Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaIntroduction And Book 1 Chapter 1 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Introduction and Book 1, Chapter 1 : The Shimerdas | Summary

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Summary

Introduction

The unnamed narrator of the Introduction speaks with her childhood friend Jim Burden as they travel westward on a train. Jim is now a lawyer for the railway and lives in New York, although he travels frequently. The narrator rarely sees him because he is often absent and because the narrator dislikes Jim's wife. The narrator thinks Jim's wife is more interested in the attentions of others than in her husband. The narrator finds Jim as enthusiastic as ever. The two recall their youth in rural Nebraska and a young Bohemian woman they had known named Ántonia. They agree she "more than any other person ... seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood." Jim wonders why the narrator has never written about Ántonia, and the narrator claims Jim knew Ántonia better. They agree to write own their memories of her and compare notes. Months later Jim brings what he has written "in a direct way" since he "simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Ántonia's name recalls to me ... without any form." He titles it My Ántonia, and the narrator, who leaves it unchanged, presents it as the novel that follows.

Book 1, Chapter 1

At 10 years old and having recently lost his mother and father, Jim Burden is sent from his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. He travels by train with a farmhand named Jake. The conductor tells the two of a foreign family "from across the water" also on the train who share their destination. The family speaks no English except for one daughter, who the conductor says is "bright as a new dollar" with "pretty brown eyes" and can only say the name of the town they would soon call home: Black Hawk, Nebraska. The train arrives at the town station at night. Otto Fuchs, a gnarled man who reminds Jim of a cowboy out of a novel, meets them and helps them into a wagon. Jim notices the foreign family, a man, woman and four children, on the platform with their belongings, speaking in a foreign language. Jim rides in the back of the wagon. The vastness of the dark prairie is overwhelming, and Jim sees "not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made" all about him. He feels "erased, blotted out."

Analysis

The Introduction is different from the rest of the novel in narrator, tone, and purpose. The unnamed narrator, a friend of Jim's who also knew Ántonia, writes in a different tone from the rest of the novel. The author uses the Introduction skillfully to frame the novel as Jim Burden's autobiography or memoir of his life in Nebraska, and his memories of Ántonia in particular as a representation of "the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood." Framing the novel in this way, Cather lends the it authenticity. The casual tone and conversational organization of the novel is believable because Jim states that he simply wrote it all down, "without any form" as he recalled it, as it came back to him. The introduction creates the expectation for readers that they are about to encounter a firsthand account of Jim Burden's life and memories of a girl who is very special to him. This expectation lends credibility to the narrator, Jim Burden.

The train trip in Chapter 1, focusing on Jim as a boy and his initial impressions of Nebraska, draws from Cather's own experience as a child leaving Virginia and finding herself on the comparatively desolate expanse of the Great Plains. At age nine, Cather and her family moved away from their Virginia farm to join her grandparents in Nebraska. Like Jim Burden, they traveled by train. Jim's initially impression of the dark prairie made him feel "erased, blotted out," just as Cather recalled feeling her personality stripped away by the alien setting.

Chapter 1 relates the first time Jim heard of Ántonia as well as the first glimpse he had of her and the Shimerda family. The author introduces Ántonia through the words of the conductor, who describes her as "bright as a new dollar" with "pretty brown eyes," making Jim feel shy about meeting her. She is part of a family "from across the water" who are complete foreigners and who can't speak English. Jim sees the family of six with their boxes and bags on the platform, and he is struck by the foreign language they speak. They are a novelty to him.

The author compares and contrasts Jim with the Shimerda family in Chapter 1. The foreign family is at once the same as Jim and very different. Like him they are traveling a great distance by train to a new place, and like him they are unfamiliar with the landscape. Jim has only a train journey, while the Shimerdas have presumably also traveled by sea since they come "from across the waters." Jim is coming to Nebraska to family who will presumably supply everything he needs, but Shimerdas are foreigners who don't even speak the language and must carry everything they own with them.

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