Identify and discuss the ways in which Willa Cather casts American immigrants in a positive light in My Antonia. Please include several ways in which the author evokes reader empathy for immigrants.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cather is unapologetic in how she sees immigrants as vital fibers of the tapestry that defines America.  In her depiction of Antonia, Cather is able to extol the virtues of immigrants. She is able to highlight how the immigrant's contributions and struggles helped to give shape to the nation.  In describing a nation that is essentially without form, Cather asserts that it is the immigrant whose work ethic and invaluable contributions helps to define it.  Through such a depiction, a sense of empathy emerges for what it means to be an immigrant in America.

The exposition of the novel helps to establish some of this sympathy.  Cather constructs a narrative of America that is not entirely welcoming to the immigrant.  She displays the inherent barriers that exist for immigrants throughout the nation.  From prejudicial attitudes in lines such as, "They ain't the same, Jimmy...These foreigners ain't the same. You can't trust 'em to be fair," to a nativism that seeks to remove foreigners from American consciousness seen in Jim's initial statement of, "People who don't like this country ought to stay at home," I said severely. "We don't make them come here."   In being an immigrant, Cather shows that there are obstacles that others do not have to address. From the exposition, this idea is developed throughout the novel. Cather is able to establish a sense of empathy within the reader for the immigrant who leaves their own home and culture and enters a world where they are targeted and despised. In Lena's admission, Cather suggests that the narrative of immigrants to America is not always a happy one:

'"It must have been a trial for our mothers,' said Lena, 'coming out here and having to do everything different. My mother always lived in town. She says she started behind in farmwork, and never has caught up.'"

Lena's words strike at Cather's fundamental construction of difficulty within those who emigrate to America.  The people who would willingly embrace such a reality and not resent it is one who emerge as figures of empathy.  In realities such as discrimination and cultural displacement, Cather ensures that her depiction of immigrants reveals the difficulty and challenges for immigrants simply being in America.  To say that it is not easy would be a dramatic understatement.  Through this condition, sympathy is evoked. 

Cather shows American immigrants as people who are not handed anything to them.  She emphasizes that being an immigrant resides in not being afraid to work.  Antonia represents this.  Through not fault of her own, she is forced to abandon her sharp mind through studies and work for her family.  Her father's suicide places a burden on the family, and a condition that she, herself, must work to alleviate.  When Antonia focuses on work, it is not in a limited or stilted manner, reflective in her constant talk of "how much she could lift and endure." Antonia embodies the immigrant spirit of taking pride in work, as a form of connection to the world in which she is placed.  Antonia does not resent the conditions forced upon her, rather looking at her strength and sense of toughness as a source of pride: "She was too proud of her strength. I knew, too, that Ambrosch put upon her some chores a girl ought not to do, and that the farm-hands around the country joked in a nasty way about it."  Jim's reflection about Antonia's working life evokes sympathy because it is evident that she, as an immigrant, is being manipulated.  Antonia is at the mercy of others and is victimized.  Yet, she is "proud" and she does not use this as an excuse.  Antonia's sense of toughness and endurance speak to how Cather views the immigrant.  They toil and struggle and do so for its own intrinsic good as they believe this is the way of their lives, the path to happiness.  For Antonia, being an immigrant is synonymous with hard work. For Cather, it is a reflection of how the immigrant condition is one that has to be honored for it defines the essence of what it means to be "American."

In taking the characterization of Antonia to its development throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Antonia becomes "a battered woman."  Life as a woman and as an immigrant poses challenges to her.  She has lived a life that was far from the original intent and hope that she possessed.  When Jim sees her after a couple of decades, it is clear that she has changed. However, in his depiction of her, Cather, thought Jim, points out the resilient spirit that exists within immigrants that can be easily identifiable:

Antonia lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions...It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.

Cather makes a direct statement about the immigrant condition.  While defeat might be present and while challenges do present themselves, Cather suggests that the immigrant is a "rich mine of life."  

The undertaking of coming to the new world, with all of its challenges, does not take away from the reservoir of promise and possibility within the immigrant. Like Antonia, Cather sees the immigrant as one who holds "strong things" in the heart that "come out" of the body. There are "immemorial human attitudes" within the immigrant, a universal predicament that one must validate.  Cather articulates a regenerative spirit in the immigrant to America, one who touches that which is shapeless and formless in order to give it an identity that is "tall and straight."  The immigrant is "tireless" in their efforts, and through this, a sense of empathy develops.  The reader recognizes that the struggles of the immigrant must be acknowledged and validated.  Cather is able to generate a positive light in being an immigrant.  While Antonia is transformed through life, her spirit never changes.  This is Cather's ultimate praise of the immigrant, as one who is in the world but does not take the form of the world around them.  Cather would see the immigrant as a type of lotus, one that is of the world of what is, but also seeks to transform it into a world of what can be. 

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My Antonia

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