Willa Cather spent much of her youth in rural Nebraska. My Ántonia contains much that was taken from those years. She knew a Bohemian girl who is the prototype for Ántonia. The area was being farmed by immigrants. Many of the book’s characters and incidents are drawn from life. Black Hawk is actually her home of Red Cloud. To some extent, the book is history, and much of it is autobiography. Cather reveals this aspect not only through factual elements but also through the pervasive nostalgic mood in which she wraps the story. Above all, however, My Ántonia is fiction. Cather has transmuted her past into a romantic story, one that goes beneath experience to deeper significance.
Woman is the key theme of this complex work: her roles, her ultimate meaning. Strong female figures dominate My Ántonia; the men are either basically nice but docile, like Jim and Cuzak, or repellent, like Ambrosch. Most of the women, with the exception of Mrs. Shimerda and some of the crabbed Black Hawk ladies, are admirable. The immigrant women are the real heroines who defy the male-dominated Victorian culture of respectability that posited women as sheltered, fragile, inferior beings. Through these girls, Cather says that women should be allowed to live the way they wish, have the same chance for pleasure as men, and be able to compete equally. Lena and Tiny show that women can break free. Escaping Black Hawk, which stands for the stultifying older America, they have established themselves in the more exciting urban scene. Although they are better off than the trapped women of Black Hawk, they seem to be hardened, lonely. There remains a void in their lives. At the time she wrote this book, Cather was living on her own in the urban East as a professional writer. She was a Lena, a Tiny who now perhaps looked back with envy at the pioneer girls who returned to the land. It is these women, patterned after ones Cather had known, who in My Ántonia most realize their potential. Producing large families and taking charge of their own farms, they prove to be the best models, the most complete women. Ántonia is their representative, their symbol. Cather gives her mythic stature. By the end of the book, she is the mother of a new stalwart race and the shaper of destiny. She also stands for the land’s goodness and fertility. Ántonia becomes an earth goddess.
Cather invests the land in My Ántonia with great meaning. This book is also about the prairie, about the vast environment that awaited those who sought to farm it. Although the prairie is presented as sometimes harsh and dangerous, especially in the winter, Cather, through Burden’s eyes, conjures up a basically beneficent land that is almost magical in its beauty during the growing seasons. When she lived in Nebraska, she was not enamored of the prairie; now she imparts to it Edenic qualities, especially after it has been farmed. It was magnificent before the coming of the pioneers, but the plow has made it sublime. This is a pastoral story, with the land as garden and farming as the ideal existence. It is an old theme leading back through American and European literature to classical times. It is significant, however, that it had almost always been a masculine story, told by men with males as protagonists. Willa Cather is the first American author to claim it for women and, through Ántonia as both pioneer and earth goddess, offer a female vision of the taming of the land.
That Ántonia and her female friends are immigrants is also critical. Cather was writing at a time when many native-born Americans demanded that immigrants should conform to their culture or be excluded from the country. Cather believed, however, that their heritages were important, that they brought energy and enrichment to the United States, to a society too much like Black Hawk. Ántonia and the other immigrants, while opening up new territories, were reinvigorating the older lands.
Although Cather celebrates Ántonia’s world at the book’s conclusion, there is nevertheless a growing elegiac tone. She sees signs that the next immigrant generation is becoming Americanized, losing its special qualities. Cather also knew that by 1918 there were really no significant farming frontiers left and that family agriculture was probably in terminal decline. She may well have thought that the Nebraska of Ántonia and of Willa Cather was disappearing.
Cather fashioned the novel in an unusual way. People emerge, disappear from the story for some time, and then reappear. Seemingly minor characters often have more real importance than do others with larger roles. The narrative continually stops for stories, some relating to the plot, others irrelevant. Yet everything eventually comes together. The stories are particularly effective. When the novel begins to become too sentimental, Cather provides a short tale of violence, and she has some extremely nasty ones: a tramp jumping into a threshing machine, a domestic murder-suicide, an attempted rape. Such episodes bring the reader back to reality quickly. When events become grim, however, softer incidents or lyrical descriptions of the environment appear to restore the more romantic mood. Cather utilizes archetypes, realistic details, metaphors, and symbols. Sometimes her prose is plain and direct, and sometimes it is supple or lush. She seems to be concerned primarily with using whatever will help her elicit feelings, an emotional rather than an intellectual response from the reader.