14 Willa Cather : My Antonia

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Willa Cather achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains in work in works such as My Antonia, The Song of the Lark, etc. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel set during World War 1. Cather grew up in Virginia and Nebraska and graduated from the university of Nebraska-Lincoln. She was intensely moved by the dramatic environment and weather, the vastness of the European American immigrant and Native American families in the area.


Cather spent her early years pursuing journalism and she also taught high school English and Latin in Pittsburg. She had already begun to publish short stories. In 1912 Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge. In 1918 she made the most everlasting contribution to her status as one of the most celebrated post war American authors with the publication of My Antonia.


Though the narrative of My Antonia is fictional, there are many similarities between Cather’s life and that of the novel’s protagonist. As Cather did, Jim Burden moves from Virginia to Nebraska as a child to live with the grandparents, the town of Black Hawk to which Jim and his grandparents move, is a fictionalized version of The Red Cloud of Cather’s youth. My Antonia is generally considered as a modernist novel. In the 20th century many authors were concerned with the alienation from society that resulted from ongoing processes of mechanization and industrialization. These writers responded to what they perceived as an increased fragmentation of the world by creating narratives and stories that were themselves fragmented. Cather participates in this tradition both by creating a novel whose plot does not have a highly structured form and by idealizing a preindustrial life far from the noise and speed of the city.




Jim Burden, a successful New York City lawyer, first arrives in Nebraska at the age of 10, when he makes the trip west to live with his grandparents after the deaths of his own parents, victims of a small pox epidemic. On the way Jim gets his first glimpse of the Shimerdas, a Bohemian immigrant family travelling to the same destination. As fate would have it, the Shimerdas have taken up residence in a farm beside the house of the Burdens. Jim makes fast friends with Shimerdas children especially Antonia, who us nearest to him in age and eager to learn English. Jim tutors Antonia and the two of them spend much of the autumn exploring their new landscape.


In late January, tragedy strikes with the suicide of Mr. Shimerda. After an emotional funeral, the Shimerdas retreat into despair and the Burdens struggle to be as accommodating as possible. As a result there are hardships that the Shimerdas have to endure. A couple of years later the Burdens move into town and shortly thereafter Antonia takes a job as housekeeper with a neighboring family, the Harlings. Jim begins to see more of Antonia once again especially when a dancing pavilion comes to town and enlivens the social scene. Intellectual and introspective Jim is well qualified to be the narrator of the story. His thoughtfulness gives him the ability to portray himself and others with consistency and sympathy and to convey the sense of a lost Nebraska with an evocative, poetic accuracy, furthermore his romantic nature and strong attachment to the people of his youth and to the Nebraska landscape give his narrative a deep sense of commitment and a longing nostalgic quality that colors his story. The wistful nature of Jim’s memoir highlights the novels emphasis to the individual who remembers it, which Jim acknowledges in choosing to call his memoir, My Antonia rather than Antonia. Jim is not claiming ownership of Antonia, he is indicating that the story of Antonia contained within his own mind and heart as it is of the past.


Over the course of the novel, Jim ages from a ten year old into a middle aged man and grows from a shy orphan boy into a successful lawyer for the railroad companies acquiring an impressive education, along the way at the University of Nebraska and Harvard. But inspite of the great changes in his life, Jim remains a consistent character. He always has interest in others but is content to spend time alone, he often assumes the role of the detached observer watching situations unfold.


Jim’s most important relationship in the novel is his friendship with Antonia and the fact that he allows Antonia to recede in his mind as an abstract symbol of the past is itself a strong illustration of Jim’s introspective mentality. Although he drifts apart from her always though preserving Antonia’s special place with greater and greater nostalgia as the years go by. Their reunion 20 years apart is a great step in Jim’s maturity and growth. Captured in the memoirs of Jim of his younger days. Antonia gradually emerges from Jim’s emotional presentation to her to become a credible and independent character in her own right. Pretty vivacious and extremely generous Antonia fascinates Jim. He feels that Antonia is unusually alive a sentiment that he echoes even after meeting her as the mother of her ten children at the end if the novel.


