Book I, Introduction and Chapters 1-10 Summary and Analysis
Book I, Chapter I Summary
The novel opens with the narrator Jim Burden traveling to Black Hawk, Nebraska, where he will live with his grandparents now that he's an orphan. On the way there, the passenger conductor, a friendly man, tells Jim and his traveling companion Jake, his grandfather's new hired hand, about the foreigners going to settle in Nebraska, only one of whom (the titular Antonia, a girl just four years older than Jim) knows a few words in English. It's clear that Jake is disgusted by this influx of foreigners, but Jim withholds judgment, focusing instead on surviving the long, bumpy ride to Nebraska.
Upon arrival, Jim and Jake are met by a man named Otto Fuchs, who drives them out to the farm just west of Black Hawk. Jim notes that Otto looks like he could be a character in the Jesse James book he's been reading during the long trip. Otto has a huge scar across one cheek, half of his left ear is gone, and he has a deep brown tan, along with "the face of a desperado." He drives Jim and Jake in an old straw-filled wagon and covers them with buffalo hides to keep warm. Jim marvels somewhat at the size of the land, feeling very small and "blotted out." He doesn't say his prayers, reasoning that in this landscape, "what would be would be," regardless of his prayers.
Book I, Chapter I Analysis
Cather uses alliteration when she writes that "Jake's experience of the world was not much wider than mine," where "mine" is Jim's.
Jesse James (1847 - 1882). A Confederate guerrilla and bushwhacker, James is best known as a bank robber and gunslinger who terrorized the Wild West for a couple decades. In his final years, he and his gang members were under increasing pressure from the law, and it became difficult for them to remain active. Eventually, James was killed by one of the gang members, Ford, who was hoping for a reward.
Life of Jesse James. Likely, this is a dimestore novel about Jesse James, the famed gunslinger and bank robber.
One example of a metaphor from this chapter is the description of the conductor's gold cufflinks as being inscribed with "hieroglyphics," where hieroglyphics are a metaphor for the symbols and etchings that Jim finds incomprehensible (they aren't, of course, real hieroglyphics).
Jim personifies an engine when he describes it as "panting heavily after its long run," as if it were a person who'd just run a marathon.
The passenger conductor uses a simile when he says Antonia is "as bright as a new dollar." Later, Jim uses a few similes when describing Otto, whose moustache turns up at the corners "like little horns."
Nature. When Jim looks up at the big, Midwestern sky, unridged by mountains, he feels "erased, blotted out" by the incredible size and grandeur of the sky. In comparison to the vastness of nature, Jim feels small and insignificant, and he abandons his prayers for the night, thinking that nature, with all its glory, will be more powerful than any prayer he utters.
Travel. There are many forms of travel in this novel: the journey from east to west, from town to country and country to country, and from one home to another. Jim, an orphan, travels to Nebraska at the same time as Antonia, an immigrant, who has come to America from Bohemia in order to pursue a better life with her family. Antonia's travels, though certainly more arduous and significant than Jim's, get comparatively little attention, and no emphasis is placed on the journey itself.
Xenophobia. Both Jake and the passenger conductor expresses xenophobic views in this chapter, but Jim, who doesn't have strong feelings on the matter, merely parrots their views to prevent a confrontation. Though there will be some other examples of xenophobia in the novel, Jim, as narrator, does not himself approve of this kind of conduct, and he accepts Antonia and the immigrants easily.
Book I, Chapter II Summary
Exhausted by his journey, Jim takes a long nap and is later woken up by his grandmother, whose deep tan looks much like Otto's. She has been crying a little and says, emotionally, that he looks just like his father, her late son. She tells Jim to come down to the kitchen for a bath. While Jim bathes, his grandmother bakes gingerbread, and a Maltese cat comes to rub against the tub. The kitchen is very welcoming, and Jim spends some time exploring his cozy new home before his grandfather comes back.
Jim immediately takes to his grandfather, whose dignity Jim respects. Together, they sit and eat dinner with Jim's grandmother and Otto Fuchs, the Austrian hired hand who drove Jim and Jake to the farm. After dinner, Otto takes Jim aside to say that his grandparents bought him a "perfect gentleman" of a pony as a present. Jim spends the next day exploring the countryside, excited by everything he sees, including the cornfield, the hills, the garden, the prairie.
Book I, Chapter II Analysis
Bismarck, North Dakota. Currently the capital of North Dakota, the city of Bismarck was founded in 1872, when its white settlers stole land from the Mandan Native American tribe. It was renamed Bismarck in honor of the first German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1815 - 1898), who'd earned the nickname "Iron Chancellor" due to his iron-firsted rule over the German bureaucracy.
