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.”
When Willa Cather moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska in 1883, the United States was a nation growing in both geographical size and population. People from all over Europe were boarding boats headed for America and a new start. They were filled with the pioneer spirit, staking out pieces of farmland and calling them their own. First-generation Poles, Germans, Bohemians, Swedes, and Russians settled in the expanding Midwest to begin their lives again. They braved the harsh elements, penniless until their crops brought them economic relief. Cather’s childhood experiences with these people served to capture her spirit for the frontier. They also defined human endurance.
When My Antonia was published in 1918, the world was in the aftermath of World War I. Willa began to see a nation in love with material things, and she felt the culture had become shallow because of this materialism. However, she also saw hope, through the selfless dedication of men and woman in their war efforts. She felt the importance of the pioneer spirit needed to be revitalized, and that is the message she wanted to convey when she wrote My Antonia.
My Antonia was immediately praised upon publication. One of the most immediate and important reactions to the novel dealt with Cather’s use of the male narrator, a little-used device for woman writers at the beginning of the century. She was a pioneer in a sense, breaking new ground with her use of the narrator Jim Burden. Many critics have said that Jim Burden was really an autobiography of Willa herself. Other critics praised her ability to break away from the conventional form of the novel, noting that My Antonia was written in a series of dramatic or elegiac episodes out of the narrator’s memory, conveying a nostalgic emotion. Harsher critics have viewed this nostalgic writing as “a devitalization of spirit,” calling Cather’s work too self-indulgent and claiming that she should have been writing about the life of her times, about life after the Great War.
My Antonia continues to be read and praised widely because of its universal appeal to a faith in humanity, of the rewards that come at the end of a long struggle. It has established Willa Cather as the most notable writer of the pioneer experience.
Master List Of Characters
Jim Burden—Narrator, he has written down the memories of his friendship with Antonia. Jim is independent and courageous, with a love for adventure. When he returns to Black Hawk twenty years later, Jim is a successful lawyer in an unhappy marriage.
Antonia Shimerda—The eldest daughter of a Bohemian immigrant family of farmers in Black Hawk, Nebraska. She is forced to work as a servant on the farms of her neighbors after her father’s death and goes on to live a weary but fruitful life with a large, happy family.
Grandmother Burden—A strong, hard-working, fifty-five year old Virginia-bred farm woman. She runs a clean, organized and cheerful home, and she is deeply religious. She takes care of Antonia after her father’s death.
Grandfather Burden—Quiet, industrious older man, he runs the farm well, laboring in the fields along with the farmhands. He is a staunch Baptist. He is kind and loving to Jim and he helps out the Shimerdas despite their ungratefulness.
Jake Marpole—Accompanies Jim to his grandparent’s farm in Nebraska. He is a Burden farmhand and he has a violent temper. However, he is well-received in Jim’s memory. Jake leaves on a train after the Burdens move to Black Hawk.
Otto Fuchs—Another farmhand, Otto is a skilled carpenter, and builds Mr. Shimerdas’ coffin. He also keeps a trunkful of memorabilia from his adventures around the world. Otto leaves on the train with Jake after the Burdens move to Black Hawk.
Peter Krajiek—Bohemian who cheats the Shimerdas and forces them to live in poverty. Jake Marpole blames him for the death of Mr. Shimerda because Krajiek acts guilty after the suicide.
Mr. Shimerda—Father of Antonia, he is a kindly man who begins to despair over his family’s poor condition and his failure to become a successful farmer. Mr. Shimerda never really wanted to come to America, and he becomes homesick for his native land and kills himself.
Mrs. Shimerda—Mother of Antonia, she is a mean and disagreeable person and has trouble grasping a new language. She complains about her poverty, and she envies the Burdens. She is greedy and materialistic.
Ambrosch Shimerda—Brother of Antonia, he is greedy and lacking in the social graces. He is also hard-working and religious, praying for his father after the suicide. He detests Antonia’s child, and marries a domineering woman.
Yulka Shimerda—Antonia’s younger sister, she is quiet and obedient to her parents. Later in the novel, she helps to raise Antonia’s baby.
Marek Shimerda—Antonia’s mentally afflicted brother that wants to show that he doesn’t feel the cold weather. Later, Marek is sent to an asylum.
Peter The Russian—One of the two Russian neighbors whose story is told at some length by Antonia to Jim Burden. He is a friendly neighbor, a short man who is always smiling and shares his milk and produce with the Shimerdas. Peter looks after his brother until he dies.
