My Antonia Teaching Approaches
by Willa Cather

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Teaching Approaches

Ántonia as a Personification of the American Frontier: As a character, Ántonia is a textbook example of personification, a literary device briefly defined as the giving non-human objects and abstract ideas human characteristics or form. In Antonia’s case, she personifies the spirit of the prairie and the struggle of immigrant pioneers in the American Midwest. Teach students the definition of personification, and then discuss the ways that certain key passages of the novel construct Ántonia as a personification of this abstract idea. Suggested chapters: book 1, chapters 3 and 17; book 2, chapter 14; book 4 ch. 3; and book 5 chapter 1. 

  • For discussion: How does Cather’s use of personification enrich key themes of the novel? How different would the reading experience be if there were no personification? Why do you think Cather chose a female character to be this personification and not a male character? How does Jim’s narration affect this view of Ántonia’s personifying the American frontier and spirit?

The American Dream: My Ántonia is not only Ántonia’s and Jim’s story but also the story of many immigrants in the Midwest as well as their struggles and triumphs. Ántonia and the other “hired girls,” such as Lena and Tiny, triumph over their hardships, achieving prosperity and success through their spirit and endurance. However, there are still failures and tragedies; Mr. Shimerda dies of unhappiness, and the Russians Peter and Pavel live in exile, poverty, and obscurity. My Ántonia is commonly thought of as a more realistic testament to pioneer times as opposed to the over-idealized depictions that have become popularized in American history. Discuss with students the novel’s more nuanced approach to the “American Dream” and immigrant experiences. 

  • For discussion: What statement do you think the novel is making about the concept of the rags-to-riches/bootstraps/“American Dream” immigrant story? Do you find it to be reverent, critical, or both? Why do you think so, and what specific characters and/ or parts of the text serve as support? 

“The Precious, the Incommunicable Past”: This final line of the novel speaks to the importance of memory as a central theme. The introduction of My Ántonia situates the narrative in a unique, retrospective space. While Ántonia is the primary subject, the story is also Jim Burden’s autobiographical memoir, stating the prospect of writing Ántonia’s story: “I should have to do it in a direct way, and say a great deal about myself. It’s through myself that I knew and felt her.” Discuss with students the significance of memory in the narrative, and what they think the novel might be saying about nostalgia and recollection past events. 

  • For discussion: What do you think about Jim’s telling Ántonia’s story through his own perspective? Could he possibly have done a better job writing Ántonia’s story from the 3rd person, or without his own story? Or do you find his narrative richer and more insightful about her memory because it is so personal? Do you think the past can ever be remembered objectively, or is memory inherently subjective by nature?

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Compare and contrast the lives of Ántonia and Jim. Explain what drew them together, helped them become friends, and kept them together over the years. 
  • Discuss the differing views on what success means in the text. How do characters like Ántonia, Lena, and Tiny view success? Do they achieve it? 
  • Who learns more from through their relationship, Ántonia or Jim? How so? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Moments of Discrimination: Particularly towards the beginning of the novel, there are subtle yet tangible moments of intolerance among different peoples and communities. Take for example the points at which the young Jim feels contempt toward the Shimerdas for the way they handle money and property. 

  • What to do: Emphasize that tolerance is a key theme in this early part of the text...

(The entire section is 1,137 words.)