I was little and homesick and lonely ... So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.
In her literary masterpiece My Ántonia, Cather uses several characters based on real people she met during her life in the Midwest, and many of the scenes in the novel reflect her personal perspectives and remembrances. It is only natural, therefore, that the author presents contrasts between native-born Nebraskans and European immigrants to the region.
European transplants to the American Midwest are disadvantaged. Most do not speak the language, which makes it particularly difficult for them to secure employment. They become separated from their cultural heritage and traditions when they leave their home countries and head for the Nebraskan prairie. Immigrants coming from several different European nations would automatically find themselves amid people of various religious beliefs. They must rely on other immigrants for support and face discrimination as foreigners.
Native-born settlers to Nebraska farmland share cultural beliefs with which they are familiar, enjoy similar religious traditions, speak English, and are readily available to help one another survive the tough times.
In this novel, Cather focuses on Ántonia Shimerda and Jim Burden; Jim is the narrator of the story. While Antonia personifies the outsider culture, Jim has family in Nebraska. By relating their personal adventures, Cather’s characterizations provide a stark contrast. Jim enjoys his childhood in a new environment. It is full of exploration and adventure. He is able to rapidly succeed in his educational pursuits and more easily plows through the tribulations existent in farming country. He faces a Midwestern winter in a wooden house, where his grandmother cares for him as she did for his father growing up:
Here are your clean clothes, she went on, stroking my coverlid with her brown hand as she talked. But first come down to the kitchen with me, and have a nice warm bath behind the stove.
Ántonia, like other European settlers, is culturally a secondary member of society. She is forced to perform menial tasks to get by financially. After all, the “Shimerdas were the first Bohemian family to come to this part of the country.” Antonia is young and does share Jim’s sense of peace and tranquility in nature, but she faces more difficult challenges as an outsider. Upon visiting his Bohemian neighbors, Jim observes:
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.
The Shimerdas initially know nothing about farming and speak little English. They have overpaid for their inadequate home:
I hate to think of them spending the winter in that cave of Krajiek’s, said grandmother. It’s no better than a badger hole; no proper dugout at all.
Throughout the novel, Cather stresses the theme of the immigrant experience. Through her characterizations, she contrasts native-born Nebraska settlers against European pioneers to the New World. Whereas Jim leads a more comfortable existence due to his family ties to the land, Ántonia endures the hardships of poverty.