Study Guide

My Antonia

by Willa Cather

My Antonia Analysis

My Ántonia (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Antonia immigrates as a girl with her family from Bohemia to a homestead on the open plains. The hardships of attempting to farm the raw land drive her sensitive father to suicide, and, as a young teenager, Antonia is forced to endure hard physical labor in helping to work the farm.

Like many other daughters of the farming immigrants, Antonia becomes a servant girl to an established family in the small town of Black Hawk, with her wages sent to her older brother to help support her family on the homestead. In town, she is able to participate in social activities such as dances and parties, and these gatherings become the focus of her life. She meets a man who works as a conductor on the railroad, and she runs away with him in the belief that he will marry her. However, he deserts her with child, and, in shame, she returns to the grueling hard work of her brother’s farm.

Willa Cather’s portrayal of the great presence of the prairie, which is converted during Antonia’s lifetime from open expanse to productive farmland, serves as a powerful background to Antonia’s struggles. Although Antonia faces severe hardship, she remains strong, responding openheartedly to her simple life, which centers on child rearing and family concerns. At the close of the novel, Jim Burden visits her after a twenty-year absence, and he discovers her happily married to a local farmer and caring for her large family. Her courage has enabled her to become a mature woman of dignity and strength.

Bibliography:

Bloom, Harold, ed. Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collection of eleven reprinted articles, selected by a leading literary critic. Includes a Cather chronology and bibliography.

Brown, Edward Killoran. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Brown was Cather’s first biographer. A gracefully written book that still provides insights into Cather’s writings, this work is penetrating in its discussion of Cather’s use of feelings and nostalgic memories in My Ántonia. Brown died before he could finish the biography, and Leon Edel completed the work.

Brown, Muriel. “Growth and Development of the Artist: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.” Midwest Quarterly 33, no. 1 (Autumn, 1991): 93-107. Refers to Cather’s own ideas about the novel and about creativity. Brown offers her interpretation of the characters of Ántonia and Jim Burden.

Dyck, Reginald. “The Feminist Critique of Willa Cather’s Fiction: A Review Essay.” Women’s Studies 22, no. 3 (1993): 263-279. Dyck explains Cather’s regained literary reputation as a major writer as a consequence of work by feminist critics since the 1970’s. Summarizes some of the conflicting interpretations of Cather, using My Ántonia as the primary focus.

Jessup, Josephine Lurie. The Faith of Our Feminists. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1950. An early feminist scholar, Jessup compares Cather favorably with Edith Wharton and Ellen Glasgow, particularly in her development of strong female characters. This is a short but important book.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989. In this major biography of Cather, Lee presents a sweeping, multilayered examination of her life and art. Utilizing the most recent scholarship and finely honed critical skills, she assays all the writings, often producing original and controversial interpretations. Her discussion of the pastoral is a significant contribution to understanding Cather’s use of the land motif. The book contains a valuable short bibliography.

Murphy, John J. “My Ántonia”: The Road Home. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Places the novel in historical and literary context and provides a reading of the text. Also includes a chronology and selected bibliography.

Rosowski, Susan J., ed. Approaches to Teaching Cather’s “My Ántonia.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1989. Interesting and readable essays by both established and newer Cather critics who consider the novel from a wide range of perspectives.

Stouck, David. Willa Cather’s Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. Although Stouck is primarily interested in an appreciation of all Cather’s writings, he does offer some valuable observations about memory and the pastoral in My Ántonia. His book also has a helpful selected bibliography.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Woodress, an established Cather expert, provides a clear, enthusiastic treatment of Cather’s accomplishments as an author. He argues that My Ántonia is her finest novel and one of the best written by an American.

My Antonia Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Burden farm

Burden farm. Ranch in pioneer Nebraska owned by Jim Burden’s grandparents. It is to this farm that the ten-year-old Jim Burden is brought from Virginia after his parents die, and it is here that he learns to love the prairie. It is also here that he meets the Shimerdas, a Bohemian family (immigrants from Bohemia) who are distant neighbors struggling to survive in this harsh new land.

Shimerda home

Shimerda home. Sod cave, built into a hillside, that is home to Ántonia and her family. The Burdens help out their Bohemian neighbors, who live in isolation and deprivation in their first year in America. The Shimerdas survive the brutal winter, but the father, homesick for the old country, kills himself. When the church refuses to bury Mr. Shimerda in the cemetery, he is laid to rest in a corner of his property. In the spring, the Shimerdas build a log house, and through hard work and economy begin to make their farm prosper.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk. Small town that is the center of this farming region (probably based on Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Cather grew up). When the farm gets too much for them, the Burdens rent it out and buy a house in town, where Jim can start school. Ántonia also moves to town to work for the people who live next door to the Burdens. Jim feels a loss of freedom in the move from the prairie to Black Hawk and becomes “moody and restless,” but life is made better by the presence of Ántonia and the other “hired girls” (immigrants from Europe like Ántonia) who work in town. Certainly, Cather shows, they have an energy and love for life missing in many of their neighbors. At the town dances, it is Ántonia and her friends who show the most spirit. Jim graduates from high school, dedicating his commencement oration to Ántonia’s father.

