Last Updated on September 28, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454
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Ántonia Shimerda, a young immigrant girl of appealing innocence, simple passions, and moral integrity, the daughter of a Bohemian homesteading family in Nebraska. Even as a child, she is the mainstay of her gentle, daydreaming father. She and Jim Burden, the grandson of a neighboring farmer, become friends, and he teaches her English. After her father’s death, her crass mother and sly, sullen older brother force her to do a man’s work in the fields. Pitying the girl, Jim’s grandmother finds work for her as a hired girl in the town of Black Hawk. There, her quiet, deep zest for life and the Saturday night dances lead to her ruin. She falls in love with Larry Donovan, a dashing railroad conductor, and goes to Denver to marry him, but he soon deserts her, and she comes back to Black Hawk, unwed, to have her child. Twenty years later, Jim Burden, visiting in Nebraska, meets her again. She is now married to Cuzak, a dependable, hardworking farmer, and the mother of a large brood of children. Jim finds her untouched by farm drudgery or village spite. Because of her serenity, strength of spirit, and passion for order and motherhood, she reminds him of stories told about the mothers of ancient races.
James Quayle Burden
James Quayle Burden, called Jim, the narrator. Orphaned at the age of ten, he leaves his home in Virginia and goes to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. In that lonely prairie country, his only playmates are the children of immigrant families living nearby, among them Ántonia Shimerda, with whom he shares his first meaningful experiences in his new home. When his grandparents move into Black Hawk, he misses the freedom of life on the prairie. Hating the town, he leaves it to attend the University of Nebraska. There, he meets Gaston Cleric, a teacher of Latin who introduces the boy to literature and the greater world of art and culture. From the university, he goes on to study law at Harvard. Aided by a brilliant but incompatible marriage, he becomes the legal counsel for a Western railroad. Successful, rich, but unhappy in his middle years and in the failure of his marriage, he recalls his prairie boyhood and realizes that he and Ántonia Shimerda have in common a past that is all the more precious because it is lost and almost incommunicable, existing only in memories of the bright occasions of their youth.
Mr. Shimerda, a Bohemian farmer unsuited to pioneer life on the prairie. Homesick for the Old World and never happy in his Nebraska surroundings, he finds his loneliness and misery unendurable, lives more and more in the past, and ends by committing suicide.
Mrs. Shimerda, a shrewd, grasping woman whose chief concern is to get ahead in the world. She bullies her family, accepts the assistance of her neighbors without grace, and eventually sees her dream of prosperity fulfilled.
Ambroz Shimerda, called Ambrosch, the Shimerdas’ older son. Like his mother, he is insensitive and mean. Burdened by drought, poor crops, and debt, he clings to the land with peasant tenacity. Even though he repels his neighbors with his surly manner, sly trickery, and petty dishonesties, everyone admits that he is a hard worker and a good farmer.
Yulka Shimerda, Ántonia’s younger sister, a mild, obedient girl.
Marek Shimerda, the Shimerdas’ youngest child. Tongue-tied and feebleminded, he is eventually committed to an institution.
Mr. Burden, Jim Burden’s grandfather, a Virginian who has bought a farm in Nebraska. Deliberate in speech and action, he is a just, generous man, bearded like an ancient prophet and sometimes speaking like one.
Mrs. Burden, his wife, a brisk, practical woman who gives unstinting love to her orphan grandson. Kindhearted, she gives assistance to the immigrant families of the region, and without her aid the needy Shimerdas would not have survived their first Nebraska winter.
Lena Lingard, the daughter of poor Norwegian parents, from childhood a girl attractive to men. Interested in clothes and possessing a sense of style, she is successful as a designer and later becomes the owner of a dress shop in San Francisco. She and Jim Burden become good friends while he is a student at the University of Nebraska. Her senuous beauty appeals greatly to his youthful imagination, and he is partly in love with her before he goes to study at Harvard.
Tiny Soderball, a young woman who works at the hotel in Black Hawk. She moves to Seattle, runs a sailors’ boarding house for a time, and then goes to Alaska to open a hotel for miners. After a dying Swede wills her his claim, she makes a fortune from mining. With a comfortable fortune put aside, she goes to live in San Francisco. When Jim Burden meets her there, she tells him the thing that interests her most is making money. Lena Lingard is her only friend.
