grandparents' old
farm, still rented to the Widow Steavens and her brother. The land, much
of it now under cultivation, seems "beautiful and harmonious... like
watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea."
Mrs. Steavens invites him to stay overnight, and after supper she tells
him Antonia's sad story. Antonia, eager to be married, spent much of the
summer in preparation. On the Widow's sewing machine she made clothes and
underclothes, trimming them with lace her mother made for her. Larry
wrote her often. One letter said he'd been transferred to a different
"run," or train route, and they would be based in Denver. This
momentarily crushed Antonia, who wanted a farm life. Finally Larry
summoned her to Denver. Ambrosch, who gave her a set of silverware and a
generous check for $300 as a wedding present, drove her with three trunks
to town. On the way they stopped so she could say good-bye to the Widow,
and Antonia also whispered, "Good-bye, dear house!" probably thinking of
happy times with the Burdens. (You may remember her father's contentment
in that house a short while before he died.)
When she arrived in Denver, Antonia wrote Mrs. Steavens that they would
be married when Larry got his promotion. However, over a month later,
mournful and disgraced, the once-hopeful bride-to-be was back at home. It
seemed that Donovan didn't have a job after all. He'd been fired and
blacklisted. He had also been sick, lived off her $300 until it was gone,
and then disappeared to Mexico to get rich cheating the railroad company.
Now Antonia is not married and is going to have a baby.
The Widow had cried to hear this story. She could have seen this fate for
Lena, but not for Antonia, who "had so much good in her."
NOTE: A QUIRK OF FATE? Lena, though she often gave her affections
easily, cherished her independence, and never became involved enough with
anyone to threaten her freedom. In contrast, Antonia's deepest need was
to love someone and to be a mother. She wanted this so much that she was
blind to Larry Donovan's unsuitability, and became pregnant. To the Widow
Steavens, this outcome seems like a cruel quirk of fate, but you may see
it as an indication of Antonia's desire to be part of a loving family.
During the spring and summer the pregnant girl worked in the fields for
Ambrosch. (Marek had grown violent and had been sent to an institution.)
Antonia never went to town because she didn't want to see anyone she
knew. She had toothaches, but wouldn't go to a dentist. Mrs. Steavens was
the only one who went to see her. Once the Widow suggested to Ambrosch
that by working so hard the girl would lose her self-respect. Ambrosch
responded angrily that the Widow should keep those ideas to herself.
Ambrosch was obviously the boss, so she stayed away after that. In the
fall when Antonia was herding cattle, Mrs. Steavens would sometimes meet
her on the prairie and talk. Antonia liked to soak up the autumn sun. She
reminisced to the Widow about her father and the old days of playing with
Jim on the prairie.
In winter Antonia dressed in heavy men's clothes. One day in December,
after herding her cattle in the snow, she went into her room, closed her
door, and delivered her baby alone. Her mother came to fetch the Widow,
who took care of the newborn. When the Widow showed it to Ambrosch, his
response was to "put it out in the rain-barrel"--his way of saying the
whole situation was a disgrace and an imposition.
But the baby did well. It's now a year and eight months old, and Antonia
loves it "as dearly as if she had a ring on her finger." Mrs. Steavens
calls her a natural-born mother, but says there's little hope now of her
being able to marry and have a family.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER IV
The next day Jim walks over to see his old friend. She is thin and her
face has a strong new seriousness, but she has the same deep color in her
cheeks that has always made her look healthy and passionate.
They walk to her father's gravesite, and Jim pours out all his plans and
dreams. She realizes that his studying law and then working in New York
City may mean she won't see him again. But she won't lose him. She will
keep him alive in her heart, as she's done with her father's memory:"...
he is more real to me than almost anybody else." Antonia feels her own
purpose in life is to give her little girl a better chance than she had.
Also, she knows she belongs in the country, "where all the ground is
Moved by her assuredness as well as her love for the child and the land,
Jim suddenly confesses his feelings for her; he thinks of her more than
anyone else from his youth. Her personality continues to influence him.
"I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or
my sister--anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part
of my mind."
She is overwhelmed and pleased. Their shared past means much to her, too.
As they start homeward, the richly described sunset reminds us of other
sunsets they've shared.
NOTE: WHY DON'T JIM AND ANTONIA MARRY? What prevents Jim from asking
Tony to marry him? Several intangible barriers stand in their way, and
neither considers the possibility. She's four years older, they're from
different social classes, and he's now far more educated than she is.
