Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 1 - THE SHIMERDAS
Jim has begun to hate Antoniaís superior tone with him. She is four years older than he and seems to regard him as if he were the inferior one, when he feels it is clear that as a boy, he is superior to her as a girl. One day his problem is solved. She is sent by her brother to get a spade from the Russians and Jim accompanies her. On their way back, she suggests they stop at the prairie dog field to dig one of the holes up and find out the secret of whatís in them--if there is a subterranean water source, if the owls have feather-lined nests, and the proportions of the tunnels. When they get to the field, Jim is startled by Antonia screaming at him in her language. He turns around and sees a rattlesnake over five feet long. It slowly coils itself. When it lifts its head to strike, Jim hits it with the spade and crushes its head. He is so upset that he continues striking it over and over while Antonia screams.
He scolds Antonia for warning him by "jabber[ing in] Bohunk" to him. She apologizes submissively and tells him he looked like a big man when he was killing the snake. She insists that they take the snake home to show everyone Jimís heroism. They count the snakeís rattles and decide it must have been twenty-four years old. Jim thinks of this as the time before European settlers came, during the "buffalo and Indian times." He begins to feel proud of himself for having killed the snake, thinking of the snake as some kind of "ancient, eldest Evil."
When they get back, they find Otto Fuchs. He asks if it was a struggle and before Jim can answer, Antonia gives him a vivid fabrication of a fight with the snake. When she walks off, he tells Jim he probably crushed its head with the spade on the first strike. Jim realizes it was not a real adventure only later when he has had other encounters with younger and more vigorous snakes. He thinks of it now as a "mock adventure." From that time on, Antonia treats him as if he were a big man.
The symbolism in this chapter is quite vivid. Jim feels a lack of respect from Antonia, who is older than he by four years, but a girl, whom he has been taught is lesser than boys. Conveniently, a snake comes along and proves to be a means for Jim to prove his superiority. Antonia goes into her assigned role as an appreciative girl who praises beyond all bounds the prowess of the boy.
From this bare description, it seems as if the scene would be a trite and ridiculous narration of gender politics at the early part of the century. However, Catherís description of the encounter with the snake is written with such vividness that the readerís stomach clenches in fear. Then, the aftermath of killing the snake is told with light irony. Itís clear that the narrator sees the silliness of the gender politics and is smiling at his boy selfís seduction by the empty show of masculine prowess in killing a snake.
Itís also important for the reader to realize that at the time this novel was written, people werenít as saturated with the ideas of Sigmund Freud who taught us so much about symbolism. Today a novel with such a scene in it, looking for holes to dig up and find out whatís in them and discovering a massive snake, would be considered trite because readers are more sophisticated about recognizing the significance of phallic and vaginal imagery. Cather was writing to a very different readership.
At the end of Autumn, Jim hears that things are very bad with his friends the Russians. They have taken out mortgages with Wick Cutter, a moneylender in Black Hawk and have no way of repaying the debts. Pavel strains himself while working in town and falls down with blood gushing out of his mouth. He is put in bed where he remains. One afternoon, Antonia and her father come by to visit. They tell the Burdens about Pavelís poor state and say they are going to spend the night with them to help Peter take care of him. Jim gets permission to go with them.
That night, they all sit around and watch as Pavel struggles to breathe. The coyotes begin barking outside and this sound disturbs Pavel greatly. He tells a story to Mr. Shimerda that freezes Antonia who is listening to it. After telling the story, he falls asleep and they all feel great relief. Peter drives the visitors home and on the way, Antonia tells Jim the story Pavel told. When he and Peter were young men, they lived in Russia. One of their close friends was getting married to a woman in a neighboring village. It was the dead of winter and they led a sledding party to the womanís village for the wedding. The party of six horse-drawn sledges had in it all the groomís friends and family.
After the wedding, there was a party and a dinner. It was late at night before the sledding party headed back home. Pavel and Peter were driving the sled of the married couple. As they got away from the houses, they heard the first bark of a wolf. Everyone was drunk and sleepy and so ignored it until they heard answering calls. They realized when it was too late that the wolves were coming together. Something happened to the sixth sledge. The driver lost control and the sledge overturned. The rest of the party could hear their screams as the wolves ate the passengers. One by one all the sleds but two are overtaken by the wolves and they could hear the screams of the people and the horses as they were eaten. They got close enough to home to see the lights of their village. Peter was driving and Pavel got an idea. He called the groom to him and gestured to him to throw the bride over to the wolves to distract them. The groom refused and they struggled until the groom fell over the side. Then Pavel pushed the bride out after him.
When they got home, everyone found out about what Pavel had done and he and Peter were hounded from the town. They tried to make it in other towns but the news followed them. Finally they saved enough money to come to the United States. Still bad luck had followed them at every step.
Pavel dies a few days after he tells the story to Mr. Shimerda. Peter sells everything and leaves. Before he does, he sits down and eats all the winter melons he has stored up. The loss of Peter and Pavel depresses Mr. Shimerda. He often goes to their now empty house after he has been hunting. Antonia and Jim guard the secret of the wedding night jealously. Jim often gets confused between the wolves of the Ukraine and the plains of Nebraska. When he is going to sleep at night, he often thinks of himself riding in the sledge over countryside that looks part like Nebraska and part like Virginia.
Chapter 8 gives us a story within a story. The story of Pavel throwing the bride and groom to the wolves to save himself and his friend Peter is so compelling that the reader forgets it is told in a Nebraska farm house. Perhaps it functions in the novel as a reminder of the weight of the past in the homeland that immigrants bring with them.