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My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram



Jim Burden and an unnamed female first-person narrator, both now living in New York, grew up together in Nebraska. While on a train, the pair talks about a girl—Ántonia—they both once knew. When Jim, now a lawyer for a Western railway company, says he is surprised the narrator has never written about Ántonia, the narrator suggests they both write down their recollections. Jim records his memories and delivers the manuscript to the narrator, giving it the title My Ántonia. The narrator claims she never wrote her version of the story.

Book 1: The Shimerdas

Jim arrives in Black Hawk, Nebraska, as an orphaned 10-year-old boy. On the same train are a family of Bohemian immigrants. Jim goes to live with his grandparents on their farm with two farm hands named Jake and Otto. The Burdens take some provisions to the Shimerdas, their new, poor Bohemian family neighbors. Jim makes friends with the elder daughter Ántonia, and her father asks him to teach her English. The two share many adventures on the prairie and hear many stories of far-off lands from other immigrant settlers. Jim falls in love with the landscape and the people. When Ántonia's father commits suicide, Ántonia must help her family survive by working in the fields instead of going to school like Jim. He is disappointed when her manners change. Her reputation in a sense suffers because she is doing men's work.

Book 2: The Hired Girls

Jim's grandparents decide to leave the farm to move into town. His grandmother persuades their new neighbor, Mrs. Harling, to hire Ántonia, saving her from field work. Jim is friends with the Harling children and enjoys having Ántonia close again. Although Ántonia enjoys her work and learns a great deal from Mrs. Harling, she refuses to be told she cannot attend town dances when Mr. Harling worries she is developing a lesser reputation. She goes to work for a crooked money lender, Mr. Cutter, and narrowly avoids his efforts to trap her. Jim bears the brunt of Cutter's wrath instead, and he resents Ántonia for it.

Lena Lingard, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, escapes the crushing poverty of her family's farm by coming to Black Hawk to apprentice with a dressmaker. She resolves to avoid her mother's fate of drudgery, poverty, and numerous children by never marrying.

All the hired girls in town, the daughters of foreign immigrants, overcome many challenges, help their families, and go on to give their children more than they had growing up. Jim thinks they are real women, as opposed to the stiffness of the town girls of his own set.

Book 3: Lena Lingard

Jim goes to Lincoln to college, and while he is there Lena moves to Lincoln as well to set up her own dressmaking business. After Lena calls on him, the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Jim falls in love with Lena, and his professor and friend Gaston Cleric believes it hurts his work. Cleric invites Jim to follow him to Harvard, and Jim says goodbye to Lena.

Book 4: The Pioneer Woman's Story

Before leaving for Harvard, Jim makes a trip back to Black Hawk where he learns that while he was away Ántonia had intended to marry the railroad man Larry Donovan. Larry tricked her into meeting him in Denver where he was ill and out of work. He used her for her money, delaying their wedding, before he abandoned her. She came back to Black Hawk unmarried and pregnant. Jim is disappointed in her choices and angry at her for giving herself to a questionable man like Larry.

Jim visits Ántonia, who is humbled by her experiences. Ántonia loves her child dearly and is determined to give her all the things she didn't have growing up. Jim tells Ántonia that she is a part of him, and she says he will never be far from her, just as her father is always with her. Jim promises to return.

Book 5: Cuzak's Boys

Twenty years later Jim travels to Nebraska to visit his old friend, and he is relieved to find that despite the years, hard work, and many children, she is still the same Ántonia. He meets her children, who know all their mother's childhood stories, and they proudly show off the family farm. He also meets Ántonia's husband, Anton Cuzak, a Bohemian immigrant from Prague. Cuzak loves and appreciates Ántonia, recognizing her real value. Cuzak has given up his preference of city life to live out Ántonia's dream of a farm and a family.

Jim sees Black Hawk once more and as he gazes on the road that took both him and Ántonia to their first homes on the prairie, he realizes he and Ántonia will always be connected by their past and his feelings for her.

My Ántonia Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Jim meets Ántonia and the Shimerda family.

Rising Action

2 Mr. Shimerda shoots and kills himself in the barn.

3 Jim and his grandparents move into town.

4 Ántonia and Lena move into town to work.

5 Jim moves to Lincoln to attend college.

6 Lena opens her own shop in Lincoln, and Jim falls for her.

7 Ántonia leaves to marry Larry, returning alone and pregnant.

8 Jim sees Ántonia and her child, and he promises to return.


9 Jim returns and is glad to find she is still his Ántonia.

Falling Action

10 Jim visits her bountiful farm and meets her large family.

11 Jim sees the road that first brought him to Ántonia.


12 Jim decides to write down his memories of Ántonia.

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