Though Jim admires Tony more than anyone else he's ever met, he must
believe they would not be happy living together. The very fact that they
do not plan to marry perhaps frees them to be such close friends.
This scene, like other important ones in the novel, shows several
different emotions happening at once. The two friends are glad to see
each other, but sad to be parting. Jim's excited about his plans, but
wishes he "could be a little boy again...." He holds Antonia's hands
against his breast for a long time in what might be called their most
romantic moment, yet they both know they will never be lovers. Though
they have reaffirmed their close friendship, they might not ever see each
other again, despite Jim's promise to come back.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER I
Twenty years pass. Jim learns that Antonia married a Bohemian named Anton
Cuzak. They are poor and hard-working with a large family. Jim's afraid
to part with his cherished memory of her strength and beauty, so he
avoids going to see her.
Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard live in San Francisco, both successful,
independent, and unmarried. When Jim visits them, Lena urges him to go
and see Antonia. So on his way back East he rents a buggy and team of
horses and finds the Cuzak farm.
Face to face with Antonia, Jim is deeply moved. Though work-worn and
older, her eyes still show "the full vigour of her personality, battered
but not diminished." For a moment she doesn't recognize him because he's
standing against the light from the doorway. Then, ecstatic to see him,
she calls her children round her.
There are eleven in all. The eldest girl, Martha, whom Jim had seen as a
baby, is married and living on her own farm. The eldest boy, Rudolph, is
away at the fair in Wilbur, with his father. (Antonia has no trouble
persuading Jim to stay overnight until they return.) Two helpful teenaged
girls are Anna and Yulka. Three of the older boys are Ambrosch, Anton,
and Charley. Leo is the devilish twelve-year-old whom his mother loves
best of them all. The youngest three are Lucie, Jan, and Nina.
Sitting in the kitchen, Jim and Antonia chat together. Though she has
lost her youth and quite a few of her teeth, she has not lost what other
people lose, her "inner glow... the fire of life." She seems to Jim like
her old self, and he feels young again with her.
They all go to look at the family's new fruit cave, an underground
storage room for home-canned goods. The small children, who don't speak
English, point out all the jars. It takes a lot of food to keep this big
family going. "It's no wonder their poor papa can't get rich," says
Antonia. Jim and Antonia leave the cave first and the little ones run out
after them, "a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the
NOTE: THE FRUIT CAVE Cather experienced this very scene in the fruit
cave at the farm of Annie Sadilek Pavelka, on whom the character of
Antonia is based. The author claims it was at that moment she knew she
would write the novel. The image of life emerging out of a dark cave is a
central symbol for several reasons. The Shimerdas lived in a "cave"
(their dugout) at first, and the hardships there contributed to Mr.
Shimerda's suicide. Also, Antonia has emerged from her "dark" trouble and
shame to the "sunlight" of happy fulfillment.
The Cuzak farm is well managed and pleasant. The ten children have been
trained to help. As they tour the property, Jim notes the names of all
the plants and animals as he has at other times in the narrative when he
feels especially close to the earth. In the sheltered apple orchard
Antonia tells him how she and her husband worked hard to make a farm. She
remarks that since she's had children she doesn't like to kill anything,
even an old goose she's going to roast. (Do you remember Grandmother
Burden feeling "friendly to the animals" early in the book?)
Despite the struggle to make ends meet, Antonia says she's happy on the
farm. In town, she sometimes used to be sad. Perhaps, suggests Jim, she
should never have gone to town. But Tony insists that she learned from
Mrs. Harling how to keep house and bring up children well. She learned a
lot from working in someone else's home, but she's glad her own daughters
will never have to.
Jim goes with Anton and Ambrosch to milk the cows. The older boys treat
Jim as if they have always known him--and indeed Antonia has talked about
him often. Jim tells the boys he "was very much in love with your mother
once, and I know there's nobody like her." With his old possessiveness,
he lectures the boys to be considerate and appreciative of her.
After supper Leo is persuaded to play his grandfather's violin. He
obviously has inherited talent and sensitivity from Mr. Shimerda--and his
grandmother's critical skepticism. He is a restless, wild boy with a
sharp tongue but a winning sense of humor and passion for life. He's
somewhat competitive with Jim for his mother's attention (and it seems
from his description of the boy that Jim might slightly resent Leo's
place in Antonia's heart).
As she shows Jim her photograph collection, Antonia's children crowd
close around her, making an almost photographic real-life grouping. Here
are pictures of the three Bohemian Marys, all formerly known as
"dynamite," now steady farm wives. Here are Lena, Frances, and Mr.
