My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Themes

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Memory

From the Introduction the novel is framed as the memoir of Jim Burden about his childhood friend, Ántonia. It also clear from the Introduction that it is not as much about the memories of the girl herself but of what she represents to the narrator and Jim. To them she means "the whole country" and "adventure of our youth." The novel focuses on the meaning Jim has drawn from his memories. He claims this significance in the title of the novel, which is not just "Ántonia" as one would expect of a simple biography, but My Ántonia, a memoir of her significance in his life. The memories of the people from his childhood "in some strange way ... accompanied me through all my new experiences."

Memory often shows up in the novel in the form of storytelling. Ántonia is famous with Jim and the Harling children for her storytelling ability. She tells them tales not only of farm life but of memories of her homeland. Mr. Shimerda enjoys sharing parts of his homeland through his stories about the feudal lord who gave him the violin. Anton Cuzak also shares stories from his time in Prague, telling Jim proudly that his father made the shoes of a famous singer. Jim and Ántonia hold the story of the wolves and the Russian wedding as a sacred secret between them. Otto's stories about his colorful past out West are a source of entertainment for the Burden family.

Memory creates connection. For Ántonia and her father, memories of Bohemia are treasured connections to the life they left behind. Ántonia is proud to think she could still find her way to her grandparents' house back in Bohemia if she went back, declaring "I ain't never forgot my own country." After her father's death, she treasures his memory, too. It keeps him close. She says his memory makes him seem "more real to me than almost anybody else." Jim believes that the memories he shares with Ántonia unite them. They cannot be separated because they hold their "precious, incommunicable past" in the form of shared memories.

Memories can be also unwelcome weights or motivation for change. Pavel cannot die in peace until he has told the story of the wolves. He releases some of the guilt of the memory when he tells the story to Mr. Shimerda. Unhappy memories fuel people like Lena to seek to better their circumstances. She recalls "home as a place where there were always too many children, a cross man, and work piling up around a sick woman," and it is not what she wants for herself. To avoid that fate, she resolves to take a different path, to stay single and make her own living.

The Promise of America

For many immigrants, America represents the idea of opportunity. America offers the chance to create a better life or to pursue any chosen path. In the late 19th century, western expansion supported this idea. Through the Homestead Act of 1862, free land was available to anyone who would reside on it for five years. In this way, America promised economic advancement through land ownership to any and all who were able and willing to work hard enough. The act fueled an immigration explosion.

For the immigrants in the novel, American means slightly different things to each. Mrs. Shimerda drags her family to America because of the opportunities it offers her children, especially her eldest son. For Ántonia, America offers the chance to live and work on her own land, which was not a possibility in feudal Bohemia. It is also a chance to give her child more than she had. She tells Jim, "I'm going to see that my little girl has a better chance than I ever had." Tiny's America is one of adventure and ownership, although she is eventually only motivated by the gain of wealth. For Lena, America is different: owning her own business is not primarily about money but about independence. She does "not [want to] have to ask life from anybody," and she wants to be free "to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody." For others like Peter and Pavel, America is simply the chance at a fresh start, a freedom from being defined by past mistakes.

Many characters in the novel make these dreams a reality, but some do not. Mrs. Burden's children seem to thrive. Ántonia owns a farm to support the family she wants, and she gets to work outside as she loves to do. Tiny is the wealthiest of all the kids who grow up in Black Hawk. Lena runs a successful dress shop in San Francisco and is able to build the house for her family that her mother always wanted. However, others like Peter and Pavel are unable to achieve their goals. Pavel is wracked with guilt even when he crosses an ocean to be away from the people he hurt, and Peter is crushed by debt and loses his claim and his beloved cow.

Coming of Age

A coming-of-age story focuses a character's maturation from childhood to adolescence or adulthood, often focusing on significant events or circumstances that initiate those changes. In this novel, readers witness not just Jim's coming of age, but also that of his peers, most notably Ántonia and Lena.

