The author's attitude toward the subject material is made evident by her decision to use the form of a memoir (albeit it a fictional one). Jim's memoir is nostalgic and is dominated by a romanticized, rose-colored vision of the past, his youth, and the American West. He wistfully views the past as something beautiful and unrecoverable. The lengthy descriptions of the landscape provide great insight into the authorial tone. There is both a sense of beauty and of loss and longing in these passages.
We can also assume that the tone of the novel is shaped by Cather's own attitude toward the events of her past. Cather, just like Jim, moved to Nebraska when she was ten and grew up on the prairie. She lived in a town called Red Cloud on which the fictional Black Hawk is based. Because of these similarities, we imagine that Cather's own nostalgia is what is responsible for the tone of the book. It takes on the quality of her memoir, not just Jim's.
Looks like we've got a lot of categories to cover here. "Coming-of-Age" is an easy one. Jim starts the story as a ten-year-old and we follow him through puberty to the ripe old age of 22-ish before we jump to him as an adult. In other words, the novel covers those vital, growing-up years, and focuses on such issues as burgeoning sexuality, gender roles, and social politics.
If you want to think of the novel as a story of romance, you're going to have to admit that it's a non-traditional romance at best. There's no actual physical anything between the hero and his love (Ántonia). For most of the novel we're not even sure if Jim's feelings for Ántonia are anything other than platonic (see "Characters" for more).
We classify My Ántonia as "Roman à clef" (novel with a key, or a novel based on real people and events) and "Historical Fiction" because Cather based the people, places, and events of the novel on her own experiences growing up in Nebraska. We also need to keep in mind that the story is historically accurate when it comes to the social atmosphere of the American West around the turn of the century. It's not only a fun literary read, but an insightful slice-of-historical-life.
Lastly, we have "Modernism" to address. Cather's novel isn't a typical "modernist" novel, but it does anticipate the modernist trend that would come shortly after its publication in one important way: the passage of time. My Ántonia is largely episodic. We get isolated anecdotes from Jim's childhood rather than a steady, slow-moving storyline. We jump twenty years in between chapters, leaving the characters in one time and place and joining them in another. This rendering of time anticipates modernist novels which take the non-standard time rendering idea even further, breaking from linearity and moving both forward and backward, or in fact disregarding intelligible plots altogether. Cather, however, wasn't too experimental, and we can follow the storyline of Ántonia with ease.
The phrase "My Ántonia" is an interesting one and comes up more than once in the course of the text. We see Jim-the-narrator choose this as a title for his memoir during the introduction. He starts by titling it "Ántonia," then changes his mind and writes "My Ántonia" instead. We hear Mr. Shimerda call his daughter "my Ántonia," and Jim refers to her this way several times in the novel.
The term isn't so much about ownership as it is about endearment. Jim (and the others who use the phrase, like Mr. Shimerda) feels that Ántonia is a part of his life and he a part of hers. As he tells her at the end of the novel, "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister – anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind. You influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me" (4.4.7).
The title also lets us interpret Jim's memoir as a sort of tribute to Ántonia. Through his memoir, he pays tribute to Ántonia and to the memories they shared together. It reminds us that he's not writing the memoir of his childhood, but the memoir of his childhood with Ántonia. The title centers the story and its otherwise scattered, episodic plotline around a single focal point: Ántonia.
Book 4 ends with Jim promising to come back and visit Ántonia soon. Then twenty years pass without him doing so. He justifies this by explaining that he was scared: "I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again" (5.1.1).
Just as the narrator explains in the introduction, Jim has made Ántonia into a symbol, of the beautiful American West and of the beautiful past which can never be recovered. As long as she exists in his mind, she can remain under that romanticized sheen of memory. But to see her in person again is to come face to face with Ántonia as an individual, rather than as a symbol. It's a big deal for Jim who, as we've seen, prefers to live passively in the past than actively in the present.
But fortunately for our conclusion, Jim gets over it. He goes to see Ántonia, finally, and is not disappointed with what he finds. "She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl," he says of Ántonia, "but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" (5.1.104-5).
Jim and Ántonia proceed to reminisce – together they rediscover their past. Interestingly, for the first time in the novel, Jim verbalizes his feelings for Ántonia. "You see I was very much in love with your mother once," he tells Ántonia's children, "and I know there's nobody like her" (5.1.81). Jim has not only come to face with Ántonia, but with his own feelings for her.
