My Ántonia

by: Willa Cather

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

Who is the protagonist of My Ántonia, Ántonia or Jim?

While many have argued that Ántonia is the protagonist of the novel, she always remains at arm’s length from the reader, accessible only through Jim’s imagination and memory of her. When Jim scribbles a title onto his manuscript, he initially writes “Ántonia,” but then revises it to “My Ántonia.” Thus, the Ántonia we see is Jim’s Ántonia, and while she is a driving force behind Jim’s recollection, Jim’s mind and feelings are still at the center of the narrative, and his actions still determine the shape of the novel. When Jim moves first to Lincoln and then to Cambridge and New York, Ántonia recedes as an important character, even if she dominates Jim’s thoughts when he is around her. My Ántonia is most properly considered a novel of Jim’s education.

What is the nature of Jim’s affection for Ántonia? Does Ántonia reciprocate these feelings, or is the quality of her affection somehow different? Is it fair to call their relationship a love relationship?

Jim has a romanticized affection for Ántonia but not quite a romantic affection. He is unable to imagine her in the same light as Lena Lingard, for whom he feels a coarser but perhaps more practical passion. Still, the idealized love that Jim feels for Ántonia eclipses the strength of Ántonia’s feeling for him. Because she is somewhat older, and because her plight as an immigrant’s daughter creates many hardships, she has less time and energy to devote to romantic imaginations of Jim: while Jim is thinking about his feelings for Ántonia, Ántonia is busy trying to help her family survive after the death of her father.

Additionally, as young man born and raised in America, Jim belongs to the dominant culture and is perhaps more easily able to disregard Ántonia’s cultural differences than Ántonia herself is. Having immigrated to America as a teenager, Ántonia is naturally more aware of her own differences from Jim, simply because to her the environment in which she lives never seems quite like her native environment; as a result, she is slightly more insular about her affections than Jim, with the result that her feelings become somewhat inscrutable as the novel progresses. This side of Ántonia seems most strongly demonstrated by her eventual decision to marry Cuzak, a Bohemian immigrant like herself. Nevertheless, she is clearly of a romantic persuasion, and the love she holds for Jim is akin to what an older sister might feel for a younger brother. Thus, the love that comes to develop between Ántonia and Jim falls somewhere in between familial and romantic affection.

Where does Jim fall within the social structure of Black Hawk that he outlines?

Jim describes a social structure in Black Hawk that divides the respectable establishment from the generally less-respected immigrants. While Jim is by default a member of the respectable establishment, his relatively recent arrival in Black Hawk and his vociferous rejection of established values serve to place him outside of its bounds. Jim’s class and upbringing ensure that he will never be an outcast on the level of the immigrant girls, but his affection for them and his affiliation with them puts him in a unique and ambiguous position within the Black Hawk social hierarchy.

Why does Jim choose to live in New York City if he truly feels most at home in Nebraska?

Jim paints a very sentimental and idealized picture of Nebraska, but this picture is a memory of a time that has long since passed. While Jim could potentially return to Black Hawk to practice law, his high-powered New York City job is a logical extension of his high--powered education. When he returns to Nebraska to visit Ántonia, he is greatly moved by the beauty and simplicity of her rural life, but he finds Black Hawk nearly intolerable and is at a loss for things to do there. Jim’s proper sphere as an adult is certainly not Nebraska, although his fond memories of childhood will always remain there, and his resolution to make more periodic returns to his childhood home is certainly a positive move on his part. The peculiarities of Jim’s life are such that, just as he does not quite fit into the rigid social hierarchy of Black Hawk as a young man, he does not quite fit into any geographical environment as an adult. He seems to be fated to live in one place while always thinking fondly of another.