Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 1 Chapters 8 9 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 1, Chapters 8–9 : The Shimerdas | Summary

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Summary

Book 1, Chapter 8

Peter confides in Mr. Shimerda that he is deeply in debt to Wick Cutter, a cruel lender from Black Hawk. Pavel injures himself working and is relegated to bed, coughing up blood. Peter says Pavel is deathly ill and wants to speak to Mr. Shimerda. Jim accompanies Mr. Shimerda and Ántonia to the Russians' home. They find Pavel breathing with difficulty, moaning. When coyotes howl outside, Pavel becomes frantic, speaking rapidly to Mr. Shimerda. Ántonia translates his story to Jim. When Peter and Pavel lived in Russia they were groomsmen for a friend's wedding. Late at night the wedding guests were driving home when a large pack of wolves began to chase the six sledges. One by one each group of humans was overtaken and devoured by the wolves until Peter and Pavel, driving the bride and groom, were the only ones left, and the wolves were closing in. Pavel tried to convince the groom to throw his bride overboard to lighten the load, but when he refused, Pavel knocked both the groom and his bride out of the sledge to their deaths. Peter and Pavel were the only people to survive, but they became complete outcasts, eventually leaving the country. A few days after confessing the story to Mr. Shimerda, Pavel dies. Peter sells all of their belongings and leaves town. Jim and Ántonia keep the story of the wolves between them as sacred.

Book 1, Chapter 9

Winter arrives, and Jim uses a sled Otto made to take Ántonia and Yulka for a drive to Peter and Pavel's old house, searching for landmarks to guide the way as the prairie is covered in snow. The ride back gets bitterly cold as the sun sets, and Jim races home only to come down with "quinsy" (a sickness relating to the tonsils) the next day.

Life is pleasant inside the Burden home in wintertime. There is plenty to eat and cozy evenings around the fire. Otto tells stories about his various jobs out West including miner, stage-driver, and cowboy. He shares the story about his journey to America from Austria. He had been asked by a relative to accompany a woman who was traveling with her children to meet her husband in Chicago. She was pregnant, and the other passengers on the boat looked at Otto with interest and disapproval as her pregnancy progressed, and she gave birth unexpectedly to triplets. The woman's husband seemed to blame Otto, too, when he met his wife and many more children than he had anticipated. Mrs. Burden laughs at the story and assures Otto of the Lord's blessing for his good deed.

Analysis

In both chapters the author includes illnesses which are now treatable but which were often fatal at the time. The respiratory symptoms the author describes as afflicting Pavel, including coughing up blood, are most likely attributed to tuberculosis, also known as TB—a bacterial infection of the lungs. Vaccines for tuberculosis are now standard in many countries, and infections can be treated with antibiotics. Without such treatment, tuberculosis was nearly always fatal, as it was in Pavel's case, and indeed still kills millions worldwide every year. Quinsy, which sickens Jim after his ride in the snow and bitter cold with the Shimerda girls, is a throat abscess which can result from untreated tonsillitis. It too can be treated by antibiotics which were unavailable at the time of the novel. Jim was again lucky to survive.

The story of the wolves in Chapter 8 is an example of the way Cather wove immigrant folklore into her work. The horrific tale of a wedding party devoured by a pack wolves is one of several stories in the novel that Cather thought she made up but her father actually remembered hearing from immigrants. Cather absorbed many of the tales which surrounded her in her childhood, and they often found their way into her work, initially without her recognition that they were not her own creation. The tale of the wolves, in particular, has its roots in the oral tradition of Nebraska immigrants, for example, although Cather may also have been inspired by a famous painting by Paul Powis or a poem on a similar subject titled "Ivan Ivanovitch." Like many authors, Cather used all of her life experiences as material for her novels.

In Chapter 9 the author shows readers how drastically winter transforms both the prairie itself and daily life for its inhabitants. The vast sea of waving grass is almost unrecognizable under a thick blanket of snow. Jim struggles to find any landmarks to make his way to Peter's old homestead. There are no longer any leisurely strolls home with Ántonia as they had enjoyed in autumn. They must hurry to avoid freezing to death, and even a quick afternoon trip sickens Jim. Life on the farm is much more domestic, as all members of the family, even the farmhands spend time inside for warmth, sharing stories around a fire. Winter focuses people—and the story—inside, where there are varying kinds of shelter from the deadly cold.

The author develops the character of Otto Fuchs further in Chapter 9. A skilled carpenter, Otto builds Jim a sled, but Otto also has a colorful past. He has held all manner of interesting jobs out West, which have given him a multitude of fascinating stories to tell. His good humor, work ethic, and kindness make him a valued member of the Burden household and someone for Jim to admire.

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