The very last paragraph of the novel brings together several of the themes we've looked at so far. Let's take a closer look at the concluding paragraph:
This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
By rediscovering Ántonia, Jim has also rediscovered the past. He knows it is gone forever – as so eloquently summed up in the epigraph – but he can still find beauty and solace in looking back. In fact, that's what this memoir is: looking back at the past, finding beauty in it once again. It's interesting that the final phrase of the memoir is "the incommunicable past." What is a memoir, after all, but an attempt to communicate the past? Does this mean that Jim has failed, in this memoir, to express all that the past (and that Ántonia, accordingly) meant to him? Or has he, in writing the memoir, disproved this final thought?
If you didn't know what a memior was, check it out.
(Click the map infographic to download.)
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.
Optima dies…prima fugit
This quote comes from the Georgics, an instructive poem written about farming by the epic Roman poet Virgil and translates to "The best days…are the first to flee." Jim studies Virgil when he's away at college and specifically mentions this line at the end of Book 3, Chapter 2. Let's take a look at the passage:
As I sat down to my book at last, my old dream about Lena coming across the harvest-field in her short skirt seemed to me like the memory of an actual experience. It floated before me on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line: "Optima dies ... prima fugit."
There are two major connections to My Ántonia in this epigraph. The first is the actual content of the line – the best days are the first to flee. My Ántonia is a romanticized look back at the past, and the transience of youth is a major theme in the novel. Jim in particular is enamored of long-gone better days. (Remember that the novel is itself his memoir and so is all about the past.)
The second connection has to do with the source of this quote, the Georgics. In this lengthy poem, Virgil discusses the virtues of the farming life while teaching his readers the best way to live off the land. The relationship between man and the natural world is another central theme in My Ántonia. Part of the romantic veneer of Jim's memoir has to do with his admiration for the vast, beautiful open spaces of the Nebraska landscape.
There is also a connection here to Cather's own life, because she studied Latin and Greek herself both in high school and in college (source). We can see Cather's own love for these ancient languages reflected in Jim's passion, and of course in this choice of epigraph.
A lot of the text in My Ántonia is devoted to lengthy, indulgent descriptions of the natural landscape. We'll take a look at a short example:
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. (1.2.16)
Cather is all about using flowery metaphors to evoke emotion in the reader in response to the physical landscape.
One of the reasons My Ántonia is lauded is that Cather attempts to authentically portray the dialogue of the immigrants and the other locals in the American West. When Ántonia learns English, for example, we can see her pronunciation improve over the course of the novel because Cather writes her words phonetically. For example, she first pronounces the word country as "kawntree" but later loses this accent and correctly says "country." Compare these two lines, both spoken by Ántonia:
"My papa find friends up north, with Russian mans. Last night he take me for see, and I can understand very much talk. Nice mans, Mrs. Burden. One is fat and all the time laugh. Everybody laugh. The first time I see my papa laugh in this kawntree. Oh, very nice!" (1.5.2)
"A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can. Maybe there won`t be any tent next year. I guess I want to have my fling, like the other girls." (2.10.12)
In addition to the phonetic spellings, Cather uses the authentic slang words that the locals would use to describe things. Otto calls Italians "Eyetalians" (1.15.18) the country girls in town are known as "hired girls," and they call the snakes "rattlers" (1.7.13).
Cather is also careful about the way she describes the prairie itself. She often uses specific words to tell the reader about the grass or flowers or trees. For example, she describes the plain as being full of "rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as [Jim]" (1.2.13). When Jim first arrives he sees "sorghum," "fire-breaks," "box-elder trees," and a "plum-patch," all specific details that bring the story and setting to life (1.2.14).
We also get to see the culture of the time and place because Cather includes details about songs and games, as in the following passages:
Every Saturday night we popped corn or made taffy, and Otto Fuchs used to sing, "For I Am a Cowboy and Know I've Done Wrong," or, "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairee." He had a good baritone voice and always led the singing when we went to church services at the sod schoolhouse. (1.9.10)
Such disappointments only gave greater zest to the nights when we acted charades, or had a costume ball in the back parlour, with Sally always dressed like a boy. Frances taught us to dance that winter, and she said, from the first lesson, that Ántonia would make the best dancer among us. On Saturday nights, Mrs. Harling used to play the old operas for us—"Martha," "Norma," "Rigoletto"--telling us the story while she played. Every Saturday night was like a party. (2.6.5)
One of the reasons that Cather is able to be so authentic is that she based much of My Ántonia on her own childhood experiences in the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Many of the characters are based on real people, so we speculate that Cather most likely heard these slang words and dialects when she was growing up. She also was familiar with the different types of flowers and grass and animals around the area, which is why her descriptions are so rich.
Of course, there are a few places where Cather's "authenticity" falls short. For one, Ántonia's name is not culturally accurate. In true Czech, the name would be pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable, rather than the first, and would be spelled "Antonie." Cather also claims in Book 1, Chapter 5 that Russian and Bohemian are similar, and that Mr. Shimerda can understand Peter and Pavel. Scholar Janet Sharistanian points out that these languages "are not structurally or grammatically the same," and that "a speaker of one would be hard-pressed to translate from the other" (source: My Ántonia explanatory notes, Oxford World Classics Edition, 2006).