Book of Kings. Originally written as one book of the Bible, the Book of Kings was later broken into two books, both of which detail the history of Israel and Judah in the years following the death of David. Jim wishes that his grandfather, with his deep, sympathetic voice, would read Jim's favorite passages from the Book of Kings. This allusion underscores the fact that Jim was raised a Christian, even though he doesn't practice his religion much in this novel.
Jim equates happiness with the thought of dissolving "into something complete and great," or, in other words, of being part of something bigger than one's self. In this case, that thing is nature.
Jim uses metonymy when he says, "I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea." Here, "grass" stands in for the entirely of the countryside, as "water" stands in for the waters of the sea. This standing in of the small for the whole further emphasizes the grandeur of nature.
Jim personifies the wind when he says that he could hear it "singing its humming tune."
Religion. Jim periodically makes reference to his Christian upbringing, as he does in this chapter when he alludes to the Book of Kings from the Bible. His awe in the face of nature stands in for his faith, becoming in itself a kind of religious experience that fosters the love, peace, and happiness that Christianity is supposed to bring to its followers.
Book I, Chapter III Summary
On Sunday morning, Jim and Otto visit their new neighbors, the Shimerdas, Antonia's Bohemian family. Jim's grandmother sends the Shimerdas provisions, knowing that they've moved to a new homestead that doesn't yet have a garden or means to support such a large family. Their house is really a cave that a fellow Bohemian, Peter Krajiek, sold them for an exorbitant price. Antonia is a strong young girl, and her brothers are prepared to work on a farm, but Mr. Shimerda, a weaver by trade, is old and frail and doesn't know how to run a farm. Jim's grandparents worry that their newest and nearest neighbors will have a rough time of it. Otto wishes that he'd helped negotiate the price of the land and horses for Mr. Shimerda, but Otto is Austrian, and the Bohemians don't trust Austrians.
One of Antonia's brothers, Jim learns, had webbed fingers and likes to frighten people with them. Otherwise, Antonia's siblings are well-mannered and obedient, and they're prepared to work for a living. Jim immediately finds Antonia pretty, and they run hand in hand to the top of a hill to get a better view of the countryside. Antonia, who doesn't speak English yet, struggles to tell Jim his eyes are blue like the sky. Later, Mr. Shimerda asks Jim to teach Antonia English.
Book I, Chapter III Analysis
Jim personifies the road when he says it "ran about like a wild thing."
Cather uses a simile when she writes that Mr. Shimerda's face "looked like ashes."
Antonia's Ring. When Antonia attempts to give Jim her ring, it becomes a symbol of her gratitude for the English lessons Jim gives her.
Clothes. Mr. Shimerda's clothes symbolize his professionalism and his dignity, which stems from his prior life as a prominent weaver and textile artist in Bohemia. By wearing his great coat, his gray vest, his green tie and his perfectly coiffed hair, he's clinging to his former social status and presenting an image of himself that no longer exists.
Language. In Chapter I, Cather made it clear that there's a language barrier between the immigrants going to Black Hawk and the white families like Jim's whose native language is English. However, in this chapter, that language barrier is punctured when Antonia learns the words for blue, sky, and eyes. Mr. Shimerda's request that Jim teach Antonia English promises that this language barrier will be torn down with time.
Book I, Chapter IV Summary
That same Sunday, Jim takes his first ride on his pony, Dude. Otto supervises, just in case. When Otto's satisfied that Jim can ride on his own, Jim starts acting as a messenger for Otto, riding his pony across the fields to ask to borrow something, for instance, or tell people that there will be a religious service at the schoolhouse. When Jim rides, he follows a trail of sunflowers left behind by Mormons as they traveled across the country. Antonia often comes over to play with him, and the two watch owls burrow into the ground near a place called "dog-town," where strays dogs all congregate. The chapter ends with two unsettling images: of Mrs. Shimerda allowing fermented, grayed bread dough to substitute for yeast in her recipe, and of Peter Krajiek, living amongst the Shimerdas like a snake.
Book I, Chapter IV Analysis
Jim equates Peter Krajiek with a rattlesnake that the Shimerdas don't know how to get rid of, like the dogs and owls who don't know how to get rid of snakes.
Rattlesnakes. In the country, rattlesnakes take over the burrows that owls and other birds are forced to make in the ground because of the absence of trees. Once the snakes take over these burrows, they kill the birds, eat their eggs, then move on to the next victim. These rattlesnakes are metaphors for Peter, who takes advantage of the Shimerdas, and symbols of nature's brutality.
Sunflowers. Legend has it that the first groups of Mormons who traveled across the country spread sunflower seeds behind them, leaving a long trail of bright yellow sunflowers for the next groups to follow. These sunflowers are symbols of the desire for others to have a safe journey.