Wycliffe Cutter, called Wick, a miserly moneylender who has grown rich by fleecing his foreign-born neighbors in the vicinity of Black Hawk. Ántonia Shimerda goes to work for him and his suspicious, vulgar wife. Making elaborate plans to seduce Ántonia, he puts some of his valuables in his bedroom and tells her that she is to sleep there, to guard them, while he and his wife are away on a trip. Mrs. Burden sends her grandson to sleep in the Cutter house, and Wick, returning ahead of his wife, is surprised and enraged to find Jim Burden in his bed. Years later, afraid that his wife’s family will inherit his money if he should die first, he kills her and then himself.
Mrs. Cutter, a woman as mean and miserly as her husband, whom she nags constantly. He murders her before committing suicide.
Larry Donovan, a railroad conductor and ladies’ man. He courts Ántonia Shimerda, promises to marry her if she will join him in Denver, seduces her, and then goes off to Mexico, leaving her pregnant.
Mrs. Steavens, a widow, the tenant on the Burden farm. She tells Jim Burden, home from Harvard, the story of Ántonia Shimerda’s betrayal by Larry Donovan.
Otto Fuchs, the Burdens’ hired man during their farming years. Born in Austria, he came to America when a boy and lived an adventurous life as a cowboy, a stage driver, a miner, and a bartender in the West. After the Burdens rent their farm and move into Black Hawk, he resumes his drifting life.
Jake Marpole, the hired man who travels with young Jim Burden from Virginia to Nebraska. Though a kindhearted man, he has a sharp temper and is violent when angry. He is always deeply ashamed if he swears in front of Mrs. Burden.
Christian Harling, a prosperous, straitlaced grain merchant and cattle buyer, a neighbor of the Burden family in Black Hawk.
Mrs. Harling, his wife, devoted to her family and to music. She takes a motherly interest in Ántonia Shimerda, who works for her as a hired girl for a time, but feels compelled to send her away when the girl begins to go to the Saturday night dances attended by drummers and town boys.
Pavel, Russian neighbors of the Burden family and Mr. Shimerda’s friends. Just before he dies, Pavel tells a terrible story of the time in Russia when, to save his own life, he threw a bride and groom from a sledge to a pack of wolves.
Anton Jelinek, the young Bohemian who makes the coffin for Mr. Shimerda’s funeral. He becomes a friend of the Burdens and later a saloon proprietor.
Cuzak, Anton Jelinek’s cousin, the sturdy farmer who marries Ántonia Shimerda. Though he has had many reverses in his life, he remains good-natured. Hardworking, dependable, considerate, he is a good husband to Ántonia.
Martha, Ántonia’s daughter by Larry Donovan. She marries a prosperous young farmer.
Gaston Cleric, the young Latin teacher who introduces Jim Burden to the classics and the world of ideas. When he accepts an instructorship at Harvard, he persuades Jim to transfer to that university.
Genevieve Whitney Burden
Genevieve Whitney Burden, Jim Burden’s wife. Though she does not figure in the novel, her presence in the background helps to explain her husband’s present mood and his nostalgia for his early years in Nebraska. Spoiled, restless, temperamental, independently wealthy, she leads her own life, interests herself in social causes, and plays patroness to young poets and artists.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1234
My Antonia has a double protagonist, being at one and the same time the story of Antonia Shimerda and the story of how the narrator Jim comes to consider her the symbol of his childhood and of the pioneer era. From the moment the two of them arrive in Nebraska on the same train, Jim an orphan from Virginia who will be cared for by his grandparents on their comfortable farm, and Antonia an immigrant from Bohemia who will have to face all the trials of the first-generation immigrant pioneer, to the end of the story when they are reunited in middle age, Jim is consistently used as a suggestive parallel to Antonia. He is male, born in America and a Protestant, rather privileged economically and therefore able to receive an education and explore the world. She is female, an immigrant and a Catholic, poor, uneducated, and bound to the land. He is contemplative, she is active. He achieves success professionally but ends up with only the past to console him; she makes many mistakes but finally is able to savor the present and look forward to the future, all the while revering the past.
Cather never has Antonia reveal herself directly to the reader but shows her development and self-discovery from the outside as she is observed by Jim at different ages: as a child exploring the wonders of the prairie and being forced to take on the responsibilities of an adult; as an adolescent in Black Hawk excelling in the domestic arts and rebelling at attempts to suffocate her natural vitality; as a young adult deceived and abandoned by her fiance; and as a mature woman who has fulfilled her mission in life by giving birth to numerous happy children and creating a fertile farm and an idyllic orchard and garden. Moreover, because Jim grows older alongside her, each successive view of her that he provides is more complex.