Let's take a look at the text before diving into a description of this symbol.
Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie. (1.15.50-51)
A plough on its own can be seen as the symbol of man's attempt to live off the land. The plough is a quintessential farming tool, so we can generalize it to represent farming altogether. Just as there is something "heroic" about this plough, there is, too, something heroic about the farmers who make their living off the Nebraskan lands. This passage reminds us that, however "heroic" man's attempts, he is still quite small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the natural world. Just as Jim often feels swallowed up by the endlessly grassy plains, so the plough sinks "back into its own littleness," and so man is ultimately no match for the grandeur and beauty of the natural world.
Much of the novel's beautiful imagery is rooted in Cather's physical descriptions of the Nebraskan landscape. Let's take a look at one of Jim's early reactions to the American West:
There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land--slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be. (1.1.10)
This new environment marks the beginning of an adventure for Jim in more ways than one. His parents have just died and so he is an orphan – he's embarking on adulthood alone. The country, too, is in a sort of pre-adolescent stage – at least out in Nebraska. The land is still being populated by all sorts of new-comers (think immigrants like the Shimerdas), and it is "not country, but the materials out of which countries are made." In a way, this is a symbol for Jim's own status as he prepares to grow into a man. The vastness of adulthood stretches before him, not unlike the vast Nebraskan prairie land.
As the novel continues, the landscape and the natural elements play an enormous role in determining the actions and moods of the characters. Mr. Shimerda, for example, commits suicide after a particularly difficult winter. Later in the novel, Ántonia finds it odd that the man who jumped into the threshing machine chose to kill himself when the weather was so nice. Part of the reason for this connection is that the novel is set in a time and place where the weather places practical limitations on the characters. As a result, the characters are simply more in tune with the weather and the natural elements in general:
The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify--it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: `This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.` It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer. (2.6.2)
Jim's thoughts on this particular shifting of the season embody these connections between man and the natural world portrayed in this novel.
Because Jim is looking back at the events of his youth from the perspective of an adult, we have two different Jims to think about. We have Jim-the-narrator, the wise adult, and Jim-the-character, the protagonist who grows up in the course of the novel. Many of Jim's reflections and musings belong not to the young boy of the novel, but rather to the grown adult who looks back on his youth. His insights on the social order in the town of Black Hawk, his understanding of the perseverance that drives the hired girls, and his musings on his feelings for Ántonia all fall under this category.
But we have to remember that, while Jim narrates the "memoir" about Ántonia, the novel has a second narrator, whom we meet in the introduction. We don't know too much about this narrator – no name or gender or age – except that he/she is a writer and also knew Ántonia as a child. One way to interpret the introduction is to imagine that the "narrator" is Cather herself. This makes sense when you consider the biographical connections between the events, settings, and characters of the novel with those of Cather's own childhood in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
Many scholars identify My Ántonia as a modernist novel, which, among other things, means that it defies typical plot structures. To start, think about the way that this novel is structured. My Ántonia is more like a series of episodes or anecdotes than a continuous narrative. There's no big central, plot-based conflict. Rather, there are thematic conflicts (like the barriers immigrants face in the West, or Jim's passivity when it comes to Ántonia). Because of this, we can't identify a particular moment in the novel that serves as a climax, or a conflict, or a suspense stage. Instead, it's more useful to think about how Cather uses a unique, non-traditional structuring to tell her story.
Many scholars identify My Ántonia as a modernist novel, which, among other things, means that it defies typical plot structures like the good old Classic Plot. To start, think about the way that this novel is structured. My Ántonia is more like a series of episodes or anecdotes than a continuous narrative. There's no big central, plot-based conflict. Rather, there are thematic conflicts (like the barriers immigrants face in the West, or Jim's passivity when it comes to Ántonia). Because of this, we can't identify a particular moment in the novel that serves as a climax, or a conflict, or a suspense stage. Instead, it's more useful to think about how Cather uses a unique, non-traditional structuring to tell her story.
Jim meets Ántonia and the two become friends; the Shimerdas manage until a tough winter leaves them out in the cold, and Mr. Shimerda commits suicide.
Jim moves to town. Ántonia, Tiny, and Lena become the center of the social scene. We get lots of drama and lots of sexual tension.
Jim goes off to college. He and Lena date for a while before he leaves her to study at Harvard. He visits Ántonia and we learn what's happened to her in the meantime. Jim then goes away for twenty years and returns to see Ántonia again.