Water. Traditionally, water is a symbol of life, and Cather uses it (and its absence) to suggest that life on the prairie is, in additional to being beautiful, very harsh, and the stray dogs must search for fresh drinking water wherever they can.
Book I, Chapter V Summary
Antonia is excited when her father becomes friends with two Russian men, Pavel and Peter, who is not to be confused with Peter Krajiek, a Bohemian. Pavel and Peter live up in dog-town, where they run a little farm. Pavel is tall, sickly, and prone to wild gesticulations. Peter is short, fat, and rather jolly. They're good farm-hands and spend the summer working together in the sun. Peter is pleased with the fact that he owns a cow, because in Russia only the rich had cows. He cuts up a couple melons for Antonia and Jim, and they all sit down to eat. He sends them home with a pail of milk and a sack of cucumbers for Mrs. Shimerda. He gives nothing to Jim, because he doesn't need it.
Book I, Chapter V Analysis
Cather uses a simile when she describes Peter's facial hair as being "as thick and curly as carded wool."
Friendship. In this chapter, a great friendship develops between Peter and Pavel, Mr. Shimerda, and Antonia and Jim. This friendship will do Mr. Shimerda good, momentarily freeing him of his depression and homesickness. Their departure in VIII will throw Mr. Shimerda into a spiral ending with his suicide. Antonia and Jim, however, place less stock in their friendship with Peter and Pavel, and though they enjoy their time with the Russians, their friendship with each other takes precedence over all others. In future chapters, we'll see how Antonia and Jim's relationship gets complicated over time.
Book I, Chapter VI Summary
Most days, when Jim and Antonia finish their lessons, they head out into the open fields to enjoy their great beauty. When the sun hangs low, the prairie glows red and gold, and Jim thinks of it as the burning bush from the Bible. One day, they see Mr. Shimerda slowly making his way through the fields. Though he's sick, he has managed to shoot three rabbits, the skin of which he promises to fashion into a winter hat for Antonia. Mr. Shimerda says that he'll give his gun to Jim when he gets older. Apparently, the gun was given to Mr. Shimerda by a rich Bohemian at whose wedding Mr. Shimerda played the fiddle. Jim is uncomfortable with this offer, but doesn't decline.
Book I, Chapter VI Analysis
The Burning Bush. The Biblical tale of the burning bush is told in Exodus 3, in which Moses sees an angel of God in a bush, its glory burning like fire. God calls out to Moses from the bush, telling him that he must lead the Jews out of Israel. Jim compares the open prairie to the burning bush to suggest that God is inside it, too, and that the fields are holy.
Jim uses a simile when he says the red fields are like "the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed." This is also an allusion to the burning bush of the Bible.
Book I, Chapter VII Summary
Jim briefly resents Antonia for acting superior to him because of their age difference (she's about four years older than him). Then something happens that makes her think of him as an equal. The two of them are walking through dog-town when Antonia stumbles across a long, old rattlesnake in one of the burrows. Jim kills it with a spade, then marvels at the green poison that oozes out of its head. He takes the dead snake home as a trophy, proud of himself for defending Antonia. Otto praises Jim in front of Antonia, but once they're alone the two men realize that Jim got lucky: his rattlesnake was old and lazy, made complacent by years of easy meals and nonexistent predators, and wouldn't have been so easy to kill if he were younger. Still, Jim hangs the dead snake on the fence, and everyone agrees that it's the biggest rattlesnake any of them have ever killed.
Book I, Chapter VII Analysis
Alliteration. Cather uses alliteration to great effect in the line: "He lifted his hideous little head."
Jim uses a simile when he says that the air "was clear and heady as wine."
Rattlesnakes. For Jim, the dead rattlesnake symbols both his masculinity and coming of age, because it proves to Antonia that he is, in fact, her equal. The significance of this kill is somewhat undermined by the realization that Jim got lucky and wouldn't normally have been able to kill a rattlesnake. Still, this chapter marks an important shift in Jim and Antonia's relationship, as Antonia stops treating Jim like a little boy.
Age. We learned in Chapter I that Antonia is four years older than Jim, but little has been made of this fact until now. Jim, who teaches Antonia English and feels, because of this, that he's more mature than her, intellectually speaking, acts as if there's no age difference between them at all. This can be interpreted as arrogance on Jim's part, because Antonia is perfectly within her rights to think of Jim as a child, given that she's four years older. Then again, it may just be a byproduct of Jim's desire to be more to Antonia than the boy next door who teaches her English.
