My Antonia Summary

Overview

Summary of the Novel
My Antonia takes the form of a memoir by the narrator, Jim Burden. In his memoir, Jim recounts the life of his childhood friend Antonia Shimerda, the eldest daughter of an immigrant family of Bohemian farmers living in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Antonia’s father commits suicide and she is forced to farm the fields throughout her early teens. Later in her life she goes to work for the Harling family. She remains with the family until Mr. Harling interferes with her social life. Antonia then goes to work for the Cutters until Wick’s amorous intentions cause her to leave.

Jim Burden enters a college in Lincoln, Nebraska, and leaves Antonia’s side for two years. When he returns to Black Hawk, he learns of her failed relationship with Larry Donovan, the train conductor and ladies man who had promised to marry her. Donovan abandoned Antonia in Colorado, unwed and pregnant, and she returns home to Black Hawk, ashamed. She resumes her hard-working life in Black Hawk and gives birth to a daughter. After Jim goes East to attend law school, Antonia meets and marries Anton Cuzak, a fellow Bohemian, and has a large family with him. Content with family life, Antonia lives the rest of her days toiling and happy on her farm in Nebraska.

Estimated Reading Time
The average student should be able to read My Antonia in its entirety in a total of approximately 12 to 18 hours. It is suggested that the reading of the novel be divided into three blocks: Book I, “The Shimerdas” for the first block, Books II and III for the second block, and Books IV and V for the third block. These blocks divide the novel into the stages of Antonia’s life, from her early childhood on the farm, to her life as a hired girl, and finishes with her family life as a mother and wife.

Block One-Book I: The Shimerdas
(Reading Time: 4-6 hours)

Block Two-Book II: The Hired Girls
Book III: Lena Lingard
(Reading Time: 4-6 hours)

Block Three-Book IV: The Pioneer Woman’s Story
Book V: Cuzak’s Boys
(Reading Time: 4-6 hours)

The Life and Work of Willa Cather
Willa Cather was born in 1873 in rural Virginia. She moved with her family from Virginia to Red Cloud, Nebraska, at age ten. Red Cloud was a small railroad town that had just been founded thirteen years before the Cathers moved there, populated by immigrants from all over Europe. When Cather attended Red Cloud High School, she became enamored with learning the classics. A townswoman, Mrs. Minor, contributed greatly to her love for music, a love that entered many of the characters in her novels. Ms. Cather began to forge friendships with many of the immigrants that had moved to Red Cloud. Her compassion for their struggles again reflected itself in her novels.

Cather graduated high school and tired quickly of small town life. She moved to Lincoln in 1890. She wanted to enter the University of Nebraska, but her poor schooling in Red Cloud prevented her from getting admitted. She spent a year studying to enter college. She was admitted as a medical student, but abandoned that for the study of the classics. During her college years she became a dedicated writer on the classics. One of her literary papers was published, without her knowledge, in the Nebraska State Journal by one of her professors. She was enamored by the sight of her own writing published in a magazine. “What youthful vanity can be unaffected by the sight of itself in print!” she later wrote. The influence of prairie life made her stand out at the University of Nebraska. Many of the students would later remember her as unmannerly, masculine in appearance, and poorly dressed. After graduation, Ms. Cather decided to pursue a career in journalism. She moved to Pittsburgh, getting a job as a newspaper woman but she tired quickly of the hectic newspaper life. She moved to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to become a high school teacher of English and Latin. She continued to write more consistently, and in 1903, she published April Twilights, her only volume of poetry. Shortly after that, she published The Troll Garden, a collection of short stories.

When she was 32, she moved to New York City and joined the editorial staff of McClure’s Magazine. At McClure’s, she edited and rewrote hundreds of magazine articles. Cather continued writing and publishing short stories in her spare time, in The Century magazine, Harper’s Monthly and McClure’s.

While doing research in Boston for a magazine piece, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, a sixty-year-old short story writer. Jewett advised Cather to become a novelist. “Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience,” Jewett told her. “You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world.”

Though she knew that her chances of becoming a successful fiction writer were slim, Cather resigned from McClure’s after seven years. She traveled to the Southwest, where she became inspired to spend her life writing. She published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, in 1912, and then her second novel, O Pioneers!, in 1913. Willa returned to the Southwest in the summer of 1915, and her third novel, The Song of the Lark, had its setting there in the ancient cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon, Arizona. In 1918, Willa published My Antonia in which she returns to her childhood years in Nebraska.

