Full Title   My Ántonia

Author  Willa Cather

Type of work  Novel

Genre  Frontier fiction, autobiographical fiction

Language  English

Time and place written  1917, New Hampshire

Date of first publication  1918

Narrator  The main part of the story is Jim Burden’s memoir narrated in his first-person voice, from the perspective of an older man looking back on his childhood. The introduction to the novel is narrated by an unnamed individual, one of Jim’s childhood acquaintances. Like Jim, this narrator uses a friendly, first-person voice.

Point of view  Except for the introduction, written from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, the entire novel is written from Jim’s perspective.

Tone Jim’s attitude toward his story is somewhat sad, extremely nostalgic, and full of yearning for a lost past. Throughout Book V, as he narrates the story of his reunion with Ántonia, he becomes much more optimistic and less elegiac in mood.

Tense  Past

Setting (time)  1880s–1910s

Setting (place)  In and around Black Hawk, Nebraska; also Lincoln, Nebraska

Protagonist  Jim Burden

Major conflict  Jim has an extremely close, loving relationship with his childhood friend Ántonia, but their friendship is tested by the different paths their lives take them down, as Jim acquires an education while Ántonia is forced to work to help support her family. As a secondary conflict, Jim, a middle-aged lawyer, looks back longingly toward his childhood with Ántonia but feels he has lost it forever; his feelings of nostalgia impede him from reestablishing contact with the real Ántonia, now the matriarch of a large family in Nebraska. On a more concrete level, Ántonia must struggle against various hardships, such as the death of her father and her fiancé’s betrayal of her.

Rising action  Many modernist authors broke from dramatic or narrative conventions; My Ántonia does so by avoiding a conventional plot shape with rising action, climax, and falling action. Still, as Ántonia’s life becomes fraught with increasing hardship, we might say that her father’s suicide, the betrayal of her fiancé, and the birth of her child act as rising action. In Jim’s life, his move to Black Hawk, his time with Lena, and the dances all serve as rising action in his transition from childhood to adulthood.

Climax  The structure of My Ántonia does not yield one singular moment of dramatic intensity in which the conflict is resolved. The novel becomes calmer and less conflicted as the final books progress, -leading to a warmly optimistic conclusion that is not the result of any definitive struggle. The closest thing the novel has to a climactic moment is Jim’s reunion with Ántonia, twenty years after their last meeting.

Falling action  If Jim’s reunion with Ántonia is taken as the climax, then the falling action is his time at the Cuzak farm as he grows to know and admire Ántonia’s husband and children, and resolves to spend more time with them.

Themes  Humankind’s relationship to the past; humankind’s relationship to environment; the immigrant experience in America; the traditional nature of late nineteenth-century American frontier values

Motifs  Religion, childhood, and adulthood

Symbols  The Nebraska landscape, the plow

Foreshadowing  The information divulged in the Introduction contains the blueprint for everything to come in the novel; in a sense, the whole novel is foreshadowed. Also, Ántonia’s statement to Jim that things will be easy for him but hard for her foreshadows his eventual departure for college and a high-powered job and her difficult life on the prairie.