In Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia, the author relates a story about the settling of the American Midwest near the turn of the twentieth century. Much of Cather’s perspective comes from her personal childhood experiences. Adventures from her youth help the reader to decide whether Jim Burden or Antonia Shimerda ultimately gains more from the friendship they develop.
The main comparisons and contrasts in My Antonia are based on the struggles of native-born Nebraskans and European immigrants to the region. Jim is the primary narrator of the nostalgic tale about his relocation to Nebraska from Virginia after becoming orphaned at a young age:
I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska.
While Jim has family in Nebraska, he is still somewhat of a stranger and must learn to adjust to living with his grandparents. Although the challenges are real, native-born settlers to Nebraska farmland share cultural beliefs with which the family is familiar. They speak the English language and their religious beliefs are in sync with those of their neighbors. In times of trouble, people in the close-knit community are more than willing to lend a helping hand.
On the other hand, Antonia relocates to the prairie from Bohemia with no connections or ties to her new residence. She is a complete stranger to a foreign culture. The Shimerda family has no farming experience. They speak very little English, which is typical of immigrants from Europe. And Antonia is afraid:
During those first months the Shimerdas never went to town. Krajiek encouraged them in the belief that in Black Hawk they would somehow be mysteriously separated from their money. They hated Krajiek, but they clung to him because he was the only human being with whom they could talk or from whom they could get information.
On one Sunday morning Jim’s family decides to meet their new neighbors from Bohemia:
“We were taking them some provisions, as they had come to live on a wild place where there was no garden or chicken-house, and very little broken land. Fuchs brought up a sack of potatoes and a piece of cured pork from the cellar, and grandmother packed some loaves of Saturday's bread, a jar of butter, and several pumpkin pies in the straw of the wagon-box. We clambered up to the front seat and jolted off past the little pond and along the road that climbed to the big cornfield.”
Upon finally seeing the Shimerda property, Jim sees it is far from adequate for the family’s needs. As the neighbors exchange greetings, Jim and Antonia walk the property and Jim begins to teach Antonia some English. This is her first big opportunity to learn something about her new culture and their relationship grows.
In the fall, Antonia takes Jim to meet a Russian acquaintance who teaches them some farming lessons. As they continue to explore their newfound culture together, their personalities begin to absorb their circumstances and surroundings. Jim becomes enthralled with nature and the environment. As the narrator of the story, he reminisces about his days in Nebraska and the environment that appears to impact his personality. He is able to adapt to his place in society and ultimately achieve success. He becomes strong, like the land that served as the natural setting of his youth. In a sense, the Nebraska wild never leaves him.
Antonia is psychologically tied to the Nebraska landscape. However, unlike Jim who draws from the past as he thrives in the future, she remains in the past. While she becomes independent, she is so bound to the past and the immigrant experience that her personality seems to remain there.
Jim’s friendship with Antonia is the catalyst that enables him to learn from their joint adventures. Most critics would surmise that their relationship has more of an impact upon Jim than upon Antonia. They both embrace the past, but while she continues to struggle through life despite her emotional strength, he uses what he learned from the past to build and enjoy a better future for himself.