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Captured by Jim in his nostalgic memoir of his younger
days, Ántonia gradually emerges from Jim’s emotional presentation
of her to become a believable, independent character in her own
right. In fact, by the end of the novel, Ántonia has perhaps made
more of an impression on many readers than Jim has. Many critics
argue that Ántonia, despite the fact that she barely appears in
the last quarter of the novel, is the real protagonist. Pretty,
vivacious, and extremely generous, Ántonia fascinates Jim. He feels
that Ántonia is unusually alive, a sentiment that he echoes even
after meeting her as the mother of ten children at the end of the
Throughout the novel, Ántonia is caught between her natural optimism
and cheer and the extremely difficult circumstances that she faces
after her emigration from Bohemia and her father’s suicide in America.
She is also trapped by the cultural differences that make her feel
like a perpetual outsider in Nebraska and lead, in part, to her
inability to love Jim as more than a brother: the Shimerdas go hungry,
and their poverty forces Ántonia 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 quality of inner grace and self-sufficiency.
Ántonia always tries to make the best of her circumstances, but
she refuses to sacrifice her independence to improve her life. For
example, she would rather work for the wretched Wick Cutter than
follow Mr. Hartling’s order to stop going to the dances.
Ántonia is based on an actual figure from Cather’s childhood—a girl
named Annie Pavelka, like Ántonia an immigrant and a hired girl
in town whose father committed suicide. Cather admired Annie’s inner
radiance and her independence, and sought to capture those qualities
in Ántonia. In the process, she created a character from whom the
heart of her novel developed: Ántonia symbolizes the past, possesses
a deep rapport with her landscape, and embodies the experiences
of both immigrants and the Nebraska pioneers.
Ace your assignments with our guide to My Ántonia!