After My Antonia, Willa continued to write novels set around characters from the prairie. She achieved popular success with One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. It is the story of a Midwestern farmboy who enlists in the army during World War I and is killed in France. The novel was based on a relative of Cather’s, who died in that war. Her next novel, A Lost Lady, deals with the slow moral deterioration of a woman from a small Nebraska town. The Professor’s House, published in 1925, is set in a small mid-western college. Of all her novels, she is best remembered for My Antonia.

The characters of Willa Cather’s writings stem from the landscape of the prairie and her personal experiences growing up. Her early novels, including My Antonia, are reflections of the courageous immigrants from Europe who settled in the Midwest. Many of these immigrants could speak only their own native languages. They were people so poor they built their homes with almost no money, while braving the harsh prairie winters. Though many of the immigrants became successful farmers, many also lost their ambition and gave up. Willa saw, through their endeavors, what the pioneer spirit was all about.

Willa Cather died in 1947 at the age of seventy-three. Today, she is considered the definitive writer of the plains states, and one of the most acclaimed woman writers in American literature. Her tombstone, in the small town of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, bears a line from My Antonia: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

My Antonia Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

One of Cather’s best-loved novels, My Ántonia is a moving tribute to the spirit of the pioneers whose strength and endurance made possible the settlement of the American frontier. In its portrait of its title character, the book gives an individual face to the myriad experiences facing the immigrants who composed a large portion of the Midwest’s early homesteaders.

The story is told from the point of view of Jim Burden, a young boy from Virginia who has lost his parents and travels to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. On the same train as Jim is an immigrant family, the Shimerdas, whose oldest daughter, Ántonia (pronounced in the Eastern European manner, with accents on the first and third syllables), will become the companion of Jim’s childhood days. Through Jim’s eyes, the reader sees the family’s early struggles as they suffer cold and deprivation in a dugout house, lose the sensitive Mr. Shimerda to suicidal despair, and gradually begin to pull free of hardship through diligence and hard work.

Ántonia Shimerda is an intelligent girl who must forgo any thought of serious study in order to work for her family. First in the fields and later as a “hired girl” in Red Cloud, she is cheerful and uncomplaining, shouldering her share of the backbreaking work required to support a family farm. Ántonia’s patient, gentle spirit stays with Jim long after he has left his small community, coming to represent for him the very best of what the pioneer experience can draw from the individual.

Ántonia is not, however, a simplistic character or a lifeless symbolic figure. Cather brings her fully to life, flawed and warmly human, and her story is both specific in its details and universal in its larger themes. A practical, sensible girl, she is nevertheless passionate in her love of the dances that provide all the hired girls with one of their few pleasures, and her trusting nature leads her into trouble—in the form of an illegitimate child—when she is unable to recognize dishonesty, so foreign to her own nature, in the man she loves.

My Ántonia draws its inspiration from Cather’s own childhood memories, and Ántonia herself is modeled after a woman named Annie Sadilek, who worked as a maid for the Cathers’ neighbors in Red Cloud. Like Ántonia, Annie’s father had tragically committed suicide when faced with the hardships and cultural deprivations of his new home, and Annie’s strength and perseverance left a deep impression on Cather over the years. The book’s narrator, Jim Burden, who leaves his small community first for college and then to become an attorney for the railroad, is essentially Cather herself, and Jim’s growing understanding in the book’s later passages of the importance of those early years parallels Cather’s own.

My Ántonia is also filled with a wealth of memorable supporting characters: Jim’s strong, loving grandparents, the family’s colorful farmhands, Ántonia’s friends, Lena Lingard, who becomes a successful dressmaker, Tiny Soderball, who makes her fortune in the Alaska gold rush, and Cuzak, the good-hearted immigrant who marries Ántonia and makes his life as a farmer although he longs for the city life he knew as a boy. The novel is peopled with a rich cast of characters culled from Cather’s memory and transformed by her writer’s imagination.

