by Willa Cather
Where It All Goes Down
Black Hawk, Nebraska and the surrounding prairie; roughly 1880-1910
The fictional town of Black Hawk Nebraska is based on the real-life Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Cather grew up. Many of her other prairie novels – such as O Pioneers!, are also based on her experiences in Red Cloud. Cather even takes the names of many of the real people she grew up with for use in her novel.
As we discuss in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory," the physical setting of My Ántonia is important in deciding the lives, actions, and moods of the various characters. In fact, Cather's evocative descriptions of the natural landscape are one of the reasons the novel is so famous. There is a reverence for nature and a respect for its beauty, power, and size. More than once Jim admits to feeling "blotted out" by the magnificence of the grand American West (1.1.10). The changing of the seasons is often used as a tool in the novel's structuring, marking tonal shifts and thematic changes.
Two micro-settings in particular are contrasted in the novel: the countryside, where Jim and Ántonia spend their childhood, and the town, where they move when they are adolescents. This is a great example of a change in setting being used to mark a larger shift in the novel's focus. As Jim moves from childhood to adulthood, he moves from the country to the town. Later in the novel, the characters are classified as either farm people or city people. Ántonia, for example, admits she is happier on a farm, whereas her husband, Cuzak, prefers the town. It's interesting to think about where Jim belongs, since he harbors a romanticized love for the country yet is now a big-time lawyer in New York city.
My Ántonia is important as historical fiction because it shows the reader a slice of life in a particular period of American history. During this time period, many immigrants were coming to America from countries all over Europe. My Ántonia specifically features immigrants from Bohemia (a part of the Czech Republic), Austria, Sweden, and Russia. America was seen as the land of opportunity, and immigrants thought they could make better lives for themselves in this new country. The American West was still developing, so places like Nebraska with relatively low populations and plenty of land were prime targets for settlement. The immigrants, like Ántonia's family would make their living by farming.
In the novel, we see how many immigrants face prejudice, which was certainly the case in the American West in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Americans were so concerned about increased immigration that Congress ended up passing The Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which limited the number of immigrants allowed to come to America, particularly those from eastern and southern Europe. You can read more about immigration in Shmoop History's guides "Immigration: Era of Open Borders (1787-1882)" and "Immigration: Era of Restriction (1882-1954)."
Another important concept linked to My Ántonia is the idea of Manifest Destiny. This is the idea that America was somehow divinely mandated to expand across the continent to the Pacific. This expansion was necessary and unavoidable according to Manifest Destiny. The term was written in an 1839 journal article by columnist John O'Sullivan arguing to annex Texas. Notice that My Ántonia begins with Jim Burden heading West to Nebraska from his home in Virginia. Jim is playing out the concept of Manifest Destiny by moving West. On his way, Jim sees how untamed and raw the earth is, commenting that it is not yet a country, but rather the material that countries are made of. This way of looking at the land is very much in the spirit of Manifest Destiny.