Teaching Approaches

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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...

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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 especially. Discuss how each moment of this sort ultimately builds towards reconciliation, and mutual understanding and respect. 

The Role of Suicide: Multiple suicides take place in My Ántonia: Mr. Shimerda’s death, the Cutters’ double suicide-murder, and the strange death of the “tramp” in book 2, ch. 6. These sorts of events are difficult to talk about—yet they are meaningful moments, and important to address so students do not walk away with the wrong message. 

  • What to do: Stick to a more empirical, analytical approach, and discuss how these events function in the text. What role do these events play with particular respect to the development of certain themes across the novel? 

Very Large Families: Depending on their backgrounds, students may be surprised by the large number of children Ántonia ends up having—around ten or eleven, according to Jim’s narrative. 

  • What to do: Beyond just saying that it was a different time, and that it was more useful for farming families to have many children to work as helping hands—take an empirical, analytical approach and discuss how Cather’s choice functions with regard to constructing Ántonia as a character, and as a personification of the frontier spirit in particular. Here, the result of Ántonia’s years of struggle and labor is vigorous fertility, the literal and figurative abundance of her success. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching My Ántonia

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

Gender Trouble: Since Cather was a woman who challenged gender roles, the free-spirited migrant women in My Ántonia are very much the same. Throughout the novel, Ántonia is often described as having masculine qualities in her pursuit of success. While the townsfolk think of Lena Lingard as a hussy, she comes to own her own business, live independently, and support her family—even stating she will never marry because she wants to “be accountable to nobody.” Tiny Soderball goes on to make her claim in the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, living a pioneer story of epic proportion. 

  • Focus on character analyses of these three women, discuss with students how My Ántonia challenges traditional gender roles.

Jim’s Story: While Ántonia is the central figure around which the whole narrative turns, the novel can also be read as a story about Jim’s coming of age. The reader watches him grow up, go through college, even discover the power of art through his experiences at the opera. 

  • Focus on Jim’s character arc and Ántonia’s impact on Jim’s development—can Jim’s story exist without Ántonia? What do you think the novel might be saying about the interconnectedness between people, and how individuals’ stories and identities are formed? 

History of the Text


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