My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Symbols



The story of the plough comes at the end of Jim's account of a magical afternoon he spent by the river with Ántonia and the hired girls. As the sun begins to set they notice "a curious thing: ... just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun." The silhouette of a plough, left in the field and perhaps forgotten, stands out against the fiery sun. The image slowly disappears as the sun sinks below the horizon, leaving nothing but the memory of the image in their minds.

The plough represents the vanishing way of life of Jim's and Cather's childhood. Their experience of the true prairie frontier and the immigrants who settled it had long since disappeared by their adulthood. Jim notes how changed it has become when he visits as an adult. It has roads and fences and houses where it had once been an unbroken expanse. The immigrants themselves have become successful inhabitants, not so different, as they once had been, from their neighbors. Like the plough, a tool for civilizing the wilderness of the prairie, has become an old-fashioned and unnecessary object, so too has the reality of their childhood disappeared. The sun behind the plough is like the light of memory cast on a long-ago experience, serving to illuminate it for a time before it vanishes from sight.


The prairie represents opportunity. It is the raw "material out of which countries are made." Anyone who is able can turn it to their purpose. They can build their own life, their own reality, from the land. The author compares the prairie to the sea to illustrate its potential to offer opportunity. The waves of prairie grass, unbroken by roads, virtually free of trees, are like a vast, empty sea. The immigrants must cross the sea, taming it, to gain opportunity, so too the prairie. Some are adrift on the prairie and fail to grasp its opportunity. Cather compares the prairie to the burning bush to signal the prairie as a place of opportunity for freedom. God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush in the Book of Exodus to tell Moses he has been chosen to set his people free from slavery. In this sense, the prairie is a symbol of all America has to offer, especially to the immigrant.

Mr. Shimerda's Violin

Mr. Shimerda's violin symbolizes all that is good, joyful, and valuable about his homeland and his previous life. The violin represents his Bohemian culture and the identity he feels he lost when he left his homeland. Although Mr. Shimerda played professionally in Bohemia, he can't bring himself to do more than touch the strings longingly once he is displaced and finds himself in a totally foreign land. Even when Ántonia begs him, he won't play his violin in America. The violin finds something of a redemption through Ántonia's children, however. Her favorite son Leo plays his grandfather's violin rather well. Through Ántonia, Mr. Shimerda's culture and music find voice once more.

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