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My Antonia
Willa Cather

THE STORY, continued


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.


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.

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.


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 wife's attention."


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 be married.

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, easy personality.

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."

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.


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 farm.


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.

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."


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.

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 them restless.


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.


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.


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.


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 enough).

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 religious zealots.


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.

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 on her.

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.


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?


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 wine.

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 skating here.

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 for men.

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."

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 insignificant.


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.



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 Virgil.

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?)


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.

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 relationship.


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."

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.


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.


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.

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.


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."

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.


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 friendly."

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.

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.


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 sunlight."

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 many memories.

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.


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 these years.

"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.


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."

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 past.

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.



ECC [My Antonia Contents] []

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