Pavel The Russian—Brother of Peter the Russian, he becomes sick and tells his tragic tale of throwing a bridal party to the wolves. He is tall and thin, and he dies in his bed of tuberculosis.
Mrs. Harling—Born in Norway and the wife of a cattle merchant, she is stocky and ambitious, hires Antonia to cook for her household. She is an orderly woman, running a well-conducted household and working hard to keep things tidy. Her strong character has a positive influence on Antonia.
Mr. Harling—Christian is a grain merchant and cattle-buyer. He is a firm and serious businessman, and when he is home, the household revolves around him.
Frances Harling—Oldest of the Harling children, she is her father’s business assistant, and he depends on her. She is a friendly and outgoing businesswoman, and she knows all the farm people well.
Lena Lingard—Daughter of a poor Norwegian farmer. She comes from a large family, and she is a beautiful, blonde girl with a low, sweet voice. She becomes Jim’s companion in Lincoln, and she stays happily unmarried.
Anton Jelinek—Bohemian from Black Hawk, Jelinek visits the prairie after Mr. Shimerda’s suicide to comfort the family. He is friendly and helpful, and he appears later in the novel running a saloon in Black Hawk.
Mrs. Gardener—Woman who runs The Boy’s Home hotel, she is considered the best-dressed woman in Black Hawk, with a large fortune and many material possessions. She is fond of her diamonds, but is indifferent toward the rest of her riches.
Blind d’Arnault—Negro musician that comes to Black Hawk to play the piano. He is a happy person that tells the story of his learning to play the piano as a slave. Jim remembers him fondly.
Ole Benson—An unhappy farmer who falls in love with Lena and doesn’t leave her alone.
Crazy Mary—Ole Benson’s wife, she is jealous of Lena and chases her around the prairie with a knife.
Anton Cuzak—A good-humored Bohemian man who once lived the life of a fur worker in Vienna. He comes to Nebraska to visit his cousin Anton Jelinek, and meets Antonia. He marries her and lives a happy life on the prairie, fulfilling Antonia’s dreams by becoming a farmer.
Leo Cuzak—Antonia’s favorite child, he is an independent and brash twelve-year-old. He has a curly-head and he is handsome. He is jealous of his mother. He also plays his grandfather’s violin for Jim and the others.
Martha—Antonia’s first baby, who Leo Cuzak accepted before he married Antonia. Antonia tells Jim twenty years later that she married and moved away.
Rudolph Cuzak—Antonia’s oldest boy, Rudolph arrives from the fair with his father. He tells the story of the Cutters at the dinner table.
Jan Cuzak—He is shy and often gets left out of conversations. His father brings him a paper snake from the fair.
Ambrosch Cuzak—One of the boys who Jim talks to in the haymow and helps with the chores.
Yulka Cuzak—One of Antonia’s daughters, she helps her older sister with the chores and dances while Leo plays the violin.
Anna Cuzak—Oldest daughter on the farm, she cares for the little ones and helps her mother with chores.
Wick Cutter—A libertine and swindler who bickers continually with his wife over his money and who will inherit it. Antonia goes to work for him, and he plots a trip to her room to rape her. He commits suicide after murdering his wife.
Mrs. Cutter—A big, wild-looking, unhappy woman who paints flowers on china and bickers constantly with her husband. Her husband kills her to prevent her family from inheriting his fortune.
Larry Donovan—A train conductor and ladies man who convinces Antonia to move with him to Denver to become his wife, then leaves her when he is fired as a conductor for pocketing fares.
Tiny Soderball—One of the hired girls who works in the hotel in Black Hawk. Tiny moves to Seattle to start a boarding house, and eventually becomes part of the gold rush in Dawson City. She is an independent woman who winds up living in San Francisco.
The Widow Steavens—A tall, strong and independent woman who rents the Burden farm and recounts Antonia’s life to Jim Burden on his return after twenty years.
Gaston Cleric—A Latin professor from New England with a dominating personality who persuades Jim to finish school. Cleric comes to visit Jim in his room and teaches him the classics.
Colonel Raleigh—Landlord to Lena Lingard, Raleigh is a southern colonel who falls in love with Lena. He gives her a black spaniel which she names Prince.
Ordinsky—The Polish violin teacher who lives across the hall from Lena Lingard who doesn’t trust Jim when he comes to visit. Ordinsky is also in love with Lena, and she helps him with his torn waistcoat.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 668 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues 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...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1145 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Book I, Introduction and Chapters 1-10 Summary and Analysis
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.)