Summary: Chapter XIX

In high summer, Ántonia and Jim spend more time together, walking to the garden each morning to collect vegetables for dinner. One night, during an electric storm in a light rain, Ántonia and Jim climb onto the roof of the chicken house to stare at the sky until they are called down for supper. Ántonia tells Jim that things will be easy for him but hard for her family.

Analysis: Book I, Chapters XIV–XIX

Throughout the novel, Jim shows an extraordinary capacity to identify with others, and, upon hearing of Mr. Shimerda’s apparent suicide, he immediately senses that “it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda.” As Jim imagines the homeward route of Mr. Shimerda’s released spirit through Chicago and Virginia, two way stations on his own journey to Nebraska, he identifies with the sense of loss that he believes caused Mr. Shimerda such disenchantment. In meditating on Mr. Shimerda’s life, Jim comes to feel as though his memories almost “might have been Mr. Shimerda’s memories.”

Jim’s most concentrated struggle with cultural difference occurs over the matter of religion. As Jake describes Ambrosch’s view that his father has been sent to purgatory as a result of his suicide, Jim rails against what is to him an incomprehensible stance, saying, “I almost know it isn’t true.” But the “almost” indicates Jim’s hesitation. Because he himself holds a belief that is mystical (his belief in the presence of Mr. Shimerda’s soul), Jim is unable to rule out the seemingly unsupportable beliefs of others. As he attempts to sleep that night, Jim is crushingly preoccupied with this unfamiliar idea of purgatory, suggesting that his confrontation with other ways of thinking has left him uncomfortable. Although Jim listens carefully to Anton Jelinek’s story of religious conviction and finds it “impossible not to admire his frank, manly faith,” there is clearly a divide between the Bohemians’ more instinctual faith and Jim’s more philosophical spirituality.

The Nebraska prairie, as an amalgam of various immigrant groups, is a testing ground for collisions between such differing religious viewpoints. Mr. Shimerda’s suicide proves to be a test case for the solidarity of the farming community. When the old-guard religions universally refuse to have a suicide buried in their graveyards, the Shimerdas are forced to come up with an alternative. In dismis-sing the conservative standards of the foreign churches, Mrs. Burden proposes “an American graveyard that will be more liberal minded.” This American graveyard is a burial plot on the family land, accompanied by a makeshift funeral and an improvised service conducted by the farming community. For all of its unorthodoxy, the beauty of this service captures Jim’s imagination, as he remarks on his affection for “the dim superstition” of the event and the “propitiatory intent” of the grave that remains behind it.

With Mr. Shimerda departed, the different paths that await Ántonia and Jim begin to emerge. Structurally, this chapter concludes Book I, the main phase of Jim and Ántonia’s relationship in the rural countryside. The directions that they will take in life are already becoming visible, and they begin to grow apart. Thrown into a more laborious role on the farm, Ántonia quickly loses her feminine softness, and Jim’s entry into school sets him off on an altogether separate road. Interestingly, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his more formal education, Jim fails to recognize the reality of this difference. When he says to Ántonia that he wishes she could always be “nice” rather than rough and tumble, she explains that “things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.” Here, for the first time, Cather clearly presents the dichotomy between Ántonia’s role as a rural worker and Jim’s role as a leisured thinker—a dichotomy that she explores throughout the remainder of the novel.