There is perhaps no other book that captures quite as well as this one does the look and feel of the prairie. An eye accustomed to more spectacular landscapes may miss the subtleties of the land’s beauty, but Cather’s deep feeling for the Midwest, with its rolling plains, wildflowers, and open sky, creates an almost palpable picture of her story’s setting—one that is crucial to the reader’s understanding of the characters and their lives. In the beauty of its language and the humanity of its characterizations, My Ántonia remains a major achievement among Cather’s work.

My Antonia Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Willa Cather’s ambivalent feelings about the Nebraska prairie in which she came to young adulthood are most evident in My Ántonia, her novel about the immigrants who settled there. While she fully understood the inability of some of the settlers to adjust to the harsh extremities of weather and bleak environment, she most admired those who survived, prevailed, and later prospered. The prairie was such a force in her life that it is no wonder that the setting of the novel is considered to have as great an impact on the characters as any other character could have.

My Ántonia is a novel of interaction between people and their environment. The prairie, cruel and lovely, is too palpable, too moving and changing, to evoke picture-postcard images. The seasons are distinct, the extremes great: “Burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet iron.” The elements are a constant companion. Every day calls for interaction. The sun can be “blinding,” the thaw can be a “broth of grey slush,” the wind can have the “burning taste of fresh snow.” This land is, at times, “impulsive and playful,” able to moan, howl, and sing. The elements are punishing, kind and caressing, acting willfully, just as people might.

Into this comes a train from the east, carrying ten-year-old orphaned Jim Burden, the narrator, and Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas. The eldest daughter of the Shimerdas is Ántonia, the subject of the narration. Jim is going to live with his grandparents; the family is seeking a new life in farming. At first the new arrivals are overwhelmed with what they see: the inhospitable landscape, the sod huts, the abject poverty. The Shimerdas, however, do what is required and set about establishing a home. Ántonia throws herself into a full embrace of the land. She is suited to the challenge: strong, industrious, self-sufficient. Jim also comes to love the prairie, but he determines that he must seek friendlier climes, eventually becoming a New York lawyer.

When he returns to his once-loved prairie twenty years later, he finds Ántonia has changed. Although she is still life-affirming and still has the power to charm, she is slightly bedraggled, slightly mannish, surrounded by equally bedraggled, but happy, children and a childlike husband.

Willa Cather’s prairie is hard and cruel, beautiful and vibrant. The land and the weather provide a setting that is as multidimensional, as complex, as any fictional character might be. Her novel is a tribute to the land and the pioneering spirit of those who tamed it.

My Antonia Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Jim Burden’s father and mother die when he is ten years old, and the boy makes the long trip from Virginia to his grandparents’ farm in Nebraska in the company of Jake Marpole, a hired hand who is to work for Jim’s grandfather. Arriving by train in the prairie town of Black Hawk late at night, the boy notices an immigrant family huddled on the station platform. Jim and Jake are met by a lanky, scar-faced cowboy named Otto Fuchs, who drives them in a jolting wagon across the empty prairie to the Burden farm.

Jim grows to love the vast expanse of land and sky. One day, Jim’s grandmother suggests that the family pay a visit to the Shimerdas, an immigrant family just arrived in the territory. At first, the newcomers impress Jim unfavorably. The Shimerdas are poor and live in a dugout cut into the earth. The place is dirty, and the children are ragged. Although he cannot understand her speech, Jim makes friends with the oldest girl, Ántonia.

Jim often finds his way to the Shimerda home. He does not like Ántonia’s surly brother, Ambrosch, or her grasping mother, but Ántonia wins an immediate place in Jim’s heart with her eager smile and great, warm eyes. One day, her father, with his English dictionary tucked under his arm, corners Jim and asks him to teach the girl English. She learns rapidly. Jim respects Ántonia’s father, a tall, thin, sensitive man who had been a musician in the old country. Now he is worn down by poverty and overwork. He seldom laughs any more.

Jim and Ántonia pass many happy hours on the prairie. Then, during a severe winter, tragedy strikes the Shimerdas when Ántonia’s father, broken and beaten by the prairie, shoots himself. Ántonia had loved her father more than anyone else in her family. After his death, she shoulders his share of the farmwork. When spring comes, she goes with Ambrosch into the fields and plows like a man. The harvest brings money, and the Shimerdas soon have a house. With the money left over, they buy plowshares and cattle.

