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 playmate.
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 youth.
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 their friendship.
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
[My Antonia Contents]
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.
- 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 life.
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?
- 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
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 land.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 hard worker.
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.
- 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 animals.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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 institution.
- 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.
- 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
- 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 womanizing.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 confidante.
- 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.
- 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 pregnant.
- 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
[My Antonia Contents]
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 temperatures.
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 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.
The following are themes of My Antonia.
- 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 put it.
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 her children.
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
- 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.
- 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.
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
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
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
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's style.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES
[My Antonia Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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