Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 1 Chapters 14 15 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 1, Chapters 14–15 : The Shimerdas | Summary

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Summary

Book 1, Chapter 14

Jim is awakened early in the morning by his grandmother's shrill voice, which tells him something is wrong: Mr. Shimerda is dead. Otto and Jake return from the Shimerdas' with Ambrosch. As the men talk over breakfast, Jim learns that the previous night Mr. Shimerda had shot himself. Although Jake suspects Krajiek of killing Mr. Shimerda with an ax that fits the wound in his face, and Krajiek acts suspiciously, Otto insists the evidence all points to suicide. Jim believes "it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda." Otto departs on horseback to fetch the coroner. Jim notices Ambrosch "slavishly" saying his prayers with his rosary, and Jake explains that the Shimerdas' religion teaches them that their father must be attended by a priest and that his soul is in torment and must be prayed out of purgatory. Jim from his own faith imagines Mr. Shimerda's spirit peacefully communing with him. He recalls the stories of Mr. Shimerda's life in his homeland. Jim likes to think Mr. Shimerda's spirit will return to Bohemia.

Book 1, Chapter 15

Otto returns with the coroner and a young Bohemian named Anton Jelinek who wishes to help his countrymen, but the parish priest is too far away to come. Anton explains that suicide is "a great sin" for Catholics, which is why the Shimerdas wished to have a priest administer last rites. In response to Mr. Burden's assertion that no intercessor but Christ is necessary for Mr. Shimerda's soul, Anton tells a story to explain why he believes in prayer for the dead and the spiritual power of priests and symbols. During the war Anton had accompanied a priest giving the sacraments to soldiers dying of cholera. Neither he nor the priest contracted the illness. Mr. Burden respects this idea and the man's convictions. Otto builds the coffin, and neighbors stop by to talk about the suicide and plans for burial. The Catholic cemetery will surely reject the body because of the way Mr. Shimerda died, and the Norwegian church also refuses to take the body. Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch want to bury the body at the corner of their land, where two roads are expected to cross in the future. Although it is shocking to the neighbors, they will not be dissuaded. Anton agrees to help them dig the grave.

Analysis

The story of the suicide of Mr. Shimerda is taken from the life of the woman who inspired the character of Ántonia. Annie (Sadilek) Pavelka was the hired girl of Cather's neighbors in Red Cloud. Annie's father, a Bohemian immigrant, killed himself. Francis Sadilek had, like Mr. Shimerda, become depressed and overwhelmed with the struggle for survival in a new country, having left behind a life as a skilled musician in a beloved homeland, and he became despairing enough to shoot himself in the family's barn. It was a story Cather knew well. She included it in her first short story, "Peter" (1892), as well as this novel.

Readers will recall all of the mentions and examples of Mr. Shimerda's depression in the chapter leading up to his suicide, and his failure to thrive in America serves as a contrast to the achievement of many immigrants to assimilate and succeed in the new country. His struggle and the tragic ending of his life make their achievements all the more triumphant because it brings attention to just how difficult their experiences as immigrants were. Mr. Shimerda had, Jim learned, not wanted to leave his country. He had been bullied into leaving everything he knew to make opportunities for his son. His skills and artistic sensibilities were not equal to the task of digging a farm out of the prairie. He saw his family going hungry, and he was intensely homesick. Ántonia said he never even played the violin he brought all the way from Bohemia. The bleakness of his end described in both chapters provides a contrast to both the happier days preceding it, as with his visit to the Burdens' and prayers before the Christmas tree, as well as those to come for Ántonia and other immigrants as the novel continues.

The site of Mr. Shimerda's burial at the place where two roads are thought to eventually be made to cross was a traditional location for the graves of criminals and suicides. Because suicide was considered a great sin, most cemeteries would not accept the bodies of those who had taken their own lives, as happens in the novel. It was thought by some that the shape of two roads, forming a cross, was the second-best choice to sacred ground if such was not an option. Superstition may have also played a role in the Shimerdas' choice of burial site, but the author leaves this ambiguous. Anton Jelinek thinks it may be a Bohemian custom. Jim, for one, seems to believe in the "propitiatory intent" of the location, that is the sign of the cross made by the roads above the grave symbolizes the sacrificial offering by Christ of the cross to redeem sins.

Both chapters compare and contrast the Shimerdas' Catholic religion and the Burdens' Protestantism, which was the most common religion in America at the time. While Catholics and Protestants agree suicide is a sin, Catholics like the Shimerdas believe a priest administering the sacraments and prayers for the soul of the dead can help it on its way out of purgatory into heaven. Protestants believe no priest but Christ himself is necessary to reconcile souls to God. Catholics, as Anton attests, believe in spiritual power of the presences of priest and the sacraments. Because of the stain of suicide, Catholics will not allow the body of Mr. Shimerda to be buried in their cemetery, and in this matter Protestants are no better. The Norwegians will not allow it either. The social stigma of suicide is the same regardless of religion, although it is true that both the Burdens and Anton alike are understanding and charitable toward the family regardless of the dogma.

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