Because Jim’s grandparents are growing too old to keep up their farm, they dismiss Jake and Otto and move to the town of Black Hawk. There, Jim longs for the open prairie land, the gruff, friendly companionship of Jake and Otto, and the warmth of Ántonia’s friendship. He suffers at school and spends his idle hours roaming the barren gray streets of Black Hawk. At Jim’s suggestion, his grandmother arranges with a neighbor, Mrs. Harling, to bring Ántonia into town as her hired girl. Ántonia enters into her tasks with enthusiasm. Jim notices that she is more feminine and laughs more often; though she never shirks her duties at the Harling house, she is eager for recreation and gaiety.

Almost every night, Ántonia goes to a dance pavilion with a group of hired girls. There, in new, handmade dresses, the girls gather to dance with the village boys. Jim goes, too, and the more he sees of the hired girls, the better he likes them. Once or twice, he worries about Ántonia, who is popular and trusting. When she earns a reputation for being a little too loose, she loses her position with the Harlings and goes to work for a cruel moneylender, Wick Cutter, who has a licentious eye on her.

One night, Ántonia appears at the Burdens and begs Jim to stay in her bed for the night and let her remain at the Burdens. Wick Cutter is supposed to be out of town, but Ántonia suspects that, with Mrs. Cutter also gone, he might return and try to harm her. Her fears prove correct, for Wick returns and goes to Ántonia’s bedroom, and finds Jim.

Ántonia returns to work for the Harlings. Jim studies hard during the summer, passes his entrance examinations, and in the fall leaves for the state university. Although he finds a whole new world of literature and art, he cannot forget his early years under the blazing prairie sun and his friendship with Ántonia. He hears little from Ántonia during those years. One of her friends, Lena Lingard, who had also worked as a hired girl in Black Hawk, visits him one day. He learns from her that Ántonia is engaged to be married to a man named Larry Donovan.

Jim goes to Harvard to study law and for years hears nothing of his Nebraska friends. He assumes that Ántonia is married. When he makes a trip back to Black Hawk to see his grandparents, he learns that Ántonia, deceived by Larry, had left Black Hawk in shame and returned to her family. There she works again in the fields. When Jim visits her, he finds her the same lovely girl, though her eyes are somber, and she has lost her old gaiety. She welcomes him and proudly shows him her baby.

Jim believes that his visit will be the last time he will see Ántonia. He tells her how much a part of him she has become and how sorry he is to leave her again. Ántonia knows that Jim will always be with her, no matter where he goes. He reminds her of her beloved father who, though he had been dead many years, still lives on in her heart. She tells Jim good-bye and watches him walk back toward town along the familiar road.

Jim does not see Ántonia again for twenty years. On a Western trip, he finds himself not far from Black Hawk and, on impulse, drives in an open buggy to the farm where she lives. He finds the place swarming with children of all ages. Small boys rush forward to greet him, then fall back shyly. Ántonia has married well, at last. The grain is high, and the neat farmhouse seems to be charged with an atmosphere of activity and happiness. Ántonia seems as unchanged as she was when she and Jim used to whirl over the dance floor together in Black Hawk. Cuzak, her husband, seems to know Jim before they are introduced, for Ántonia had told her family about Jim. After a long visit with the Cuzaks, Jim leaves, promising that he will return the next summer and take two of the Cuzak boys hunting with him.

Waiting in Black Hawk for the train that will take him East, Jim finds it hard to realize the long time that has passed since the dark night, years before, when he saw an immigrant family standing wrapped in their shawls on the same platform. All his memories of the prairie come back to him. Whatever happens now, whatever they had missed, he and Ántonia had shared precious years between them, years that will never be forgotten.

My Antonia Chapter Summary and Analysis

Book I, Introduction and Chapters 1-10 Summary and Analysis

New characters:
Jim Burden: the narrator, recounting his life in Black Hawk, Nebraska, and his memory of Antonia

Antonia Shimerda: a strong, healthy and intelligent Bohemian girl, whom the narrator meets in Black Hawk

Grandmother Burden: a well-ordered woman with whom Jim Burden goes to live

Grandfather Burden: a quiet and dignified old man with a white beard, wise in his ways

Mr. Shimerda: father to Antonia, he encourages her to acquire the knowledge she needs

Yulka Shimerda: Antonia’s younger sister accompanies Jim and Antonia down to the river after they first meet

Peter: one of the Shimerdas’ neighbors, an immigrant from Russia who is...

