Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ántonia Shimerda, a young immigrant girl of appealing innocence, simple passions, and moral integrity, the daughter of a Bohemian homesteading family in Nebraska. Even as a child, she is the mainstay of her gentle, daydreaming father. She and Jim Burden, the grandson of a neighboring farmer, become friends, and he teaches her English. After her father’s death, her crass mother and sly, sullen older brother force her to do a man’s work in the fields. Pitying the girl, Jim’s grandmother finds work for her as a hired girl in the town of Black Hawk. There, her quiet, deep zest for life and the Saturday night dances lead to her ruin. She falls in love with Larry Donovan, a dashing railroad conductor, and goes to Denver to marry him, but he soon deserts her, and she comes back to Black Hawk, unwed, to have her child. Twenty years later, Jim Burden, visiting in Nebraska, meets her again. She is now married to Cuzak, a dependable, hardworking farmer, and the mother of a large brood of children. Jim finds her untouched by farm drudgery or village spite. Because of her serenity, strength of spirit, and passion for order and motherhood, she reminds him of stories told about the mothers of ancient races.
James Quayle Burden
James Quayle Burden, called Jim, the narrator. Orphaned at the age of ten, he leaves his home in Virginia and goes to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. In that lonely prairie...
(The entire section is 1479 words.)
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As narrator, Jim Burden is Cather's persona—that is, he serves as a stand-in for the author. He comes to Nebraska at about the same age and time that Cather moved west with her family; he lives on a farm for a time with his grandparents just as Cather did; and Jim's neighbors, the Shimerdas, may have been inspired by the Cathers' Bohemian neighbors, the Sadileks. As an adult, Jim Burden returns to Nebraska just as Cather returned to Red Cloud and visited her friend Annie Sadilek, who was then surrounded by a large brood of children and happily married to a Czech farmer (Cuzak in the novel).
Jim is not merely Cather's voice. He is a full-bodied character with a nature and point of view of his own. Although sensitive, dreamy, and somewhat alienated, he is also conventional, a product of his own social class and family aspirations. But it is not simply class attitudes that keep a wedge between him and Ántonia. He is at turns intrigued by Ántonia's will-power and vitality and disgusted by her strongheadedness and outspoken nature. People talk about him, that there is something strange about his lack of interest in girls of his own age and class and his lively relationships with the hired girls, the daughters of immigrants. Yet, once scolded by his grandmother, he stops socializing with them at the dances. While attending college in Lincoln, he starts a relationship with Lena Lingard. Yet he accepts her declaration that she will never marry, and he...
(The entire section is 354 words.)
Ántonia is fourteen when she first meets Jim and gives him a ring. Her warmth and impulsiveness are immediately evident, the very characteristics that both intrigue and frighten Jim. She is both a realist and a loyalist, who makes excuses for her mother's behavior but does not complain about her. Her father wants to develop her loftier side: "Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Án-tonia!" he tells Mrs. Burden. But his suicide puts an end to such refined aspirations. Ántonia's hardy side is developed instead. She works in the fields, proud to be competing with men. Her physicality makes her great; she belongs to the earth. At the end of Book One, Ántonia corrects Jim's blindness to their difference in circumstance: "If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us."
Hired out to the Harlings, she learns how things are done in a well-ordered American home, things her own overwhelmed and disappointed mother could not have taught her. A basic harmony exists between Ántonia and Mrs. Harling: they have strong, independent natures, and they know what they like. They both love children, animals, and music, as well as rough play and digging in the earth. As Jim says, "Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating." But Ántonia is young, high-tempered, and stubborn. When she has to choose between her work at the Harlings and dancing, she...
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Mrs. Emmaline Burden
Jim's sturdy grandmother runs an orderly, proper household, a counterpoint to the Shimerda's animal-like cave. Awareness of differences makes her generally tolerant and concerned. The narrow attitudes of the Norwegians who won't let Mr.Shimerda be buried in their cemetery offend her: "If these foreigners are so clannish, Mr. Bushy, we'll have to have an American graveyard that will be more liberal-minded." But she has her own biases. She is contemptuous of Mrs. Shimerda's gift of dried mushrooms, declaring, "I shouldn't want to eat anything that had been shut up for months with old clothes and goose pillows." And she is conventional too. She worries that people will say she hasn't brought Jim up correctly because he dances with the country girls. And when he is at school, she informs him only of those friends she aproves of. She does not let him know that Lena Lingard is in Lincoln.
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See Mrs. Emmaline Burden.
See Mr. Burden.
Grandfather Burden is reserved, dignified, but occasionally outspoken. Religious and broad-minded, he accepts that "The prayers of all good people are good." Grandfather does not join the feud between his hired men and the Shimerdas and continues to help Ambrosch and Ántonia with advice and materials.
Jim's Latin teacher in Lincoln awakens his mind and makes the classics come alive for him. Jim believes that Cleric "narrowly missed being a great poet," but spends all his creative energy in his lectures. It is on his account that Jim goes to Harvard.
The Black Hawk money lender fleeces Russian Peter and many others. He talks of his religious nature and contributions to Protestant churches, yet is known as a gambler and womanizer. His crafty plot to assault Ántonia, who comes to work for him and his wife, is thwarted by Mrs. Burden and Jim.
See Wick Cutter.
Antonia's husband had made several bad decisions in his youth in Vienna and in America. He finally comes to Black Hawk to visit his cousin, Anton Jelinek. When he meets Ántonia, he finds exactly the kind of girl he had always wanted. Lena thinks he is the perfect partner for Ántonia: "He isn't a...
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My Antonia has a double protagonist, being at one and the same time the story of Antonia Shimerda and the story of how the narrator Jim comes to consider her the symbol of his childhood and of the pioneer era. From the moment the two of them arrive in Nebraska on the same train, Jim an orphan from Virginia who will be cared for by his grandparents on their comfortable farm, and Antonia an immigrant from Bohemia who will have to face all the trials of the first-generation immigrant pioneer, to the end of the story when they are reunited in middle age, Jim is consistently used as a suggestive parallel to Antonia. He is male, born in America and a Protestant, rather privileged economically and therefore able to receive an education and explore the world. She is female, an immigrant and a Catholic, poor, uneducated, and bound to the land. He is contemplative, she is active. He achieves success professionally but ends up with only the past to console him; she makes many mistakes but finally is able to savor the present and look forward to the future, all the while revering the past.
Cather never has Antonia reveal herself directly to the reader but shows her development and self-discovery from the outside as she is observed by Jim at different ages: as a child exploring the wonders of the prairie and being forced to take on the responsibilities of an adult; as an adolescent in Black Hawk excelling in the domestic arts and rebelling at attempts to suffocate her...
(The entire section is 1234 words.)