In My Antonia, why does Anton kill himself?
American author Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia, set in rural Nebraska in the late nineteenth century, is narrated by the character Jim Burden and is the story of his boyhood and young adulthood in a time and place he recalls with great fondness. Especially dear to him is Antonia Shimerda, the elder daughter of a large Bohemian immigrant family who had been his neighbors.
The question of why Antonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda, dies by what appears to be suicide has to be considered from a number of perspectives. First of all, there is a shadow of doubt over whether his death was actually caused by a self-inflicted gun wound or whether an unsavory character by the name of Krajiek actually killed Mr. Shimerda and tried to make the death look like a suicide. The fact that Mr. Shimerda has a gash in his forehead that matches the blade of Krajiek’s hatchet is never investigated, and it is easier for everyone in the community to believe that Mr. Shimerda’s death was indeed a suicide. The reader is left with doubt.
If the reader is to concur that the death must have been a suicide, there are many hints in the story to indicate that Mr. Shimerda suffered from depression. Let us consider his circumstances. The Shimerda family moves from Bohemia to Nebraska and is shamelessly financially exploited by an earlier Bohemian immigrant, Krajiek, who sells them his very primitive dug-out shelter and his old, weak draught animals for far more money than they are worth. Jim’s grandmother provides this background information to him on the way to his first visit to the new neighbors in chapter 3. She describes their neighbors' home as a “cave” and also explains that the patriarch of the family, Mr. Shimerda, knows nothing about farming. He had been a skilled textile worker and violinist back in Bohemia, and he seems entirely displaced in the wild lands of Nebraska. One can imagine how useless the head of a family who is deprived of his way of making a living may feel.
Krajiek’s presence in Mr. Shimerda’s daily life also adds a level of pressure and discomfort. Adding insult to injury, the unscrupulous Krajiek continues to live in the shelter with the family, and they are dependent on him because they have not learned much English yet. They also allow him to stay because they do not know how to get rid of him. Jim tells us that “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” (chapter 4).
Jim’s first impression of Mr. Shimerda (in chapter 3) suggests that the elderly immigrant suffered from depression: “His face was ruggedly formed, but it looked like ashes—something from which all the warmth and light had died out.” Later, Jim reflects that Antonia “was the only one would could raise the old man from the torpor in which he seemed to live” (chapter 6). The dull inactivity of his life also suggests a sad mental state.
In chapter 13, the hints we have seen thus far that Mr. Shimerda is married to a woman with a nasty disposition are confirmed. After Mrs. Shimerda comes for a visit to the homestead where Jim lives with his grandparents, rudely examining their belongings and demanding that his grandmother give her one of her best pots, Jim concludes the following about Antonia’s mother: “She was a conceited, boastful old thing and even misfortune could not humble her.”
In this chapter, Antonia reveals that her father deeply misses Bohemia and that the idea of moving to Nebraska was forced on him by her mother. Antonia says, “He not want to come, nev-er…My mamenka make him come.” She goes on to explain that her mother had great ambitions she thought would be fulfilled in America: cattle and land for her son, Ambrosch, and husbands for her daughters.
By reviewing the novel, you will see that there are many hints that Mr. Shimerda became overwhelmed by the circumstances of his life, fell into depression, and possibly died by suicide. Yet the hatchet wound in his forehead remains unexplained, and the real cause of death remains secondary to the idea that what really counts in such a time and place is the survival of the family he leaves behind.
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