Throughout the novel, Antonia is caught between her natural optimism and cheer and the extremely difficult predicaments. She faces after her emigration from Bohemia and her father’s suicide in America. She is also trapped by the cultural difference that make her feel like a perpetual outsider in Nebraska. The Shimerda’s go hungry and their poverty forces Antonia to work as a servant girl. Certain members of the Black Hawk community judge her harshly for her love of dancing, her fiancé betrays her and leaves her to raise a child alone. Yet she never loses her inner grace and self sufficiency. Antonia always tries to make the best of her circumstances but she refuses to sacrifice her independence to improve her life. She would rather work for the wretched Wick Cutter than follow  Mr.  Hartling’s orders to stop going to the dances.  Antonia symbolizes the past, possesses a deep rapport with her landscape and embodies the experiences of both immigrants and the Nebraska pioneers.


While Jim and Antonia are by far the more important characters of the novel, Lena Linguard’s role is also important for it is she who is with Jim at a critical junction of life: the transformation from childhood to youth. Also , Lena stands in avid contrast to Antonia, by craving for excitement and autonomy and refusing to marry any of the men who fall in  love with  her  beauty and charisma. On the contrary, Antonia possesses a deep quiet strength of  character.  Lena becomes important to Jim’s life at the time he begins to transit from childhood to  adulthood. Just as Antonia  comes  to  embody  Jim’s  memories  of  childhood  of  innocence  and purity, Lena , with her desire for sophistication and  her  brazen  sexuality, comes to represent Jim’s emergence as a young adult. Jim already associates Antonia  with  a lost  past  and invests her with an aura of emotional purity  that  precludes  sex;  Lena  continues  to  become more important to Jim as he attends college, when they are in Lincoln together.


The central narrative of My Antonia is  a  wistful  look  at the  past, the overall  tone  of the  novel being highly  nostalgic. Jim’s  motive  for  writing  his  story  is  to try  to  reestablish  some connection between his present as a high affluent New  York  lawyer  and his  vanished past on the Nebraska prairie; in re-creating that past, the novel represents both Jim’s memoriesand his feelings  about his  memories. Even  as he  sits  of  the  past  is  that  it always  is nostalgia to recollect his past  childhood, Jim is  grimly  aware  that  the  past  will never  return, but it can never be escaped from either.

Another characteristic of the past  is  that  memories  are  always  personal, they only can be remembered  from  the  personal  perspective—  circumstances, places, things—- that they remember from life itself. This is thematically explicit in Jim’s decision to  call his  memoir  , “ My  Antonia “ and  thus  laying  claim  to  Antonia as  a  personal asset, Jim  acknowledges  that  what he  is  really  writing  is  simply  a  chronicle  of  his own thoughts and feelings.


Several sections of My Antonia preface  the  novel’s  actual  narrative  and Cather includes an epigraph and a dedication. The epigraph from Virgil’s GEORGICS reads….”Optima dies  prima  fugit…”, a Latin  phrase  meaning  ,”the  best  days  are  the  first  to flee .”Several critics have  noted  My  Antonia  as  a  bold  departure  from  American literature of its time, one of the first  novels  written  by a woman  to  feature  a  male  narrator and deserving attention to the autobiographical elements  in  the  text. Cather , too ,  had  made the move from Virginia to Nebraska to live with her grandparents in her childhood days.


The close relationship between humans and their environment is a major theme in My Antonia. The focus is on the landscape- the natural, physical setting in which the characters live and move.


Jim is especially sensitive to his environment, to the point that he invests human qualities in the landscape around him. He treats trees as though they were human people thus reflecting in his words his compassion for nature. And at other times, the landscape comes to represent emotions or ideas for Jim. He prefers to keep the landscape as something to dream about not necessarily as something to understand rationally.