For Jim, the move to Black Hawk signals the beginning of his adolescence. He has just become a teenager, and he becomes increasingly influenced by friends at school and his neighbors the Harlings. He enjoys more freedom and social interaction in town. When the dance pavilion comes to Black Hawk, Jim has the opportunity to be physically close to not just town girls but also immigrant hired girls. He notices how their bodies move and decides he prefers the lively, vigorous bodies of the hired girls. It is during this time that he begins to assert his independence by sneaking out to go to dances at the Firemen's Hall against his grandparents' wishes, and he has a sexual awakening when Lena gives him some liberties, as he later proudly tells Ántonia after trying to kiss her the same way. He also begins to have sensual dreams about Lena. Towards the end of his high school years, Jim matures enough to focus on his future by buckling down to study to prepare for college. He also gives up his own desire to dance to avoid upsetting his grandparents. The moment that most signals his coming of age is his commencement speech. Everyone is surprised to see his ability. He feels a sense of accomplishment from his hard work.

The years in Black Hawk are also the time when Lena and Ántonia come of age. Both leave their country childhoods behind to come to the town to work. Lena has already decided what she wants in the future, and she gets right down to work learning her own craft. While she never seems to lose her impetuous, flirtatious nature, Lena embraces her sexuality and doesn't care what other people think of her, a trait she carries with her into adulthood. Ántonia later claims that during her time in Black Hawk she learned all about housekeeping and child rearing from Mrs. Harling, skills that would contribute to her success with her own farm and family. At the dance pavilion Ántonia finds the opportunity to have fun, a chance she thinks girls like her have to grab when they can. Ántonia's dancing is also what gets her noticed by the young men of Black Hawk. For the first time, Ántonia is sexually pursued, and she learns to assert herself not just with her would-be kisser but with her employer, Mr. Harling. Ántonia has her first lesson in manipulators with Mr. Cutter, but it isn't until she is tricked and humiliated by Larry that she realizes her fault was that she "never could believe harm of anybody I loved." This realization brings Ántonia into adulthood.

Nature

If anything is most memorable about the novel, aside from Ántonia herself, it is Cather's descriptions of the beautiful, sweeping expanse of the Nebraska landscape and the immensity and power of nature. Jim's first encounter with the enormity of the prairie landscape makes him feel very small, almost as if he has been blotted out. As he comes to appreciate the beauty of his new surroundings, he compares the landscape of prairie grass to the vastness of the sea on several occasions. Not only do the grasses ripple like waves, the scope of the prairie is immense, like the ocean. As far as Jim looks, he can see nothing but open land. In such a landscape, people are dependent upon and subject to the power of nature. From the land, they carve out dwellings and cut sod to make way for farms and food production. Cather displays the power of nature most memorably in blinding blizzards that erase the landscape entirely.

The nature that surrounds the characters impacts them. As running water flows easily downstream, Jim feels free when he is near the river, and he feels completely happy when he is a part of something whole and perfect in his grandmother's garden. Ántonia finds joy in the heat, light, and plenty of summer. She cannot understand how anyone could be depressed in summertime. However, nature influences the characters differently. While Jim finds the snowy winter makes his home cozy and communal, Mr. Shimerda is driven to utter despair by the deprivation of warmth and food. Ultimately, even Jim grows to find the winter discouraging. In town, he craves color and light in the midst of the darkness of winter. Also, there are times when Jim feels in opposition to natural forces, as when he has to fight the wind and cold on his way back home with Yulka and Ántonia in the sled.

Nature also defines people and time periods in the novel. At home on her own farm where her children have been born, Ántonia is described as "a rich mine of life." She is like the ground that bears fruit. Jim, too, will forever be defined by the landscape of his childhood. He may be a New York lawyer, but it is still on the unbroken prairie outside of Black Hawk where he feels most at home. Cather uses nature to define certain time periods of the novel as well. Jim's time in town and the significant events that take place there are ordered by the seasons. The dance pavilion comes in summer—a time full of youthful joy, self-expression, and sexual awakening. Winter is the time Jim feels stifled, angst-ridden, and rebellious. Cather organizes much of the novel around the seasons as she contrasts hope and despair and joy and grief cyclically throughout the novel, calling on the natural rhythms of nature as signposts to readers that signal transitions and define the mood of various sections of the novel.

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