*Lincoln

*Lincoln. Nebraska’s state capital, largest city, and home to the university where Jim starts his separation from his family and the prairie life. After succeeding at the university, he goes on to Harvard Law School. Jim hears about Ántonia and her family during his years away but visits her only once before starting his legal career.

*New York City

*New York City. Center of American financial and cultural life by the end of the nineteenth century. Jim becomes a lawyer for the railroads in New York and marries. It is clear from Cather’s fictional introduction to My Ántonia, however, that his marriage is loveless and produces no children. In the greatest city in the country, he has lost something of what he had as a young man growing up with Ántonia on the American prairie.

Cuzak farm

Cuzak farm. Farm where Ántonia, her husband, and their many children live. In the last scene of the novel, Jim visits this farm years later and discovers the richness and happiness of immigrant life on the prairie. Ántonia has aged, but she has “not lost the fire of life.” With Ántonia and her family, Jim feels at home again, and the novel has circled back to the prairie. It is the land, Cather implies, and the immigrants who bring their dreams and energy to it, which sustains this country. Jim Burden no longer shares either the dreams or the land, but he personally understands the prairie’s power and the heroism of people like “my Ántonia.”

My Antonia Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jim Burden, a middle-aged, successful New York railway lawyer with a sterile marriage and a host of nostalgic memories, writes his reminiscences about his rural Nebraska youth. These reminiscences are My Ántonia, a coming-of-age story, but not primarily the story of Burden’s coming-of-age. His early life provides the plot’s framework. After three years on his grandparents’ farm, he moves with them to the prairie town of Black Hawk. From there he will go to college, law school, and his career in New York. Burden’s memories, however, center more on Ántonia than on himself. He remembers her early years as she struggled to overcome her father’s death and bore too much of the burden of her family’s hardscrabble fight to survive. He recalls his fears that Ántonia might be so coarsened by her experiences that she might become like her mother and her brother Ambrosch. After he moves to town and enters his teens, his feelings about Ántonia change. Ántonia also comes to Black Hawk as a hired girl in a neighboring home. Before, she had been a childhood playmate; now, she was a beautiful young woman. Ántonia will always respect and treasure Jim like a beloved younger brother. Jim’s feelings toward her grow more complex. He will come to love her, but his is love with little sexual desire. It will be more spiritual. She will embody all elements of woman—wife, mother, sister, sweetheart—and become a part of himself.

There were other immigrant farm daughters who came to work in Black Hawk. Free-spirited, they labored diligently, played hard, and saved their money. They particularly loved dancing and mingling with the boys. Black Hawk’s old stock citizens were scandalized, especially the women. Young females did not dance; indeed, exercise was seen as unladylike and possibly scandalous. These country girls seemingly threatened the prevailing morality, but they would not be intimidated. Ántonia and her friends Lena and Tiny Soderball were the leaders of these exuberant young women. Jim Burden thought that they brought vitality to the town’s barren social life. He also later realized that most of these girls would be extremely successful, either in their own careers, like Lena and Tiny, or as dominant heads of successful farm families.

Jim leaves for college and loses contact with Ántonia. After graduation, he returns home briefly to learn she had fallen in love with a young railroad conductor who had promised to marry her and then deserted her, unmarried and pregnant. Jim journeys out to visit the Shimerdas. Ántonia once more is working in the fields. Determined to make a good life for her baby, she will not despair. In an emotional scene, they assure each other that whatever else happens in life, spiritually they will always be close.

Burden goes to law school and will not see Ántonia for twenty years. Although his business for the railroad often involves western travel, he avoids her, afraid he will find her aged and broken. Finally he seeks her out, discovering that she has flourished. Happily married, she has a home full of children and is the undisputed mistress of a prosperous farm. Although she is older in looks, her irrepressible vitality is undiminished. Awash in memories and believing that Ántonia has achieved true fulfillment, he is determined never to be so far away again. He will take some of her sons on hunting trips, befriend her husband, and maintain vital connections with Ántonia and her own.

My Antonia Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

My Ántonia is Willa Cather’s most important contribution to American women’s literature. Appearing at a time when old Victorian standards were crumbling and debate raged over women’s rights and responsibilities, Cather argued for women’s freedom to choose their own lifestyles. She also clearly suggested that females were superior to men. Willa Cather will be known by feminists for her creation of strong, dominant women. By 1918, Cather had already published two novels, O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915), with powerful female figures, but the mythic Ántonia stands as Cather’s most complete, transcendent heroine.

My Ántonia received favorable critical reviews, eventually becoming an American classic. Its position on women’s concerns was not the only reason for its success. Cather’s eulogizing of the land clearly struck a chord. This theme had also been present in O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, but as was the heroine motif, it was most fully realized in My Ántonia. Many Americans, unhappy about the spread of industrialism, with its blighting of the landscape and destruction of the rural heritage, would be drawn to Cather’s romantic evocation of the prairie and its pioneers.

