How does the setting in Cather's My Antonia depict the beauty and devastation of a Midwest farmer's life?

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Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Antonia, is a perfect example of literary regionalism. The Nebraskan landscape directly contributes to the emotional growth (or decline, in some cases) and the physical actions of the characters as the novel progresses. How Jim views the land is particularly important, as the story is told through his perspective.

When Jim arrives in Nebraska after setting off west from Virginia upon the death of his parents, he notes that “there seemed to be nothing to see” there and that “there was nothing but land.” His description of Nebraska as essentially blank and unchartered land, “the material out of which countries are made,” parallels his own life at that moment. Jim is newly orphaned and in a new land right at the time in his life when a young boy transitions into a man. As American expansion takes hold in Nebraska, causing incredible growth and change, the same is happening for Jim.

An important concept to keep in mind for this period in American history is Manifest Destiny, which claimed that the United States was destined by God to expand its territory across the entire continent—essentially claiming that the American settlers had a divine right to all of the land. Jim’s opinion of Nebraska as “the material out of which countries are made” lines up with the thinking involved in Manifest Destiny, suggesting that Jim himself arrives in Nebraska as the material out of which men are made.

It is no wonder, then, that Jim consistently thinks of the Nebraskan countryside during key moments of personal growth. Jim idealizes the landscape of Black Hawk, flashing to images of the land during frenzied moments of study while at University and noting how upon Lena’s sudden arrival to his college dormitory made everything “much pleasanter than before.” The beauty, strength, and simplicity of Black Hawk serves as a calming force for Jim when contrasted against the hustle and bustle of town life.

In the end, Jim realizes that he belongs in the country and that he “felt at home again” when walking through the rough pastures. He has the “sense of coming home” to himself when in Black Hawk, calling his experiences up until this point as the “road of Destiny”—directly harkening back to the concept of Manifest Destiny that Cather alludes to in chapter one.

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Willa Cather's novel My Antonia sweeps from the mountains of Virginia, Jim's original home, to the red-grassed plains of Nebraska and the town life in Black Hawk. The reader is caught up in the prairie as Cather's rich descriptions of the grasslands form a backdrop to the events in the novel. From Jim's epiphany in a fall pumpkin patch to Mr. Shimerda's tragic death in the depths of winter, the characters are forever at the mercy of nature. Naturalist author Cather provides a colorful and moving portrayal of the struggles and triumphs of immigrant homesteaders who battle to find a home in sod houses and an environment lacking in established European culture.

The opposition between rural and urban Nebraska is reflected in the events that take place in the town of Black Hawk and in the fields. Life in the towns is more complex, fast-paced, and exciting. It is interesting to note that Antonia, despite the challenges of country life and the thrill she experiences in a town setting, chooses to settle in the vast prairie, where she claims she will feel less alone.

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For Cather, setting is not so much about physical locations as it is about seasons and weather--the most important and most uncontrollable factors in being a Nebraska farmer. Cather moves her story forward using the pace of the seasons and the unpredictability of the weather to mirror human events. For example, Mr. Shimerda's suicide is foreshadowed by a dark, harsh blizzard before his death in Book I, chapter 14. Conversely, the arrival of spring in Book II, chapter eight brings people out of their homes to the dancing pavilion, where young men and women will begin to interact socially and create the possibility for new life.

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In My Antonia, how does the use of setting move the novel through its paces and bring the reader's attention to the beauty and devastation of a farmer's life?

This powerful novel is rightfully famous for its excellent evocation of place. The sense of beauty and potential in the descriptions of the countryside capture the real sense of excitement and hope that so many immigrants felt as they first arrived to this rather stark landscape. Note the following description of the countryside in Chapter 4 at the very beginning of the book, where Jim begins to be captured by the amazing beauty of his landscape:

All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autumn. The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads.

As beautiful as this landscape is, as reminiscent of the hope and optimism of the American Dream, the novel also shows that it can be a cruel, harsh and unyielding setting as well. The landscape is somewhere that, even though it is beautiful, is not able to replace the powerful sense of the loss of one's homeland that is experienced by so many immigrants, Antonia included, and it is also shown to physically break various people who have optimistically come to start a new life, like Antonia's father. The farmers are at the whim of nature and many suffer as a result.

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