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Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 1 Chapters 4 5 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 1, Chapters 4–5 : The Shimerdas | Summary



Book 1, Chapter 4

Jim takes his new pony, Dude, for his first solo ride across the prairie, meandering through the tall grasses. In the future, Jim will take the pony on many errands for the family. On this day, Jim notices the sunflowers, plants which Otto tells him were first introduced to the landscape by Mormons who scattered the seeds to later sprout and guide the way for their wives and children who followed them toward religious freedom out West. To Jim the flowers always represent "the roads to freedom." Jim also notices trees, as they are so scarce on the prairie. There is a prairie dog town that he and Ántonia visit where earth-owls and prairie dogs live side by side with their predators the rattlesnakes. The Shimerdas' relationship with Krajiek reminds Jim of the prairie dogs and owls who put up with the snakes only "because they did not know how to get rid of [them]." In time Ántonia progresses in her English skills through her lessons with Jim, and she learns about housework and cooking from Mrs. Burden. The Burdens find the Shimerdas' other household practices, like the making of the "sour, ashy-grey bread," strange and distasteful.

Book 1, Chapter 5

Ántonia tells Jim and Mrs. Burden about her father taking her to visit Peter and Pavel, two Russians who live together not far off. The two had been forced to leave Russia because of "a great trouble." The Shimerdas can understand much of what the two men say as their languages are similar. Ántonia takes Jim to visit the men. They find Peter washing clothes in a tub, but Pavel is away working. Peter proudly shows the children his cow, telling them that in Russia only the rich own cows. He claims the milk is good for Pavel who, though once a large, strong man, now always has a cough. Peter picks from the garden, and they share watermelon at the table without plates. Peter plays the harmonica for them and sings, and he sends them home with cucumbers and milk for Mrs. Shimerda to cook together, which Jim has never encountered but which Ántonia assures him is delicious.


In both chapters the author portrays the customs of immigrants who inhabit the homes near the Burden family. The ways of the foreigners are strange to the Burdens. They are disgusted by the sourdough bread Mrs. Shimerda makes for her family. Readers can deduce that the Burdens' bread is made with bought yeast, rather than naturally fermented leftover dough, as with traditional sourdough. Both the look and taste of the bread was different from the bread with which they were familiar, and their reaction to the difference was distaste. Jim is also surprised by the two Russian bachelors who live together. Peter makes a meal of watermelon alone, not bothering to lay plates for his guests, the juices and seeds littering the table. There is a kind of freedom in such a life, even if it is different from the way Jim lives. The dish of cucumbers cooked in milk is something Jim has never even heard of, but Ántonia claims it is delicious. Peter plays foreign songs, singing the words in his native tongue, songs Jim had never heard before. The culture of the immigrants is novel to him, and he and his family react accordingly, sometimes with fascination and other times with apprehension or judgment.

In Chapter 4 the author explores the symbols of the prairie and the sunflower which represent freedom. Jim needn't take a road, few of which even exist yet on the land, but instead he is free to make his own way across the sea of grasses on his pony, Dude. He can go in any direction he chooses. The prairie is full of possibility, not restrictions. The sunflower always reminds him of the tale Otto told him about its origins. He will always think of Mormons leaving seeds behind them as they traveled west in search of a new home where they would be free to practice their religion. The plants sprang up, becoming sign posts to guide the way of the Mormon wives and children who followed the next year. Although the legend may not be true, the sunflower remains a symbol for Jim who never sees them without being reminded of "roads to freedom."

In Chapter 4 the author foreshadows a memorable story to come in a later chapter, which is the story of "the great trouble" that leads Peter and Pavel to leave Russia. Readers are given here only the smallest hint that there is something dark in their past, something that made it necessary for them to leave their beloved home country. It is a tiny red flag easily dismissed in light of the harmless, pleasant nature of Peter who loves his cow and his melons, but readers will later see a dark day in his past.

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