Harling. Here, too, is a photo of Jake, Otto, and Jim, which brings back
That night Jim sleeps in the hayloft with Ambrosch and Leo. As he lies
looking at the stars through a big window, he thinks about this striking
family. They leave vivid pictures in his mind, just as Antonia has always
done, images "that grew stronger with time." Antonia has a strong body
and a strong heart. To Jim she represents activities and ideas "which we
recognize by instinct as universal and true."
Antonia has kept Jim's memory fresh in her heart as she said she would.
Clearly, he has done the same with her image. They represent the happy
past for each other. More than that, he sees her as almost mythically
fulfilled: "a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races." This
is especially meaningful because he has no children of his own.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER II
Awakening in the sunny barn, Jim enjoys secretly watching Leo, who, like
his mother, "seemed conscious of possessing a keener power of enjoyment
than other people." After breakfast Antonia tells Jim how sad she had
felt when Martha got married. They'd never spent a night apart. The
family was so close that the other children hadn't known Martha was not
their full sister until her engagement.
In the mid-afternoon, Papa Cuzak returns from the fair with Rudolph.
Antonia's husband is short, with one shoulder higher than the other--"a
crumpled little man"--but he is lively and friendly. Jim immediately
likes him and his tall son. They are full of stories about the tightrope
dancer and Ferris wheel at the Bohemian fair. As Cuzak tells his wife in
Bohemian all the greetings from people she knows, Jim drops back and
observes them. They seem friendly and comfortable together. Cuzak watches
for her responses to everything he says.
In the kitchen Cuzak brings presents out of his pockets for the children.
He seems gentle and very fond of them and also amused that there are so
many. He has brought Bohemian newspapers home. One news item involves the
singer Maria Vasak. She is from Cuzak's own section of Prague (now the
capital of Czechoslovakia), and he's delighted to learn that Jim has
heard her sing in Europe.
At dinner Rudolph tells Jim the story of Wick Cutter, who turned out to
be more wicked than anyone would have thought. In his old age, his fear
that his wife's relatives would inherit his money became an obsession.
Two years ago he bought a pistol. He shot his wife at five in the
afternoon, wrote a letter stating that he had survived her, and then shot
himself at six. He managed to fire a second shot through the window, and
point out to the passersby who came running that he had survived his wife
and was the sole heir. Thus, adds Rudolph, he "killed himself for spite"-
-surely a strange thing. Cutter's fortune turned out to be $100,000 (a
huge amount of money in those days), and much of it went to the lawyers
who handled the estate.
When they first met, Jim had the impression Cuzak knew all about him.
Now, after supper, Cuzak tells Jim his own story. After bad luck in the
fur business in New York and the orange business in Florida, he came to
Nebraska to visit his cousin, Anton Jelinek (who was so helpful at Mr.
Shimerda's funeral and later ran a respectable saloon in Black Hawk). He
fell in love with Antonia and they were married immediately (in contrast
with Larry Donovan, who had kept putting her off). Turning the prairie
sod into farmland was tough, but Antonia was strong enough for both of
them--and anyway babies kept coming, so they had to stick at it. A city
man, Anton never thought he'd settle permanently in one place, especially
a farm. But it's clear he's still in love with his wife. It is a
testimony to her powers of attraction to have kept him contented for all
NOTE: ANTONIA'S FULFILLMENT "Cuzak had been made the instrument of
Antonia's special mission," writes Jim, meaning that Cuzak allowed
himself to be fitted into her earthy vision of a thriving family and
fruitful farm. Some readers have referred to Antonia as an earth mother
because she seems to represent fertility, harvest, and harmony with
nature. She has almost bewitched Cuzak, who wonders at how quickly the
years have passed.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: CHAPTER III
Leaving the Cuzak farm the next day, Jim waves good-bye to Antonia and
her children, who make another memorable picture grouped by the windmill.
Thoughtful, affectionate Ambrosch opens the gate for the buggy, and Jim
hates to leave him. Jim has made a plan to take the older boys hunting at
the Niobrara (a river in northern Nebraska) which he is looking forward
to as much as they are.
On the way home he spends a disappointing day in Black Hawk, where very
few of the people from his youth remain. Walking out to the edge of town,
he finds a half-mile stretch of the old wagon-road "which used to run
like a wild thing across the open prairie." Out there he experiences once
again the beauty of sunset and autumn (recurring images). The memory of
his first ride over that road comes to him strongly. Now he feels that
this road has brought him and Antonia back together. It is "the road of
Destiny" along which their lives have traveled. "I had the sense of
coming home to myself," he writes, "and of realizing, in the context of
the vast prairie, what a little circle man's experience is." Now, looking
back on it all, Jim believes, "Whatever we had missed, we possessed
together the precious, the incommunicable past."
