An Analysis of My Ántonia
Willa Cather’s My Ántonia is a coming of age story told from the perspective of Jim Burden. In the novel, Jim reflects back on his life and childhood experiences, with a particular focus on time spent with his dear friend, Ántonia Shimerda. Throughout the story, Jim relates many areas of struggle and drama he witnessed as a boy growing up, especially those of his friends and family. Cather uses Jim’s narration to relate themes such as female inequality and triumph, the reminiscence of one’s life, and farming/agriculture. Cather’s novel reflects the literary period of modernism, including progressive changes from an agricultural life to that of a more industrialized society, as well as the influx of immigrants into the Nebraska region. Cather’s engaging literary style—which includes vivid details of landscapes, cultural norms, allusions to real events, and cultural-specific dialogue—creates a realistic and touching story of friendship in the minds of readers.
The plot begins with Jim Burden, a lawyer raised in Nebraska, talking with an unidentified childhood friend about a mutual friend named Ántonia Shimerda. The two friends agree to write down their memories of Ántonia so that they can compare their recollections of her. However, after many months, Jim shows up at his friend’s house with his written recollection of Ántonia, only to find that his friend hasn’t written her part. Jim’s friend never writes her part about Ántonia, but she shares Jim’s memoirs, which he named My Ántonia. This story contains Jim’s recollection of events in his past, including his transition from childhood to adulthood, as well as his perception of Ántonia with respect to other events and people in his life. The story ends with Jim standing on the same road he once traveled with Ántonia, reflecting on the “Destiny” and “incommunicable past” of his life with his dear friend (418).
Throughout Jim’s childhood story, many areas of conflict and struggle arise. Perhaps the most significant example of struggle in this story is that of women—especially Ántonia and other immigrants—living under a dominant male culture. Throughout the novel, women are under the rule of male authority. For example, Ántonia is hired out to the Burden and Harling family like slave labor, as her brother, Ambrosch, collects her wages. Ántonia also lives under the rule of men such as Wick Cutter, Larry Donovan, and her husband, Anton Cuzak.
In addition, the immigrant women are not permitted to go to school, because they are expected to perform manual labor on the farm to support the family, typically under the authority of men. Even non-immigrant women were under male authority: Jim described Mrs. Harling as being fun and having a lively house while her husband was away, but when Mr. Harling was home, he “demanded a quiet house” and “all of his wife’s attention” (188).
Aside from the major struggle of women, there are many other areas of family conflict and struggle throughout the story. Many of these struggles stem from financial difficulties or differences in social or cultural expectations. Ántonia’s mother is always fighting with her Mr. Shimerda concerning their poverty and living situation in their new homeland. Mr. Cutter and his wife are always fighting due to their estate, as well as his unfaithfulness in their marriage. Mr. Cutter ultimately kills his wife and then commits suicide.
Jim also has conflict with his grandparents while trying to match their expectations with his own desires. His grandparents want him to become a preacher, but he eventually becomes a lawyer. He also has conflict with his grandmother over the dance hall, because she wants him to go to the dance hall with his own class of people so that he can avoid a bad reputation. Coincidentally, Ántonia has a conflict with Mr. Harling over the dance hall as well, and this causes her to quit working for him.
The conflict between the immigrant’s culture and the native Nebraska residents’ culture is also prevalent in this story. The boys in the story often flirt with the immigrant girls and express an interest in dating them, but they refrain from doing so due to the stigma associated with the immigrants, as is the case with Lena and Sylvester (240). This cultural difference is also expressed when religious matters are discussed. When Ántonia’s father commits suicide, his burial becomes a point of contention between Mr. Burden and Ántonia’s family. Ántonia’s family wanted him buried in keeping with the Bohemian tradition, whereas Mr. Burden didn’t want a highway running over Mr. Shimerda’s burial ground.
Aside from the various conflicts and struggles in this story, Cather included themes such as the triumph of women in a male dominated culture, reminiscing on life’s experiences, and agriculture and weather in relation to survival. Although women are dominated by men throughout the story, they always manage to triumph over their difficult circumstances. For example, Ántonia migrates to Nebraska with her poverty-stricken family, and she has no education. Her father commits suicide, forcing Ántonia to work in physically demanding jobs. Her brother also dictates most of her life. In addition, her fiancé leaves her, and she gives birth to their daughter alone. However, despite all of these obstacles, Ántonia maintains strength and perseverance. She raises respectable, well-behaved children, and she starts a successful farm—all with very little help from her husband, Anton, who prefers city life rather than farm living.
Tiny, Ántonia’s friend, also triumphs despite difficult circumstances. Although she worked as one of the hired immigrant girls, she eventually goes on to make a fortune during the gold rush. Jim says that “Of all the girls and boys who grew up together in Black Hawk, Tiny Soderball was to lead the most adventurous life and to achieve the most solid worldly success” (342).