(The entire section is 2972 words.)

Chapters 11-19 Summary and Analysis

Summary
In Chapter 11, on the first day of winter, a big snowfall hits the prairie just before Jake Marpole, the farmhand, is to go to town to Christmas shop. Jake is certain he can make it to town on horseback, but Grandfather Burden assures him he will never make it. Jim and his grandparents have a country Christmas “without any help from town.” Jim and his grandmother gather together pictures and cards from around the house and sew together picture books to give the Shimerda girls.

Otto helps with decorations by making candles, and Grandmother Burden bakes candy and cookies. Jake goes out into the deep snow and brings back a Christmas tree, and Jim and his grandparents decorate it with gingerbread...

(The entire section is 2980 words.)

Book II, Chapters 1-8 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mrs. Harling: neighbors to the Burdens in their new home in Black Hawk, she is stocky and ambitious. She hires Antonia as a cook

Frances Harling: oldest of the Harling children, she is an intelligent businesswoman who works for her father and helps the neighbors avoid Wick Cutter

Lena Lingard: a beautiful, blonde girl with a pleasant voice, she aspires to become a dressmaker and later becomes good friends with Jim

Tiny Soderball: friend to Lena Lingard, she is employed at a hotel, where the girls meet on Saturday nights. She appears later in the novel as her life story is told at some length

Mrs. Gardner: the best-dressed woman in Black Hawk who runs the...

(The entire section is 2171 words.)

Chapters 9-15 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Wick Cutter: the notorious money-lender of Black Hawk, always heard arguing with his wife

Mrs. Cutter: a wild-looking woman who bickers with her husband, busies herself painting china

Summary
The men of Black Hawk are attracted to the country girls in Chapter Nine. The girls, transplanted from their farms into making livings in the town are more full of life. The town boys and country girls get together under the dance tent each evening. Even though the town boys aspire to marry town girls and settle down with their possessions, they watch the country girls with secret desires. They are especially attracted to Lena Lingard. The town boys see the life of the country...

(The entire section is 2272 words.)

Book III, Chapters 1-4 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Gaston Cleric: Jim’s Latin teacher at college who inspires him to read the classics and go to law school back East

Colonel Raleigh: Lena Lingard’s landlord, Raleigh gives Lena a dog and falls in love with Lena

Ordinsky: the Polish violin teacher who lives across the hall from Lena and is also in love with her

The Widow Steavens: a tall, independent woman who has rented out the Burden farm and tells Jim all about Antonia

Larry Donovan: the passenger conductor who promises to marry Antonia and then leaves her pregnant and alone

Summary
The section opens with Jim attending college in Lincoln, Nebraska. Gaston Cleric, his Latin...

(The entire section is 1660 words.)

Book IV, Chapters 1-5 Summary and Analysis

In Chapter One, Jim returns to Black Hawk for the summer after finishing his pre-law schooling at Harvard. On his first evening back, Mrs. Harling, Frances and Sally come to visit him. Frances Harling tells him all about Antonia and how Larry Donovan deserted her and left her alone with her baby. She just works hard for her brother Ambrosch now. Jim is disappointed with Antonia when he hears of her misfortune. He doesn’t think it is right after seeing Lena’s good fortune.

Jim narrates his relationship to Tiny Soderball. He recounts the events leading to her good fortune, from her job running the sailor’s lodge to her trip to Alaska in search of gold. Jim recalls her good luck founding the gold-mining town of...

(The entire section is 1082 words.)

Book V, Chapters 1-3 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Anton Cuzak: Antonia’s husband, he is kind and loving and he brings gifts to his children

Rudolph Cuzak: Antonia’s oldest son. He tells the Cutter story to Jim in great detail

Leo Cuzak: the most mischievous of the Cuzak family, he is also Antonia’s favorite child

Ambrosch Cuzak: one of the boys who Jim befriends. He helps his brother Jan bury their dead dog in the orchard

Jan Cuzak: Jan is little and shy, and rarely talks during family conversations. He cries when the dog dies on the side of the road, and his father brings him a paper snake from the fair

Martha: Antonia’s oldest, who is married and lives away from the Cuzak farm

...

(The entire section is 2824 words.)