NOTE: "THE INCOMMUNICABLE PAST" Is the past incapable of being described
or explained, as this quote implies? Jim's manuscript seems to contradict
its own last sentence. Full of nostalgia, it richly evokes the places,
people, and emotions of his past--which is to a large extent Cather's own
Jim's memories of Antonia are strong, and his visit with her strengthens
his feelings even more. She is his oldest friend. That alone would make
her precious, but in addition she has become a symbol of endurance, love,
and the values of the pioneer way of life. She has also created "enough
Cuzaks to play with for a long while yet," and through them Jim has
already begun to rediscover the happiness of his lost boyhood.
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: GLOSSARY
AIGRETTE an ornamental spray of feathers or gems
AMOUR PROPRE French phrase meaning self-esteem
ARNICA an herb used in a liniment for sprains or bruises
ARROYO a water-carved gully or channel
BILE a secretion of the liver, used figuratively to mean anger
BOHUNK slang word for Bohemian, used pejoratively
BREAKING SOD ploughing prairie land for the first time
CAPOTE a long cloak
CHASED (silver) decorated with an indented pattern
CONDITIONS (university) two years of preparatory courses conditions for
entry to university
COURT-PLASTER an adhesive bandage
CROUP a children's illness marked by coughing and difficult breathing
CUT BANDS to cut pieces of twine or metal for binding sheaves of grain
DINNER the hot noon meal on a farm
DIVIDE a watershed, or dividing ridge between drainage areas
DRAW a natural ditch or valley that draws the water off a piece of land
DRAY a strong low cart or wagon
DUGOUT a dwelling dug out of a hillside
FIXY slang for particularly neat
GELDING a neutered male horse
GRIZZLED streaked with gray
GULLY a small gorge cut in the earth by a stream
HARTSHORN hart's antler, a source of ammonia; also the ammonia water
made from it
HOMESTEAD a piece of land acquired under the Homestead Act (1862), or
the farm established on such land
KAWN-TREE Antonia's pronunciation of 'country'
LARIAT a long rope for lassoing animals
LARIAT PIN the peg by which a lariat is fixed to the ground, restricting
an animal to one area
LIVERY TEAM a hired team of horses and a wagon
MAMENKA familiar term for mother in Bohemian
MUTTON TALLOW fat drippings from a cooked sheep
NIOBRARA a river in northern Nebraska
NOBLESSE OBLIGE French phrase meaning a nobleman's special obligation to
PLACER CLAIM a tract of potentially valuable land (especially on land
thought to contain particles of gold)
PLAITING WHIPLASHES braiding rawhide strips into whips
POULTICING applying a medicinal compress (poultice)
PRIMER a simple book for teaching children to read
PROVIDENCE divine guidance or care
QUINSY a severe inflammation of the throat accompanied by swelling and
QUIRT a riding whip with a short handle
RAVINE a narrow, steep-sided valley, bigger than a gully and smaller
than a canyon
SCHOTTISCHE a dance like the polka but slower
SECTION LINES the boundaries between surveyed sections of land
SHELVING BANKS the sloping sides of a river or stream
SHOCK a pile of sheaves of grain set up in a field with the butt ends
SOD top layer of prairie land
SOD HOUSE a house built from brick-like pieces of sod
SORGHUM a grain cultivated for syrup or animal feed
SPRING WAGON a light wagon with springs
STEER a neutered (castrated) bull raised for beef
TATINEK familiar term for father in Bohemian
TITHONUS in Greek mythology, husband of Aurora (the dawn)
TRANSOM a small ventilation window above a door
USURY NOTES a moneylender's receipts
VICTUALS food (pronounced "vittles")
WINDLASS WELL a water well with a bucket that is raised on a rope by
turning a crank
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: ON MY ANTONIA
Few American novels are likely to be read longer than My Antonia. In it,
theme, character, myth, and incident ride together comfortably on a
clear, supple prose style. It is probably Willa Cather's greatest work.
Everything went right--a splendid concept executed with perfect taste and
mastery. Willa Cather combines the yea-saying vision of Whitman with a
disciplined artistry learned from James, Flaubert, Sarah Orne Jewett, and
others, and the novel goes considerably beyond either of its immediate
predecessors.... The wonder of it all is that the novel, so rich in
suggestiveness, is so artfully simple....