Book I, Chapter VIII Summary
Near the end of Autumn, Peter confesses to Mr. Shimerda that he has fallen deeply into to debt to Wick Cutter, Black Hawk's much-reviled moneylender. Soon after, Pavel hurts himself on the job and starts coughing up blood. One afternoon, when Jim and Antonia go visit the sick Pavel, they find him huddled in bed, frightened by the sound of wolves in the distance. Pavel then relates the story of why he and Peter came to America: when they were in Russia, their sled was run down one day by a pack of wolves, and everyone in their caravan was killed. In shame, Peter and Pavel left their homeland and moved to America, where they moved around, working odd jobs, before settling in Nebraska, where Peter took out a series of bad loans that cause them to lose their farm at the end of this chapter. Pavel dies not long after he unburdens himself of the story, and Peter is forced to sell off all his possessions. Jim and Antonia never see him again.
Book I, Chapter VIII Analysis
Jim uses foreshadowing when he tells the reader that he'll write more about Wick Cutter later.
Cather uses Pavel's story about the wolves as a metaphor for their financial situation. When these wolves attack that sled caravan, they're effectively destroying Peter and Pavel's future, just as the moneylender Wick Cutter destroys Peter's dream of having his own farm. In this metaphor, Wick Cutter is the wolf and the two Russians are just his latest kill.
Melons. For Peter, the ripe, juicy melons he grows on his farm become a symbol of all his hard work and, later, of comfort. When he's taken away, his beard is dripping with melon juice, indicating that he has once again turned to his favorite food to make himself feel better.
Book I, Chapter IX Summary
Otto makes Jim a sturdy little sled so he can ride around on the snow in winter. Jim loves his new sled and uses it to take Antonia and her sister Yulka out on an adventure one afternoon. It's much too cold, however, and the girls nearly freeze in their ineffective winter clothes. Jim comes down with quinsy (a form of tonsillitis) immediately after and stays in bed for two weeks. While he's at home, he sits with his grandmother in the kitchen and reads The Swiss Family Robinson to her as she bakes. Otto sings them old cowboy songs and tells them the story of how, when he first came to America from Austria, he was asked to look after a woman traveling on the same boat. He had a rough time of it because she gave birth to triplets on the boat and he was obliged to take care of them until they arrived in Chicago.
Book I, Chapter IX Analysis
"Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" and "For I Am a Cowboy and Know I've Done Wrong." Popular old cowboy songs from the 1800s. "For I Am a Cowboy and Know I've Done Wrong" is technically a lyric from the song "Streets of Laredo," which has been adapted by many singers in the past century, including Johnny Cash.
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss. First published in 1812, The Swiss Family Robinson has since become on the most popular books written in the 1800s, having spawned many sequels and film adaptations over the years. It stars a large Swiss family who are shipwrecked on an island and forced to fend for themselves. Near the end of the book, the family is rescued, but some of the Robinsons choose to stay behind and live on their tranquil, beautiful island.
There are many similes in this chapter, including: "My horse's breath rose like steam."
Jim's Sledge. Unlike Peter and Pavel's sledge from Chapter VIII, Jim's sledge isn't a reminder of wolves and of death but rather a fun means of transportation that Jim rides happily and shows off to his friends.
Book I, Chapter X Summary
During Jim's convalescence, the Burdens don't see much of the Shimerdas. Mr. Shimerda is often seen hunting birds in an old coat that isn't nearly warm enough for the weather. In part because of this and in part because she's worried about Mrs. Shimerda and the kids, Jim's grandmother gives them a rooster in the hopes that they'll start a hen house. The Burdens are once again shocked by the Shimerda family's poor living conditions and the fact that the girls sleep in what's little more than a badger hole. They give the Shimerdas a large hamper full of food.
Mr. Shimerda makes a point of saying that his family isn't broke, and that they still have enough of their savings to by cows and chickens in the spring. Mrs. Shimerda, who broke down crying at the sight of the food hamper, shows the Burdens a sack of what turns out to be dried mushrooms, which they carried with them all the way from Bohemia. Jim eats one, but finds it a little strange.
Book I, Chapter X Analysis
Food. Food and its abundance or scarcity are closely tied with the theme of poverty, and in the context of this novel those who have food are well to do and those who don't are poor, living in caves or on credit like Peter and Pavel. The foods that recur most often are staples like potatoes, meat, and bread, emphasizing that one must survive before one can prosper.
Mushrooms. The Shimerdas' dried mushrooms are symbolic of their homeland and Bohemian heritage. When Mrs. Shimerda offers these mushrooms to the Burdens, it's as if she's inviting them to learn about the Shimerdas' past and culture.
Poverty. Despite Mr. Shimerda's pointed remarks about his family's finances, Cather makes it abundantly, painfully clear that the Shimerdas live in poverty and that they're struggling to feed themselves in the hard, bitter winter. Their poverty sets them in a different social class than the Burdens, but for the most part Jim leaves this fact unexplored, never bothering to delve into the power differential inherent to this experience. Jim's grandmother in particular looks on the Shimerdas with pity, and this slight condescension never quite dissipates.