Cather continued to write after My Ántonia, but her concerns changed. There was less autobiography. Increasingly, she became more interested in a remoter past, and the prairie gave way to a fascination with the arid Southwest. Her focus on women diminished, became blurred. The females became weaker, while the males gained somewhat in stature. One should look to her earlier works for Cather’s true impact on the discussion of women’s issues. These works, such as My Ántonia, made Willa Cather one of the major American women writers.

My Antonia Historical Context

Immigration
Up until 1825, less than 10,000 new immigrants came to the United States each year. By the late 1840s, revolutions...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

My Antonia Quizzes

Book I, Introduction and Chapters 1-10 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does Cather have Jim Burden and the Bohemian immigrants arriving on the same train?

2. What is the significance of the train arriving at night?

3. Why does Jim want to be left alone in the garden?

4. To what does Jim compare the many-colored grasses on the prairie?

5. Why isn’t Mr. Shimerda’s fiddle of any use to him here?

6. What is the significance of the sunflower-lined roads?

7. Why does Jim visit trees “as if they were persons?”

8. Why does Cather choose to have the characters Pavel and Peter come from Russia?

9. Why does Cather have Antonia relay the tragic tale of the Russians to Jim?...

(The entire section is 375 words.)

Chapters 11-19 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is the significance of the snowstorm just before Christmas?

2. What is so unusual about Otto’s trunk?

3. Why does Mr. Shimerda arrive at the Burden’s alone?

4. What is the significance of the “false spring” just before the blizzard?

5. Name two places in this section where the narrator jumps forward in time.

6. When Antonia tells Jim of her father’s worsening depression, why does he feel little pity for him?

7. On the morning of the suicide, how does Jim know that something has happened?

8. Why doesn’t Grandmother Burden believe Mr. Shimerda could have killed himself?

9. What one thing...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Book II, Chapters 1-8 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does Grandfather Burden become a deacon of the church?

2. What became Jim’s “compensation” for his lost freedom?

3. How did Ambrosch Shimerda take advantage of Antonia’s reputation as a hard worker?

4. Why does Jim consider Frances Harling so important?

5. Why doesn’t Antonia want to give all of her allowance to Ambrosch?

6. Why did Mr. Harling take Mrs. Harling away to their room on the west wing?

7. What is the significance of the traveling salesmen?

8. What is the significance of the altercation between Lena Lingard and Crazy Mary?

9. How are Antonia and Mrs. Harling similar?

...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

Chapters 9-15 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why did Jim want Lena to settle down with a town boy?

2. What reasons does Antonia give for wanting to work for the Cutters?

3. How did Wick Cutter say he got his start in life?

4. Under what condition does Mrs. Cutter threaten to leave Mr. Cutter?

5. Who does Jim compare to Snow White?

6. How does Tiny Soderball make Jim angry?

7. Who was the proprietor at the saloon that Jim visits?

8. Who does Jim consider “a professional ladies man?”

9. As Jim gets more lonely, who does he find for companionship?

10. Down by the river, with whom does Jim remember hunting?

Answers
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(The entire section is 216 words.)

Book III, Chapters 1-4 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why did Gaston Cleric move west?

2. What was so unsusal about Jim’s room in Lincoln?

3. What does Jim believe was “fatal” to Gaston Cleric’s “poetic gift”?

4. Why did Lena insist on paying her own way to the theatre?

5. What did Lena plan to do with the money she saved?

6. Where does Lena tell Jim Antonia is working?

7. What does Jim remember when he hears Lena laugh?

8. Why was Jim puzzled by Lena’s business success?

9. What was the significance of the umbrella Jim uses on his way back from the theatre?

10. Why does Lena like to be lonesome?

Answers
1....

(The entire section is 226 words.)

Book IV, Chapters 1-5 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Where does Frances Harling tell Jim that Antonia is living?

2. What happened while Tiny Soderball was running her boarding house in Seattle?

3. What was the only thing that now interested Tiny?

4. Why did Tiny limp when she walked?

5. What does Jim notice about the picture of Antonia’s baby?

6. Why was Larry Donovan fired as a passenger conductor?

7. How did Larry Donovan treat his female passengers different from his male passengers?

8. What does Jim notice about the old pasture lands?

9. Who was in the basement when Mrs. Steavens and Jim went into the sitting room?

10. Who shows Jim...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Book V, Chapters 1-3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What did Jim send Antonia when he was in Prague?

2. From what does Antonia make kolaches?

3. Where does the narrator tell us that life “comes and goes” at a farmhouse?

4. Where does the children’s teacher have the school picnic every year?

5. Who does Jim tell Antonia was once a great huntswoman but now shoots only clay pigeons?

6. What does Antonia do with her pictures of the old country?

7. What story does Charley Cuzak want Jim to tell?

8. How was Anton Cuzak dressed when Jim first met him?

9. What did the coroner find on Wick Cutter’s desk?

10. Who was Anton Cuzak’s cousin?

...

(The entire section is 206 words.)