[T]his girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

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Summary: Introduction

The novel opens with an unnamed narrator recounting a train trip through Iowa the previous summer with an old friend named Jim Burden, with whom the narrator grew up in a small Nebraska town. The narrator recalls talking with Jim about childhood on the prairie, and then notes that while they both live in New York, they don’t see each other much, since Jim is frequently away on business and since the narrator doesn’t really like Jim’s wife. The narrator resumes talking about the train trip with Jim through Iowa, adding that their discussion kept returning to a girl named Ántonia, with whom the narrator had lost touch but with whom Jim had renewed his friendship. The narrator recounts that Jim mentioned writing down his memories of Ántonia; the narrator expressed to Jim an interest in reading these writings. A few months later in New York, according to the narrator, Jim brought a portfolio of writings about Ántonia to show to the narrator. The narrator adds that Jim, wanting to title the work, wrote “Ántonia” across the front of the portfolio before frowning and scribbling “My” before “Ántonia.”

Summary: Chapter I

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, Nebraska. He is traveling in the company of a farmhand named Jake Marpole, who is slightly older but who, like Jim, has limited experience of the wider world. Beyond Chicago, a friendly conductor informs Jim that an immigrant family, the Shimerdas, are also bound for Black Hawk. Among this Bohemian family, the only one who speaks any English is Ántonia, a young girl about Jim’s age.

Once the train reaches Black Hawk, Jim and Jake disembark, and one of the Burdens’ hired men, Otto Fuchs, meets them. Before departing for the Burden farm, Jim observes the Shimerdas preparing to set off as well. The emptiness of the Nebraska landscape at night overwhelms Jim as he travels in the jolting wagon. Eventually, he falls asleep on a bed of straw as the wagon travels into the night.

Summary: Chapter II

The next afternoon, at the farm, Jim’s grandmother, Mrs. Burden, awakens him and draws a bath for him. Afterward, Jim explores his new surroundings while Mrs. Burden prepares the evening meal. At supper, Jake discusses Virginia with the Burdens. Later, Otto tells stories of ponies and cattle to Jim, and the evening concludes with some family prayers. In the morning, Jim begins to take in the landscape around the farm. When he accompanies Mrs. Burden to the garden to pick potatoes for supper, he stays behind after her and sits quietly among the pumpkins.

Summary: Chapter III

On Sunday, the Burdens head out in the wagon to greet their new Bohemian neighbors. Mrs. Burden explains that someone took advantage of the Shimerdas when they decided to move to Black Hawk by overcharging for a farmhouse not suited to the harsh Nebraska winters. Mrs. Shimerda greets the Burdens upon arrival, and Mrs. Burden presents her with some loaves of bread. They exchange greetings, and, as the adults begin talking, Jim and Ántonia run off to play with her youngest sister, Yulka, trailing behind. As they wander through the grass, Jim teaches Ántonia a few English words. When the Burdens prepare to depart, Mr. Shimerda entreats Mrs. Burden to teach English to Ántonia.

Summary: Chapter IV

Later that same day, Jim takes his first of many long pony rides. As he rides, he reflects on Otto’s story that the sunflowers that fill the prairies sprang from seeds scattered by Mormons on their way to Utah. Jim rides twice a week to the post office, and he describes many other rides that he takes simply to wander or explore the local wildlife, with Ántonia accompanying him at times. Jim begins giving Ántonia regular English lessons, and she loves to help Mrs. Burden around the house.

Summary: Chapter V

One afternoon in late autumn, Ántonia takes Jim to visit a pair of Russian immigrants whom her family has befriended. Only Peter is at home, but he shows Ántonia and Jim his milking cow and feeds them a snack of melons. He then entertains them by playing a number of tunes on his harmonica. As Ántonia and Jim leave, Peter presents Ántonia with a sack of cucumbers for her mother, along with a pail of milk to cook them in.

Summary: Chapter VI

On another fall day, near sunset, Ántonia and Jim encounter Mr. Shimerda, who has recently caught three rabbits. This bounty will provide food for the family and a winter hat for Ántonia. Mr. Shimerda promises to give his gun to Jim when Jim is older. Jim notes that Mr. Shimerda seems sad, which leaves a deep impression on Jim. As daylight wanes, the Shimerdas return to their farm, and Jim races his shadow home.

Analysis: Introduction–Book I, Chapter VI

Several sections of My Ántonia preface the novel’s actual narrative: in addition to the introduction, Cather includes an epigraph and a dedication. The epigraph, from Virgil’s Georgics (a long poem about farming life), reads: “Optima dies . . . prima fugit,” a Latin phrase meaning “The best days are the first to flee.” Cather’s -dedication—“To Carrie and Irene Miner” above the words “In memory of affections old and true”—further emphasizes the nostalgic intent of the novel. From the very beginning, My Ántonia presents itself- unmistakably as a novel imbued with strong yearnings for a -vanished past.

Yet certain elements of the novel temper this nostalgic intensity. First and foremost, Cather provides a frame for the narrative by way of a narrated introduction, which gives the reader some psychological distance from the intensely personal voice of the memoir that forms the core of the novel. Although the introduction’s content is fairly straightforward, it remains a curious document nonetheless—indeed, we are not sure whether we are supposed to consider the introduction as fact or fiction. The only concrete biographical information revealed about the narrator of the introduction concerns a childhood spent in rural Nebraska and a present existence in New York. While it may be plausible to assume that this narrator is Cather herself, given that Cather has these locales in common with the narrator, the text offers no proof of this hypothesis.

Several critics have noted My Ántonia 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 of special attention because of the autobiographical elements in the text. Jim begins the novel as a ten-year-old orphan, moving cross-country from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. Although Cather was not orphaned at age ten, she too made the move from Virginia to Nebraska to live with her grandparents, and the change of scenery had a profound effect upon her experience and her memory. It is always difficult to assess the importance of biography and invention in fiction, but it seems reasonable to assume that Cather employs a liberal amount of each. Cather was a rather tomboyish child, a trait that would certainly enhance her own capacity to get inside the head of a male narrator. In addition, her many intense childhood and adult friendships with women would allow her to paint a nostalgic picture of an immigrant frontier girl. To say that Cather herself is Jim Burden, however, may be to overstep the mark. Rather, it is Cather’s willingness to combine biographical recollection with fictional experimentation (the use of a male narrator, for example) that merits note.

Jim’s remark, upon presenting his portfolio to the narrator in the introduction—“I didn’t take time to arrange it; I simply wrote down pretty much all that her name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn’t any form”—prefigures the novel’s extremely episodic nature. The memoir, the core of the novel, features little snippets of memory pasted loosely together. In place of a focused plot, Cather gives her attention to lengthy descriptions of the characters who populate the novel and, perhaps even more important, of the austere landscape that they inhabit.

The close relationship between humans and their environment is a major theme in My Ántonia and one of the ideas that Cather explored throughout her literary career. In My Ántonia, the focus is on landscape-—the natural, physical settings in which the characters live and move. Among Cather’s characters, Jim is especially sensitive to his environment, to the point that he invests human qualities in the landscape around him. Because of the scarcity of trees in the area, for instance, Jim remarks, “we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons.” His ability to treat trees as people reflects his compassion for nature.

At other times, aspects of the landscape come to represent emotions or ideas for Jim. Although Jim realizes that botanists have demonstrated the sunflower to be native to the Nebraska region, he prefers to believe Otto Fuchs’s story that the Mormons scattered the seeds from which the local sunflowers grew on their flight westward. For Jim, this romantic legend supersedes scientific explanation, and he prefers keeps the landscape as something to dream about, not necessarily as something to understand rationally.