As the narrative begins, Jim is ten years old, newly orphaned and making the trip West from Virginia to stay with his grandparents in Black Hawk in Nebraska.


Along with him is a farmhand, Jake Marpole and immigrant Bohemian family, the Shimer Das. Upon reaching his grand parents . Jim settles down and accompanies his grand mother to greet their new Bohemian neighbors. Jim finds a deep attachment to the all endearing Antonia at the start. He begins to give her English lessons and Antonia loves to help Jim’s grandmother around the house.


Jim reveals an especially strong desire to identify with his fellow human beings across all kinds of boundaries and differences. The urge to connect is tied loosely to Jim’s mystical belief that a divine presence is controlling his fate.


Although a growing up Jim increasingly feels alienated from the world. He is comforted by the discovery that Antonia despite coming from an entirely differently culture shared his belief about the stars and fate.


Almost 3 years after his move to Black Hawk, Jim and his grand parents decide to leave their farm in the country side for a house in the city. Jim begins attending school. The  Burdens nearest neighbor are the Harlings a Norwegian family. Antonia too comes to the city and is hired by the Harlings. Lena comes to visit Antonia, but Antonia is cautious about befriending her as she has a dubious reputation. Cather , now shifts focus of the landscape and gives way to a scrutiny of the town’s people. She introduces several new characters in a short time span.


Because the farm is associated with the past and the town with the present Jim and Antonia became nostalgic for their former existence in the country. Even Leena who has an avid fascination for city life sometimes yearns for her rural family life.


Jim commits himself to a rigorous study schedule in preparation for his upcoming studies. Antonia spends a few days working for the Cutters, but on the whole it turns out to be a nightmare so she quits. The dancing pavilion brings out the difference between the sheltered American daughters and the immigrant working girls into relief. The presence of the dance hall upsets the established social order. From the distanced perspective of a man writing a memoir.


Jim can look back on his curious social order and analyze it as the natural evolution of the  American immigrant experience. The same girls who were initially held back by barriers of language and wealth applied the strength of characters acquired through hardship in order to improve their social status as a result the servant girls of Jim’s youth become the property owning mistresses of his adulthood . The increasing emphasis on sexuality in cutter’s bizarre attempt to sleep with Antonia reflects his transition. Jim’s reluctance to grow up manifests itself most strongly in his inability to reconcile his emotional and sexual urges.


Antonia too harbors nostalgia for a purer more child like past. She arranges for Jim to meet her and her friends at the river in a last attempt to recreate old times. She feels an overwhelming grief at having lost irrevocably the joy of Jim and her shared childhood in the Nebraska country side. Once again at the juncture, Cather reverts to the majesty of the landscape to provide a visual analogue for the nostalgia and sense of loss that her characters feel.


One of the main themes of My Antonia focuses on the transition from carefree childhood to responsible adulthood which is enhanced by Jim Burden and Antonia’s being transplanted to a new landscape and culture. They search for identity, freedom and independence and connections that will help them to discover themselves and their capabilities. While usually young adults lose themselves to isolation, confusion and rebellion. This theme of My Antonia emphasis psychological growth or maturity.

Freedom is linked with friendship, movement, labor, education and gender. Freedom of movement brings the characters from their previous homes to the opportunities offered by Nebraska. Friendships are the result of choice. The right to choose, the kind of quality and work.


One does lead to economic freedom. The freedom to learn and improve one’s mind provide personal progress for characters. All these freedoms are present in the novel; pitted against enslavements attitudes and hardships that inhibit these freedoms.


From its epigraphs a quote from Virgil” Optima dies Prima fugit- The best days are the first to flee and throughout the novel the idea of memory and movement are inextricably linked not only do the characters change their cultures, home, languages and destiny but new inventions, laws and policies and social attitudes change American Culture.




