Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 1 Chapters 6 7 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 1, Chapters 6–7 : The Shimerdas | Summary

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Summary

Book 1, Chapter 6

The first frost arrives, and Jim and Ántonia have their reading lesson outside by a badger hole. Ántonia tells Jim about the dogs who hunt badgers in Bohemia. Most insects are gone because of the cold, but a single, fragile insect hops nearby, and Ántonia shelters it in her hands. Its feeble chirping reminds her of the songs of an old beggar woman called Old Hata, who used to sing to the children of people who allowed her inside by their fire. Jim walks Ántonia homeward in the fading golden sunlight, lighting the prairie "like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed." They meet Mr. Shimerda, who seems perpetually discouraged, and Ántonia claims is "sick all the time." He is carrying rabbits he has shot. Mr. Shimerda smiles sadly at the insect which Ántonia has nestled into her hair under a handkerchief. Jim is interested in the foreign gun Mr. Shimerda is carrying, which he is told was a gift from a very wealthy many in Bohemia in exchange for Mr. Shimerda's playing the violin at the man's wedding. Mr. Shimerda promises the gun to Jim one day.

Book 1, Chapter 7

Jim is annoyed by the superior attitude Ántonia sometimes takes with him, one that he says was soon to change because of an adventure they had together. After borrowing a spade for Ambrosch from Peter, Jim and Ántonia stop at the prairie dog town to use the spade to explore some of the holes. Ántonia screams something in Bohemian, pointing behind Jim. When he turns around he is horrified to see a very large rattlesnake ready to strike. He hits it in the head with the spade, repeating the blows as it twists around his feet. The snake is dead, but in his fright and anger he blames Ántonia for speaking "Bohunk" instead of warning him. Ántonia says she was afraid and praises Jim for his bravery. They take the dead snake back to Jim's home, where Ántonia boasts about how Jim killed it. Everyone claims it is the biggest rattler they've seen, and Jim comes to realize that he was very lucky to have escaped harm. Had the snake been younger and had he not just borrowed the spade from Peter, the outcome would have been very different. He recognizes that it was a "mock adventure," but it earned him a newfound respect from Ántonia nonetheless.

Analysis

The author includes a biblical reference in Chapter 6. Cather was taught to read by her maternal grandmother in Virginia, who used the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress as her primary texts. Biblical language and stories appear in many of Cather's texts, including this chapter in which the prairie is likened to the burning bush. In Exodus, God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush which, like the sunlit prairie in the story, blazes but is not consumed. The reference suggests that the prairie, like the bush, to Cather in her love for it, is filled with God's presence.

Ántonia shares three stories from her home country in Chapter 6. These tales are glimpses into the foreign life she lived before coming to Nebraska, and they are the sorts of stories Cather encountered in her interactions with her immigrant neighbors who fascinated her so much as a child. The air of nostalgia for a place far removed in time and space not only from Ántonia and Mr. Shimerda, but also from Cather herself, is a defining characteristic of the novel. The three stories, including the badger-hunting dogs, Old Hata, and the gift of the gun from the wealthy Bohemian, give readers a taste of a distant land. Nebraska from the days of the pioneers is Cather's Bohemia, a place which no longer exists outside of stories, a time and place for which she longs and can only share through her own stories.

In Chapter 7 the narrator interjects his adult perspective on the events of his childhood, using foreshadowing to indicate the significance of a particular adventure he had with Ántonia. Before the narrator describes the story of the rattlesnake at the prairie dog town, he gives readers the context for the significance of the event. He was annoyed by how Ántonia treated him, as if she were superior to him. By telling readers that the adventure to follow changed her opinion of him, the narrator foreshadows a meaningful adventure and creates suspense. Readers want to keep reading to find out what happens.

After the story the narrator once again interjects his adult perspective of the event. Although it seemed a great achievement at the time to kill the snake, the adult Jim Burden realizes he was extremely lucky. The snake was an old lazy, fat one living in the middle of a "snack bar" of prairie dogs, so it was not quick and was easier to kill than another snake might have been. It was lucky, too, that Jim had just borrowed the spade from Peter and that he had it in hand to kill the rattler. He was also very fortunate to have landed his first blow as a fatal strike to the head. Adult Jim realizes that it was not really an adventure to boast about but a narrow escape. It certainly changed how Ántonia saw and treated him, though. After killing the rattler, she respected him more despite his youth.

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