The impact of Antonia's story is also due to the success with which Cather makes her credible as a character, while at the same time elevating her to the status of a mythic heroine. In fact, her story can be set dialectically gainst conventional myths of the frontier in several important ways. The words "tame" and "conquer" are not part of her vocabulary, for she loves and respects the land; her "heroic" tasks are the foundation and consecration of a home and the domestication of the wilderness into a farm and garden. Instead of questing for independence and freedom, she finds identity within a community. In her creation of order, fruitfulness, and beauty on the frontier, and in her nurturing of children, plants, and trees, she is not only an earth mother and fertility goddess, but also a true frontier heroine of the sort absent from the legends of the hunter, the cowboy, and the gun-fighter.
Like Antonia, Jim is a symbolic figure. His story begins with his train trip at the age of nine from his birthplace in Virginia to the unknown world of Nebraska where, having been orphaned, he is going to be raised by his paternal grandparents. That long and difficult journey is symbolic of his entrance into his destiny which will unfold in a series of settings that are both the actual physical surroundings of his childhood and youth and vehicles of extended meaning signifying change, growth, and his evolving states of mind. In terms of his individual history, Jim's book of childhood memories conveys the essence of the pastoral, taking pleasure and tranquility from the land, offering a paean to the beauty of the rural landscape, and recovering the experience of childhood wonder which once conferred on the world the romance of discovery. Jim's prairie homestead is a well-ordered agrarian enclave run by a gentle patriarch and a competent farm wife with the help of upstanding and affectionate hired hands, in all of whom respect for the land and acquiescence to its demands have fostered simplicity and goodness. Joy and harmony within the cycles and rhythms of nature are first savored by Jim in the warm and luxurious embrace of his grandmother's garden. His sense of merging with nature has a significant and permanent effect on him for he will never lose his ability to appreciate the prairie in a personal way or his desire to find happiness amidst the ripeness and fulfillment of life.
As his name suggests, Jim carries a "burden" of guilt for what he and the nation lost in their respective processes of development. In its rush toward material fulfillment, the nation betrayed the promise and the idealism of the pioneer era. In leaving the prairie, Jim unwittingly began a journey toward an empty future. When Jim is reunited with Antonia in middle age, he is diminished with respect to his youthful self while she has maintained those characteristics which have always made him look, back on their friendship as the supreme experience of his life and to cling to her image as the purest incarnation of what was most valuable in America's agrarian past.
Although Antonia and Jim dominate the novel, Cather's canvas of characters is actually quite varied and no matter how minor their role, each character is portrayed as a complete entity. Jim's grandparents are like the loving guardians in a fairy tale. Grandfather is an awe-inspiring patriarch with a generous spirit and Grandmother is a resourceful and energetic woman able to respond properly in all situations, whether in protecting herself from rattlesnakes in her garden or in presenting a basket of food to seemingly ungrateful neighbors. Antonia's parents are a study in contrasts. Mr. Shimerda, refined, melancholic, and so unable to adjust to the isolation and brutality of life in the wilderness that he commits suicide, becomes an emblem of how the process of settling the frontier was fraught with spiritual as well as physical dangers while Mrs. Shimerda is presented as a grasping and shrewish woman who is also a frightened mother struggling as best she can to make a life for her family in a hostile land.
The immigrant farm girls who, like Antonia, move to town to earn money to help out their families at home, are drawn with loving nostalgia by Jim for whom they represent the quintessence of the frontier spirit. Some, like the sensual Bohemian waitresses and the giggling Danish laundry girls, eventually marry within their ethnic groups and become efficient managers of prosperous farms. Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball instead move away from the prairie to the larger world where, like Jim, they achieve material success without ever finding a terrain on which their lives can take moral root and give them spiritual fulfillment.
Through her talents as a dressmaker, Lena becomes an entrepreneur in the world of fashion and finally makes her way to San Francisco where she establishes a thriving business, but her financial well-being is not accompanied by emotional satisfaction and she never marries or finds any other outlet for the qualities which once made her stand out among the women of Black Hawk. Tiny journeys to the Klondike where she sets up a hotel for miners, inherits a claim from a romantic Swede, and makes a fortune in the Gold Rush, but with the passage of time the thrill of her exciting adventures fades and she lives "like someone in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out."