Emerson to Whitman to Willa Cather: The line in American literature is
direct and clear. Although her methods were modern and her subjects the
immigrant farmers of Nebraska, she belongs to the tradition of American
-James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, 1970
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: ON CATHER'S WORK
Where to place Willa Cather will always puzzle the literary historians.
But the reader of her best novels is not likely to worry about that.
These novels have a strength and an individuality that it is not easy for
the critic formally to describe, virtues which can be experienced even if
they cannot easily be talked about. Her position among American novelists
is unique; no other has brought to bear quite her kind of perception on
the American scene.... [Her work] transcends national problems to
illuminate one of the great questions about civilization. To put the
matter briefly, Miss Cather's novels are civilized; and if we interpret
that term too narrowly, that is because we have not read Willa Cather
-David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, 1951
It is customary to speak of Willa Cather as an "elegist" of the American
pioneer tradition. "Elegy" suggests celebration and lament for a lost and
irrevocable past; but the boldest and most beautiful of Willa Cather's
fictions are characterized by a sense of the past not as an irrevocable
quality of events, wasted in history, but as persistent human truth
repossessed--salvaged, redeemed--by virtue of memory and art.
Her art is a singular one. The prose style is suave, candid, transparent,
a style shaped and sophisticated in the great European tradition; her
teachers were Homer and Virgil, Tolstoy and Flaubert. But the creative
vision that is peculiarly hers is deeply primitive, psychologically
archaic in an exact sense. In that primitivism was her great strength,
for it allowed the back door of her mind to keep open, as it were, to the
rumor and movement of ancestral powers and instinctive agencies.
-Dorothy Van Ghent, Willa Cather, 1964
All of what Willa Cather wrote, it seems to me, is ultimately a metaphor
of the conflict which Miguel de Unamuno referred to as an "inward
tragedy," the conflict "between what the world is as scientific reason
shows it to be, and what we wish it might be, as our religious faith
affirms it to be." For Willa Cather, this conflict was most broadly
expressed in terms of the world she knew in her childhood--the pioneer
era which she clearly idealized and ennobled in her fictional recreation
of it--and the post-World War I wasteland she so thoroughly repudiated.
It is easy to lose sight of the essentially symbolic nature of this
conflict and to read it too narrowly in terms of literal past versus
literal present. Her theme was not the superiority of the past over the
present, but, as Henry Steele Commager observed, "the supremacy of moral
and spiritual over material values, the ever recurrent but inexhaustible
theme of gaining the whole world and losing one's soul." Rather than
being irrelevant to the modern world, the moral thrust of Willa Cather's
art, her concern with pioneers and artists as symbolic figures
representing the unending human quest for beauty and truth, places her
among the number, not of the backward-looking (which she saw herself as
being one of), but of the true spiritual pioneers of all ages in whose
lives or work other men continue to find inspiration.
-Dorothy Tuck McFarland, Willa Cather, 1972
...She thought the traditional themes of love and despair, truth and
beauty, the struggle for artistic honesty, far from exhausted; indeed she
held, with Henry James and Ellen Glasgow, that these were the only themes
capable of inspiring great art. "Ideals," she wrote, "were not archaic
things, beautiful and impotent; they were the real sources of power among
men," and unlike so many of her contemporaries--Hemingway, for example--
she was not embarrassed by this vocabulary. Sarah Orne Jewett had
admonished her, when she was scarcely more than a girl, that "you must
write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes
to make up. Otherwise what might be strength... is only crudeness, and
what might be insight is only observation, sentiment falls to
sentimentality--you can write about life but never write life itself."...
[She] wrote life itself, wrote it so passionately that the characters she
created seem to us more authentic than the characters of history.
-Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind, 1950
^^^^^^^^^^MY ANTONIA: ON WILLA CATHER
It is time to remove some of the pink and blue from our image of the
apple-cheeked and prairie-blue-eyed Willa Cather. This writer we think of
as Middle Westerner spent most of her life in the East. She chose to be a
New Yorker. She was the hard-driving editor of a successful magazine and
didn't start writing fiction full time until she was 40. Her literary
ties were to Europe. The girl next door of American letters hated small-
town America, rejected heterosexuality, and distrusted the family as the
enemy of art. It is time to establish Willa Cather's complexity and her
stature as a writer.
-Phyllis Rose, "The Point of View Was Masculine,"
The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1983