Of all the Willa Cather’s works, My Antonia seems to contain the most elements drawn from the author’s own life- Cather is thinly disguised as Jim Burden many of Jim’s thoughts and feelings in the novel were Cather’s own thoughts and feelings while growing up. In the introduction Cather’s description of Jim could easily be a description of her. Like Jim, Cather enjoyed visiting immigrant neighbors she also had a love for the classics and for the drama and like Jim when he was middle aged she revisited “Antonia” and renewed their friendship. Cather’s characters are usually composites of people she knew. In My Antonia, many of them bear striking resemblances to friends and neighbors. Antonia is one of the two major characters in Cather’s work. They are closely drawn portraits of real people. The narrator who is Jim Burden himself reminisces about growing up together on the Nebraska prairie, and his thoughts keep returning to Antonia, who “seemed to mean the country, the conditions the whole adventure of out childhood” My Antonia is written by a non professional writer (Jim Burden) who had left his roots and was frustrated in life and fondly and nostalgically remembers his youth in Nebraska as the happiest time in his life. Recalling Cather’s inscription at the beginning of the book… ” Optima dies…. ” meaning that ”  the best days flee first”.


Whereas Antonia represents the pioneer, who builds an abundant promising future from a waste land, Jim Burden represents the established settlers who have grown complacent, superior and rigid in their thinking. To Antonia, the road to success in life many possible branches; to Jim and other Black Hawk citizens, these is only one acceptable road. Jim symbolizes the pioneer gone soft.


Jim’s memories of Antonia comprise the main body of the novel. He admires her, is drawn to her have been embedded in his mind. Cather reveals his keen sensitivity by suggesting that his past with the parents who have died has been wiped clean and the future is his to create that he has no limitations. He has exceptionally loving and understanding grandparents.


Jim’s sense of conventionality can be seen from the dislikes of hired girls, he does not appreciate Antonia working in the plowing fields because it is not feminine. His attitude contracts with Antonia’s acceptance of whatever happens as the natural course of events, Antonia is a realist while Jim is a romantic idealist. At cottage, Jim achieves a greater appreciation of the classics he compares the people from his own childhood to people in the works of Virgil. He is introduced to a new world of music and opera, which he asks Lena Lingard to share. Their brief love affair causes him to neglect his school work and this somewhat parallels Antonia’s affair with Larry Donovan but the circumstances are not so devastating for Jim as they are for Antonia’s behavior and though he cannot deny that she is very important to him. He goes away and will not see her again for 20 years.


After 2 decades, Jim’s curiosity overcomes him and he visits Antonia and her family in good old Nebraska. Although Jim has proposed materially he seems spiritually empty. This emptiness in Jim’s life is contrasted with the fullness of Antonia’s. Although she has not proposed materially she has a wealth of children and a fully fledged family. Her spirit is freed full and vital and it remains as optimistic as ever. Through Antonia’s family he recognizes that he can come home again.



Antonia has a resilient inner strength that drives her to succeed and helps her survive adversity. In this way, like the plough against the sun, she symbolizes the invisible pioneer spirit. From the time of her arrival on the Nebraska prairie she believes that a person who works hard will become wealthy. “Wealth” of course can mean a lot of land and money, but more important here wealth is synonymous with whatever is rich in understanding and in spirit. On the train that brings Jim and Antonia to Black hawk, the conductor comments on the young girls’ pretty brown eyes. Later when Jim first meets Antonia at her family’s dugout again he is caught by her arresting unusual eyes. They were big and warm and full of light like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood. From the very start Cather is imbuing Antonia with the qualities of warmth generosity and earthiness.


In the beginning Jim meets Antonia only for a matter of minutes but she immediately reveals her generosity and impulsiveness by trying to give him her ring. She reveals her maternal nature all throughout the novel. She makes excuses for her mother’s greedy accusatory behavior when the Burdens bring food but she herself never complains. She looks only for the good and positive in life. When Antonia’s father kills himself she is crushed but because she is a realist she recovers quickly and takes his place in the fields working beside her brother Ambrosch and picking up masculine traits much to the dislike of Jim. Later when they all move to town Mrs. Burden persuades Mrs. Harling to employ Antonia, where she learns how chores are done in a well ordered home. Because of the Harling’s many children Antonia also learns how to be a good mother.


