As the narrator, Jim Burden, so acutely observes, "it was homesickness that killed Mr. Shimerda" (Chapter XIV). In the old country, Mr. Shimerda was a weaver and a musician. He was happy in Bohemia, and emigrated to America with his family at the insistence of his wife, a much younger woman who believed that the opportunities for her children, and especially her son Ambrosch, would be much greater in America. Mr. Shimerda was old and frail when he left his homeland, knew nothing about farming, and could not adjust to the rigors of pioneer life. Because the family spoke no English, they were dependent on a unscrupulous countryman, Kajiek, in the new land. Cheated out of the bulk of their money by Krajiek, the Shimerdas were essentially living in a cave when Jim met them, and Mr. Shimerda was powerless to improve their situation.
Jim relates that the deaths of two of the unhappy gentleman's friends from Bohemia, Peter and Pavel, "had a depressing effect upon old Mr. Shimerda" (Chapter VII). While his family worked tirelessly in the fields and gradually adjusted to life on the Nebraska plains, Mr. Shimerda became more and more like a shadow. He existed on the periphery of life, in a world in which he was completely out of his element. Jim observes simply that, in the end, Mr. Shimerda killed himself because "he had...been so unhappy that he could not live any longer" (Chapter XIV).