Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446
Cather’s Prairie Trilogy: My Ántonia and its preceding novels—O, Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark—were critically and commercially successful. Though not following the same set of characters, the trilogy is concerned with similar themes of immigrant experiences and coming-of-age stories about finding success in the American West.
- Critics have praised not only Cather’s depiction of ordinary, often forgotten people but also her stylized writing, which was inspired by the regional dialect of Nebraska.
My Ántonia as Semi-Autobiographical Novel: Similarly to the narrator, Jim, Cather’s family moved from Virginia to Nebraska, where Cather was born, when she was nine years old. There, she was exposed to a wealth of immigrant experiences, which many see as having formed the sympathetic backbone of My Ántonia’s portrayal of the Shimerda family and other immigrants. Also, the character of Ántonia is likely based on a Bohemian girl, Annie Pavelka, whom Cather was acquainted with in her youth and reconnected with in middle age. Like Ántonia, Pavelka was left pregnant and disgraced by a fickle fiancé but later found happiness—and had twelve children with a faithful partner on a farm in Nebraska.
- Some scholars suggest that Cather, whose long lasting relationships throughout her life were with women, may have been queer. One reading in light of that speculation is that Jim is a stand-in for Cather, and that his admiration of Ántonia and attraction to Lena is representative of Cather’s own sexual identity. Because homosexuality was disapproved of in Cather’s time, it is argued that Cather employed a male character to make the relationship more palatable to contemporary audiences.
The Mythos of the Wild Frontier: Published in the early 20th century, My Ántonia provides readers retrospective insight into the settler movement that was sweeping across the American frontier in the latter part of the 19th century.
- My Ántonia is set in the heyday of Manifest Destiny, an ideology popularized throughout the 19th-century U.S. that advocated the pursuit of westward expansion in the name of “American” principles of opportunity and independence. This notion made its way into the legislature of the time, notably in the Homestead Act of 1862, a Congressional act granting western settlers cheaply priced land on the condition that they successfully cultivate it.
- The resulting wave of settlers included not only Americans from the east but also many European immigrants who sought new and better opportunities for themselves in a new land. The focus of My Ántonia is on one such migrant and her family, hailing from Bohemia (the western region of what is now known as the Czech Republic in Eastern Europe).
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