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[T]his girl seemed to mean to us the
country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.
See Important Quotations Explained
[T]his girl seemed to mean to us the
country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to My Ántonia!