Finally, Cather’s use of Francis Harling’s character was perhaps her example of an ideal modern woman. Francis is presented as being very business savvy, and she did not conform to society’s norms for women, even waiting until she was older to marry. Her father ultimately trusted her with most of the business, and he would speak to her as if they were “two men” talking (180). These examples used by Cather show that the women who left the traditional gender roles were more successful and happier than the women who submitted to the traditional culture.
Besides the theme of feminine triumph, Cather also used reminiscence and past reflection as a prominent theme. The most obvious example is the novel itself, which is presented as Jim’s reflection on his time spent with Ántonia. Throughout the novel, Ántonia frequently refers to her home country. The Russians, Pavel and Peter, talk about the food they ate in Russia (such as the melons and cucumbers), as well as how only the wealthy could afford a milk cow. When Pavel is on his deathbed, he also confesses to Mr. Shimerda about his reason for leaving Russia, which involved the incident where the wolves killed the bride and groom (83).
Another prominent theme in this story is that of the importance of land and weather in relation to survival and the way of life. When the Shimerdas arrive in Nebraska, they don’t know how to work the land or survive the harsh winter, and they must rely on the Burden family to survive. The land provides for their livelihood throughout the story: it not only provides for their nourishment, but it also provides their income. In addition, the weather also affects their mood. Jim often talks about the gloominess of winter, and says, “In the winter bleakness a hunger for colour came over people” (209).
Cather used these various themes to create a story that characterized the literary period of her time. My Ántonia was published in 1918, placing its publication date between World War I and World War II, a literary period referred to as modernism. Aside from the publication date, the novel itself contains many elements of modernism. For example, the novel covers much of the agricultural life during Jim’s childhood. During his youth, people traveled via horse and buggy, and the main occupation was farming. However, by the end of the book (in Jim’s adult life), people are beginning to find jobs in town, and many of them are starting businesses, such as Lena starting a seamstress business. Jim becomes a lawyer and moves to New York, and Lena and Tiny move to San Francisco to find more opportunities in the city.
In addition, travel via horse and buggy is quickly being replaced by the automobile, as indicated when Ántonia says her daughter Martha bought a “Ford car” (401). The scenery also changes throughout the novel. Whereas prairie land is described in great detail in the novel’s beginning, the landscape changes into highways towards the end. Jim vividly describes how “a stranger would not have noticed” the old roads, since the landscape has changed to accommodate the new highways that were constructed (417).
Cather also includes a modernist character in the story, Gaston Cleric, who quotes “canto after canto” of Dante’s Commedia (302). Gaston influences Jim while he is in college with new ways of thinking, leading to a “mental awakening” for Jim (298). This new way of thinking is another characteristic of modernism.
In addition to the various modernistic elements in the story, Cather uses a literary style that keeps the reader engaged. The novel is first written from Jim’s unidentified friend’s perspective, but it then switches to Jim’s first-person narrative of events (including the dialogue) in a chronological order, and this is the format in which most of the novel is written. Jim conveys his perception of people’s expressions and body language. He often introduces the characters through his own recollection of events, and he frequently expresses his opinion of the person, such as when he expresses his dislike for Mrs. Shimerda and Larry Donovan. Cather wrote the story using short to medium paragraph and chapter lengths, and the book is divided into individual sections (perhaps areas that Jim most remembers) with chapters contained within each section.
Cather’s writing style is heavily descriptive, with a large emphasis on the settings, character’s clothing and actions, the landscapes and seasons, and Jim’s response to various events and people. For example, when describing the landscape of the prairie, Cather writes, “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up” (34). This vivid imagery is used throughout the novel.
Cather’s dialogue reflected each individual’s cultural preferences and slang dialect. For example, the Shimerda family would often pronounce country as “kawntree” (54). Cather also details each culture’s foods (how they prepared and ate them), their religion, their apparel, and so forth. In addition, Cather made several allusions to real historical events or places, including the Bohemian immigration, the gold rush, the plays Jim and Lena attend (Rip Van Winkle and Shenandoah), Jim attending Harvard, and Dante’s Commedia.
Using the setting of the agricultural prairie land of Nebraska, Willa Cather created a fascinating story of friendship between Jim Burden and Ántonia Shimerda. Though Jim and Ántonia came from different backgrounds, destiny brought them together on the way to Nebraska, where they would share many unforgettable experiences growing up. Cather captured the beautiful friendship between these two people, while also depicting the struggles and inequality among the other characters in the story. Cather incorporated themes of feminine stereotypes and sexism, and transformed them into stories of success. She also used themes of past reflection to relate the struggles and conflict that the characters experienced as they matured. Her vividly descriptive literary style painted a picture of each scene in the reader’s mind, and her novel included many characteristics of modernism. All of these elements converge to create a heart-warming story of friendship.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Boston, 1918. Overdrive.com. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.