But Antonia is still very young and impetuous. When she is forced to choose between work at the Harling’s and attending the dances, she chooses the dance and goes to work for the towns spirituality warped money lender Cutter. Cutter tries to seduce Antonia but she is saved by Jim. Later she goes to work for the Gardeners who own a hotel. Antonia begins dating Larry Donovan a good for nothing man who eventually dumps her when she becomes pregnant. Throughout her life, Antonia does what needs to be done as a realist. In Book 4 Jim meets Antonia beside her father’s grave, he realizes that adversity has caused her to increase in strength and understanding. 20 years later we see Antonia with a large brood of children and a full loving family “battered but not diminished” as she is the symbol of the earth, of all motherhood, the ideal for which all men search.



As Cather portrays it, one’s environment comes to symbolize one’s psychology and may even shape ones emotional state by giving thoughts and feelings a physical form. The river for example makes Jim feel free and he comes to prize freedom the setting sun captures his introspective loneliness and the wide open melancholy of Nebraska plains may play role in forming his reflective romantic personality- it does not create Jim’s personality but it at least comes to embody it physically. Thus characters in My Antonia often develop an extremely intense rapport with their surroundings and it is this sense of loss engendered by moving beyond one’s surroundings that one occasions the novel’s exploration of the meaning of the past.


The most important and universal symbol in My Antonia is the Nebraska Landscape, Cather’s poetic and moving depiction of it is perhaps the most famous and highly praised aspect of the novel. The landscape symbolizes the larger idea of a human environment, a setting in which a person lives and moves. Jim’s relationship with the Nebraska landscape is important on its own terms. But it also comes to symbolizes a great deal about Jim’s relationship with the people and culture of Nebraska as well as with his inner self. Though out the novel, the landscape mirrors Jim’s feelings it looks desolate when he is lonely for instance and also awakens feelings with in him. Finally the landscape becomes the most tangible symbol of the vanishes past, as Jim the lawyer is distant New York thinks back longingly on the landscape of his childhood.


The plow which Jim and Antonia see silhouetted against the enormous setting of the sun, symbolizes the connection between human culture and the natural landscape. As the sun sets behind the plow the 2 elements are combined in a single image of perfect harmony suggesting that man and nature also co exist harmoniously. But as the sun sinks lower on the horizon the plow seems to grow smaller and smaller, ultimately reflecting the dominance of the landscape over those who inhabit it.



While Jim and Antonia are by far the most important figures in My Antonia, one should not overlook Lena’s importance to Jim’s youth. Cather conjures Lena to contrast sharply with Antonia while Antonia possess an independence that gives her quiet inner strength, Lena craves excitement and autonomy, refusing to marry any of the men who fall in love with her beauty and charisma. Her choice to live in San Francisco is nearly as extreme for someone from Black Hawk as Jim’s decision to move to New York.


It is no coincidence that Lena becomes important to Jim’s life at the childhood and into adulthood. Just as Antonia comes to embody. Jim’s memories of childhood innocence and purity, Lena with her desire for sophistication and her precocious sexuality come to represent Jim’s adulthood. Jim fantasizes sexually about Lena in a way that her cannot about Antonia. Even as a young man in Black Hawk, Jim already associates Antonia with a lost past and invests her with an aura of emotional purity that precludes sex. Lena continues to become more and more important to Jim as he attends college when they are both in Lincoln together. Though Jim never grants :Lena an exalted place in his memory as he does to Antonia , she is still a pivotal figure in his growth from childhood to adulthood and given the importance he gives her in his story she may continue to figure more largely in Jim’s dream of the past than ever Jim himself realizes.

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